Acts 11:1-18

Jerusalem church questions Peter

11 The apostles and the brothers and sisters throughout Judea heard that even the Gentiles had welcomed God’s word. When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him. They accused him, “You went into the home of the uncircumcised and ate with them!”

Step-by-step, Peter explained what had happened. “I was in the city of Joppa praying when I had a visionary experience. In my vision, I saw something like a large linen sheet being lowered from heaven by its four corners. It came all the way down to me. As I stared at it, wondering what it was, I saw four-legged animals—including wild beasts—as well as reptiles and wild birds.[a] I heard a voice say, ‘Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!’ I responded, ‘Absolutely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ The voice from heaven spoke a second time, ‘Never consider unclean what God has made pure.’ 10 This happened three times, then everything was pulled back into heaven. 11 At that moment three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were staying. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them even though they were Gentiles. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered that man’s house. 13 He reported to us how he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is known as Peter. 14 He will tell you how you and your entire household can be saved.’ 15 When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as the Spirit fell on us in the beginning. 16 I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John will baptize with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”

18 Once the apostles and other believers heard this, they calmed down. They praised God and concluded, “So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.”

This is the word of God for us the people of god.  Thanks be to God.

Signs and Wonders – Then and Now, The Outsiders

When I started first grade I had my first eye exam at school.  And I failed.  I really failed.  And I ended up with glasses.  Not only was I a first grader wearing glasses, but I was a first grader wearing ugly 1970s coke bottle glasses.  And believe me wearing glasses was not cool when I was a kid.  I was shy, and I didn’t have many friends.  And I remember feeling like a total outsider for years, and I really carried that feeling of being an outsider with me until I got contacts in junior high.  I don’t think there are any of us who haven’t felt like outsiders at some time in our lives – in small ways like my example, yes.  We’ve all had that feeling.  But sometimes it happens in our world in larger ways, too – sometimes boundaries are created that have more serious consequences like being treated as an outsider on the basis of skin color or sexual orientation or living in poverty.

Today, we read about a whole group of people that the early disciples were treating as outsiders.  Today’s scripture tells about another sign and wonder that changes the look of God’s kingdom on earth, and it changes the whole mission for the disciples.

This is the story of Peter’s vision.  And this was really a God-sized vision.  It was a God-sized vision because it was one that I don’t think Peter could have grasped on his own without God’s leading.  It was big – it was really big.  You see this crazy vision that Peter experienced, was a vision that God’s kingdom was to include ALL people.  It was a vision that Jesus came to save everyone.  It was a vision that there are NO outsiders in God’s kingdom.  And it was a vision that required the early church to risk moving away from the safety of its own people to tell the unchurched people of their day about Jesus.

This story of Peter’s vision must be pretty important because Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, shares it with us three times.  He told it in chapter 10 and again in chapter 11 and once more in chapter 15.   So if you are doing the study on Acts, you are familiar with this story.  But it seems to be such a strange vision – a sheet with four legged animals and birds.  Really strange.  So I want to spend a minute to give you the background information you need for this scripture to make any sense at all.

Now first notice that the heading for this scripture is “Jerusalem church questions Peter.”  And so we want to know why the Christians in Jerusalem are upset with Peter.  Acts chapter 10 is where you can read this story in its first telling.  And although we don’t have time today – I really encourage you to go read Chapter 10 for the whole story.  It is the story of Peter meeting Cornelius, who is a Gentile.  Now a Gentile is just the name for someone who is not Jewish.  The Common English Bible also uses the word “outsiders.”  And there was great debate among the early Christian church about whether these non-Jews, these Gentiles – these outsiders, could become Christian without first becoming Jewish.  There was an argument that Jesus came only for the Jewish people.  And one symbol of the relationship between the Jewish people and God was in the circumcision of the men.  And so over and over again, we see the church arguing over this requirement of circumcision.  The thinking was that if the Gentiles were to become followers of Christ, they had to first be circumcised.  Which as you can imagine was a huge stumbling block for new disciples, right?  The new church was attempting to mesh the old laws and regulations with the new way.  Old ways of thinking were clashing with a new way that Jesus had in store for them.

Today’s scripture says that when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, that is the Christians who started out as Jewish folks criticized Peter.  They accused Peter of going into the home of the uncircumcised and eating with him.  So Peter had broken two of the old rules.  Not only had he gone into the home of Cornelius, but he had eaten with him.  (And it reminds us of how the Pharisees accused Jesus of eating with sinners, doesn’t it?  Isn’t it interesting how the early Christians so quickly turn right around and say some of the same things those who persecuted Jesus said.)  Well, sharing table hospitality was a big deal, then—and it still is a big deal.  Because when we eat with someone, we form a relationship and a bond, and it is a way of showing approval of that person.

And the church at Jerusalem wanted an explanation from Peter for his shocking behavior.  It took this God sized vision to open their eyes to a totally new thing.  So, the text says, “step by step, Peter explained what had happened.”  Peter was in Joppa praying when he had a visionary experience.  And here’s how he describes it:

In my vision, I saw something like a large linen sheet being lowered from heaven by its four corners. It came all the way down to me. As I stared at it, wondering what it was, I saw four-legged animals—including wild beasts—as well as reptiles and wild birds.[a] I heard a voice say, ‘Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!’ I responded, ‘Absolutely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ The voice from heaven spoke a second time, ‘Never consider unclean what God has made pure.’ 10 This happened three times, then everything was pulled back into heaven.

Peter is talking about the Jewish dietary laws that you can read about in Leviticus 11.  Certain foods were considered unclean and impure and were not to be eaten.  So this vision, turned Peter’s whole world upside down.  The way that he had lived his whole life was being set aside in this vision.  Peter knew that this vision was not just about the food that they would eat from now on.  Peter knew that this vision was really a metaphor for something else – it was about the people who were God’s own.  It was all about the truth that there are no outsiders in God’s kingdom.

In chapter 10, Peter talked about it this way: “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another.  Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  There are no outsiders in God’s world.

Today’s text goes on to describe how the Holy Spirit fell on these outsiders in just the same way that it fell on the disciples at Pentecost.  And Peter said in verse 17 if today’s text– “If God gave [the Gentiles] this same gift of the spirit, then who am I to stand in God’s way?”

“Who am I to stand in God’s way?”

Peter’s words must have shocked the church in Jerusalem – and they must have realized that Peter was speaking a true word from God.  Because here’s what happened next.  The scripture says:  “Once the apostles and other believers heard this, they calmed down.  (Remember, they were all in an uproar criticizing Peter, and then they calmed down when they heard Peter’s story.  And listen to what happens next!)  These critics praised God, and they concluded, “So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.”  “So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.””

The critical, complaining Christians began to see this God sized vision!  They began to realize that God was working in the lives of the Gentiles, and that these outsiders, too, could be transformed by Jesus!  They were starting to figure out that there are no outsiders in God’s kingdom.  They are seeing that Jesus came to turn the world inside out.  What a critical turning point in the life of the early church.

I think it is human nature to be uncomfortable with new things, and to desire to stay with the people we know and the people who are like us.  We like to stay in our herd, don’t we – with our own kind of people.  It’s so much safer.  It’s so much easier and more comfortable.  Because we don’t want to be the outsider, either.

And yet, that is not at all what God had in mind for the early church —-and that is not at all what God has in mind for us today.  Jesus came to turn the world inside out – to bring the outsiders in to God’s kingdom.  And how disturbing it would be to think that we could be treating others as outsiders; and how distressing it is to think we could be standing in God’s way of bringing others to the saving work of Jesus Christ.

God still calls us to take a risk and to see the same kind of God sized vision that Peter received.  And not only are we called to share God’s vision but to act in accordance with that God sized vision.  God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another.  And God desires for all people to be a part of God’s kingdom.  There are no outsiders in God’s kingdom.

And so, it is our job to catch this God sized vision, too.  It is our job – each of our jobs – to get to know the outsider.  Because whether we admit it or not, most of us are very much insiders in this country.  I’ve put a privilege quiz in your bulletin to help you think about what outsiders look like in America.  I hope you’ll spend some time working through this quiz with your family this week and thinking about the ways we tend to create artificial barriers and how we have even seen violence and a lot of hate against some groups.

When it comes to our faith, I think we like to create a comfortable space, kind of like our living room.  And we really don’t like to leave our living room, and we even tell ourselves and God that we won’t leave our living room.  We invite God right into our nice comfortable space, and we have a cozy relationship with our God.

But God wants anything but a cozy relationship with us.  You can witness that in the book of Acts.

Instead of giving us comfort and security, God wants to transform us into something new – into something better.

And in turn God wants to use us to transform the world.

So know today that God creates no boundaries, and we are called to share the love of God with everyone…

with children and with teenagers and with those who have the blessing of many years.

We are called to love immigrants, and homosexuals, African Americans, people who are poor and people who are rich.

We are called to share God’s love with people in the pit of addiction and people who face the loneliness of prison.

We are called to love people in the nursing home and people we meet by happenstance at the store.

We are even called to love awkward little girls with coke bottle glasses.  Because there are no outsiders in God’s kingdom.

There are people in this community who do not have a church to call home, and they probably feel like outsiders when it comes to feeling accepted by God and by God’s people.  In fact, listen to this.  I’ve mentioned that at the school supply giveway, 27 families amounting to 79 kids said they are interested in an after-school program.  Of the 27 families, 16 families with 37 kids don’t have a church.  And, I don’t know what you think, but I think if a family doesn’t have a church to call home, it’s harder to experience the love of God and it’s so much harder to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.  I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have a church family to teach me and love me and to be the love of God in action.  To me, the church is God’s way of sharing love with all God’s people.

The good news for this day is that there are no outsiders in God’s kingdom.  Including you and me.  God loves us so much that God got us here today to hear this message of inclusion.  So if you don’t know or if you haven’t thought about it in a while, know that God loves you deeply and abundantly and unfailingly.

And know, too, that God loves outsiders so much that God will use us to accomplish signs and wonders today.  We can do something to let outsiders know how much God wants a relationship with them.  We are called to tell those who think they are outsiders that God will do anything to offer them a place in God’s family.  There are NO OUTSIDERS in God’s kingdom.

I pray that we might begin to have vision like Peters – that our eyes might see where we have created artificial boundaries for ourselves and in our church.  I pray that we will see a God sized vision of a church where outsiders come to know they are beloved children of God.  I pray that the Holy Spirit will enlarge our vision of God’s kingdom to see others through God’s eyes.  I pray that we would be empowered to love others – all the others.

It would be a sad thing, indeed, if we were the ones standing in God’s way.  In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.