Scripture Acts 11:1-18 NRSV
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then 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. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.
11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The 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. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If 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?” 18 When 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.”
It was early days for the Christian Church. Technically, it wasn’t a church yet. It was still considered a sect of Judaism, like the Essenes. Jesus followers still obeyed all the Laws of Moses. They worshipped in the Temple, made the required sacrifices, and paid their tithes as they always had. The difference was that they believed the Messiah had come, and the other Jews did not. So they were trying to spread the word about Jesus among their fellow Jews. And when the apostles and other believers in Jerusalem heard that Peter had not just baptized Cornelius and his household, but eaten dinner with them, they were shocked and they called upon Peter to account for his actions. I mean, Cornelius, although he believed in the God of Abraham, had not yet become fully a Jew, so a devout Jew could not, by Law, enter his home or eat with him, because he was still considered unclean. They were, quite naturally, concerned about Peter’s disregard of the Law. But he told his story, and he asked them, “If 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?” And truly, they had no answer for this, because he was right! “And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Even the Gentiles. I got interested in that word, Gentiles. It comes from a Latin word that means “of the same family, nation or clan.” The Hebrew word used in the same context is “goi” which means non-Jew or stranger, and is used in the Old Testament “to designate nations that are politically distinct from Israel”. (JewishEncyclopedia.com) It’s used in the New Testament to mean not-Jewish. But it is also used by Mormons to mean not-Mormon. Even Jews are Gentiles, to a Mormon. Anyway . . .
This was a new thing, a new idea, a new beginning for the Church. I think it might even be seen as the actual beginning of the Church as we know it today. Because this is the first time that the apostles and the other believers started to really look at spreading the Good News outside of their own family. Yes, Jesus had preached to Samaritans, and had performed healings and other wonders for Gentiles, like the Canaanite woman (the one who told him that even the dogs can eat the scraps dropped from the Master’s hands) and the centurion’s servant. But it had not really occurred to these early followers of Jesus that the Good News was really intended to be spread to all the world, not just the Jewish world. God’s love and grace was universally available! This was a radical break from the past. This Jesus opened up God’s love to all – and not just Jews. In Acts 10:34 Peter said, “I truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God”
Not only that, but adherence to the Laws of Moses would no longer be the deciding factor in who could and could not be part of this new movement. Peter’s dream had made it clear that the idea that God had changed things in Jesus. Matthew 5:17 tells us that Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets. I come not to abolish but to fulfill.” And later, in Matthew 22, he repeats the two greatest commandments, Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as you love yourself, and says “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” From this point forward, acting in accordance with the intent behind the Laws of Moses would become more important than following the letter of the Law. Paul will argue that faith is more important than the Law or works. Things are getting very different for those early followers of Jesus. They will keep fussing for a while, over who is and is not invited to sit at the Table with them, but over time it will become clear that salvation through Jesus is available to all people, regardless of who they are or where they come from or what they eat . . .
I like British tv shows. One of the shows I enjoy is called “Rev” (episode 2 season 1) It’s the story of Adam, an Anglican priest in London, the vicar of St Saviors, a very large beautiful old church, in a poor neighborhood, that’s kind of falling apart, has maybe 20 people in the congregation on a good Sunday. So it can’t really support itself, which worries Adam and upsets his bishop. In one episode Darren, a very handsome, charismatic, evangelical young priest, asked if his congregation could use St Savior’s while their building was undergoing renovations. He offered a 10,000 pound donation (about $13,000 US), which immediately got the bishop’s approval, of course. So he came to St Savior’s, moved out all the pews, and replaced them with couches. He added screens, a vegan smoothie bar, Christian hip hop, and brought hundreds of very excited, young, well-dressed, financially well off people. Within a couple of weeks it was clear that he thought it was only right for him to take over St. Savior’s entirely because he had a bigger (and therefore more important) congregation . . . . But he held to a more rigid interpretation of Scripture than is common in the Anglican church. He taught that homosexuals were not welcome in church, that having women in leadership was unacceptable. He wanted to ban an old man from church for pinching a girl. (Ok, everyone agreed he did wrong, but banning him from worship?) He thought the homeless folks and the mentally ill folks who were part of the old congregation probably needed to find a different place to worship. Father Adam and the bishop turned him away, along with his very large, very generous congregation, because they could not, in good conscience, allow him to reject people in the name of Jesus.
The sign outside says “New Beginnings Available.” For the early church, Peter’s experience with Cornelius was a new beginning. A voice from heaven had said to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And the leaders in Jerusalem agreed. If God accepts even the Gentiles, so must we.
In his letter to the Ephesians 2:14-15 Paul encourages the Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians to make peace with each other saying, “For [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.”
One new humanity in the place of two. Everyone is invited. Everyone is welcome. No one is asked to leave. Even if they pinch a girl. Even if they are homeless. Even if they suffer from mental illness. Even if they are an addict. Even if they get arrested for domestic violence. No matter who you are, no matter what you have done, you are invited to worship in this place. You are invited to join us at the Lord’s Table. You are invited to begin again - every day if necessary. Because we are all works in progress. And we reject no one, because Jesus rejects no one. All are welcome in this place. All are invited to join us at this Table. Because we are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.