“Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holay Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:46b-47 (NRSV)
Sometimes the God of heaven and earth breaks the rules, breaks down the walls and causes us to reevaluate our beliefs. Peter can tell you all about that.
He’s a devout Jew. He knows Jewish scripture by heart. He studied at the feet of the Master learning from and watching him. He was sent out with the other disciples to spread the Good News. Peter would be the first to admit that he stumbled at times; that he said and did the wrong thing at other times.
He tried to get Jesus to change the tone of his ministry only to be told, “Get behind me Satan.” He tried to hang onto the moment on the Mount of Transfiguration. He vowed to follow Jesus to the cross and within hours denied him three times. But, today he understands what Jesus is about and has become an able, highly capable Apostle.
For all his insight and talent, though, this week has been strange and wonderful. Let’s go back to the beginning of the story.
It all began with a Roman centurion. Cornelius was a devout believer: he was generous with his money and God was his constant companion. Not only were his entire household followers of Jesus, but at least some of the soldiers under his command.
There’s a problem, though. He’s a gentile and a Roman soldier. He represents all that is wrong with the world from the Jewish perspective. He is an unclean gentile who cannot be in the company of Jews lest they become unclean, making them unable to enter into worship.
God knows all this. After all, it was God who gave the laws to Moses back in Exodus and Leviticus.
God, being God, and beholden to none of us sends a messenger. God has taken notice of Cornelius: his charitable giving and his prayers are a pleasing aroma to God. He has need of Cornelius to help spread the Good News. His directive is to send men to Joppa and find Peter.
Two slaves and a soldier pack a suitcase and head to the airport. While they’re arranging for transportation to the seaside home, Peter goes up on the roof to meditate. But, he’s hungry so he sends someone to prepare a meal. While he’s waiting for lunch, he slips into a trance.
Many of you remember what happened next: heaven opens up and “something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners.” Then it gets weird. “In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.”
Peter is invited to kill and eat.
“I can’t do that, Lord. These animals are unclean. I’m a devout Jew. My Jewish roots define me. I only eat what you permit by law. I will not and cannot eat anything profane or unclean.”
The response is unexpected: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
“But, Lord, these are your laws. You gave them to Moses thousands of years ago. Look, it’s right here in Leviticus.”
After this conversation is repeated two more times, Peter wakes up and puzzles over what he’s heard. Can God change God’s mind?
While he’s scratching his head and trying to make sense of it, Cornelius’ men arrive and pull Peter from his reverie. Peter hears their message. He knows he’s to go with them. God is definitely at work; he can see that now.
With a change of diet running through is mind and his prayers, they travel back to Cornelius’ home and Peter hears the message that Cornelius had heard from the angel. And now, for Peter, everything falls into place.
No one is profane or unclean. Those boundaries and barriers erected to keep the Jews separated from the world are torn down just like that temple curtain that was ripped from top to bottom the day Jesus died. Peter’s mind is open to new things and fresh ideas. So he enters the formerly unclean home of Cornelius and shares with them the story of his time with Jesus.
He hasn’t even concluded his sermon when the Holy Spirit irrupts and a sort of Gentile Pentecost occurs in Peter’s presence. “How can I stop any of you from being baptized?” he asks himself.
Peter can no longer stand in the way of God and God’s will.
When have you experienced this sort of Holy Surprise? What if the Bible says it otherwise? What if it’s right here in black and white? Yet, the Spirit comes along and changes everything. God is doing something new and now we must deal with it.
Sometimes we panic. If this is true, then the entire foundation of my belief is shaken. Maybe my faith in God is for nothing. What if I’ve been wrong all along?
That’s scary. I’ve been there a few times: questioning my own faith and God’s intent. After a while you get used to it. Like stretching well-used muscles you find the challenge invigorating and illuminating.
It’s a process, though. A process that we have to check out through prayer and discernment. If we miss it, if we refuse to look at it from all angles, we could be guilty of squeezing out the Holy Spirit. When we allow legalism to shape us and we cling too hard to it, we hurt ourselves and others.
If it’s a process, it’s also a tight rope. How do we know if it’s time for us to change our thinking?
Prayer. Bible study. Prayer. Conversation with others. Prayer. It may take a short bit of time or weeks or years. Those are the questions you hold in your heart until God has spoken clearly. Don’t judge too quickly. Be ready to be transformed, but do it out of a sense of understanding and illumination.
This scripture this morning is the culmination of the story. Peter understood that things had changed and he was more than willing to move forward in accepting Gentiles into the Christian community.
But, he had an upward battle to fight. When he returned to Jerusalem, he was confronted by the believers and witnessed to them his story of change beginning in Joppa. I imagine some didn’t like it and refused to accept his word. Others were okay with it and felt themselves being opened up to the movement of the Spirit.
And it’s no different today, is it? We can learn from Peter to be open to the Spirit or we can close ourselves out to new possibilities.
And, I can’t help but wonder: What would Peter’s response to some of our issues be? How would he lead us to discerning the Spirit’s movements in our own lives and the lives of our various Christian denominations?
All glory and honor be to God.