Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 24, 2016
Acts 11:1-18 Commentary
It’s hard for many of us to imagine Christians getting upset with each other over whom they eat lunch with. So we sometimes assume Peter’s Jewish Christian colleagues were angry with him because he shared the gospel with gentiles. You and I may assume this upset them because they thought of the gospel as belonging exclusively to Jewish Christians.
That’s a reason Acts 11’s preachers and teachers should invite hearers to look back at Acts 10’s final sentence. It’s so short that it may seem like a throwaway line: “Then [the gentiles] asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.” That doesn’t seem like a particularly big deal until readers look at verse 2 of the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday.
What exactly plunges Peter into its boiling caldron? Do his Jewish Christian colleagues, for example, harshly ask him, “Why did you tell a houseful of uncircumcised people about Jesus”? No, they angrily storm, “Why did you enter the house of uncircumcised people and eat with them?!” (Italics added).
Jerusalem’s church’s leaders have heard about what Peter did in Caesarville. They’ve heard that, in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, “Non-Jewish ‘outsiders’ are now ‘in’.”
And, frankly, those church leaders aren’t very happy about it. So we can almost see them waiting for Peter at Jerusalem’s city gate with fire in their eyes and hands on their hips. While we might hope and even expect Jewish Christians would give Peter a hero’s welcome, they, instead, give him a one-sentence lecture. Instead of rolling out the red carpet for him, the apostles’ colleagues call him on the carpet.
While God has brought many of Peter’s Jewish contemporaries to faith in Jesus Christ, they still practice many of Judaism’s rites, including male circumcision. And they still most definitely don’t share meals with uncircumcised people. After all, they can’t even eat perhaps much of what gentiles’ serve.
Of course, Jesus often got into trouble for sharing meals with tax collectors, prostitutes and other unwashed people. However, we generally assume those marginalized people were Jews. Peter violates one of his Judaism’s strictest taboos by eating with uncircumcised gentiles. So he must defend himself before some of Christianity’s earliest heroes.
How can Peter convince the Church’s earliest heroes to make room at their tables for Gentiles? He doesn’t seem to think he can do so by arguing with them. Peter knows that he must somehow show that his sharing of the gospel through eating with Gentiles is God’s, not his idea.
So Peter recounts the story of his vision and trip to Cornelius’ home. In verse 5 he reports that he “saw a vision.” In his Pentecost sermon Peter quoted Joel’s promise that “your old men will dream dreams.” Now it’s as if God has kept that promise.
What’s more, in verse 12 Peter reports, “the Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with” Cornelius’ messengers to the centurion’s home. So he’s insisting his long walk to a gentile occupying soldiers’ homes was not his idea. He, after all, would have been perfectly content just to stay in Joppa, pray and take a little nap before eating his kosher lunch.
However, in Acts 11 Peter recalls that God had something else on his menu. Of course, Peter also had to admit that it took God three times to get God’s point across. On top of that, while our text contains the fourth version of Cornelius’ vision, it’s the first time Peter tells it. And it’s as though he finally puts together Cornelius and his own vision for the first time. It’s as if Peter finally “connects the dots” that are God’s plans and purposes for Cornelius, other Gentiles, the gospel and himself.
On top of that he makes a curious addition to the story in verses 15-16. Peter reports that when he sees the Spirit fill Cornelius and the others, he remembers Jesus’ words about baptizing with the Spirit. He’d watched the Spirit fill baptized people on Pentecost as well as many other occasions. So what is it about that meeting in Cornelius’ home that leaves such an impression on Peter that he remembers what Jesus had said several years before?
A colleague suggests that it has everything to do with that little pronoun “you.” Peter remembered that Jesus had promised, “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” However, he’d always assumed that the “you” was just the Jewish “we.” Peter and other Jews thought it, after all, entirely appropriate that the Spirit fill good, upstanding Jewish people like himself.
In Cornelius’ home, however, Peter finally learns that when Jesus says, “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit,” he isn’t just talking to Jews like him. Jesus is also, in a sense, looking over his disciples’ shoulder at a huge group of gentiles like Cornelius. So the Spirit has finally convinced Peter that the Spirit’s baptism embraces even gentiles like Cornelius and his household.
It’s just as easy for 21st century Christians as it was for Peter to hear the Bible’s promises as addressed only to good people. It’s tempting to think of the “you” to whom God makes promises as just “you and me.” It’s tempting for God’s nice people to receive God’s grace while assuming that it could never embrace sinners out there. So even most Christians naturally have as much to learn about that as Peter did.
Yet it’s as if that newly educated apostle can’t end his defense of his actions without a subtle dig at the Jewish Christians who have put him “on trial.” It’s as if Peter tells his accusers, “I wouldn’t want to be found opposing God. But if that’s what the rest of you want to do, well, go right on ahead. Oppose God if you want, but as for me … I think I’ll just stick with God’s program and trust God to get it right.”
In fact, Peter basically portrays himself as virtually powerless to resist the Holy Spirit’s shove of him toward the gentiles. After all, in verse 17 he literally tells his colleagues, “If God gave them the same gift as he gave us … what power did I have to oppose God?” Peter is saying, in other words, that God graciously decides to give both the gift of faith and the repentance that faithfully receives it. Since God has that power, those who try to resist it finally just waste our time.
Luke brackets this Sunday’s text’s story of God’s power with references to “hearing.” In verse 1 he describes hearing that leads not to rejoicing, but to Peter’s colleagues’ harsh criticism of his eating with gentiles. In verse 18, however, what those early Christians have heard leads them to stop criticizing and start rejoicing. They praise God who has “granted even the gentiles repentance unto life.”
Commensality, a word we seldom use, basically refers to the practice of eating at the same table. Peter’s Jewish Christian colleagues were far less upset about his sharing of the gospel with gentiles than his commensality with them. They were angry, in other words, that he entered a gentile’s homes and ate with him.
Those who preach and teach Acts 11 may want to share some of their own struggles with commensality. After all, our text at least suggests that the identity of the people with whom we choose to share meals says something about us. To whom we imitate God in Christ by showing hospitality says something about how we see both people and the God who creates them.
(During the Easter season, the Lectionary appoints texts from Acts as Old Testament lessons).
A few years ago I participated in a theological dialogue with leaders of the Seventh Day-Adventist Church. For two wonderful days we worshiped, prayed and talked together about our respective expressions of the Christian faith.
However, we also ate together. Since Seventh-Day Adventists are vegetarians, the meetings’ organizers had asked our hosts to prepare half vegetarian and half non-vegetarian meals. When the staff brought out the first lunch, we discovered that each individual plate was – you guessed it — half vegetarian and half non-vegetarian. So vegetarians and carnivores spent five minutes carefully sliding half our sandwiches onto each other’s plates.
Even as we chuckled about it, that experience deepened our longing for Christ’s return. After all, when we finally enjoy God’s full eternal hospitality and commensality, we won’t have to worry about our distinctives.
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