Early followers of Jesus quickly discovered the Spirit was leading them beyond their religious, ethnic, social, economic and political limits to reach strangers with the gospel.
They grasped that faithful participation in God’s mission demands self-denial, relinquishment of prejudices and love of neighbor. Like us, early disciples were slow to learn and often reluctant to act.
In Acts 10, Luke relates a key episode by which God challenges his church to dismantle ethnic, cultural and religious prejudices.
Cornelius, a Roman citizen and a top official in the Roman army, lived in the seaport city of Caesarea – the center of the Roman administration for the province of Palestine. Jews were not fond of Caesarea; in fact, they despised it.
Cornelius was a devout, generous man of prayer who feared God. One day while praying, he clearly saw a vision in which an angel says his prayers and gifts to the poor had caught God’s attention.
Then the angel gives detailed instructions for Cornelius to contact Peter. Cornelius immediately shares his vision with three trusted servants and sends them to look for Peter (Acts 10:1-8).
While Cornelius’ delegation journeys to fulfill its task, Peter receives an obscure and confusing vision of a large sheet containing all kinds of clean and unclean animals descending from heaven; a voice directs him to “kill and eat.”
For Jews, dietary laws were no trivial matter; they were central to their identity. Their laws stated a clear distinction between what was holy and unholy, clean or unclean and pure and impure.
What’s more, these laws led them to reject other people and nations.
Peter is scandalized and fiercely opposes the command. “By no means, Lord; I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” (Acts 10:13).
He recognizes the voice giving the order is the Lord’s, yet he refuses to obey.
God, however, engages Peter and responds, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15).
God is calling Peter to relinquish the ethnic, cultural and religious prejudices driving him to avoid contact with Gentiles. This is so urgent he repeats it three times (Acts 10:16).
Peter is still pondering the meaning of his vision when Cornelius’ messengers arrive.
At the Spirit’s prompting, he takes a bold step by welcoming and offering them hospitality (Acts 10:19-23).
The next day he arrives at Cornelius’ home, stressing that the only reason he is there is because God sent him.
If it were up to him, he would have nothing to do with them; they are uncircumcised, unholy and unclean.
By then, Peter has grasped the meaning of his vision and declares, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28).
As Cornelius retells his vision, Peter sees, “God plays no favorites. It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from – if you want God and are ready to do as He says, the door is open” (Acts 10:34-35).
Then, as Peter tells them the story of Jesus, Peter and his companions are astounded to see that the gift of the Spirit is given to those they viewed as unclean and impure.
Grace reaches Cornelius and his household and they are baptized (Acts 10:45, 48).
We live in times of great debates and polarization. And today, like then, God’s people still grapple with prejudice. Prejudices and cultural biases hinder our mission efforts.
For instance, a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute reveals that among religious groups, particularly white evangelical Protestants, there is a majority (53 percent) who view immigrants as a threat to traditional American customs, and only a minority (33 percent) that say they are a strength to society.
In other words, we see immigrants not as an opportunity to share God’s love, but as a threat to our way of living.
On the other hand, I know many others whose biases and negative views of immigrants were transformed once they personally met and learned the story of an immigrant.
They have discovered that among immigrants we have sisters and brothers of incredible faith, courage and hope who dare coming to the United States because they trusted God was guiding them.
I realize giving up prejudices is a difficult task. Just like Peter and the early church, we need the work of the Spirit and God’s grace in our lives.
The good news is that when Jesus promises the Spirit will empower us to be his witnesses across the street and across the globe, he implies the Spirit will challenge and shatter our prejudices – if we allow him – so we can be the people God has sent us to be: a people bearing good news for everyone everywhere.
Juan AragÃ³n is the Hispanic ministries’ strategist for the West Virginia Baptist Convention of the American Baptist Churches, USA. A longer version of this article first appeared in the August-September 2015 edition of The West Virginia Baptist Newsletter and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @jaragongarcia.