Luke is hands-down one of the best writers ever used by the Holy Spirit to compose a portion of Scripture. His narratives in the first two chapters of his Gospel alone prove as much. Other examples of narrative wizardry abound in Luke and Acts. So it is a bit odd in Acts 11 to encounter this week’s Lectionary passage that is basically a blow by blow re-telling of everything we had just read in the previous chapter.
It is told a bit more briskly here and in a more summary, compact fashion but it is very simply everything we just finished reading in Acts 10. It is an open question why Luke did not simply write in verse 4, “So Peter told them everything that happened” and then just have left it at that. If readers really could not remember what had just been narrated in Acts 10, they would have only to flip back a page to give it all a glance again.
So then one perhaps wonders if Peter changes the story at all and if so, then might there be something really intriguing in what Peter emphasizes, adds, or leaves out? But no, although not quite as detailed, what Peter says accords perfectly well with Luke’s narrative in Acts 10. Maybe there is nothing in particular to notice here aside from the fact that Peter provides the story his critics asked for.
Clearly if we want to work anything akin to an interesting homiletical angle on these Acts 11 verses, then we need to focus on the first three verses and then on the final verse. And this much is pretty interesting. Word travels pretty fast when people find the news to be interesting or, better yet, scandalous. Thus it did not take long after Peter had gone to visit—and then even stayed with—a bunch of Italian non-Jews before tongues everywhere were wagging over this apparent breach of God’s Law, of kosher food laws, and of all kinds of other religious scruples that had anything to do with ritual purity before the eyes of God.
We have all encountered people who have gotten up a good religious head of steam—and to be honest, at times we have all BEEN such people with a religious head of steam built up—and so we know the delicious intensity with which we can attack someone whom we are just certain has messed up royally. “Sooooo . . . “ Peter’s fellow Jews say the moment they lay eyes on him, “word has it you went and visited a bunch of greasy outsiders, stayed with them, and broke bread with them at non-kosher tables! What do you have to say for yourself, Peter!?”
We should give tempestuous Peter credit for keeping his cool after this accusation gets lobbed at him like a hand grenade. “If we could all sit down for a few minutes,” Peter suggests, “I will tell you the whole story.” And of course he does that then in the highly accurate ways we already noted here.
But given the intensity with which these critics assailed Peter, one might expect that long about verse 18 one might find at least some—maybe a fair bit—of incredulity from Peter’s interlocutors. I mean, a story about sheets being let down from heaven and commands to eat what had been from time immemorial forbidden to eat and Peter hearing voices . . . Surely there was room here for a little skepticism and eye-rolling. One can almost imagine the snickering that could come as someone said, “So, Pete, tell us the part about the sheet again . . .” Heh-Heh, a likely story.
But in verse 18 we find nothing of the kind. Instead there is swift acceptance of Peter’s report, a ready willingness to believe that the Holy Spirit really was behind all this, and so a praising of God for a clear expansion of the kingdom and its membership.
That is downright remarkable. Because in the experience of most of us, when something really new happens inside a church or a denomination, few people seem quick to chalk it up to a new move of the Spirit. Fewer still launch into a robust singing of the doxology because, after all, we all just love it when we have to reverse a whole bunch of stuff we have thought and practiced our whole lives.
No, that is not the drill most of the time. Claims that this is a new move of the Spirit are regarded as highly suspect. The old “But we’ve never done it that way before” slogan comes out far more readily than a song of praise. And making room for a new—and frequently very different—group of people than we are used to associating with happens painfully and slowly and often with some who had been around a long time leaving the fellowship rather than make room for new folks.
Of course, let’s admit that we are called to test the spirits. Not every proposed change that has ever been suggested in church history was of the Lord. Also, personal experience or preference is not typically elevated against the witness of Scripture if we are sure there is a relevant teaching in the Bible that gives cause to pause in just accepting someone’s new ideas about the church or its membership, etc. All true.
But if Acts 11 has anything to teach us—and actually the whole Book of Acts bears witness to this—it is that the Holy Spirit is nothing if not frequently surprising. Also, Acts 11 tells us that less hubris and more humility in listening to someone like Peter is a good idea. Perhaps most difficult of all is the humble willingness to admit that maybe we had either been wrong in the past or at least that maybe we were missing some key perspectives that we now need to incorporate into our neatly laid out theology.
Not every new thing is a movement of the Spirit. But neither should we think a new thing is impossible seeing as we’ve already got orthodoxy all sewn up.
Preacher Thomas Long tells a story about Grace Thomas. Grace was born in the early twentieth century as the second of five children. Her father was a streetcar conductor in Birmingham, Alabama, and so Grace grew up in modest circumstances. Later in life after getting married and moving to Georgia, Grace took a clerking job in the state capitol in Atlanta, where she developed a fondness for politics and the law. So, although already a full-time mother and a full-time clerk, Grace enrolled in night school to study law.
In 1954 Grace shocked her family by announcing that she wanted to run for public office. What’s more, Grace didn’t want to run for drain commissioner or for the city council: Grace ran for governor of the state of Georgia. There was a total of nine candidates that year—nine candidates, one issue. It was 1954 and the issue was Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision that mandated a desegregating of schools. Grace Thomas was alone among the nine candidates to say she thought this was a just decision. Her campaign slogan was “Say Grace at the Polls”! Hardly anyone did, though, and Grace ran dead last.
Her family was glad she got it out of her system, except she didn’t and so decided to run for governor again in 1962. By then the racial tensions in the South were far more taut than they had been eight years earlier. Grace’s progressive platform on race issues earned her a number of death threats.
One day she held a rally in a small Georgia town and chose as her venue the old slave market in the town square. As she stood there, Grace motioned to the platform where once human beings had been bought and sold like a product and she said, “The old has passed away, the new has come. A new day has come when all Georgians, white and black, can join hands and work together.” At that point a red-faced man in the crowd interrupted Grace’s speech to blurt out, “Are you a communist!?” “Why, no,” Grace replied quietly. “Well then, where’d you get all them galdurned ideas!?” Grace pointed to the steeple of a nearby Baptist church. “I learned them over there, in Sunday school.”
Grace had spent time listening to the Word of her Lord. What she heard changed her life and launched her on a very specific mission in life. But to some thinking this way—much less embracing the idea that the Bible teaches us to think a certain way—was new. The struggle the church faces over and over is whether we can accept that the “new” really is of God, really does spring from God’s Word, and so really is a new perspective to which no less than the Holy Spirit of God is leading us.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 15, 2022
Acts 11:1-18 Commentary