Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” But Peter began and explained it to them in order: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:1–18 ESV)
Hindsight, they say, has 20-20 vision. When you’re in the moment, it can be hard to know what is going on and consequently what to do. While each day might be a new day with new beginnings and new things happening, they are generally filled with ‘old’ or regular things – the furniture of life, the consequences of past choices – marriage, children, work, our health, our beliefs, our bank balances, and the community in which we live. Generally such things don’t change from day to day – in fact we normally wouldn’t want them to! – and what is new is usually gradual – more growth than fresh new start.
So I have sympathy for the circumcision party in Jerusalem mentioned in our first reading who regarded Peter’s action of going to the Gentiles as ‘a step too far’ because it went against everything they believed God told them to do. And you want stability in your religion because once you make changes in your faith, where do you stop?
Our first reading is Peter’s explanation. This material in Acts [chapter] 11 is a retelling of Acts [chapter] 10 and that in itself, I think, should be noticed if Luke feels the need to record this matter twice. This relationship between Jews and Gentiles is mentioned more than twice – and Peter knew he was heading into controversy when he went to Cornelius’ house because he took with him 6 witnesses to testify that this was an action directed by God. The Jewish jurisprudence they would be familiar with only needed 2 witnesses. So we might assume that Peter wasn’t taking any chances! “Yes, this is new! It was new for me, too. But God orchestrated this.”
God orchestrated the vision of the sheet of animals. God told Peter to ‘rise, kill, and eat’ and rejected Peter’s refusal with the statement ‘What God has made clean, do not call common’ which takes Peter to Leviticus and priests and sacrifices and being ritually clean and the blessings of God. God then showed Peter that the topic isn’t a new diet but a new people. God directed Peter to Caesarea and to meet Cornelius who told Peter how God had directed Cornelius to get Peter to come so that ‘he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household’. God directed Peter to speak and then God did another Pentecost – we don’t have the actual details – but for Peter it was obvious and remembering Jesus’ words about the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter puts it all together and does the next step – baptism. ‘Who was I that I could stand in God’s way?’
It is interesting to note that the response was silence because I could easily imagine that when people say that they are following God in a new way, that just provokes multiple responses! But everyone is silent. Pondering. Thinking. Praying. No doubt. How are they feeling? Excited? Scared? Curious? That and lots of other things, I imagine. But what they do is glorify God – acknowledging that this is God’s initiative and seeing a bigger picture perhaps than they had seen before. ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’
Something new is happening. And they can see Jesus in it. On the night before he died Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment. We heard it as our Gospel today (John 13:31-35).
But what is new about Jesus’ new commandment? Love? I don’t think so. People know this is good to do – for them, for those around them and for society. Sure we might debate the types of love and the definitions and parameters of love but ‘loving one another’? – No, that’s hardly new.
Of course the answer to what is new in the new commandment is Jesus himself! “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34 ESV). It is his love – and greater love has no one then to sacrifice themselves for another – which leads to a new covenant with God, definitely a new relationship, and, amazingly, a new creation. This love leads to a return to Eden. If only, we sigh. And we sigh because we still are here in our bodies, in this world and death still stalks.
But we live by faith and not by sight – and so we trust Jesus’ words – heard from him in the experiences and memories of those first disciples and as recorded in the Law, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the New Testament writings for the 21st century disciples.
This means that our living here on this Earth and following this Jesus whom we trust is characterised by lots of things – worship, praise, service, love – but it is always framed by repentance – struggling with sin – the mark of Christian discipleship.
What is new is the personal assurance that this new life has begun now for all people before we die because Christ is risen. [He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!]
We face each day and the future prepared and for new things that God is doing by staying within the boundaries of a cross and empty tomb – summarised perhaps in Jesus’ response to the woman caught in adultery – where he gave her two messages – “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:11b ESV)
The problems of our age are numerous – the dreaded B word in British politics, climate disasters, financial uncertainties, social media, self image and self worth concerns – especially for the young, mental health issues – and they and many other issues all deserve attention and new solutions and courage and commitment to work at them – but there remains an underlying foundational problem – which some might say is corruption, others unenlightenment, and still others greed – but we say is sin. Sin is humanity’s rejection of God and its desire to usurp everything about him.
Maybe many people reject sin as a concept but there is still guilt and shame lurking and we all want justice to be done so we are aware that people can bad things. We’re also aware that people try and resolve the problems of their lives through ignorance, denial, drugs, therapy, justice, revenge, crying victim and much more. What is needed – also or as well as correctly diagnosing the problem and a solution – is forgiveness and for that there needs to be repentance. And this sort of message is scary and for many people simplistic but what people forget is that it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance – and that kindness has super strength – because it is love that held Jesus to the cross.
Thus the Church – and it’s of all nations now – needs to do what Peter did and follow where God leads. For us that is to God’s Word and the Sacraments by which we meet Jesus and seek where and how to follow him. Those details are personal to each of us. But we know the overall game-plan – as that circumcision party either forgot or simply got wrong – to seek to bless others with life – yes, physically as needs arise but specifically with the Good News of Jesus – the new creation where death has lost its sting.
This is our resurrected life – this new creation – as we understand ourselves to be returning to Eden – loving one another – loving those around us, enemies included – and living in the confidence that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. Yes, we will personally keep struggling with sin in us and in the world because Jesus has set the captives free through his forgiveness and new beginnings and the possibility of something new happening. Jesus is walking with us and orchestrating his blessings to a dying world. That’s what the resurrection is all about and what we see with our 20-20 spiritual vision – called faith.
- Acts 11:1 - 18