By Sherry Black
Reading from Acts, 11:1-18
1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
The apostles sure seem to be a suspicious lot, though we can understand their motive: to protect the new community of Christ. When the newly converted Saul came to Jerusalem, the apostles were afraid — for good reason — and didn’t even grant him an audience until Barnabas interceded on his behalf. Barnabas had some serious explaining to do.
Now the apostles hear that Gentiles, Cornelius and his family, have heard the word of God and the Holy Spirit has fallen on them. Instead of first being excited about God’s movement in the world, they challenge Peter: “Why did you go and eat with uncircumcised men?” Peter also has some serious explaining to do.
Peter recounts the story: a divine meeting, angels, and the Holy Spirit falling upon Cornelius’ household. Wow! They were baptized with the Holy Spirit, and then with water! Not the “normal” order. Surely God’s hand was in this.
Peter continues, “Who was I to hinder God?”
The apostles and believers are speechless. This is the beginning of a paradigm shift for the early Church as to what it means to be people of God. Like many things God does that require patience to understand, this takes some explaining. But when they hear the story, their hearts are open. They see the evidence of God’s work. They come to realize that God is the actor here: God gave even the Gentiles repentance and new life. Jesus is Lord of all!
They shouldn’t have been surprised, really. Jesus told them to go even to the Gentiles. But even so, what God does in our lives or in our time may take some explanation from those who see it more clearly. Are we willing to hear it out?
The Very Rev. Sherry Black is a second-career Episcopal priest, and has been a full-time hospital chaplain for nine years. She also serves a small mission church as priest-in-charge, and is dean of her deanery.
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