Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 17, 2022
Acts 10:34-43 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions
When you are a devout person who wants nothing more than to serve God, then there are few shocks to the system quite as great as spiritual shocks. Just ask the apostle Peter. He knows all about this kind of thing. Because unlike some of our religious customs and taboos today—the shaking up of which would shock us and shake us up pretty badly—God’s laws about clean and unclean foods were easily traceable to the Bible itself.
Blue laws about theater attendance and card playing (such as we long had in the Reformed tradition but that other traditions share) were things that our forbears derived not based on specific Scripture passages but were drawn instead from various principals in the Bible. But not so with rules pertaining to keeping kosher! Peter could flip open his Scripture scroll to Leviticus and quote back to God chapter and verse the ins and outs of why Peter and his fellow Jews ate, and did not eat, what they did.
So when in his rooftop vision early in Acts 10 God commands Peter to break rules from God’s own book, Peter is scandalized. He is confused. What could this all mean? His brain is still spinning when there is a knock at the door. It’s a delegation of some swarthy-looking Italian types who represent a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Improbably they are seeking Peter, and long about the moment Peter is ready politely to tell them to go away, the Spirit of God whispers into Peter’s ear, “I sent these fellows, so go with them now!”
Next thing you know Peter is hitting the road for Caesarea, “Caesar-ville.” The very name of the city smacked of the Caesar, and so of all that was loathsome to devout Jews like Peter. As a devout Jew, Peter believed he had a kind of religious duty to avoid Gentiles, or at least to turn them into Jews before having a whole lot to do with such folks. This mentality was so deeply ingrained in Peter that when he first enters Cornelius’ house in Acts 10:27, the first thing out of Peter’s mouth was hardly something you’d call the pinnacle of social grace. “You all know that it’s illegal for me, a Jew, to be consorting with the likes of you Gentile types, don’t you? I’m only here because God ordered me to come! So what do you want?”
Peter has a lot to learn but as this Easter Sunday lection proves, he learned it very quickly! And Acts 10 is a wonderful Easter lection because in Peter’s speech/sermon, it becomes clear that what helped to clinch all this for him was no less than the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and its change on the entire cosmos.
But on that day, the Holy Spirit comes to those Gentiles and that convinces Peter that it’s a whole new ballgame in those days after the resurrection. It will still be a while before Peter really understands all this. He will go on believing for a time that Gentiles should be turned into Jews before they can be fully accepted as followers of Christ. In fact, Peter and the apostle Paul will eventually have one of the early church’s most famous donnybrooks on this very question. Peter will insist that Gentiles keep kosher and be circumcised while Paul will insist that such requirements are ludicrous. If God doesn’t wait for such rituals before giving out the grace of his very Spirit, then why would anyone else insist on such things?! In the long run, Paul will win that particular argument.
It will take time for all of this really to sink into Peter’s head and heart, but it will happen. Eventually even Peter will connect God’s grace with all those times when he watched his master Jesus eat with tax collectors and speak kindly to prostitutes. Peter had been raised in a time when there were blue laws to the effect that a Jewish midwife was not allowed to birth a Gentile baby lest this midwife be guilty of adding yet another greasy Gentile to the land of the living.
But Peter had seen Jesus heal the children of Gentiles, and eventually he’d realize that God really does save by grace–God does not play favorites. It’s the unity of the Spirit that is the main thing, and once that Spirit is in evidence in people, then the only thing left to do is fall back and celebrate the fundamental union we all share in Christ and also with one another.
Truth is, though, that this basic lesson is something God had been teaching all along, if only people had paid attention. Because there is one tiny detail recorded in Acts 10:5 that unlocks this whole passage. It’s easy to miss but Luke, the author of Acts, assumes that we are biblically savvy and literate folks. The detail is the city Peter is in when he first receives his vision: it’s Joppa. There are only two stories in the whole Bible that involve the city of Joppa: this one in Acts 10 and the story of Jonah.
Remember Jonah? He was the prophet who fled to Joppa because he refused to obey God’s command to go preach repentance to a bunch of no-good non-Jews in a place called Nineveh. Jonah believed that salvation was a “For Jews Only” kind of club and so he wasn’t about to take the risk of becoming responsible for the salvation of some non-Jews. Suppose he did preach repentance to the Ninevites and suppose they actually heeded his advice? Then what? No, it was safer to flee God’s command, and so Jonah ends up in Joppa.
And now, hundreds of years later, Peter ends up in Joppa, too, and the final lesson for him is the same as it was for Jonah: God is concerned with all people in all places. God’s dearest desire is to save all people in all places, and everything God has done from the call of Abraham to the resurrection of Jesus was aimed at that goal. Our task as followers of God is to help that process along, not hinder it by piling on our own expectations, rules, or ethnic insularities. When we see God building his Body up by adding people of all kinds, our task is to rejoice, to be welcoming. And once these folks, many of whom are indeed so “different” from some of us, are so added to the Body, then our union with them as fellow believers is what needs to be in the driver’s seat of our attitudes and actions.
We must see also all these people because if the grace of God through our resurrected Lord Jesus Christ really has come to them, then our task, as was Peter’s task so long ago, is to rejoice, to celebrate our unity in diversity, and to proclaim together the one Lord Jesus Christ who is alone this world’s hope. Acts 10 concludes with something that Peter could never in his wildest dreams have imagined when this story began. After baptizing Cornelius and his household, Peter is invited to stay, actually to live with, these Gentiles for a few days: to sleep under their non-Jewish roof, to eat at their table non-kosher table (as Fred Craddock once mused, can you imagine Peter eating pizza!! With ham and pepperoni!). And he did it. The Spirit of Pentecost that converted Peter to faith in Jesus in the first place often provides many subsequent mini-conversions.
As we say on Easter Sunday, “He is risen! Risen indeed!” And the gospel has kept on going forward in grace and truth—and with not a few surprises along the way—ever since.
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If you connect Acts 10 with Luke 24—and both are possible readings in the Year C Revised Common Lectionary for Easter Sunday—then the portrait of Peter that emerges is rather striking. In Acts 10 Peter has been sent to Italy of all places. But once you are an Apostle, a “Sent One,” you never know where you might end up. So there Peter is proclaiming the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead to a very unlikely group of people.
But in Luke 24, we see Peter wandering away from the empty tomb in a fog of confusion and befuddlement. He and his fellow disciples—whom Luke, tongue-in-cheek perhaps, had called “apostles” in Luke 24:10—had heard the story of the empty tomb and the message of the angels. It was the women who told this to them, but the disciples chalked it all up as “nonsense.” But nonsense or no, Peter at least goes to the tomb to check it out for himself and although he finds it empty and all, it still all seems like nonsense to him.
How far Peter has come by the time we arrive at Acts 10! From the dazed disciple wandering in confusion from the empty tomb to the bold preacher of the resurrection, from the one who found the gospel’s core message to be nonsense to the one who was willing to tell Cornelius and his household that this was the most sublime piece of divine wisdom anyone could ever imagine.
God has a sense of humor, and when you put the Disciple Peter of Luke 24 next to the Apostle Peter of Acts 10, something of the divine wit surely shines through!
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