This is a long reading today. We have a long narrative that is just the beginning of a major decision for the church. We begin today with Cornelius. He is a Roman centurion. Scriptures tells us that he was a devout God fearer who gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.
A God fearer is one who believed in the One True Living God and was loosely related to the Jewish faith. They shared many beliefs, but didn’t fully convert to Judaism. One of the significant reasons Gentile, specifically Greek, men would not convert to Judaism is the adherence to the ritual of circumcision. Likely, for this reason, Cornelius and his family did not make the full conversion to Judaism. Yet, Cornelius’ faith was noticed by the Lord who sent an angel to direct him to Peter.
The next day Peter has a vision. Peter became hungry while praying. Down from Heaven came the meat sheet. Perhaps the type of meat sheet that Lady Gaga used for her meat dress in 2010. So the meat sheet comes down from Heaven with all kinds of four-footed animals and reptiles and birds. All of the animals and reptiles and birds would have been considered unclean and were not allowed to be eaten by Jews. The good and faithful Jew Peter knew that he could not eat from the meat sheet.
Then, a voice from Heaven tells Peter that he can eat meat from the meat sheet. Peter replies, “No, Lord, I would not ever eat anything impure or unclean.” In likely Peter fashion, he needs to be told 3 times before he’ll believe the voice from Heaven. The Lord says, “do not call anything impure or unclean that I have created.” Then, the meat sheet suddenly was taken back up to Heaven.
Just as Peter is recovering from the bewitching meat sheet, Cornelius’ men arrive looking for him. We skip a few verses that tell us that Peter goes with the men to Cornelius’ house and asks Cornelius’, “Why did you send for me?” In a lot of words, Cornelius says, “I’d like to hear what you have to say about the Lord.” Peter has a lengthy speech for Cornelius that is recorded in the Bible, but our reading this morning only covers the first 2 verses: ““I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
The only thing the Gospels agree on about the Gentiles is that Jesus would be handed over to them to be condemned. Nothing else is said about the Gentiles, except by Matthew. Matthew includes one statement that the other Gospels don’t. Matthew says that when Jesus sent the Disciples out in pairs to preach He said, “Don’t go to the Gentiles.” So, from the Gospels, we might conclude that the message of Good News is for the Jews not the Gentiles.
Now, God declares to Peter that all that had been deemed unclean or impure is now okay. Peter tells Cornelius that it is “against the Law for a Jews to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone unclean or impure” (Acts 10: 28). This is the beginning of a larger debate that will carry on for the church.
In chapter 9 of Acts, the previous chapter to our text today, Saul, who becomes Paul, has his conversion. Peter had probably not yet heard of it. Peter does, however, know that the church is being scattered and persecuted by Romans like Saul. In Chapter 9, the Roman persecutor converts to The Way. In Chapter 10, Peter is told that Gentiles are clean and a God fearing Roman converts to The Way. You see the larger issue developing.
By Chapter 15 of Acts, the conflict culminates with a council convened in Jerusalem to discuss how Gentiles should be included in the fellowship of followers of Jesus. For some time, Paul and Barnabas had been preaching to the Gentiles. The Jewish followers were concerned about fellowship with the new converts. Jews were still concerned that the Gentiles should need to convert to Judaism, including circumcision and complete adherence to the Law, before becoming a Christian.
The book of Galatians is Paul’s argument for the full inclusion of Gentiles into the fellowship of the church without full adherence to the Jewish Law. Paul argues that the Law judged us and held us captive until Christ set us free. His words in Chapter 3 remind us that we are all children of God. He says, in verses 23 – 28:
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The conclusion of the council of Jerusalem was written in a letter to the Gentile churches and sent to them with Paul, Barnabas, Judas Barsabbas, and Silas. The letter read (Acts 15: 23 – 30):
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul – men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: you are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
So, basically, the Apostles and Elders of the church told the Gentiles, “You don’t have to come under the full measure of the law. You don’t have to become a Jew to become a Christian. Just watch what you eat and who you sleep with.”
Now, I oversimplified the conflict, but you get the jist of what happened. I’m sure the disagreement was on the grand scale of conflict and mayhem like that a modern church would have over what color carpet there should be in the sanctuary. There were probably people who threatened to leave the church if the Gentiles didn’t first become Jews. There was probably yelling and arguing. But, they resolved the conflict and communicated the resolution well.
I wonder today if we aren’t still having a similar problem.
God told Peter, “Don’t call anyone impure or unclean.”
Peter agreed no one should be excluded from the fellowship of believers.
Paul advocated for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the full church.
The council agreed all should be included without test or law.
So, who are we excluding from the church as impure or unclean?
For many years, African slaves were excluded from full participation in the church after Christianity was forced on them. They were treated as less than a full person with no dignity or grace. Their gatherings were censored. They were treated as unclean and impure. Still today, there are many African Americans who would not feel unconditionally welcome in some churches.
But, are there other group’s being excluded from the church?
Does God have a word for us that these groups are not unclean or impure?
Does God want to reveal to us a new word on an old matter?
I think He does if we will have an open mind to listen.