Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 19, 2019
Commentary on the Texts
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this reading, but there is available a Voice Bible Study on John 13:31-14:31
This section of Acts is the heart of the book. These chapters (10-11) are the pivot around which turns not only this book, but the entire New Testament Church. To get some feel for why this is so, we need to see this chapter not only in its context within the book of Acts, but also from the context of this book in the early church.
There is scarcely any debate now that the same author wrote Luke and Acts as a two volume work. We cannot certainly identify the author (so "Luke" is a good a title as any), and cannot tell if the two books were written at the same time. But they are integrally connected both in themes and in theology. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus, using the traditions to emphasize the continuity of God's work in Christ with his work in the past with Israel. That sets the foundation for Luke to anticipate continuity between Jesus and God's work in the emerging church, which is explained more clearly in Acts.
While there are diverse themes in Luke's Gospel, some of the important ones track directly into the book of Acts: the concern with outsiders (women, lepers, Samaritans, poor, etc), the emphasis on the subversive and challenging nature of the Gospel, the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people and communities, and even the structure of the book itself as a journey. The Gospel of Luke actually unfolds as a theology of the church, as told through the Jesus traditions. That theology continues to develop through the book of Acts as the community of the church actually comes into being in the pages of Acts.
But even though Luke may be tracing the development of the church in what appears to be a historical manner, history is not really what Luke is after in Acts. There is no question that it is based on some historical detail, and that Luke has some historical interest in Acts. Yet, the concern in Acts is still, as it was in the Gospel, the nature of the church, and the historical details are arranged and recounted toward that purpose.
While the Gospel of Luke addressed the issue of the nature of this new community by means of the teachings of Jesus, Luke addressed it in Acts by the unfolding conflicts, tensions, and successes within the various communities as the Gospel spreads throughout the world. Some have understood the traditional title of the book, the Acts of the Apostles, as a misnomer and think a better title might be "the Acts of the Holy Spirit." Yet, with its focus on the early church and the crucial questions facing it, the apostles are rightfully the central feature of the book. They are not presented as heroes, and certainly not as self-sufficient entrepreneurs, but as leaders of a community who are themselves struggling with it at the same time they are guiding it, through the leadership of the Holy Spirit certainly, into becoming the Church.
As mentioned, we do not know when Acts was written, but most agree it was after AD 70 and before AD 100. That means that Luke is writing from a period when the church was facing some of its greatest crises of identity, when it was trying to come to terms with what it meant to be the people of God in the world. If the message of Jesus was as subversive and transformative as Luke had portrayed in his Gospel, then the question that arose was: exactly what does that transformation entail? What shall the church become? How shall it live out the revelation of God in Christ? Those are the dominant questions throughout these chapters of Acts.
Chapter one of Acts follows quickly on the heels of the Gospel account. Luke's Gospel concludes with departing instructions from Jesus that they are to wait in Jerusalem for a new power (Luke 24:49). The book of Acts overlaps this conclusion by an opening scene in which the disciples are waiting in Jerusalem (1:4, 12). The thematic verse of Acts 1:8 sets the structure of the book as a journey, following the pattern established in Luke: "in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." The book concludes with Paul preaching the Gospel freely in Rome with the comment that "this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles" (28:28). Between those two geographical locations, the band of disciples in Jerusalem become the church. Chapters 10-11 are the watershed of that journey.
Luke recounts the journey of the church as it is inaugurated and commissioned in Jerusalem by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2). The murder of Stephen, as well as the zeal of Saul, had precipitated a persecution of the followers of Jesus. So they fled throughout Judea and Samaria, proclaiming the Gospel as they went (Acts 8). This eventually led to the Samaritan Pentecost, in which the Holy Spirit was shown to be at work among the Samaritans just as he was at work among the Jews in Jerusalem (8:14-17).
Although the Samaritans were technically Jews, they had been ostracized from the main Jewish community because they were seen as "impure" (the result of forced intermarriage after the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom in 721 BC). This event, as well as the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-39) demonstrates that the church was spreading beyond the boundaries of traditional understandings of who were God's people. It also serves to demonstrate that some of the subversive dimension of Jesus' teaching in Luke's Gospel is also coming to fruition (for example, Luke 4:18-30). The conversion of Saul, with the specific commission recounted by Luke, "he is an instrument I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles," (9:15) continues expanding the circles in which God is working in Acts.
How far this activity of God would reach begins unfolding in chapter 10 with the conversion of Cornelius, a Gentile. He is a God-fearer (v. 2, 22) or a proselyte to Judaism who had not yet entered into full status as a Jew. Yet, the significance of his conversion here is that he is not a Jew, that is, he is not one of God's chosen people, he is an "outsider." And yet, he experiences the same presence of God in the Holy Spirit as had the Jews in Jerusalem and the Samaritans.
Peter's close involvement with the conversion of Cornelius places him at the center of attention here. Acts makes very clear that the Holy Spirit was leading Peter at every step; that is, this was not Peter's idea, but an unfolding of the purposes of God for the emerging church. Still, it is equally clear that Peter willingly and perhaps eagerly (10:47-48) accepted the Gentile converts into the fellowship of other followers of Jesus, who then responded by inviting Peter to spend some time with them.
It is Peter's acceptance of Gentiles into fellowship, and allowing himself to be accepted into their fellowship, that precipitated a crisis. It would be a mistake to think that this is simply a crisis related to Peter and a lone group of Gentile converts. It is by means of this incident that Luke recounts the tremendous struggle of identity and mission that is emerging in the fledging community that would soon be called Christians (11:26). This is the single most crucial crisis that the post-resurrection community would face, because its resolution would forever define the nature of the Christian community and the church.
As Peter was staying with Cornelius and the Gentile converts, he was challenged by some of the Jewish Christians for eating with Gentiles, which is probably more directly an accusation that he is not observing the Old Testament dietary laws. For the second time, we hear Peter tell the story of his vision that had led him the house of Cornelius (10:9-16, 11:5-10).
It is difficult for us, far removed from the cultural context of the Old Testament world, and equally far removed from any sense of threat in who we are as a people of God, to really catch the magnitude of what is happening in Peter's vision. We tend to see this in very legalistic terms, a matter of obedience to law that, in some cases, seems quite trivial or even ridiculous to us today. But there is far more at stake here than legal issues or even obedience.
The Old Testament dietary regulations were not just a matter of law. They were a matter of religious and communal identity that had been hammered out on the anvil of history. Three centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Greeks had taken control of Palestine after its conquest by Alexander of Macedon ("the Great"). Following Alexander's policy of forced adoption of Greek culture (Hellenization), the Greek rulers, the Seleucids, put increasing pressure on Jews to conform to Greek laws, customs, and religion. Many Jews complied, and seriously weakened the identity of Judaism.
Yet others understood the danger of syncretism in allowing religious customs that were part of the identity of the Jewish people to be compromised. They remembered the same struggle that Ezra and Nehemiah had faced after the return from Babylonian exile. Then, the entire Israelite community was in danger of losing their religious heritage and identity. Nehemiah responded with a strict enforcement of religious and cultural laws as a means to define the Israelites, God's people, from the pagan world in which they existed (Neh 8-9, 13).
Many Jews refused to be assimilated into Greek culture. In response, the Greek leaders made a bold move to annihilate Judaism. In 167 BC the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV in a series of edicts essentially banned Judaism from Palestine, climaxing his actions by seizing the temple in Jerusalem and converting it into a shine to Zeus by sacrificing a pig in the Holy of Holies. Then, to eliminate opposition, he sent his soldiers throughout the countryside, rounded up the inhabitants of villages, and forced them at the threat of death to eat pork in violation of the Old Testament dietary laws. Some refused and were killed, but many complied.
Finally, in one village a priest and his five sons not only refused to eat the pork, but rose up and killed the Greek soldiers and fled to the mountains. This began the struggle against the Greeks that became known as the Maccabean Wars. The recapture and rededication of the Jerusalem temple is still celebrated in Judaism as the festival of Hanukkah.
All this says that observance of the dietary laws was not just a matter of obedience to law, it was a matter of religious identity, a symbol of who Jews were as people of God. I once asked a Reformed Jewish rabbi if he kept kashrut, the dietary regulations. I was not surprised that he responded yes, but I was unprepared for his reason. He said that he could eat pork if he wanted, that there was nothing sinful or wrong with eating pork; it was not a matter of law. However, he went on, he had chosen not to eat pork and to observe the other kosher restrictions as a way to honor those before him who had risked and given their lives that he might have the freedom to make that choice, to be Jewish. For him, it was a matter of who he was as part of that community.
It is this background that Peter faced when God told him to eat the "unclean" food. It is, in effect, a change from everything he had been taught as important in his faith. He faced nothing less than the total transformation of the shape and framework of his commitment to God. God was asking him, to an even greater degree than Abraham, to leave a place of security and identity, and launch out into uncharted areas with nothing else than the word of God in a vision to guide him. It was no small thing that God has asked of Peter!
And yet, the heart of the issue here for the early church is not really about unclean food. The real issue is about what such regulations about clean and unclean food, regulations that divide the world up into insiders and outsiders based on conformity to certain rules or regulations, do to other people and to community.
Invariably, concern with unclean food leads to seeing unclean people. In fact, that is the accusation brought against Peter. Even though his vision had been about what foods were clean and unclean, he was accused by the "insiders" of eating with the "outsiders" (v. 3). The fact that the insider Christians referred to the Gentile Cornelius and his household as "uncircumcised men" underscores the mentality that existed among them. They were seeing other people in terms of who were acceptable and who were not based on external criteria such as what foods they ate.
Jesus had already addressed this issue in various ways. He had taught that it is not what goes into a person that defiles them, but what comes out of the heart (Matt 15:10-11). That is, it is not conformity to rules that is the mark of righteousness, but how a person lives their life under God. Jesus consistently maintained that people were of more value than rules, and that helping people was the fulfillment of the law (Matt 15:19-20; cf. Mark 2:27, 3:4)
Yet on another level, the "circumcised believers" had every right and responsibility to challenge Peter. They had no way to know what God had told Peter. From their perspective, Peter was recklessly abandoning the faith. As noted above, the "insider" mentality had allowed the Jews to survive through circumstances in which failure to draw those lines so tightly would likely have resulted in their disappearance into the eddies of history.
This raises the most important issues here. As right and necessary as some things may have been in the past, time and history move on. Is that which was a perfectly legitimate expression of the faith at one time, always to be so? Is it possible that one way of expressing and living the faith or one set of responses to the world in which we exist as God's people that are appropriate and vital at one point in history, may itself become a hindrance and destructive of the very reason we exist as God's people at another point in history? And how shall we know when one is more appropriate than the other? And dare we change lest we do no more than abandon who we are?
Now, the issue comes into sharper focus. In his explanation to those who have confronted him with eating with the "outsider" Gentiles, Peter recalled his earlier vision. It is clear both times that he recounts his experience that Peter struggled with the implications of what he was being told. Peter's protest, "By no means, Lord!" (v. 8) was not the protest of rebellion, but the protest of honest and sincere piety that did not want to let go of something that had shaped who he was as a devout Jew. It is the cry of one who understands what is at stake in moving from where he is, and does not want to abandon too easily what he sees as an anchor of his faith.
But the voice that called him was unmistakable: "What God has made clean, you must not call profane!" The threefold repetition of the vision serves not only to reinforce its importance, but also to assure Peter that it is genuine. But then God did not leave Peter with only this vision with which to struggle, trying, as we might try, to sort out whether this was real or just his imagination. Other events confirmed what he had heard, since God was also at work with other people. "At that very moment" (v. 11) is not just a temporal comment, but a theological one, affirming that God has worked from both ends of this situation to get this message across to Peter. Finally, Peter does not have to rely solely on his personal vision, because its validation comes from the larger community of faith.
The conversion of Cornelius and his household and the subsequent gift of the Holy Sprit to the Gentiles was the final confirmation for Peter that this was, indeed, from God ("who was I that I should hinder God?" v. 17). This fact even silenced Peter's critics who recognized in this event something new at work in God's relationship with humanity (v. 19). The result was a unity of the believers. But it was a unity forged around a radically different set of assumptions about the faith than that with which it began. The point of unity was the leadership of God in the lives of these people and this community, calling them to move beyond where they were to where they needed to be in order to be able to meet the demands of a changing world.
The very next verses (19-29) continue working out the implication of this change, and affirming it, as the Gospel spread to Greeks (gentiles) at Antioch. A great number of them accepted the message and became followers of Jesus. It was there at Antioch as new gentile converts swelled the ranks of the community with the blessings of the Jewish believers at Jerusalem (v. 22), that they were first called Christians. And it is in this new community of gentile Christians that Saul of Tarsus began laying the groundwork for his mission trips to the gentiles of Asia Minor and Europe.
There would still be questions later about the admission of Gentiles into fellowship, the terms on which they would be admitted, and whether they should first become Jewish in order to become Christians (Acts 15). But God's word had already convinced Peter of a new work of God in the world, and a new shape for God's people. His defense of the equality of Gentile and Jewish Christians in the sight of God (15:9) helped establish the church as independent of Judaism.
The single most important theological message of this text is that Jesus the Christ is not only for "insiders" but for "outsiders" as well. On one level, we can easily affirm that truth. And yet, practicing it may not come as easily as believing it.
This new emerging religious community had been struggling to make sense of its own identity, especially in relation to Judaism. Would it become another sect within Judaism, bound by all the conventions of that tradition? Would it be restricted to the confines of an already well ordered religious system? Or was there something really new about this revelation of God through Jesus the Christ? Would there really be a subversive element in all of this that would bring a new vitality to the world, a vitality that would in turn bring new sight and new freedom (Luke 4:18ff)?
Luke worked hard in the Gospel to let us know that the Incarnation was deeply anchored in the faith and history of the Old Testament. He had taken great pains to link this new act of God with the promises and actions of God throughout Israel's history. And yet, he also hinted throughout the Gospel that something new was at work in the world in Jesus, something that would overthrow the status quo and bring a newness to the world that would upend the established order of power and authority.
This text affirms that the status quo cannot and will not contain the Gospel. It affirms that our ideas of propriety cannot bound this message no matter how well conceived and no matter how valid they are. And it asserts that labeling people as "unclean" based on our own ideas of religious identity only serves to violate the spirit of the Gospel by excluding the very ones for whom God is at work to take the message.
This is not a negation of the value of tradition or a rejection of all religious instruction (torah) by which God's people are to order their lives. But it clearly affirms that the Gospel does not exist for the sake of preserving tradition, even good and valid tradition. Rather, it exists for the sake of calling people into relationship with God even if it must be in spite of tradition.
There are two dimensions of this text that may lead in two different Preaching Paths or may simply be two facets of the same one. We can hear this text in the journey between Easter and Pentecost. We can place ourselves in the role of the post-resurrection community and ask questions about the significance and impact of that event. What does it mean for us to be sent into the world as the people of God with a message for the world? How do we understand the nature of the church and God's work in the world? What does it mean to be Christian?
Too often, we approach this task from the perspective of "insiders." That is, we see ourselves as the "chosen" who are sent into the world to help others see the error of their ways, and conform more to us. But if listen to this text carefully, we are not the "insiders" at all! We are the "outsiders" who have been accepted, who have been allowed in by the grace of God in his new work in the world. We are the new work of God in the world, we are the subversive element of the Gospel, the salt, the light, the leaven that will transform.
And yet we so badly want to be the insiders, we want to be the chosen. So if we are not careful, we allow our own traditions, our own entrance requirements, our own forms of kashrut and circumcision to become barriers for people who would join us. It is hard for us to embrace the "outsider" for fear that we might lose our own acceptance if the distinctions between the "insiders" and the "outsiders" are broken down.
And yet we are called simply to bear witness of what God has done in Christ. We are called, like Peter, to tell the story of God's great act of reconciliation. And who better to tell that story than those who really have no right to be a part of it at all! I think we can tell that story far better if we tell it as "outsiders" who have been invited to join the party! That brings a humility as well as a sense of immediacy to the story as we invite other outsiders to join us.
Like the early church, we are taking the Gospel into a different world than the one in which we live. We will have to ask some hard questions about our traditions, especially those that have tended to make us "insiders." Some of those things may have been important or even necessary in the past. The hard questions come when we begin asking whether some of those things that have given us identity in the past have now become barriers to carrying out our God-given mission. There is great danger in responding to God with "By no means Lord, nothing profane has ever entered my mouth!" We may say that from the best of motives. But if it does not serve the mission to which we are called as the church, if it interferes with us touching the lives of people with the Gospel, we need to hear the Lord say again, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane."
There are no easy answers to some of these questions. I think I would have responded to God in exactly the same way that Peter did. I would have presented some very good arguments why I should keep to the standards that I adopted for myself, or that my community has adopted. I could have even argued that there were ethical or even moral implications to the matter. Perhaps it is not so important that we have easy answers, but that we, like the early church here in Acts, grapple mightily with the questions. Because if we never struggle to ask the questions, we shall certainly not have answers.
There are a variety of ways that these questions can play out in specific church traditions, or in local communities. But the issue of "people" versus "tradition" or of "insiders" versus "outsiders" is one that exists on some level in any and every religious community.
The second dimension to this text provides some balance to the dilemma, although it still does not provide us with an easy answer to the question of the nature of the church and its mission. But it is an important dimension. It is simply the question of what God is doing in the world. This text is permeated with the action of God. It is God who gives Peter the vision of a new way. It is God who works with Cornelius and his family. And it is the gift of the Holy Spirit to the various groups of people that tie the whole scenario together.
In other words, this is not an account of Peter deciding what to become; this is an account of God calling him to become, indeed calling the church to become. It is God's new work in the world, calling people to follow. Perhaps the task of the church in the world is not to try to put into place programs that structure the work of God, that try to "grow" the church. Perhaps neither is it to pray and cry out to God to do some great new work in the world, to bring a revival to enliven his people. Perhaps the greatest task of the church is to find out where God is already working in the world, and then participate in that work as God gives directions. Perhaps we have too often missed the new work of God in the world because we were waiting for something to happen in our own corner of the world on our terms, when God was already doing great things over in Cornelius' house!
This commitment to God's work in the world does not lessen our responsibility and our accountability to faithful response to God in servanthood. But it affirms that finally it is not by our efforts that newness comes into the world. And it just as strongly affirms that God is at work in the world to bring that newness, if we have the eyes to see it.
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