While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
I doubt if anyone here will remember, but when I first came to Dulwich Hill I came armed with a samurai sword.
Perhaps ‘armed’ is not quite the right way of putting it, but I certainly had in my possession a genuine samurai sword that I had picked up at a disposal store many years earlier. It had cost me $100 and it was rusty and dishevelled but it was a genuine Japanese sword, dating back to World War II (or so I had been told by the dealer) and with my interest in the Martial Arts, this weapon, for many years, had pride of place on my mantle-piece.
Over time though I became increasingly concerned about having a razor-sharp weapon in a house where young children were always running about, and when a fellow Anglican cleric told me that he collected samurai swords I offered mine to him.
He asked me whether I wanted any money for it and I said ‘no’. I was happy for him to have it. He told me that he would try to restore it, and indeed he did. Indeed, some time later he brought the restored sword to show me, and it was quite magnificent!
The sword had been polished and the worn out strapping had been replaced, and he told me that while replacing the strapping he had noticed certain insignia on the handle that linked the sword to a prominent Japanese family whom he subsequently contacted, and it turned out indeed that the sword was extremely valuable.
And after having happily shown me my old sword in all its glory, its new owner then shook my hand and departed, and I was left with some feelings of regret over the fact that I had not asked for any remuneration when I initially gave him the sword, though the truth is that if I had hung on to it, it would still be lying around as a rusty and dishevelled old relic.
I sense something similar when I read this passage from the book of Acts – these four short verses that spell out rather bluntly how the Apostle Peter and his friends were brought to the decision to baptise a group of non-Jews. There is nothing fancy about these verses. They are not beautiful or poetic, and taken as an isolated unit they don’t even make a lot of sense. But behind these words something dynamic and wonderful is taking place, and if you’ll allow me to do a bit of restorative work on the passage by putting it in the context of its surrounding verses, I think you will agree that we are dealing with something extremely valuable here!
This four-verse passage is taken from the larger story of Peter’s encounter with the Roman Centurion Cornelius – a story that takes up the entirety of Acts chapter 10 and the greater part of chapter 11 as well – and the big issue on view is one of race relations; specifically, the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the Christian community, which at this point is still in its early stages of development.
Referring to this as ‘race relations’ makes it sound like a socio-political issue rather than a religious issue but, in truth, there is no division between the two in the New Testament, and indeed this story illustrates very well that issues of racial discrimination are always spiritual issues.
Jesus and the Apostles were Jews. And Jews then (as now) were very conscious of their ethnic and religious identity. Indeed, for Jewish people then (as now) there is no easy way of dividing the ethnic from the religious identity. The Jews were the ‘people of God’. They had been chosen by God as a people to fulfil a special purpose in the world and they knew it!
They were a chosen people and they had been called to be different – different in the way they ate, different in the way they dressed and, most importantly, different in the way they acted towards God and towards each other. They were, in that respect, called to be a ‘light to the nations’ – an example to the rest of the world of justice and spiritual integrity.
They were chosen, they were different and they were ‘holy’ or ‘separate’, and they expressed that separateness at every point of their lives – living and working and eating, whenever possible, separately from their non-Jewish neighbours.
We often make the mistake of thinking that the breach that developed in the first Century between the Jewish community at large and the emerging Christian community happened because of their different understandings as to the identity of Jesus, but that is only partially true.
There was room within the Jewish faith of the first century for a variety of beliefs regarding who or what the Messiah was. Different Jewish people and different Jewish groups had different ideas about these things, and if the only thing that had differentiated the Christians from the rest of the Jewish community was their belief in Jesus as the Messiah it is unlikely that any real antagonism would ever have developed between the synagogue community and the emerging church.
There was room within the 1st Century Jewish community for various beliefs about the identity of the Messiah. What there was no room for was anything that questioned the Jewish nature of their faith!
The Jewish faith was for the Jews because it was the Jews that were the people of God. There might be some excellent people who were non-Jews and they were welcome to find a place on the edge of the Jewish community, but they could never be totally recognised as equals.
The great sin of the Christian community (so far as their Jewish brethren were concerned) was that they started to water down the distinction between Jews and non-Jews. These Jewish followers of Jesus started eating and drinking with their non-Jewish neighbours. They went in and out of each other’s homes, and indeed, they started welcoming them into the church as equals without even requiring of their men that they follow the age-old Jewish custom of circumcision.
It all seems so archaic and so distant to us now. It’s hard to believe that this was the issue that consumed the Apostles and caused so much hostility and violence in the first century, and yet it was this that tore the early Christians from their communal roots. They started welcoming non-Jews into their community as equals, and eating and drinking in their homes, and that change in lifestyle inevitably called into question that most basic sacred text of the Jewish faith – the Torah – with all its rules and regulations regarding food and dress and circumcision that were designed to keep the Jewish people set apart from the rest of the world.
It took a bolt of lightning to turn St Paul around. There he was, trying to protect the sacred ethnic identity of the Jewish faith – arresting and imprisoning Christians at every opportunity – until Jesus Himself confronted Paul on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:3)
That story is recorded in Acts chapter 9, and in Acts chapter 10 we get Peter’s story, which begins in the home of a man named Cornelius – a Roman, a soldier, an officer in the Occupation forces that the Jews despised and yet, we are told, a man who “gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly” (Acts 10:2)
Cornelius had a vision where an angel told him to go and fetch a man named Peter. Simultaneously, Peter had a vision where he saw a whole lot of four-footed animals, including pigs, and he was told to ‘kill and eat’. (Acts 10:13)
Peter struggled with his vision (which he had three times) because, as a God-fearing Jew, he knew that he could not kill and eat unclean animals. Cornelius, on the other hand, had no problem responding to his vision but sent to fetch Peter immediately!
And it’s when these two men come together that the scales fall from Peter’s eyes (so to speak) and all the beliefs he had held on to his whole life about racial superiority start to unravel as he stands in the middle of a house-full of Romans and proclaims, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34-35)
It is a dramatic moment, and it is followed by the totally unanticipated miracle of the descent of the Spirit of God upon all the Romans in the room! These Romans spoke in tongues and exhibited the presence of the Spirit of God in exactly the same fashion that Peter was familiar with in the Jewish Christian community, and so he concludes, “Surely no one can stand in the way of these people being baptized with water” and thus welcomed into our community as full and equal members?
One of the tragic mysteries of history, I think, is the number of racial supremacist groups that have appealed to Jesus and the Christian Scriptures as the supposed basis of their racist ideology! From upholders of slavery in 19th Century America to Arian Nazis in the early 20th Century, to advocates of apartheid in South Africa to the Klu Klux Clan, who carry a burning cross as the symbol of their faith!
For the truth is that the church community was forged through the proclamation of total racial equality. “I now realize … that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34-35)
This is a remarkable breakthrough for Apostle Peter, and it sets the direction for the development of the church – a community where there will be no Jew, no Greek, no rich, no poor, no slave, no free, no male, no female, but where Christ will be all and in all. (Galatians 3:28)
It is a remarkable breakthrough for Peter and the early church, and what is almost equally remarkable to the breakthrough itself is the fact that it happens, basically, because Peter has a dream!
I guess it wasn’t just a dream of course, but a series of dreams, which were supplemented by a meeting with some very special people, and no doubt the seeds for this new revelation had been sown in Peter’s heart by the Lord Jesus Himself – someone who had shown remarkable distain for the barriers of race and class and gender that His society and religion had tried to enforce. Even so, however you look at it, this massive change of direction in the formation of the church community was driven by a series of experiences, and you would have thought that, since the Apostles were all good evangelicals, it should have all come out of a Bible study!
Forgive me for being tongue-in-cheek, but if you’ve read all the Epistles of St Paul, you could be forgiven for thinking that his change of heart came about through a detailed study of the Genesis narratives, particularly those concerning Abraham, who evidently received the promises of God on the basis of his faith rather than upon the basis of his circumcision.
It was because he was a man of faith and not because he was a Jew. Paul sees this as being the obvious implication of the text and, as I say, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was these narratives in Genesis that drove Paul to reconsider his whole understanding of the people of God as an ethnically exclusive community.
You could be forgiven for thinking that except that Paul tells us himself repeatedly that this is not true! Indeed, Paul tells his story three times just in the book of Acts. It all came out of a crazy experience he had on the road to Damascus, where he was confronted by Jesus Himself, saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
It was that encounter with Jesus that changed Paul – that turned him around – and not the Genesis texts. The texts were the same before and after Paul’s conversion. It was the Damascus road experience that changed the way Paul read them!
I have become increasingly convinced over time that good arguments, in themselves, rarely achieve anything. That probably sounds rather defeatist, coming from somebody who is a professional arguer, and I accept, of course, that no human being can feel comfortable hanging on to beliefs that they know are irrational. Even so, I’ve come to the conclusion that good arguments are like good door techniques, such as I used to teach in martial arts classes – finger locks, wrist locks and elbow locks, etc. that you use to control people when you are working a door at a nightclub.
Most of the door techniques I was taught in Hapkido and the other martial arts, and most of the techniques that I taught to others, work really well so long as the person you are applying the technique to really wanted to go with you anyway!
That is the case for most guys making trouble in a night club. They didn’t really want to get in to a fight and are actually quite happy to accept the direction of the bouncer. Similarly, if you have been raised a white supremacist but sense in your heart that all people are equal, regardless of race or skin colour, all you need is a good argument to help you make a comfortable transition towards an ideology of inclusiveness. But if deep down your sympathy lies with the Nazis, no barrage of rational arguments or Biblical proof-texting is going to shift your prejudices! People don’t become Nazis for rational reasons, so why would a rational argument change their mind?
This is why I almost never argue with people online any more who tell me through Twitter that I am the spawn of Satan because I accept gay people as equals and call Muslim people my sisters and brothers. No one comes to hate Muslim people or gay people for rational reasons, so a rational argument is not likely to change them. My approach in combating this sort of prejudice is rather to encourage people to meet together and break bread together, and then we can stand back and let the miracles happen, but this is rarely possible in an online situation of course.
I do believe, in fact, that for the most part we are powerless when it comes helping people overcome their prejudices, and yet I do not see this as a reason for despair. For what we are reminded of in the book of Acts is that God is in the habit of doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves! He is in the habit of breaking down barriers, of dissolving long-held prejudices, and of bringing true and lasting reconciliation between people and groups that have long been at enmity, and I believe in fact that God is continuing to do this today through the church!
That might not seem obvious at first glance, but I think, again, it’s a bit like my old samurai sword. The church looks rather worn and rusty on the surface, and appears to be something of a blunt instrument when it comes to making for real and lasting change. But beneath the rust there is something beautiful and of great value – a spiritual community that was forged through the proclamation of St Peter, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on May 13, 2012. To hear the audio version of this sermon chick here.