Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘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. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 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. 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; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 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.” 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?’ 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.’
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
What is that pesky Spirit doing? Where is it leading the early church and where is it leading us today? The Spirit of God seems to cause no shortage of discomfort for attempting to follow the way of Jesus. We are introduced to our two main characters of the Spirit’s mischievous work earlier in chapter 10, Peter and Cornelius.
Peter, a devout Jew and follower of Jesus, was in one group of Jewish folx at the time who held very strict regulations of clean and unclean foods. They had taken these regulations and put up fences around them to keep their identity secure in the face of the Roman Empire, and other empires before them, trying to force them to assimilate. They created strict rules to help keep their culture and identity. It was so strong that the Jewish folx were one of the only cultures allowed to keep some of their religious practices after being taken over by Rome. A true testament to the strength of their faith and their community. Not every Jewish person in the Roman Empire followed those strict rules and regulations this closely but some, like Peter, did.
Cornelius, on the other hand, was deeply immersed in the Roman state serving in its police and military as a centurion in the Italian Company, a group of about 600 soldiers. Centurions were the ones who flogged Jesus and nailed him to the cross. It was the centurion’s job to protect and serve, a role that most often led to violence and extortion of the oppressed, specifically the Jewish people in Israel. We do not know why Cornelius joined the Italian Company, but perhaps he was given few options to escape poverty besides serving the violent arm of the state. Luke, the author of Acts, goes out of his way to really make sure we know that Cornelius is one of the good ones because I can imagine that as soon as a centurion was brought into the story people start to assume the worst. Luke says his whole household was pious and worshiped God. Luke says that Cornelius gave generously to those in need among the Jewish people and was constantly praying. Luke doth protest too much, in my humble opinion.
But the stage is set. Two people from two very different lives are thrown into a relationship by the Holy Spirit. The text tells us that Peter is praying on the rooftop, in a trance, when he experiences this unclean vision that changes his life forever. The Greek word used here for trance is ekstasis, which might sound familiar because it is where we get the word ecstasy. The definition of that Greek word is to be thrown out of place. So Peter is thrown out of place spiritually from the traditions that have kept him and held him and is thrown into deep waters by the Spirit to engage in new ways. It takes the Spirit three times to finally convince Peter of this change. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” I imagine a similar thing happens to Cornelius during one of his prayer sessions, where he is thrown out of place of being the oppressor and invited to break bread with those he was supposed to oppress. Walls are shattered. Dividing lines are broken. We are all thrown out of place.
Before we look at the ways that we ourselves are divided as individuals, as a community, and as a world, it is important to notice the power dynamics at play in this scenario. Luke doesn’t bring them up but just mentioning that one is a Jewish disciple of the Way and the other is a centurion would have triggered all that a first century audience would need to know. For us however, being so far removed might need to be reminded. When we think of our place in the world, do we have power like the centurion or are we oppressed like Peter? Has the color of our skin, the people that we love, the jobs that we work, the money we inherit, the religion we follow affected our power in this situation? This is an important place to start so that when the Spirit calls us past these dividing walls that we do not unfairly exert our power in the situation.
So where is that pesky Spirit leading us today? Peter and Cornelius eventually meet. Peter shares what he knows about the Holy Spirit and Cornelius shares his home and privilege. What can we learn from this ancient gathering of two very different people? Two ways that I want to point out: 1. I think we of privilege need to listen to oppressed people to learn how to be saved. The spirit told Cornelius to listen to Peter so that he and his household might learn how to be saved. Are we only listening to voices of privilege like ours or are we willing to listen to someone of a different class or race than ours? Perhaps, like Cornelius, we might learn how to be saved. 2. How do we use our privilege, our house, our money, our food, our access to power, to enable these relationships to be built? ‘Never consider unclean what God has made pure.’
Beloved, children of God, Peter had once refused to associate with unclean people to try and live into the holiness that God called him to, but God showed Peter another way to live out his holiness. Cornelius had once been the military might that kept Israel in check, but God has called him to give up his power and learn from the oppressed. The Spirit calls us to intentionally move toward unclean and oppressed people, to reject the distinctions that divide us, and come together in relationship to build up God’s kindom here on earth.
Where might that pesky spirit be leading us?