“A New Word of God”
5th Sunday in Easter, C - May 19, 2019
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, `Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' But I replied, `By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' But a second time the voice answered from heaven, `What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, `Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, `John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
Have you ever tried to do the right thing, but known that it would bend or break the rules? And then have you had to justify your decision to others? That’s the situation Peter is in when we read Acts 11. In Acts 10, he did this unprecedented thing: he preached the Good News of Jesus to Cornelius and his family (who are non-Jewish Roman people) witnessed the Holy Spirit falling on them, and then baptized them, officially welcoming them into the Church. He did this because of the vision he describes in our reading, a sheet of animals coming down from heaven and a voice from heaven telling him that God has made them clean.
Acts 11, our passage today, is the re-telling of this story. He goes to Jerusalem to tell the rest of the bishops and leaders of the church what happened. It is so significant to the author of Acts that the story basically gets told to us (the readers) twice in a row. This is the shorter, condensed version. It’s the version he tells as a response to their criticism.
Notice what their criticism was: "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" (11:3). They hadn’t even gotten to the baptism part. They were upset that Peter even when into Cornelius’ home. They were mad that he ate the non-Kosher food that Cornelius served. They were mad that Peter dared to have that level of intimacy and friendship with outsiders. The baptisms were about 10 steps farther than the Jerusalem bishops ever would have gone.
So Peter has to defend himself. Why would he act in a way contrary to the traditions of his people? Why did he bend and break Israel’s rules? It all rests on the new word of God that Peter’s received: `What God has made clean, you must not call profane' (11:9). This new word of God contradicts the older word of God that Peter and the Jerusalem Christians know from the Bible and tradition.
There is some important background to understand here. The Old Testament is written by and for the people of Israel. It is a record of God’s actions and revelations among Israel. The Old Testament is clear in many places that God’s message of steadfast love and forgiveness is for the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And if you’re not part of that ethnic group by blood, you need to convert in your heart and in your body (specifically through circumcision) in order to inherit the promise.
But, most of the Old Testament is not interested in converting non-Jews into Jews. Many parts of the Bible simply push Israel to reject foreigners for fear of invasion and conquest, or for fear of moral and religious corruption. The standard way of interpreting the Bible for Jews in Peter’s day was basically pro-segregation: You Israelites are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6), so you must be set apart from everyone else. Mark your bodies as different with circumcision and with what you eat and where you’ll go in town (Daniel 1). The Bible says you can’t marry Gentiles because Gentiles will lead you to worship foreign gods and into all kinds of wickedness (e.g. Deuteronomy 7:3-4; Nehemiah 13; Malachi 2:10-12). So to be safe, you just can’t be friends with them. You can’t eat like them, you can’t be close with them, and you certainly can’t go into their houses.
But Peter doesn’t follow this tradition. Cornelius and his family join the church without circumcision, without the promise of following the Law of Moses found in the Old Testament. Peter welcomes them and baptizes them as they are. They become followers of Jesus and heirs of God’s promises through Israel but without becoming Israel. `What God has made clean, you must not call profane' (11:9).
We cannot ignore just how radical this is. God is telling Peter now to do something that God once told people like Peter not to do. Peter hears a new word of God that pushes against the old word. It is so challenging that Peter needs to hear it three times before he is ready to act on it.
The word comes to Peter in the vision, but it is confirmed in his experience of Cornelius and his family. God pushed him to get to know real people -- Gentiles, non-Jews, people outside the nation of Israel, people who are not chosen and given a covenant by God. Instead of fearing the other, instead of refusing to even “associate with or to visit a Gentile,” Peter accepts the invitation.
Peter hears a new word of God by meeting and fellowshipping with people who don’t look like him or talk like him or worship like him or support the same political party as him. From the outside, everything about Peter and Cornelius is different. They shouldn’t get along. But by the grace of God they do.
The key step in this whole process for Peter is discernment. How do I know that this vision, this new word of God is a true word? How do I know I’m not being deceived?
Well, despite the mainstream view of Peter’s day, the Old Testament is not all in favor of Jewish-Gentile segregation. There are many passages that point to God’s love and embrace of all peoples and nations, though always through the ministry of Israel (e.g. Ruth 1-4; Isaiah 19:16-25). And that ministry is embodied and perfected in Jesus, the Jewish Savior of the World. Jesus unlocked something different for Israel and indeed for the whole world. Jesus transforms Israel’s relationship with the nations of the world. Jesus tears down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile (Eph 2). The new word of God that Peter received didn’t come totally out of left field. It fit with parts of the witness of Scripture and tradition.
But Peter finds this new word of God to be true because this new word of God is loving. Love is the standard by which we measure any new word or teaching or idea. This new word of God opens him to see more of the world that God made as clean. He begins to see the dignity of every human being, all made equally in the image of God. God keeps speaking to Peter, continuing to show him the way of Jesus. And God keeps speaking to us.
God will challenge our prejudices, our preconceived notions, the things we assume are the way they ought to be. And God will push us to love, just as God pushed Peter and the rest of the Church to accept us Gentiles as sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Gilad, Elon. “Intermarriage and the Jews: What Would the Early Israelites Say?” Haaretz. Published 4 June 2014. Accessed 19 May 2019. https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-intermarriage-and-the-jews-1.5249817.
Jennings, Willie James. Acts. A Volume in Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, edited by Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.
Image Credit: https://www.lds.org/bible-videos/videos/peters-revelation-to-take-the-gospel-to-the-gentiles?lang=eng#gallery=