We are swiftly coming to the end of the Lectionary’s celebration of the mighty acts of God in Christ. Ordinary Time is nearly upon us. But first we commemorate Christ’s Ascension next Sunday and Pentecost the Sunday after that. Today our focus is on what many scholars call “The Gentile Pentecost.”
Our text is one of the shortest readings in the RCL, but it’s also one of the most powerful, sort of like an exclamation point to the series of firsts we’ve been tracing the last few weeks of the Easter season. There was the first Christian sermon at Pentecost (by Peter), the first named miracle of healing (the cripple at the Temple), the first persecution (of Peter and John), the first martyrdom (of Stephen), the first non-apostolic preaching culminating in the first witness to a Gentile (by Deacon Philip).
That last event was the first step of the church’s missionary journey to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). It was like the spark that started a forest fire. (I’m borrowing imagery here from F.F. Bruce’s famous history of early Christianity, The Spreading Flame.) Our text records how that spark turned into a wider blaze that would become a raging inferno through the missionary work of Paul who has just been converted and called in Acts 9. Here is the head apostle, Peter, reluctantly at first and then with growing conviction bringing the Gospel to a Roman centurion and all his family and friends.
As the folk hymn put it, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” But Peter wasn’t eager to spread the flame where Jesus wanted it to go. In fact, it took a bizarre vision and a strong word from Jesus to move him out of his comfort zone towards the ends of the earth. As a strictly observant Jew, Peter kept kosher religiously, never eating or touching anything unclean. That included not associating with Gentiles (10:28). He lived behind the holiness wall that God had erected around his chosen people.
Thus, it took God himself to break down that wall for Peter and his fellow Jewish apostles. As Peter waited for lunch one day in Joppa, he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth. It contained all kinds of creatures, many of them on the forbidden list of unclean food. A voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” To which the well-instructed Hebrew replied, “Surely not, Lord. I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
Note that he knows he is being addressed by the Lord. But his convictions about clean and unclean are so deeply ingrained that he is willing to argue with Jesus. He does this three times. And three times, the Lord drums home the same message. “Do not call anything impure that God made clean.” What a powerful message! Yes, I gave you those rules about purity, but I have the freedom to make the impure clean. Those rules were for the meantime; the fullness of time has now come. And I am doing a new thing.
At the same time the unclean Roman centurion, Cornelius, has also received a vision about Peter. God tells him to invite Peter to his home and listen carefully to what he will say. So, this most unlikely and historic meeting was arranged.
When Peter meets Cornelius, it is clear that Peter has learned the lesson the Lord was teaching him. Almost rudely he greets his host with the new revelation God has given him. “You are well aware that is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit with a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” With that, the wall that had stood for hundreds of years was demolished (cf. Ephesians 2) and the fire leaped the barrier to the ends of the earth.
Peter’s message begins with the stunning revelation that God has people in other nations than Israel, accepting “men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” That doesn’t mean that God accepts all moral and religious people into his kingdom without regard to their faith in Christ. It means that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (10:43).”
In between the universal statement of verses 34 and 35 and the call to faith in Jesus in verse 43, Peter preaches the standard apostolic message—the promise of Shalom through Jesus Christ who is Lord of all, an explanation of Jesus’ earthly life in the backwater country of Israel, the proclamation of his cruel death and miraculous resurrection, the prediction of his ultimate judging of the living and dead, and the promise of forgiveness to all who believe in his name.
That message had been preached before—to vast crowds of Jews, to hostile Jewish authorities, and even to a single African official by a layman. But never had one of the apostles spoken the Gospel to a representative of the Empire who had gathered a large crowd of Gentiles. This was new territory, a first in the history of the infant Jewish/Christian church. Yes, Peter claimed that he had seen a vision and heard a voice, but there were centuries of tradition based on the authoritative revelation of the Law and the Prophets.
That’s why our text is so crucial in the history of the church. Peter can say that God has declared formerly unclean people to be clean and that God accepts people from every nation. But is that true? How do we know? How do we know whom God accepts?
As another old folk song put it, “The answer, my friend, is blowing the wind.” “While Peter was speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.” The circumcised believers who were with Peter recognized the wind, because they had heard it on Pentecost when tongues of fire had appeared on the heads of the disciples. Here the Wind of God blew that flame into the Gentile world, much to the astonishment of the Jewish Christians. The “gift of the Holy Spirit has been poured out even on the Gentiles,” even on them, on the unclean, the outcasts banned from the holy places of the Temple. Now they are part of the Holy People, as attested by the Holy Spirit himself.
But how did they know the Holy Spirit had been poured out on these Gentiles? You can’t see the wind. No, but you can see its effects, hear its sound. And here the sound of the Spirit was “speaking in tongues and praising God.” This reminded the Jewish Christians of the first Pentecost, where ordinary uneducated Galileans spoke in the multiple languages of the Pentecost crowd, witnessing about Jesus. Here the tongues weren’t other human languages used to preach; they were unknown languages used to praise God.
We should not get lost in the details of speaking in tongues. The point here is that the Holy Spirit demonstrated that the Gentiles were as much a part of the church and as saved as the Jewish Christians. Peter caught that right away. “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” Those last words are crucial for the future of the church—“just as we have.” We cannot make a distinction between us and them, because they have had exactly the same experience as we have. “They have received the Holy Spirit….” The Gentile Pentecost ushered in a new and lasting era in the mission of God.
So, the story ends with an immediate baptism, the sacramental cleansing of the formerly unclean. They received the sign and seal indicating that they now belonged to Jesus; that’s why they were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. These newly Christian Gentiles were so moved that they invited Peter to stay with them for a few days. Which he did. A nice ending to a stunning story. The exclamation point is followed by a quiet ellipsis.
Except it wasn’t quiet at all. When word of this revolutionary development reached the church back in Judea, there was a bit of an uproar– not because Gentiles had come to Christ, received the Spirit and been baptized, but because Peter “went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” You have broken the laws of Kosher, the centuries old laws of cleanness given by our Holy God. You can’t hang around with the likes of those people.
This ruckus led to the first Jerusalem Council (see Acts 15 for the second, which dealt with the same issue). Peter re-told the whole story including his explanation of the Gentile Pentecost. He ended his presentation with this question. “So, if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who was I to think I could oppose God?” With that the critics were not only silenced, but they also joined the whole church in praising God for this new outpouring of the Spirit and the resultant spreading of the flame. “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance until life.” Now, the ends of the earth are open to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Except that didn’t quite settle matters for the early church. As that Second Jerusalem Council would reveal, there still remained the question of how we shall receive formerly unclean folks into the church. How many of the old rules must we impose on them? How much must they change their former lives? How do we balance grace with law? Can we fully accept the unclean if they still have habits and behaviors from their former life?
That is a burning issue in the contemporary church. Are there some people whom we just can’t accept into the church? What about sexually unorthodox people, or radical racial protestors, or members of non-Christian religions who maintain some old practices, or, depending on the political bent of your church, far right Republicans or socialist Democrats? What is the standard by which we judge people for membership?
The mission of the church depends on our answer. If the church and all its benefits are limited to people like us, the spreading flame will die down. This story reminds us that the ticket to admission is the reception of the Holy Spirit as demonstrated by the faithful acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and baptism in his name. In our painfully divided time, one version of I Thessalonians 5:19 issues a stern warning. “Do not extinguish the Spirit!”
When I was appointed executor of my mother’s estate, I discovered over and over that I had to prove my right to her inheritance. I knew about Power of Attorney and notary publics. But I had never heard of the “Medallion Signature Guarantee.” That’s the highest level of authentication, absolutely necessary for the transfer of certain kinds of funds. I had to go to banks with all kinds of proof that I was who I said I was and that, therefore, I had a right to those funds. As I read this story of Peter and Cornelius, it struck me that the gift of the Holy Spirit is God’s “Medallion Signature Guarantee.” He is the final proof that we are God’s children and heirs to the riches of Christ (cf. Ephesians 1:13,14 and Galatians 4:4-7).
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 9, 2021
Acts 10:44-48 Commentary