The Acts of the Apostles is not only the story of the things the followers of Jesus of Nazareth did as they began their work of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ around the eastern half of the Mediterranean basin during the early days of the Church. It’s also the story of the Apostles’ ongoing maturation into the ambassadors—dare I say Kingdom Bringers—that Jesus Messiah had raised them up to become during their three years of ministry together.
By this time in Luke’s “Acts narrative” (and yes, the Book of Acts is widely-attributed to the Gospel-writer, Luke), the followers of “the Way” of Jesus Christ had been on a veritable rollercoaster ride of emotions and adventures as they slowly, and sometimes grudgingly, began to live into their new vocation as Christ’s hands and feet on earth. Shortly, before his ascension, Jesus had told his disciples not to leave Jerusalem just yet… that they would soon be receiving the Baptism of the Holy Spirit promised by the Father (Acts 1:4). So, the disciples waited. Peter began to take on a greater leadership role among the disciples, and Matthias was chosen to replace Judas as one of the twelve (vv. 12-26). And then, sure enough, “on a day when they were all gathered together in one place, there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind…” and tongues of fire came to rest upon each of them. It was on Pentecost, fifty days after the Jewish Passover, that the Apostles received their promised baptism by the Holy Spirit, and they had very little choice but to roll with it. And it turned out to be quite a day. The converts poured in. The preaching and the healings picked up, and the new “Jerusalem Church” began to coalesce around Peter and the other members of Jesus’ inner circle (Acts 2). And there were persecutions. The power brokers within the Jewish religious establishment had not flinched from executing Jesus of Nazareth for threatening to upset their apple cart, and neither were they squeamish about quashing his remaining followers. But the fire refused to die (Acts 3-5). Even after the very public arrest and martyrdom of St. Stephen, the flame persisted, and the Good News began to spread, even as far as Samaria (Acts 6-8).
And then came Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). You always know something interesting is about to happen when God changes someone’s name. It happened during the time of the Hebrew patriarchs, when God chose Abram to become Abraham, father of God’s covenanted people (Genesis 17:5) and, later, to Jacob who became Israel, progenitor of the Twelve Tribes (Genesis 32:28). And so, Saul became Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, because God was not content for the Good News to be spread only to Jews and Samaritans. God had done a new thing in sending Jesus Messiah to earth to pour out his atoning blood, not only for the children of Abraham, but for many… for other sheep from other folds (John 10:16)… for all people and nations (Matthew 28:18-20)… for all of God’s Creation, writ large. And I think Peter and most of the elders of the Jerusalem Church were good with all of this, in theory. But they had a hard time letting go of the notion that Jesus was a purely Jewish messiah… one who had been sent from God to save those who lived their lives strictly in accordance with Hebrew Law and custom. We’ll talk in greater detail about Paul’s squabbles with the Jerusalem Church down the road (Lectionary Year C) as we read through the Letter to the Galatians but, for the present, you should simply bear in mind that, from the earliest days of the Church, Christ followers haven’t always thought or acted in a particularly Christ-like manner.
And that brings us to today’s reading from Acts. Peter had been preaching and healing in an area well to the west of Jerusalem, near the coastal cities of Joppa and Lydda. He had even raised a woman named Dorcas from the dead! One day, Peter had a really strange dream, or perhaps it was a vision, wherein he was very hungry, and yet had refrained from eating various non-kosher foods that were set before him. A voice from heaven said that he should eat… but Peter protested that he had never eaten anything that was “profane or unclean.” To which the voice replied: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts:10-14). Well, that gave Peter some cause for thought and, while he was thinking, a couple of messengers from a man named Cornelius, who was a centurion of the Italian Cohort in Caesarea (thirty or so miles up the coast), approached Peter and said that their master had also had a vision… wherein he had been told by a voice from heaven to seek out Peter in Joppa and bring him back to Caesarea so that he could give his testimony. Now, Cornelius was a Roman… and a gentile… and even hanging out with him for a few hours in his home would have caused Peter to become “ritually unclean” but, given the recent admonition by the voice from heaven in his own vision, he decided to take the chance. He was learning.
So, Peter, accompanied by a few believers from Joppa, went to Caesarea and testified to Cornelius and his entire household about the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ Jesus. And guess what? They had another “mini-Pentecost,” complete with all manner of praise and glossolalia (that’s speaking in tongues), right there in Cornelius’ house in Caesarea—smack dab in the middle of a place, and among people who most observant Jews would have considered unclean and profane (Acts 10:1-33). And Peter got it… and the Baptisms commenced. But there would still be resistance from Jewish Christ-followers who wanted to keep this new Christianity proprietary… reserved for folks that looked and behaved like they did. I can just see Jesus up in heaven shaking his head, saying, “No, no, no! That’s not what I said… that’s not how I told y’all you should behave towards one another.”
And I believe the lesson we’re to take away from today’s Gospel story is that, as modern-day followers of the way of Christ, we are to abide in his love, which is the same as God’s unconditional love for all of Creation, writ large…and not simply in human constructs of religious doctrine and practice that serve to limit God’s favor and forgiveness to a selected few. We. Are. To. Love. one another… and bear fruit for the Kingdom at all costs, just as Jesus loves us and came to bear our sins and the sins of the whole world… at all costs. It’s a commandment… not a suggestion. And here’s the thing: loving unconditionally like Jesus needn’t be an onerous thing. There will be great joy in it. But in order to enter into that joy, we’ll have to give up any pre-conceived notions of our own worthiness and remember that we are saved by God’s grace and righteousness alone. None of us really counts for much, do we? Except that we’re beloved, and have been made clean, by the Animating Power of the universe. Which is actually pretty much the coolest thing I can imagine. Amiright? So, go out and pay it forward. Love, and then love some more. The fire’s still burning. Like the apostles of old, we’ve been chosen and raised up to be ambassadors for Christ, to help bring about God’s Kingdom on earth. And like Peter and the rest, we must keep learning… keep maturing in our faith… keep drawing the circle wider until all who wish to have a place at the table are welcomed… free from any temporal judgement or conditionality. Don’t get me wrong, there will be a final judgement… but, in military parlance, “that’s way above your and my paygrade.” We are called to love. We can know neither the hearts of men (cf. 1 Kings 8:39 NKJV)… nor the mind of God (Romans 11:34). So, our job is to “love ‘em all… and let God sort ‘em out.” And I’m pretty sure that that final sorting will be exceedingly loving and merciful. And we should all be thankful for that.