Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Scandalous Spirit

What Peter is suggesting in Acts 11.... actually, what he has already done and is now suggesting the rest of the Church should accept is nothing short of scandalous. We see as much in v. 2 when Peter arrives in Jerusalem and some of the believers there begin to criticize him saying "You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them."

Why is this a point of criticism? God had called Israel to be holy and much of that holiness had to do with being separate and recognizably distinct from other nations. Israel did that by keeping God's law but in the first century three points in particular had become important identity markers for the people of Israel: circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food laws. These served to separate Jew from Gentile, the holy from the common. Food laws, in particular, had a very divisive social impact since they not only prohibited one from eating unclean foods but also from eating with those who ate unclean foods.

So when Peter not only goes to the house of an uncircumcised man but also stays with him for several days (Acts 10:48), it is not a minor infraction. Peter has done something that most faithful first century Jews would see as violating the very essence of what it means to be a faithful Jew. Peter has undercut Israel's covenant with God. Thus the very serious accusation against Peter in v.2.

Peter responds to this accusation by speaking of the Spirit's leading. He tells them how he was in the city of Joppa praying when he fell into a trance. In that trance he saw a vision in which a sheet was lowered from heaven with all kinds of animals that were considered unclean by Jewish law and a voice from heaven said "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat." Peter responded as any faithful Jew would saying "Certainly not, Lord. I have never eaten anything unclean." But the voice responded from heaven, "What God has called clean, do not call common."

At the same time, some men showed up from Cornelius' house looking for Peter. Cornelius was a Roman centurion. Luke describes him as a devout man who feared God and gave to the poor but he was a gentile, nonetheless. Peter went with the men who had come for him to Cornelius' house. Upon arriving at Cornelius' house and hearing how Cornelius had been directed by an angel to send for him, Peter realized that this was the fulfilling of the vision he had seen. Since Cornelius and his household were gentiles, Peter would have considered Cornelius and his household to be unclean just like the animals he had seen in his vision. However, he now recognized that God was declaring them clean so Peter began to preach the gospel to them. Before Peter could even finish his sermon, the Holy Spirit filled these gentiles just as the Spirit had filled Jesus' Jewish disciples at Pentecost. Peter sums up the story by saying "If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in our Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?"

Like so many of Jesus' actions, its hard for us to grasp just how radical this movement of the Spirit is in this story. After 2000 years of predominantly gentile Christianity, it is all too easy for us to forget that Jesus was Jewish, his message was Jewish, and all of his first disciples were Jewish. This was a Jewish movement for the Jewish people. Perhaps those first disciples envisioned that a few God-fearing gentiles like Cornelius might join in but in order to do so they would have to become Jewish. That is, they would have to be circumcised, observe the Sabbath, and avoid unclean foods. God had called Israel to these holy practices and there was absolutely no reason to think that God would expect anything different.

At least not until God's own Spirit did something different. When Peter preached to Cornelius and his household, God didn't wait to give the gift of the Holy Spirit until those present were circumcised. The Spirit filled them even as they continued to be gentiles. The Spirit of God acted in a completely new and completely unexpected way. And Peter says, "Who was I to stand in the way?" And those who had accused Peter "...fell silent. And they glorified God, saying 'Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.'" These first followers of Jesus knew that what had happened was strange and unexpected. It went against some of their most central convictions about what they believed it meant to be God's people. Yet they couldn't deny that God's own Spirit had acted and they knew that was more important than any law or expectation they had. They allowed the Holy Spirit, not their own expectations of what was holy and unholy, to rule the Church.

Doesn't a story like this make you wonder what the Spirit wants to do among the Church today? We have so many notions about what church is, how it should work and what it should look like. Do you ever think that maybe the Holy Spirit wants to do something completely new? Maybe even something that cuts to the very heart of our convictions about what it means to be Christians? Something that would shock us? We Nazarenes, especially, have a lot of ideas about what it means to be holy and unholy. Could God being saying to us "What God has made clean, do not call unclean"?

I suspect there are a number of households like Cornelius' in our community. Ones that don't conform to our notions of holiness but where there are God fearing people among whom the Spirit of God is already working and they only need someone who will see and acknowledge that work in them. The question for us is whether we will be blinded by what we expect God to do or whether we will see what God is, in fact, doing.

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