Monday, May 11, 2009

Destroying the Slashes

"Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?" It might be difficult for us to imagine how much of a change in Peter's worldview this single statement represents. A devout Jew, like Peter, was committed to maintaining certain standards of purity and that meant not eating certain foods and not eating with unclean Gentiles. Peter has spent his whole life believing that one of the most fundamental distinctions in life was the line drawn between Jew and Gentile. Peter's words here represent the culmination of a story that erases that distinction.

This particular story in the books of Acts begins with the start of chapter 10. "Cornelius, a centurion... a devout man and who feared God with all this household and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually" sees a vision in which he is instructed to dispatch some men to find Peter.

As Cornelius' servants are on their way to find Peter, Luke tells us that Peter is experiencing a vision himself. In this vision, a large sheet is lowered from heaven and in it are all kinds of animals that were considered unclean in Jewish law. A voice commands Peter to "Get up, Peter, kill and eat!" But like a good Jew, Peter refuses, noting that he has never eaten anything impure or unclean. The voice responds "What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy." This happens two more times until the sheet returns to heaven. While Peter is still reflecting on what this vision might mean, Cornelius' servants arrive and explain why they have come. They stay with Peter for the night and all set out to Cornelius' the next day.

Somewhere along the way, Peter must have realized that the unclean animals in his vision were a metaphor for the Gentiles that Peter had regarded as unclean but God had now worked to cleanse. Upon arriving at Cornelius' house, Peter says "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean." This conversation is quickly followed by another speech from Peter in which he shares the gospel story of Jesus.

Astonishingly, Peter is still speaking when the Holy Spirit descends upon Cornelius and all of his family and friends who have gathered to listen to Peter. This is astonishing because these uncircumcised, unclean Gentiles have not done anything to make themselves clean. They have not gone through any of the necessary rituals to be included as a part of God's covenant people. In fact, they have not even responded to Peter's message about Jesus with any kind of faith pronouncement. God acts decisively before any human characters in the story even have a chance to do anything, pouring out his Holy Spirit on these Gentiles just as he had on Peter and the other apostles in Acts 2. Peter immediately recognizes this as an act of God and calls for Cornelius and his household to be baptized as a recognition of what God has already done.

What are some of the fundamental distinctions that we make in the way we see the world? Although the Jew/Gentile distinction of first century Judaism may seem odd to us, we still do a pretty good job of splitting our world into comfortable polar opposites; conservative/liberal, gay/straight, successful/irresponsible, even Christian/non-Christian and if we think that you are on the wrong side of the "slash" then we are likely to do our best not to associate with you. But this passage in Acts shows us that God is in the business of destroying the slashes that divide our world and he calls upon his Church to be a slash destroying people. And we don't destroy those slashes that divide us by making people jump through certain hoops to become more like us and to make them look more like what a Christian is "supposed" to look like. Instead, like Peter, we must recognize where God is already at work and allow our entire view of the world and God's work in it to be adjusted accordingly.

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