A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
April 28, 2013
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
“Bless his heart.”
Isn’t that what we do in the south when we say hateful things but don’t want to sound hateful? We just add those three little words at the end and think that makes everything all right. They did it in the hills of West Virginia, where I grew up, but they did it with a distinctive mountain twang. They said things like, “That boy is dumber than a sled track, bless his heart,” or, “That girl ain’t got the sense the good Lord gave a milk cow, bless her heart,” or, “That child is uglier than homemade sin, bless his heart.” So, I can almost hear some of those people from the hills of Galilee, where Peter grew up, saying about him, “That feller just don’t know where to draw the line, bless his heart,” because in today’s lesson from Acts 11—he proves it.
The story really begins back in chapter 10, and if it sounds familiar to you don’t be surprised. This is a story that gets told more than once in Acts, because it describes a watershed moment in the spread of the gospel: that moment when the earthen dam of human tradition collapses, and the good news about Jesus goes crashing, splashing through the breach, washing over everybody in its way, even the Gentiles. It starts with a Gentile named Cornelius, a commander in the Roman army, and one of those Luke describes as a “God-fearer,” which means that even though he was a Gentile he had profound respect for the God of the Jews. “He gave alms generously,” Luke says, “and prayed constantly to God.” One afternoon around three o’clock, as he was praying, he had a vision of an angel who told him to send to Joppa for a man named Peter who was staying with Simon the Tanner. So when the angel left Cornelius called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from his ranks, told them what he had seen and heard, and sent them to Joppa.
About noon the next day, as they were on their journey, Peter went up on the roof of Simon’s house to pray. He was hungry. He wanted something to eat. And while he was waiting and praying he had a vision. He saw something like a sheet being lowered down by its four corners. It had all kinds of four-footed animals in it, and reptiles, and birds. And a voice said, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” But Peter could see what was in the sheet, and it was all those things forbidden by Leviticus, chapter 11—
Camels and badgers, rabbits and pigs;
Scallops and oysters, lobster and squid;
Vultures and hoopoes, herons and bats;
Weasels and geckoes, lizards and rats![i]
—all the foods that the Jews considered non-Kosher, or “unclean.” “You will make yourselves unclean if you eat those things,” Moses had said. “If you so much as touch them you will be unclean until evening and have to wash your clothes” (Lev. 11:24-25). And so Peter said, “Not on your life, Lord! I have never eaten anything unclean.” But the voice said, “Don’t call unclean what God has made clean. This happened three times, and then the sheet was taken back up to heaven.
Now you know that when something is repeated in the Bible it’s because it is important. It was important that Peter get this message through his thick skull, bless his heart, because about that time those three men who had been sent by Cornelius arrived. The Spirit said, “Peter, there are some men at the front door looking for you. Get up and go with them. Don’t let anything stop you. I’m the one who sent them.” So, Peter went downstairs, opened the door, and found three Gentiles standing there. “I’m the one you’re looking for,” he said. “What do you want?” And they said, “We’ve come from Cornelius, the Roman commander. He is a good man who worships God. All the Jewish people respect him. An angel told him to invite you to his house. Cornelius wants to hear what you have to say.” And here’s the first clue that Peter was being led by the Spirit: he invited these men, these Gentiles, to come in and be his guests. For Peter it would have been like sitting down in front of a big plate of fried vulture, fricasseed gecko, barbecued weasel…
But they stayed the night and the next day he got up and went with them, and some of the Jewish believers from Joppa went along. The day after that they got to Caesarea and found Cornelius and a whole group of other Gentiles waiting for them. Peter introduced himself by saying, “You know that it is against our law for a Jew to have anything to do with those who aren’t Jews. But God has shown me that I shouldn’t say anyone is not pure or ‘clean.’ So when you sent for me, I came. Now, what’s this all about?” And Cornelius told him. He said, “It was around this time four days ago that I was here in my house praying when suddenly some kind of angel stood right in front of me. He said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer. He has remembered your gifts to the poor. There’s a man in Joppa named Peter who is staying at the home of Simon the Tanner. Send for him. He’ll tell you everything.’ So I sent for you right away. Now, what does God have to say?”
Peter was flabbergasted. He said:
Holy Spirit! I see that it’s true;
When you’re ready for God, God is ready for you;
Doesn’t limit his love, doesn’t ration his grace;
He will save anyone—anytime, anyplace![ii]
And as he began to tell those Gentiles about Jesus the Holy Spirit fell upon them, and they all began speaking in tongues, and Peter said to those who had come with him, “Can you see any reason not to baptize these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And so he ordered them to be baptized, and then he stayed with them for a few days.
Bless his heart.
Because when he got back to Jerusalem he had some explaining to do. The Jewish Christians, the ones Luke calls “the Circumcised,” wanted to know why he had been spending time with the Uncircumcised and eating with them. It was against the law!—the Law of Moses, that is—contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture! Last week I was trying to imagine a comparable situation in our own time when I bumped into Victor Davis. Dr. Davis is a Baptist minister. He taught our January Bible Study last year. We started talking about this passage and I asked him, “Victor, in our time, in our Baptist tradition, who would be considered ‘unclean’? And he didn’t hesitate. He said, “The gays.” So I thought, what if a local Baptist minister went on a mission trip to New York and found out when he got home that pictures of him hanging out at a gay nightclub in Manhattan had been published on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch? Don’t you think there would be a special called deacons’ meeting that very afternoon, and don’t you think that when everybody was assembled the deacon chair would hold up the newspaper and ask, “What’s this all about?”
That’s how it was for Peter when the circumcised believers demanded to know why he had been keeping company with the uncircumcised. And starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story (reading from Acts 11:5-17, NIV):
“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’
“I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
“The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.
“Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’
“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
And this may be the most remarkable thing of all—that when those people heard Peter’s story they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Bless their hearts.
Because as far as I know this is the first time in the Bible when experience has trumped Scripture; when what people have seen and heard has claimed more authority than the Bible. For them, when the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles it was proof that God was doing a new thing. Peter turned to those who were with him and said, “Can you see any reason not to baptize these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And the way he knew they had received the Holy Spirit is because they were speaking in tongues. It’s what happened to Peter and those others on the day of Pentecost, when they were all together in one place, praying, and suddenly there was a sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and flames of fire appeared over their heads, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them the ability. A huge crowd gathered, people from all over the ancient world, and they were amazed to hear these uncultured Galileans speaking their languages—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—they heard them praising God in their own languages.
That was all the proof Peter needed that God was up to something, and that this was what the prophet Joel had been talking about: that time when God would pour his spirit out on all people. “Your sons and daughters will prophesy,” he said. “Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants,” says the Lord, “On both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” And here they were, uneducated men and women, people who had never taken a foreign language class in their lives, extolling the wonders of God so that people from all parts of the ancient world could hear it and understand it.
I’ve been telling you that Easter changes everything, but it certainly changes this, doesn’t it? When Jesus died the curtain of the temple was torn in two, and when he rose from the dead, the stone was rolled away. The power of God burst forth and filled his people, made them fearless witnesses, powerful proclaimers. They shared the good news with everyone: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, and in today’s lesson even with uncircumcised Gentiles who not only heard the good news but received it, and were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in unknown tongues, so that Peter said, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us, who was I to stand in the way?”
It seems clear from this story that God wants everybody, everywhere, to hear the good news and receive it. The circle of his love is large—large enough to take in the whole world. So why do we make it smaller? Why do we limit God’s love? Those Jewish Christians in Jerusalem weren’t opposed to welcoming Gentiles into the church; they just wanted them to be circumcised first, wanted them to become Jews. Then they would let them in. But God pushed Peter out the door of the church and in through the door of a Gentile home, practically forced him to preach the Gospel, and then poured out his Spirit upon those Gentiles until they were full to overflowing, praising God with a loud voice, speaking in tongues, so that even the Jewish Christians had to admit: “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” And here’s an important point: God didn’t require them to be circumcised first; he accepted them just the way they were. So why do we want everybody to become just like us before we can accept them? Why did we have so much trouble welcoming people of other races into this church? Why did we have so much trouble welcoming Christians from other denominations?
And I know it makes us uncomfortable, but let’s go back to that gay nightclub in Manhattan for a minute. Suppose that Baptist minister said to the deacons, “You don’t understand; I was witnessing to those people. I told them the good news about Jesus. I told them what Peter said to those Gentiles, that it’s true: “when you’re ready for God, God is ready for you; he doesn’t limit his love, doesn’t ration his grace; he’ll save anyone—anytime, anyplace.” And suppose he told the deacons that right after that the Holy Spirit fell on those people, and they began to speak in other tongues, praising God with a loud voice. I know that sounds far-fetched, but believe me; it is no more far-fetched than what happened in the Book of Acts. Would that be convincing proof? Would those deacons respond as the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem did? Would they say, “Then God has given even to the gays the repentance that leads to life”? Or would they drag that minister outside the city gates and stone him to death? What would you do if you were one of those deacons?
Bless my heart, every time I hear this story it forces me to deal with the possibility that God is willing to accept people I am not, and every time I hear it I need to ask, “Lord, am I calling something ‘unclean’ that you have made clean?
“And if so, would you show me?”
[i] My wife is a kindergarten teacher. Everything begins to sound like children’s books after a while.
[ii] I wrote this rhyme based on Acts 10:34-35 (channeling Dr. Seuss).
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.