In Acts 10, Peter encounters a vision while he is at prayer – a vision that brought about a radical shift not only in Peter’s life, but also in the movement that would become known as Christianity.
In that experience, Peter came to realize that ethnic, racial and cultural differences cannot hinder the proclamation of the gospel and the work of God to create a new humanity that would consist of people from every land, language and background. In reporting his experience to the Jewish believers in Judea (Acts 11), who were initially critical of Peter’s new position, Peter replied, “Who am I to hinder God?” Thus began the openness of the early Christian movement.
In fact, we might even suggest that one of the key characteristics of early Christianity as it began to grow and develop was the welcoming of all into the people of God. The practice of hospitality among early Christians may even have been the impetus that caused the growth of this new movement.
In a world of ethnic, economic and political exclusion, the early Christian movement welcomed all in the name of Jesus and demonstrated the new ethic of love that Jesus instituted among his followers. His was a new commandment that called for his followers to love others just as he had loved them, and to share that love across any man-made boundaries that separated all of God’s people.
This is not to imply that everything went smoothly for the growth of Christianity as an inclusive faith, for there was still resistance to accepting all into the community of faith, just as Peter and others initially resisted the inclusion of the Gentiles. But, nevertheless, the inclusive nature that was shaping Christianity was the product of a gospel of love and welcome.
That practice of love through welcome was to be a powerful force that served to symbolize what the world was intended to be by its creator. The early Christian ethic of love and embrace was to represent a return to God’s intention for humanity to be one humanity that consisted of diverse peoples from all walks of life. This was the vision of God, this was the vision of Jesus, and this became the vision of Peter.
But what has happened to this vision? What has happened to the Jesus ethic of love and welcome? And why, instead of seeking to return to that vision, Christianity has become more entrenched in its practice of exclusion?
I am reminded of the words accredited to Karl Barth, the most prolific theologian of the 20th century, who, when he was asked to give advice to young preachers about preaching, replied, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both.”
As I recall Barth’s advice, I realize how important it is to remember that if we believe that Scripture – though written in a far away time, place and culture – still has relevancy for our living out the gospel of Jesus, then reading Scripture in light of contemporary events and reading contemporary events in light of Scripture, is vitally important to shaping how we might respond to those events.
In reading Peter’s experience and his change of heart from one of exclusion to one of embrace, I cannot help but think of the current political and legal battles that are taking place over immigration in the United States. Over the last couple of weeks, news has spread about Arizona’s new immigration law, one that seems to take a very aggressive stance that will affect all immigrants, legal or illegal, as well as their families and the good citizens and communities of this country who show compassion to them.
How might Scripture inform us as we struggle to formulate faithful Christian responses to the issue of immigration? First, we need to recall God’s commands to Israel regarding aliens in their midst. The Mosaic Law states that God is one “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” Moses goes on to command Israel to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).
When we turn to the New Testament, we find that followers of Christ are called citizens of the Kingdom of God, and aliens and strangers to the world. The Christian movement negated ethnic differences and crossed boundaries of ethnic separation to welcome all into the Kingdom of God.
Moreover, Paul reaffirms the breaking down of ethnic divisions by stating that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, for the wall of separation has been torn down, and the two have been joined together into one new humanity. And, of course, the story of Peter epitomizes the dream of God and the force of the gospel of inclusion.
That same vision of unity among God’s people is also the vision that God dreams for the new heaven and new earth. John’s vision of the new heaven and new earth about which we read in Revelation 21 is God’s dream to move all of creation toward unity and togetherness through welcoming all. It is a dream in which all the peoples of the world will find peace and comfort. It is a vision of the New Jerusalem, whose gates will not be shut. In God’s dream, the new creation will have no borders.
Peter experienced a conversion through which he became convinced of God’s dream and God’s will to fulfill that dream through bringing Jew and Gentile into one people. He knew that he could not hinder God’s moving forward to see the fulfillment of that dream. So instead of making attempts to hinder God, Peter decided it would be best to join God in welcoming others.
God’s dream and will remains the same for us. God desires to transform our world from a place of division, exclusion, strife and war to one of unity, inclusion, love and peace. God dreams and wills for humanity to be one. Are we doing our best to hinder what God is doing, or are we joining with God by being captivated by God’s dream of welcoming all?
C. Drew Smith is the Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.