In the second chapter of the Book of Acts, after a resurrected Jesus leaves the scene for good, the first disciples are hanging out, waiting for God-knows-what. What, exactly, does one wait for after you've just seen your dead friend come back to life and eat a piece of fish (Luke 24)?
Then, she arrives. The Holy Spirit enters, bringing holy calamity. People speak in every kind of language -- people from every corner of the Near East, who have no business knowing one another, can suddenly talk like family. Everyone outside the group thinks they're drunk. But Peter, the group's leader, has another idea:
Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose...
16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 "In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Acts 2:15-21, NRSV)
Like I said: we were warned that there would be holy mayhem. At the provocation of this mysterious Holy Spirit, there will be prophesies, visions and dreams. And by these flights of imagination and forays into the subconscious, we will discover a world in which everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
The Wheels on the Bus Are ... Coming Off
The Book of Acts is often referred to as the story of the Gentile mission. Most of its 28 chapters tell the story of how "The Way" of Jesus (Acts 24:14) expanded from its origins in and around Jerusalem to gain followers all around the Mediterranean. This was no easy feat. To adapt from Jewish into non-Jewish cultures required excruciating growing pains. Did new followers have to be circumcised -- as adults? Did they have to follow Jewish dietary customs? None of these questions brought unanimity. I love remembering that good church folks have been fighting with each other since the beginning -- it makes today's church fights seem less threatening. People of faith have always disagreed about the path of integrity. We always will until Jesus comes back to render our debating moot.
All of this provides important background for what happens in Acts chapter 10. The wheels have already come off the church bus -- the darn thing is still hurtling down the highway ... but it's about to split in half.
Here's a highlight reel:
- Scene 1: We meet Cornelius, a Roman army officer. He's not Jewish, but he respects God deeply, gives to charity, and has a robust prayer life. And he's having dreams.
- Scene 2: Peter, the leader of the apostles, is seeing things, too. There's a white sheet that descends from heaven containing every known animal, clean and unclean. Peter is told to "get up, kill and eat" (and you thought Jung's dreams were weird!).
- Peter rebels -- what?! I don't do that! We can't do that! How will we maintain our religious identity if we don't separate ourselves by our unique practices?
- Scene 3: Messengers from Cornelius arrive seeking Peter. Peter is not sure where he's going, only sure that God is directing him. He's not driving this bus after all.
- Scene 4: Peter arrives at Cornelius' house. The two men talk openly, sharing their dreams.
- Scene 5: Peter preaches one of the most powerful sermons in history: "I now know that God knows no partiality." It was a shocking declaration then. Truthfully, it may be just as shocking today for those who have been on the business end of Christianity's judgment stick -- and for those who have wielded it.
- Scene 6: The Holy Spirit rests on Cornelius and his family, showing everyone that these Gentiles are full members of the family of faith. Cornelius invites Peter to stay the night at his house: hospitality seals their friendship and their kinship.
- Scene 7: At the beginning of Acts 11, Peter tells the Jerusalem disciples his experience with Cornelius. After a (long?) moment of silent shock, a word of praise emerges: "God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
God Shows No Partiality. Can We?
You're excused if you don't feel the heat in this passage, if you don't feel tectonic plates moving under your feet. Our cultural context is far removed. A debate over the religious repercussions of eating pork may feel like small beans.
But if you don't stumble over the line "God knows no partiality," you're not paying attention to the jagged edge where the church and the world meet. The very phrase is audacious. NO partiality? Aren't young people are fleeing churches today in part because churches express too much partiality? The church could respond: doesn't God judge sin? Don't sinners have to repent to come into the church? Don't statements in Scripture that expressly forbid certain behaviors mean anything?
- Does the church have a right to keep gay men and lesbian women out, given what the Bible says?
- What about young people of faith who acknowledge, through their advocacy of birth control as medical necessity, that they are having non-procreative pre-marital sex? In or out?
- Can the church keep out those who are disruptive of worship -- mentally ill men and women, little children?
- How welcome are returning soldiers in liberal anti-war congregations? How welcome are corporate leaders?
None of us knows exactly what Peter meant when he blurted out, "God shows no partiality!" He didn't include a 10-point list of the folks who should be included in faith communities. He didn't make a biblical case for his bald assertion -- he never says "those dietary laws in our Scriptures are moot." He skips over the biblical argument. His only defense seems to be "the Spirit made me do it."
What Peter did changed the course of Christianity forever. He opened it to the whole world -- to you and me, who would never have been welcome if this vision of God's impartiality had not worked its way through Peter's -- and Cornelius' -- active imaginations.
When Peter declared, "God shows no partiality," he opened the possibility that anyone -- everyone -- is welcome in the family of faith. He also put us on warning: the rules were changed for you, so that you could come in -- who are you, then, to prevent God from blessing the whole human family? Who are you to stand in the way of God's love?
The Spirit is still here. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Everyone. We can't say that we weren't warned.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.