Acts (Week 5)
Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10:1-11:18)
This morning we’re going to start things off with a quick poll. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, but quick show of hands, how many people actually eat your big Thanksgiving dinner on Monday? What about Sunday? How many of us are already thinking about the turkey that’s in the oven? What about Saturday? Did anyone eat their Thanksgiving dinner yesterday?
How many of you have that one particular dish where, if you don’t get to eat that one thing, it’s not even really Thanksgiving? For me, it’s candied yams or sweet potatoes. I think there’s technically a difference but I can’t tell. I just dump a bunch of brown sugar and butter on them. Some people put marshmallows on top of their sweet potatoes. I reject that. Marshmallows don’t belong on top of sweet potatoes. They’re already sweet enough. For so many of us, we have that dish that, without it, it’s just not Thanksgiving. It’s an annual tradition to have that dish.
Or maybe your family has another tradition around Thanksgiving. Maybe after dinner, you go for a Thanksgiving hike through the woods to burn off all the food you ate. Or you have a particular movie you watch every year at Thanksgiving.
Traditions are important and can be very valuable whether they centre around a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas or if they’re a weekly tradition like church or a board game night with your family. Other times, traditions can simply be a long-standing custom, habit or belief. A tradition is simply a custom that gets passed on from person to person over time.
And traditions can be great because they give us a sense of solidarity with people around us. On Canadian Day we wear red and we go watch fireworks and it reminds us that despite some of our differences, we’re all Canadian. Later this morning we’re going to participate in the Lord’s Supper. This is a tradition that most Christians have been practising since the beginning of the Christian faith 2,000 years ago. When we practice this tradition together we’re joining with the millions of Christians all over the world and throughout 2,000 years of Church history who have eaten this meal together.
Sometimes traditions can be powerful and unifying. But other times, traditions can become harmful and divisive. This morning we’re going to look at a particularly long narrative in the book of Act and talk about this idea of tradition.
The passage in question is Acts chapter 10 verse 1 through chapter 11 verse 18. It’s 66 verses long, so we’re not going to read the whole thing. Instead, we’re going to look at a couple sections. In Acts 10 and into Acts 11 we have the story of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who has a vision from God and asks Peter to come preach to him.
The narrative has seven sections, but we’re only going to cover three of them. But in order to make sure we’re all on the same page, we’re going to put a summary up here on the screen first. The first section, verse 1-8, is where Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile, has a vision from God. Section two is verse 9-16 and contains Peter’s vision. We’re going to talk about this. Section three is verse 10-23a. Peter meets Cornelius’s servants. In section four, verse 23b-33, Peter visits Cornelius and his family in Caesarea. Section five, verse 34-43 and section six, verse 44-48, Peter preaches to this Gentile audience and the receive the Holy Spirit. And finally in section seven, which is all of chapter 11, Peter is in Jerusalem and he defends himself for preaching to these Gentiles. We’re going to discuss sections two, four, and seven this morning through the lens of tradition.
But before we do that, let’s open with a word of prayer.
The story starts out at the beginning of chapter 10 introducing us to a Roman centurion named Cornelius. We’re told that he’s God-fearing, which is to say that he believed in and followed the Jewish God, but he never became a Jew. In the law, there were provisions for what a Gentile would have to do in order to convert and become Jewish. For men it included circumcision. So it’s entirely possible that Cornelius, as much as he worshipped this Jewish God, decided he didn’t really need to become fully Jewish. So Cornelius is a God-fearing Gentile, but still a Gentile nonetheless. He’s on the outside. But one day, as he’s praying, he gets a vision telling him to send men to Joppa in order to bring the Apostle Peter back to Caesarea and to preach.
We then pick up our story in section two, starting in verse 9.
About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
There are a couple of interesting things to note here. The text tells us that the sheet contains “all kinds” of animals. Which you would assume means both clean and unclean animals. Yet when he’s told to get up, kill and eat, Peter objects. The English doesn’t do a great job of reflecting this, but the “surely not!” from Peter is a very strong protest. And he responds by saying that he’s never eating anything unclean.
The sheet contains all kinds of animals, both clean and unclean. Which means there are kosher animals Peter could eat without being impure. And yet he claims that whatever he would eat from here would be unclean. Jewish purity laws regarding clean and unclean animals come from Leviticus chapter 11. It’s an extensive list, but nowhere in Leviticus 11 does it say that if a clean animal is near an unclean animal that the clean animal loses its purity.
Ben Witherington says it this way in his commentary on Acts, “It may be true that no known ruling specified that clean animals were automatically made unclean by mere contact with unclean ones, but it stands to reason that this was often assumed to be the case in early Judaism. It was after all assumed in early Judaism that a person incurred uncleanness by mere contact with an unclean person, and it would be natural to assume the same with animals.”
So there isn’t a specific law or command or instruction about how clean and unclean animals interact, but there’s a good chance Peter still viewed everything in the sheet as unclean anyway. What’s going on here?
Peter is relying on a tradition. He grew up in a society that believed that if a clean person and unclean person interacted that the person who was clean became unclean. And they applied this same logic to animals.
So God gives Peter a vision with a bunch of animals in a sheet and tells Peter to get up, kill some and eat something. And Peter’s response is that his tradition, his understanding of what it means to follow God, doesn’t allow for that. This happens three times before the sheet is finally taken back up to heaven.
While Peter is pondering the meaning of this, the men from Cornelius show up and Peter agrees to go with them. So we can skip ahead to the fourth section, verses 23b through 33.
Peter arrives in Caesarea and after talking with Cornelius, Peter goes inside. And we read, starting in verse 27, “While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: ‘You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?’”
So Peter is starting to piece together that God is at work here, but notice what he says at the beginning. “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile.”
Here’s the thing, no, it’s not. Various groups within Judaism would interact with Gentiles to varying degrees. The Essenes completely removed themselves from everyday life in order to avoid gentiles. Pharisees tried hard to not interact with Gentiles but still existed within the larger Palestinian world. And Sadducees had no problem interacting with Gentiles. But oddly enough, all of these groups would use Scripture, the Old Testament as the basis for their debate about how much you could interact with Gentiles and how much you should avoid Gentiles. It wasn’t actually against the Torah to interact with Gentiles. This was once again a tradition Peter picked up. This was a particular interpretation of Torah that Peter had learned from those around him.
So Peter first has a vision where God tells him to eat meat he believes is unclean. Then he’s told to go interact with Gentiles even though he believes interacting with Gentiles is against the law. These are deeply held beliefs that Peter has. And yet, look at what he says in the second half of verse 28, “But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” This is absolutely shocking that he responded this way. Everything about his tradition tells him the exact opposite, that he needs to avoid certain foods and avoid Gentiles. And yet he heard from God and he came without raising objections.
In sections five and six, Peter preaches to Cornelius and his family and they all receive the Holy Spirit. This, in some commentaries, is referred to as the Gentile Pentecost because it’s reminiscent of what happened back in Acts 2 at Pentecost. The Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit wasn’t something anyone thought could happen unless they first became Jews.
Then in section seven, Peter returns to Jerusalem. We’re told in verse 1-3, “The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.’” When Peter returned to Jerusalem, the accusation from some of the more conservative Christians is that he associated with Gentiles; he ate with them. These Christians are critical of Peter because he disregarded their tradition. He went against how they read Scripture. So he recapped the story in verses 4-14. And then he says this,
“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
This is a radical shift in Peter’s perspective. He’s gone from being the kind of person who adamantly refuses to eat clean animals that have even come into contact with unclean animals and refuses to associate with Gentiles to the kind of person who says, “If God is at work, who am I to stand in his way?”
Now here’s the question to think about: What if Peter had continued to follow his traditions? What if he had allowed his traditions to dictate how God can and cannot work? Would Cornelius and his family have come to know Jesus? How long would it have taken the church to realize that Gentiles can become Christians?
Traditions can be powerful and unifying. But sometimes our traditions can get in the way of other people coming to know Jesus. Peter had strong traditions, strong interpretations of Scripture, that said eating unclean animals was wrong and that associating with Gentiles was forbidden. And these were deep convictions held by some Jewish people.
There’s a story from the intertestamental period about seven brothers who were tortured and killed for their refusal to eat unclean animals. In the story, the mother of the seven brothers watched as they were tortured to death and encouraged them to stay faithful to God in the process.
It can be hard for us because we don’t obey dietary restrictions like the Jews did, to understand just how shocking God’s command for Peter to eat unclean animals was. Here’s an example. And I’m not saying this is the case, but I want to demonstrate the audacity of God’s command to Peter in the face of all of his tradition and understanding of Scripture. God’s command to Peter to get up, kill and eat, would be like if God came to any of us today and said: “Homosexuality is okay.” If we heard that, I think a lot of us would immediately think about all the passages we’ve read in the Bible and how that can’t possibly be true. Which is why it’s so shocking that Peter ends his speech by saying, “Who was I to think I could stand in God’s way?”
Jesus has a tendency to take us beyond our traditions and outside of our comfort zones to a place where we can help others come to know and follow him. For Peter that meant breaking down the barrier between clean and unclean food and realizing that Gentiles could be part of the family of God as well. For us, those traditions might be something different. Maybe for us, it’s musical preferences. Maybe it’s our traditions around baptism. Maybe it’s our understanding of women in ministry.
The question all of us have to wrestle with is are we willing to follow Jesus when he leads us beyond our traditions? Are we willing to leave the safety and security that traditions provide us for the benefit of helping other people come to know and love Jesus? What systems, traditions or values might be keeping us from going out and sharing the good news with the world around us? What do we need to be willing to give up in order to follow Jesus well?
This morning, we’re going to try something we haven’t done before, at least since I’ve been here. We want to give you a chance to respond to the message this morning. Paul and the worship team are going to come back up and we’re going to sing a few more songs than we usually do. Over the course of these songs, I want you to spend some time in prayer and ask God if there is anything, a tradition, a habit, a value, something that is keeping you from becoming more like Jesus and helping others hear the good news.
If, during this time, you feel like God is speaking to you, if you feel like he’s saying “This attitude or this action has created distance between us.” We want to be able to respond to him. We have this sheet that’s dropped over the cross kind of like how Peter saw a sheet from heaven containing a traditional belief of his. If there’s something that God places on your heart, you can come up and write it down and pin it on the sheet as a symbolic way of giving it over to God of surrendering that thing to him.
Maybe you feel like you can only truly serve God if you’re in a particular job or living in a particular location. Or maybe you have strongly held beliefs about the way Faith Community Church should run and if it’s not running that way you don’t want to serve. Whatever God is saying to you this morning, give it to him.
Who are we to think that we can stand in God’s way?