There is a story in the book of Acts of the disciple Peter, who is told by the Holy Spirit to share the good news of Jesus Christ with a Roman centurion.
We are told he was of the Italian Cohort, and that he was a Gentile. Peter was Jewish and a Middle Eastern Semite, so it is likely that his skin color as well as his culture and background was very different from Cornelius’.
We also need to remember that the Roman soldiers were enforcers; they quickly squashed any hints of protest and rebellion from the countries they occupied. Ancient historians tell numerous stories of how ruthless the Roman soldiers were in Palestine, where Peter lived. One story tells how the Romans crucified a whole village to make their point.
You and I know what can happen in situations like these. All Roman soldiers get labeled “ruthless pigs” or something like that by the Jews in Palestine, and then we all know how those soldiers behave. And all the Jews get labeled as “rabble rousing Semitic troublemakers” by the Romans, and the Romans probably thought, “you’ve got to squash trouble and keep the peace,” the Pax Romana that the Roman Empire treasured as a sign of their noble civilization.
And yet Cornelius and Peter shared something: The spirit of the risen Jesus Christ was pushing both of them toward each other. You may know the story. Cornelius and his whole household heard the Good News of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit moved in a powerful way so that Cornelius and all his household experienced the new life that Jesus offers the world, and they were baptized.
The reaction of Peter’s Jewish friends is telling: “The believers who had come with Peter were astonished — amazed, but also a little afraid, because they never expected something like this to happen — that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the gentiles,” is what the Bible records.
And God knows that we know what happens when something astonishing and not what we expect happens: the news spreads like wildfire, as quick as CNN and Fox News, so that when Peter returns to Jerusalem, the church there knows it already! And boy, are they ready for Peter: “What were you thinking?! Talking with people not like us?!” And here’s the powerful answer that Peter gives: “the Holy Spirit sent me, and who was I to hinder God?”
This story tells us a lot about the early church, and it tells us a lot about our humanity, and about God.
» We tend to gather in groups of similar people.
» We are constantly tempted to divide ourselves into “us and them.”
» There is resistance, astonishment and fear to cross boundaries that we’ve set, or that we’ve accepted.
» The Holy Spirit of God, pushes the church beyond these accepted boundaries of “us and them” for the sake of Jesus, and the good news of God’s love for the world and for all people.
One of my pastoral colleagues wrote a few weeks ago a powerful article advocating for racial unity, citing a prayer meeting in which a Black participant shared how God showed her that she could not harbor hate in her heart, and needed to forgive. I had a similar experience recently. It is amazing to witness the power of someone who has experienced so much negatively in her life that we would expect a hardening of heart against “them.” Against someone like me.
This story was used as an example of the importance of our unity in Christ, and setting aside everything except our identity and one-ness in Christ.
While this is true, the story of Acts is a witness that something must occur before we can talk about that identity and unity. Peter accepted Cornelius’ differences of race, skin color, background and culture in some way, otherwise, he wouldn’t have crossed the threshold of Cornelius’ house. And the same is true for Cornelius. You can hear in the story the fearful astonishment of Peter’s friends, and later the church in Jerusalem; “what were you thinking?!” And yet Peter and the Bible tells us the Holy Spirit is certainly the one acting to push the church to cross lines and accept those who are different from “us.” If anything, it tells us what God’s intentions are for the church of today.
Last week there was an editorial in this newspaper entitled “We’re witnessing a social secession.” It gave many examples of how, as a nation, we are gathering in like-minded groups to the point that we don’t even know people who differ from us; that our society is coming to be “living in parallel” with one another. The editorial gave examples of how a Republican spoke at the Democratic convention — or a Democrat spoke at a Republican organized event — and people were astonished, even outraged that this happened. “What were you thinking?!” It sounds like the Jews and the Gentiles at the time of the early church!
You and I know so clearly we live in a time of division and uncertainty. And we know how the church itself can be tempted to divide itself in similar ways. However, the witness of the Bible is that it is exactly at such a time when the gospel of Jesus Christ and the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit pushes the church to cross the same kind of boundaries the early church had — political, social, cultural, and racial boundaries — to accept those differences, to talk with one another, and THEN be able to find the unity that God gives us in Jesus.
For too long the church has allowed itself the luxury of thinking we can somehow be God’s people, and show God’s love only with like-minded or similar-looking people. God’s Spirit blew that idea away a long time ago.
The Rev. Paul Pingel, pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Waynesboro, is a columnist for The News Virginian. His column is published the second Friday of the month.
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