May 9, 2021, A Tale of Two Visions, Acts 10:44-48 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
The passage from Acts we read this morning was so short that might have slipped through the cracks of your attention among all the other words and readings of the Mass. And that would be a shame, because what we read was a key moment in the life of the Church. So what I want to do is go back and focus on that reading. And the first step would be to put it into its context.
You remember that Peter gave his first sermon on the day we call Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Apostles in Jerusalem. That sermon was a huge success. After Peter spoke, 3,000 people came to believe in Jesus. And then, Peter traveled around, preaching about Jesus and doing the kinds of works Jesus did. He healed a paralyzed man. He raised a woman from the dead. Jesus had told Peter that he was building a Church and that he, Peter, was going to be the rock on which it was built, and that’s exactly what was happening. The Church was growing by leaps and bounds. The converts to this new, fast-growing Church were all Jewish, of course – like Peter, like the rest of the apostles, like Jesus himself. In fact, in the very beginning, the Church was just considered a new sect of Judaism, not a separate religion at all.
And then there came a day when God gave Peter a vision. Peter was spending a few days in a town called Joppa, where he had raised Tabitha from the dead. He had gone up on the roof to pray, while the people downstairs were getting lunch ready. And as he was praying he fell into a trance, and he saw a strange vision.
In the vision, he saw heaven open up, and he saw something that looked like a sheet, being lowered down from heaven by its four corners. And in the sheet were all kinds of animals: birds and lizards and four-footed creatures. But all of them were creatures that were ritually unclean according to the law of Moses. Then Peter heard a voice coming down from heaven, and the voice said, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter must have thought it was some kind of a test, right? Because no good Jew would eat those kinds of animals. So Peter answered as was right and proper, saying, “Absolutely not, Lord. I have never in my life eaten anything profane or unclean.” But the voice answered right back to Peter, “If God has made something clean, you’d better not call it profane.”
Now, just to make sure Peter got the message, that happened three times, the same sheet full of animals, the same voice from heaven, and three times, apparently, Peter gave the same wrong answer. And when it was all over, while he was still scratching his head and trying to figure out what the heck it was all about, three visitors arrived at the house, looking for Peter. They were messengers from a man named Cornelius, who was a Gentile, a non-Jew. It turns out, Cornelius had had a vision, too. In his vision he saw an angel standing there, plain as day. The angel told Cornelius to go to the house of Simon the tanner in Joppa, where a man named Peter was staying. And the angel told Cornelius to bring this guy Peter back to his house, and to listen to what he had to say.
So Cornelius had sent his messengers to Joppa right away, as the angel had commanded him. And those three men arrived at Simon’s house as Peter was still scratching his head, puzzling about his vision. God’s timing is very good. When Peter heard about Cornelius’s vision, suddenly he began to understand the meaning of his own vision. And even though it was against Jewish Law for Peter to go into the home of a Gentile, Peter understood that that’s exactly what God was telling him to do.
Cornelius had gathered his relatives and close friends to come and hear Peter, too. So, when he arrived at Cornelius’s house, Peter began to speak. And now we’ve arrived at this morning’s reading: while Peter was speaking, all of a sudden, lo and behold, the Holy Spirit fell on those listeners, and all those Gentiles gathered in Cornelius’s house started speaking in tongues and praising God. Now, Peter had seen this before. He knew right away what was happening – it was exactly what happened in Jerusalem at Pentecost. Only this time, the Holy Spirit had not fallen on Jewish men, members of God’s chosen nation. No, the Holy Spirit had fallen willy-nilly on these Gentiles, uncircumcised and unclean and profane though they certainly were, according to the Law.
But Peter remembered what the Voice had said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” By the presence and outpouring of his Holy Spirit, God was declaring that he had made Cornelius, and his family, and his friends clean. Peter and his circumcised companions took water, and they baptized that whole house full of people in the name of Jesus Christ. They even stayed there for several days as guests, eating and drinking with these Gentiles who were now their brothers and sisters in Christ.
God had begun to widen the circle of his Church. And Cornelius was just the beginning.
It wasn’t long before the new Church had as many Gentile members as it had Jewish members, and the number of Gentiles kept growing. And there was danger of a very serious fracture in the brand-new Church, because not everybody was on board with God’s plan for drawing the circle wider. In fact, even Peter, who had seen with his own eyes that the Holy Spirit had been poured out on Cornelius – even Peter began to listen to the voices of certain people who were teaching that God really wanted to keep the circle safely contained. Even Peter started to draw back from fellowship with Gentile believers.
Gentiles can become members of the Church, the argument ran, sure – but only if they become proper Jews first. Only if they get circumcised, only if they keep the law of Moses like we Jews do, they said. It was the first big upheaval in the Church, right at the very, very beginning. This was the million-dollar question: did God want to keep the circle closely and carefully contained so that only the “right” people got in? Or was God in the business of widening the circle to make sure nobody got left out?
There were so many clues along the way that people had missed. When God called Abraham to leave everything behind and become the founder of his brand-new chosen nation, he gave Abraham these promises: I will make you a great nation, and I will bless and protect you – and in you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.
Isaiah, speaking of the Messiah God had promised to send to his people had prophesied: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
And King David had written: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him,..”
God had been speaking for century upon century about his plan to draw the circle of his people bigger and bigger. That had always been the plan. But when it actually began to happen, it took everybody by surprise.
And throughout the Church’s history, that old quandary, that million-dollar question about how God is drawing the circle of his Church, it’s never gone away. Some of those first Jewish Christians had demanded that Gentile Christians had to get circumcised and eat kosher. But a lot of Gentile Christians in the early Church were just as quick to revile the Jews, forgetting, apparently, that Jesus himself was a Jew. Anti-semitism was born very early in the Church, and it has never entirely disappeared. We saw the most terrible fruit of that in WWII when six million Jews were murdered by a regime that had the support of a lot of Christians. And yet, Paul had made it perfectly clear that God never intended to exclude his chosen people: “Has God rejected his people?” he asks. And he answers himself, “Absolutely not! All Israel will be saved….for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.”
The Church has often forgotten that Jesus was always widening the circle – and getting in trouble for it. He made friends with unsavory people like tax collectors and prostitutes. He healed the daughter of a Syro-Phoenician woman. He marveled at the faith of the Roman centurion and healed his servant. He sat down and had a chat with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well – which was a double no-no, because no respectable Jewish man would strike up a conversation with a woman or a Samaritan, either one. And then, to make it worse, he accepted the invitation of her fellow Samaritans, despises half-breeds though they were, to stay with them a couple of days. And many of them believed in him. Jesus opened his arms to women, to children, to lepers, to people possessed by demons. The circle just kept getting bigger.
And yet, time and time again the people of God have tried to keep the circle small, because they were so afraid of letting in the “wrong” people, instead of being anxious not to keep out anyone that God has welcomed. We keep on setting our own boundaries for God’s Church, drawing neat little circles around our own like-minded members. For decades, for centuries, really, the American Church drew boundaries to keep out our African American brothers and sisters. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday.” That was almost sixty years ago, but all these years later the Church in America is still largely segregated by race. All these years later, we’re still drawing our careful little circles to keep out people whose skin color, or whose doctrine or gender identity or country of origin offends us – as if the Body of Christ could really be dissected into so many pieces and still remain alive.
We imagine that at our peril. Because God has been revealing his plan to us all along: God, who loved this whole world and all its huge variety of people so much that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believed in him might receive the inheritance of abundant life. So that everyone could be adopted as his beloved children. Even you. Even me.
I want to close with a prayer we pray almost every day in Morning Prayer. It’s the collect at the top of page 101. We speak of the saving embrace of Jesus Christ, that infinitely widening circle that reaches out to encompass every one of God’s beloved children. And we pray that we might be like Jesus, widening the circle of our own love to draw others in, so that they, too, can know and love him. It’s a big and wonderful prayer.
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.