John 13:31-35; Acts 11:1-18
Acts chapters 10-15 are foundational to Luke’s explanation of this new thing that is happening in Judaism. It is radical, and almost beyond belief. But the Spirit is doing such powerful and undeniable things, in the presence of MANY witnesses, that it cannot be denied.
The slave people who saw God’s thunder on Mt. Sinai and heard God’s words from Moses were just as consternated as the first century Jews. What they were seeing and hearing in the Sinai desert was something completely new. It could not be accepted! They were so sure of this that they returned repeatedly to the familiar worship patterns of their past 400 years in Egypt. Worshiping a God whose name could not be pronounced or whose image could never be made – well, that is just unbelievable! So, many did not believe it!
The 3,000-year-old story is so familiar to us that we take it for granted. It is impossible to know how crazy this all sounded to the people of God.
What is happening here in Acts is just as radical as that was. Would it again take the death of a generation in order to reconcile what had formerly been anathema as part of the new way? A welcome part? A part just as fully loved as the old part? The early followers of the Way of Jesus were deeply divided on this issue: could non-Jews be part of God’s people?
The story of the Holy Spirit’s coming to the household of Cornelius is told twice, in Acts 10 & 11, much of it repeated word for word. Luke has already told the story of Paul’s call to be the apostle to the Gentiles. But in order for Jews to accept it, he needed to provide strong evidence that God was doing this and that Paul was not an exception to the rule. It needed to be confirmed by other witnesses. At this point in Acts, the stories of Paul and Peter weave in and out of each other. The lead witness to the non-Jews and the lead witness to the Jews, were experiencing some of the same inclusiveness of the Spirit. But the followers had all kinds of questions, doubts and complaints about it.
After Peter’s experience in Joppa and Paul’s in Asia Minor, the apostles and elders of Jerusalem, the administrative headquarters of the Jesus movement, were called together to give clarity. To our ears, 2,000 years later, the pronouncement sounds pretty namby pamby. James, brother of Jesus and chief leader of the Jerusalem center of the Way says: “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the Law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (15:19-21).
So, the Gentiles were supposed to follow MUCH of the Jewish Law because it was universal, but to make it easier, they didn’t have to be circumcised. It sounds weak, but it is a huge open door – Gentiles could be fully included as the people of God. We know how central this was because when people were baptized these words were pronounced: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Clearly, the gospels and the letters are written from a Jewish perspective. We can easily forget this. James could say that Jewish Law was universal in the empire. Judaism was the world view of all of the church’s leaders. The Jesus Way was part of Judaism. And the very heart and character of Judaism is to follow the Law. It still is true today.
I got some insight in recent weeks when I spoke with a man who is seeking to convert to Judaism from Christianity. While he has participated in Jewish gatherings for a couple of years, studied Torah diligently, included Jewish practice in his home life, he is still in the outer ranks. He has expressed his desire to be completely included, to convert, but the rabbis are saying, “no.” That may change some day, but right now he may not be included fully as a Jew. He is a Gentile. This is still a very strong boundary.
Jesus and the Holy Spirit were doing a radical thing to Judaism! Would it lose its Jewishness by not observing Torah? This was not Peter’s choice. In his vision, Peter was asked to do something which was revolting to him – to eat animals which the Law considered unclean. He could not obey the vision. He refused three times, just as he denied he knew Jesus three times. I have to give him a little credit though, because when the messengers came from Cornelius, he went. “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us” (11:12). Don’t discriminate.
The version of the story in chapter 10 includes the statement: “In truth, I am grasping that God is no respecter of persons. Rather, in every nation, the one who fears God and acts righteously is acceptable to God” (Acts 10:34-35). That phrase, “respecter of persons,” is a fascinating Greek word, prosopoleptes. It is a conflation of two words, prosopon, “face” and lambano, “to take.” In other words, God does not look at a person’s outward appearance or circumstance and take away their honor. In today’s language, God does not discriminate. God is not racist, or sexist, or any other “ist” we might come up with.
What happened in Joppa at Cornelius’ house was not Peter’s choice and he could take no credit for what happened. The Spirit came upon the household of Gentiles as soon as Peter opened his mouth. He recognized that it was just like what happened to all of them on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit was as out of Peter’s control among these Gentiles, as the Spirit had been among the Jewish disciples in Jerusalem. Jesus told them it would happen. They would be baptized with the Holy Spirit – completely doused, immersed, soaked by the Holy Spirit. And now the same thing was happening to the unclean, the people who had always been outside of the Jewish understanding of God’s people. Soldiers of Rome, women, slaves, children – the whole household! All the boundaries were being demolished!
Jesus was changing Judaism to the core. In the Way of Jesus, following God has a new center. It is no longer the following of the halakah, the laws which order life, but the law of love. Jesus put it this way: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
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, our kind of 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.
Racism is headline news in America of the 21st century, too. We may have thought we settled that with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the kind of violence which still pursues people with darker skin tones than most of ours is evidence that we have actually done little to change our hearts. The gospel calls us to break down the structures of racism and privilege because we are all family. We love one another.
To say this much is an obvious application of this text. But how do we change the structure of privilege and racial violence?
The hard truth is that we are like the Jewish followers of Jesus 2,000 years ago. We just can’t SEE our own exclusivism. Awareness is the first step. I read a paper by Dr. Peggy McIntosh from Wellesley College, which she wrote in 1988 and which has been shaking up diversity discussions ever since. After much sociological study and personal experience she discovered for herself that much of the oppression of one group by another is largely unconscious. We who are privileged, or insiders, have little consciousness of that status until it is challenged. And this challenge is often painful, or felt to be unfair.
It was hard in the first century. It was hard at Sinai. It is hard now. I don’t have any answers. I have two suggestions, though which aren’t very radical, but they can begin to bring the injustice of our society into our awareness. One is to go out of my way to become a friend to someone who is part of an oppressed or underprivileged group. That is what Peter did in Joppa. He went out of his way to make a Gentile friend. A second suggestion is to use Dr. McIntosh’s list of experiences of privilege to begin to notice my own. Her list of 45 everyday experiences of privilege is eye-opening. Like:
I can go shopping alone most of the time, fairly well assured that I will not be followed or harassed by store detectives. I can turn on the television …and see people of my race widely and positively represented. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race. Or, I can choose … bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin. 
This has been a hard sermon to write. So much of this I know and affirm in my head, but to practice love which eliminates all boundaries? I am only a beginner! I don’t have answers. I need to be taught.
The gospel today is that God does not discriminate. The Kingdom includes all people and as St. Francis’ canticle reminds us, all creatures, as well. Peter’s challenge to love the Gentiles is still our challenge today. Maybe not Gentiles, since that is who we are. But we still make distinctions and judge by appearance. Today, may we know for sure that with God, love has no boundaries! May we be filled with hope for a new world without boundaries! That hope, when it takes root in our hearts, will begin to bear fruit in our actions, and will the seed to change the world! May God pour out the Holy Spirit to bring us together!
 McIntosh, Peggy, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies, (1988).