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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 5/2

          And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  That’s not from any of today’s lessons.  It’s from Luke chapter 15 with Jesus being the object of the grumbling because he had violated the laws of ritual purity regarding who you could eat with and who you couldn’t, who was clean and who was unclean.  It was a grumble that was directed quite regularly toward Jesus, a big part of what got him in trouble with the religious leaders and the same kinds of things were still of concern as the early church took shape in Acts, today’s first lesson being a good example.

The same purity laws were still in place but the identity of the grumblers and who they were grumbling at had changed.  It was no longer the Pharisees and scribes, the Jewish leaders, who were grumbling, instead it was the Jewish believers, those Jews who recognized Jesus as the Messiah, and the one they were grumbling at was not Jesus, but Peter.  The complaint though, is pretty much the same as it had been with Jesus; it’s about ritual purity and the fact that Peter had the audacity to eat with Gentiles, even if they were Gentiles who accepted Jesus as the Messiah.  The Jewish believers were not ready to accept the Gentile believers as equal.

          It’s interesting though, how quickly the ones who had been challenging the tradition had become the defenders of a new version of the tradition.  One would infer that among these Jewish believers who were being critical were those who had been Jesus’ followers so either directly or indirectly they had been on the receiving end of criticism from the Pharisees about ritual purity.  Now though, as the Jesus movement is growing, these Jewish believers kind of represent a new establishment, and they are the ones who are now being critical, concerned about Peter crossing unacceptable boundaries.

          This move from offense to defense, if you will, is a common phenomenon when religions evolve and change; Martin Luther did the same thing.  He challenged the tradition of his time in a big way and was criticized for it, but when others came along who wanted to push things even further he wasn’t exactly tolerant, criticizing them because he was afraid that they were moving in directions that threatened core church teachings which he defended.  He wanted reform but he also set out to draw new lines of distinction concerning what was acceptable reform and what was unacceptable.

          Today’s lesson from Acts is part of the conversion of Cornelius story which is one of the longest stories in the New Testament.  A lot of time and energy is spent in telling the story of this Gentile becoming a convert to Christianity which is an indication that Luke, the author of Acts thought this was pretty important.   A major feature of the story involves two visions, one experienced by Peter, the other by Cornelius.  It starts with Cornelius, a Roman military officer in the city of Caesarea, a Gentile who good Jews would consider to be out of bounds, unclean.  Cornelius had a vision which told him to send someone to the city of Joppa in order to find and bring back a man named Peter.  Cornelius was a man of power, so he had the authority to do this and he did.    

Meanwhile, as Cornelius’ men were on the way to Joppa, Peter himself had a vision.  He was up on the roof, praying when he fell into a trance and saw a vision of a large sheet coming down from heaven filled with animals of all kinds including, apparently, many that good Jews would have considered unclean.  But with his vision, Peter also heard a voice say to him, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.”  Peter resisted, because he was a good Jew after all, so he said to the voice that he knew to be the voice of Lord, “No way!  I’ve never eaten anything unclean and some of what’s in that sheet is unclean.”  The voice responded, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 

          Cornelius’ men arrived and Peter went with them back to Caesarea where, based on his vision, he engaged with Cornelius saying, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  After a little more discussion Peter instructed that Cornelius and his family should be baptized.  It was this behavior that caused Peter to wind up on the carpet, accused by the Jewish believers of associating with unclean Gentiles and whether or not they were believers didn’t matter.

          The particulars of this controversy may sound trivial to us, much ado about nothing, but while the dispute may sound petty, this was a pivotal moment in the history of Christianity.  The question was, how inclusive was this movement going to be?   Was it going to be a tight little subset of Judaism, the only real difference between them and other Jews being that they thought the Messiah had appeared in the person of Jesus but still a group which would look on the majority of people as unclean outsiders?  Or was it going to be opened to people who didn’t know and didn’t care much about Jewish ritual purity?  It could have gone either way and it would have been neater and cleaner to limit it to being a subset of Judaism because if you opened it to all those other people, who knew what they might bring to the table, but that’s what they did.

          This was Luke’s way of telling this story and settling this argument although based on Paul’s letters it was an argument that went on for awhile in most of the early Christian communities.  As it played out though, the decision to be inclusive rather than exclusive was made and this was understood to be the will of God.  “Who was I that I could hinder God?”  was Peter’s question and remember Peter thought he was doing God’s will when he hesitated concerning his vision and the command to kill and eat.  He thought he was doing the right thing when he said, “By no means Lord,” but for Peter, God’s grace got in the way.

          Unity in the early church would be based on believing in Jesus Christ and nothing else and they didn’t even really define what it meant to “believe.”  There were no official doctrines or creeds for anyone to sign on to; just belief that somehow God was present in Jesus, that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed, whatever you understood that to mean.  That was the pattern that was established yet much of the history of Christianity has been spent trying to narrow what it means to believe in Jesus so that many are excluded for not having the right beliefs about him.  Also, much time and energy has been spent in saying that belief in Jesus is not enough (even if you believe the “right” things) because there are new versions of the purity codes that you have to live up to, codes that have included things related to race and nationality, political party and gender, you can fill in the blank about others along with sexuality as being the latest thing to cause some to be more welcome than others, more equal than others.

          The pattern of being more inclusive was set.  Peter realized that it was the will of God not to exclude anyone from the boundaries of God’s grace.  If there was to be a litmus test it would be the command that Jesus gave to love one another.  “Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  That nails a lot of us doesn’t it?  How many of us would be recognized as Jesus’ disciples with that as the criteria?  We’re pretty good at loving those who are like us, those who do things the way we do, those who agree with us on controversial issues.  Unfortunately that’s not what Jesus said.  Way before the “who’s in and who’s out” controversy in the early church he had set the precedent of inclusiveness by hanging around with the people he did.  Ever since then, we’ve struggled with it, wasting a lot of energy trying to rebuild walls instead of using that energy in trying to love one another.

          A final thing worth noting in this story is the response of the Jewish leaders to the speech Peter made to them.  They listened and they were open to the possibilities that Peter envisioned; “When they heard this they were silenced.  And they praised God saying, “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”  Granted, that openness to the possibilities may not have been quite as smooth as Luke tells it here.  Again, based on Paul’s letters there was quite a bit of push back on this.  But regardless of that, the example of being open to the possibilities was established in this story.


Two thousand years later the church is still arguing about who’s clean and who’s unclean.  The reality of course is that we’re all unclean, but by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, washed in the blood of the Lamb, we’re all clean.  All of us, because as was the case for Peter, God’s grace still keeps getting in the way.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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