This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Dearborn Heights, Michigan and was focused upon the story that is told in Acts 11:1-18. The audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
As the church was growing, strange things were happening. . .
Now, very distanced in time from these events, we hear that “the Gentiles had accepted the Word of God,” and we view that as something to be celebrated. But in the life early church, there were questions about this. In the life early church, this was a crisis.
It was uncharted territory. At the very least, it was quite unexpected, and the leaders in Jerusalem had some serious questions about these new developments. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, they criticized him with a question of challenge: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
I wonder how Peter felt in that moment.
I wonder if he was anxious.
I wonder if he feared that he would be ostracized for sharing his story.
Or I wonder if he viewed this as a moment of opportunity.
Perhaps emboldened, Peter was grateful to have the opportunity to testify to an experience that had changed his life. I wonder if he could have possibly anticipated the large-scale ways his story would change others.
Because this story Peter would tell –
A Gentile family’s story, and ultimately,
The story of the Holy Spirit –
It would change the entire life of the church itself.
I wonder if Peter could have possibly anticipated that.
The question of challenge comes. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
Whatever Peter felt in that moment, we know that he testified to his experience. I notice that he didn’t get defensive. He didn’t engage these leaders in a debate. Peter told a story. He told a transformative story of the Holy Spirit.
Now I want to acknowledge an aspect of this story right at the beginning. Parts of it are bizarre, at least to our ears and imaginations. It begins with a vision that is rather odd.
Peter had been staying in the home of Simon the Tanner, and at a particular moment on an ordinary day, the extraordinary happened. Peter went to the roof of Simon’s house to pray, and while he was up there, he received a vision. Suddenly, a great sheet was lowered down from heaven, and he saw all sorts of animals – beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. These animals were so different from one another, but they all had one thing in common. They were all considered ritually unclean for eating. The dietary laws of Leviticus forbade the people of God from eating any of these.
So that was certainly an odd sight to see. . . a sheet from heaven containing all of these animals. . .
But the command must have seemed even more strange and troubling, because it certainly didn’t make any sense. Peter heard a voice which said, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”
In response, Peter gave the answer that certainly seemed most right. “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
Then he heard the response from the heavenly voice which must have seemed most puzzling of all. “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”
This happened three times.
“Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”
“By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
“What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”
What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.
How confusing. . . After all, it was God who had declared these animals to be ritually unclean in the law itself, right?
I wonder if Peter stood on that rooftop puzzled. Though he didn’t have all the answers, it became clear that he needed to follow the Spirit’s leading because something extraordinary was clearly unfolding.
Right that moment, three men arrived at the house where they were staying. They were emissaries from Cornelius, a Gentile who lived in Caesarea. Cornelius had had a vision too. He had seen an angel standing in his house saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which your entire household will be saved.”
At that moment with these emissaries at the door, Peter had a challenging decision to make. It was controversial to enter the household of Gentiles and receive hospitality from them. It was considered ritually unclean by the scriptures themselves to eat food that was forbidden by the law, the very food that would certainly be served to them. It was quite the faux pas to go with these uncircumcised men and eat with them.
But the Spirit had spoken. What God has made clean, you must not call unclean. What a challenging situation. . . I’m sure Peter’s mind was spinning. What is the right thing to do? He had to follow the call of the Spirit. He had to trust that he was being welcomed in this household – one that was also beloved by God. Peter had to wonder if God was welcoming the Gentiles into God’s own household.
So Peter took the risk. He and some of his close associates went along with these emissaries and entered the household of Cornelius. When they arrived, they learned about the vision that Cornelius had experienced, and Peter began to share the good news – the message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
So let’s hear Peter’s testimony in his own words. This is what he spoke to the leaders at Jerusalem. Peter said, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’”
The leaders of the church in Jerusalem began with a challenging question: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Now Peter has a challenging question of his own. He says, “If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
If God gave them the same gift, who was I that I could hinder God?
Peter stood before them and told a transformative story. But it was not simply his own story. This was the story of God’s action. This was the story of God’s claim upon the lives of people who were considered to be outsiders. These Gentiles did not obey the laws of the covenant.
This is challenging, isn’t it?
Peter told a story about
God’s acceptance, and
It changed him.
And it would change the entire church.
This is how we know that this story changed the life of the entire church:
Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, doesn’t tell this story once. In this book of scripture, he tells the story three times. It was that pivotal.
In chapter 10, Luke narrates the story first, sharing all that happened with this strange vision and unexpected encounter between Jews and Gentiles. Then Luke allows the story to be told again. This time, in chapter 11, Peter is the narrator as he stands before the leaders in Jerusalem. Finally, the story is told a third time in Acts chapter 15, when the leaders of the church make a radical decision. It seems very radical and unexpected, but they are following the Spirit’s leading toward a great welcome.
Part of the miracle of this story is that the leaders in Jerusalem listen to Peter. Most importantly, they listen to the Holy Spirit, and their lives are changed forever. They take this story seriously. Our passage ends by saying, “When they heard this, they were silenced.” But eventually, they could keep their silence no longer, because they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
They wondered in awe. . . And then. . .
They had to take a risk.
Acts 15 tells the story of one of the most radical, unexpected turns the church would ever take. As a result of Peter’s story, the apostles and other leaders gather together in Jerusalem for a council, and they recognize that the Gentiles have been welcomed into this family of God. And then, they make a decision not to require the Gentiles to follow the Jewish law.
In other words, the Gentiles did not first have to become Jews before they could become believers. They were accepted as themselves, new believers in Christ, fully grafted into the Body of Christ, even though they did not keep the same practices as the Jewish believers.
This was a radical, unexpected shift, and it was the leading of the Holy Spirit.
What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.
We know that this story changed the life of the entire church. This is not only true because Luke chooses to tell this story three times in the Acts of the Apostles. We know that this story changed the life of the entire church because we’re sitting here. We’re a part of the Body of Christ. You. . . and me. . . and believers all across this world. . . fully engrafted into the Body of Christ. The earliest followers of Jesus did not anticipate this.
So we, fully accepted, faulty though we are, yet fully loved – we have been welcomed in.
And. . isn’t the church of today called to follow the Holy Spirit
and be just as inclusive in its welcome?
May we be encouraged by this story.
May we be challenged by this story.
May we, in some places in ourselves, be silenced,
as the Jewish leaders were so many years ago.
And then, following their leading, may we praise God with wonder and awe,
seeing the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people we don’t necessarily expect.
May we add our voices, saying, “God has even given them the repentance that leads to life.”
May we be encouraged.
May we be challenged.
May we be changed.
“Who are we that we could hinder God?”
May we take those risks.
 I found this image here.
 I contributed a segment on the Pulpit Fiction Podcast this week about this passage. It is the “Voice in the Wilderness” segment toward the beginning of the podast. You can listen to it here.