Do you remember the story of Peter and Cornelius? It comes just before the section from the Book of Acts that William read for us this morning.
Cornelius was a Roman Centurion. He was a devout man who feared God. He prayed diligently and gave generously to the poor, but he was a Gentile. And one day, Cornelius has a vision. An angel appears to him and tells him to send a couple of servants to a place called Joppa to find a man named Simon Peter. And so he did.
Meanwhile, the Apostle Peter goes up on his roof to pray, and he sees a vision too. He sees the sky open up, and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it are all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he hears a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”
Peter is obviously shocked because these are animals that Jews like him don’t normally eat. He says, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But the voice is insistent. It repeats the instruction again and again and says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
But before Peter has had a chance to think about what the vision might mean, there is a knock at the door. Cornelius’ servants have arrived and they are asking for Peter. The Spirit of God prompts Peter to receive the guests, and then to go with them the next day to the home of Cornelius.
Of course, Peter was probably terribly uncomfortable with the whole thing. He was a Jew, and he knew that it was unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile. But God had shown him in the vision that he should not call anything (or anyone) profane or unclean. So when he was sent for, he went without objection.
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
“You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
“We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
As Peter preached and the people listened, the Holy Spirit fell upon them. And the other Jewish Christians who had come along with Peter were astounded at what was happening. They could hardly believe their eyes! The gift of the Spirit was being poured out on these Gentiles just as it had come upon the group of disciples on the day of Pentecost. These Gentiles were even speaking in tongues!
In a wonderful reflection on this text, Jeffrey Peterson-Davis notes that while Peter and Cornelius have central roles in this narrative, it is not a story about them. Rather, it is a story about the Holy Spirit and how the Spirit’s purposes are accomplished in spite of the boundaries constructed by humans.”
William Willimon comments that “the real ‘hero’ of this story, the ‘star’ of the drama is not Peter nor Cornelius but the gracious and prodding One who makes bold promises and keeps them, who finds a way even in the midst of human distinctions and partiality between humans.”
The Holy Spirit was working in a powerful transformation among the early Christians. Their perspective of who was “in” and who was “out” was being changed not by their own doing, but by the intervention of the Holy Spirit. The boundaries of the “inner circle” kept widening to the point that the assumed boundaries were no longer legitimate.
Once the Spirit of God had done its thing among them, the surprised Apostle could only ask, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Just a day before, Peter never would have imagined something like this, but now he could not deny that these too were God’s People.
It would be nice to think that we have moved well past this lesson that the earliest Christians were learning so many centuries ago. But as Peterson-Davis writes, “This is [still] an important text for the church today. Not only do the wounds of exclusion run deep in our culture and in the church; the realities of uncrossed boundaries still exist. Neither society nor the church has overcome racism, sexism, classism, ageism, nationalism, heterosexism, and other prejudices. We continue to propagate segregation in many forms as we hold firm to the visible and invisible boundaries between “us” and “them.”
Reflecting on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles, can we imagine what the Spirit might do with relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in our community? Is it possible to imagine the Christian community embracing the full participation and leadership of women and men, young and old, poor and wealthy, straight and gay, and people with more or less formal education, and so on? Can we imagine any boundaries so rigid as to be impassable by the Holy Spirit?
The witness of the text is that neither Peter nor Cornelius was able to cross the boundaries on their own. But the outpouring of the Holy Spirit empowered each of them to move from their segregated places. The Holy Spirit broke the barriers between Jew and Gentile. The Holy Spirit propelled the witness of the resurrection beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem and Galilee.
In a similar way, we must open our ears and our eyes and our hearts to receive the Spirit’s guidance and instruction for our life and ministry. Jesus has called us friends so that we may know what he is doing and join in his important work of spreading the Good News far and wide. We did not choose him, but he chose us. And he appointed us to go and bear fruit.
“This is my commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another as I have loved you… I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
May the Spirit blow through our lives and our church, guiding us to wisdom and courage and new possibilities for loving one another as Jesus has loved us. Amen.