Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Acts 10:17-35
Recently I read a column in the local Catholic newspaper in which the guest author, Hosffman Ospino, shared about a conversation he had had with his young son. As he described it, “My 6-year-old son came home after school and unexpectedly asked my wife and me, ‘What am I?” The question caught us off guard. “What do you mean?’ we asked. He said, “Am I Mexican? Are people who speak Spanish Mexican?” We explained that he and his sister were both born in the United States and, in other words, they are American. We also explained that people with Mexican roots who live in the United States are also known as Latinos or Hispanics. Staring as if something was still bothering him, he asked, “Why are Mexicans taking over the country?” Then he added, “Are we taking over the country?” I asked, “Where did you hear that?” He said, “My friends say that Mexicans are taking over the country. They say that America is for white people. They heard it on television.” Then he concluded, “My arms are white. Are we white people?” Our hearts sank. A deep sense of sadness engulfed me. Should not these 6-year-olds be engaged in play and imagining worlds full of hope? Should they wrestle with these questions at such a tender age?” The author then went on to suggest how parents and others who work with children can be prepared to speak about race with God’s children all ages.
We have some understanding about how challenging it must be in today’s world to be engaged in such painful conversations. But when we turn to the world of the Scriptures we are often unaware of the challenges faced by those first century Christians who like many Americans lived in two worlds. While in our world today the division is usually framed within a “black-white” paradigm, in the world of Jesus and his followers, the division was between Jew and Gentile. We sometimes forget that the first disciples of Jesus were Jews who continued to practice Jewish traditions and follow Jewish laws even after they had put their trust in Jesus as their Messiah. Just like people today, these original followers of Jesus had their prejudices against those outside of their circle of race and religion. Their identity rested not only in their faith in Jesus, but in their Jewish blood and traditional Jewish religious and cultural practices. To follow Jesus did not mean giving up their Jewish ways nor did it mean extending God’s grace and blessing to those outside of the Jewish community.
But then something radical happened. The Apostle Peter, one of those first chosen twelve Jewish disciples of Jesus and a founding leader of the first church in Jerusalem, was given by God a vision of something new. This vision was not unlike that of the old prophet Jeremiah whose vision of a new covenant from God removed the limits of God’s grace by promising that all the people would know God “from the least to the greatest.” For Peter the vision of something new made God’s grace limitless by revealing a God who “showed no favoritism” but “accepted people from every nation” who seek to follow God. This vision given to Peter by God was a brand new way of looking at who was in and who was out when it came to God’s saving grace in Jesus. As the authors of If Grace Is True put it, “Peter’s vision represented a seismic shift in the popular understanding of God’s grace. Such shifts unsettle the world. It unsettled Peter’s world.”
For Peter, his Spirit-led vision and the experience which followed it opened his eyes to see God’s grace breaking through the prejudices and practices Peter had shared as a Jewish Christian. In the 10th chapter of Acts we learn that in his vision Peter saw heaven open and something like a large sheet coming down from the sky. In the sheet were all kinds of creatures which for a Jewish man like Peter were considered unclean and not to be eaten. Yet, to his great surprise, three times the voice of God told Peter that what God had made clean he should take up and eat. While Peter remained in state of confusion, suddenly three non-Jewish men appeared at his house. And, as we read in verse 19, “while Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up and go down and go with them without hesitation, for I have sent them.”
Having heard the rest of the story this morning, we know that Peter did what the Spirit instructed him to do. But it could not have been easy. As the authors of our study book put it, “Peter was torn. To visit a Gentile’s home was to violate the rigid rules separating Jew and Gentile. Rubbing shoulders with Gentiles wasn’t kosher. Socializing with them was fraternizing with the enemy. Torn between what he’d always been taught and his experience with God, Peter relied on his experience. He went with the men and saw God pour out his Spirit on the house of Cornelius and all the Gentiles gathered there.” The authors conclude, “Peter discovered God’s grace was never intended to bless only a few.”
I can understand Peter’s hesitation, his objections and reservations to go outside the limits of what he had been taught by his tight-knit faith community. These limits were based on what he had understood and practiced his whole life as the teachings of God’s Word. Peter must have been having a personal crisis of faith, feeling confused and anxious as he struggled with the idea that God was at work in such unorthodox and unexpected ways. He must have wondered what the other leaders of his own faith community would think of him if he dared to go outside the clear limits and violated the firm teachings of their Jewish Christian faith. Yet Peter could not deny the prompting of God’s Spirit. So he went and, as the story reads, the Jewish Christians who came with him were “astounded to see that the gift of God’s Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” In response to what they were seeing, Peter was able to recognize God at work and to affirm this pouring out of God’s Spirit on a wider circle of people than he could ever before have imagined. When Peter declared: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality” it was a radical departure from everything he had previously understood as a member of the Jewish Christian community of his time and an emboldened declaration of God’s limitless grace!
If we continued on to Acts chapter 11 we would see that Peter faced criticism in his home church in Jerusalem for daring to even go to the home of a Gentile and to share food with those outsiders who were considered unclean. Only after sharing about his vision from God and his personal experience of seeing God at work among the Gentiles did the members of Peter’s Jewish Christian faith community accept that indeed God was giving grace and the power of the Spirit even to people they considered unworthy of such love, inclusion and empowerment.
As people of Christian faith today, we are glad and grateful that Peter opened his door and his heart to the Gentiles and did not try to limit God’s grace to those who grew up in the Jewish community. If Peter had done otherwise, perhaps we would not be here today.
Yet, like Peter and his contemporaries, we too have grown up with our own prejudices and practices which limit our vision of who is worthy of God’s grace and, thus, limit our ability to create the kind of inclusive community which God’s Spirit empowers and prompts us to create. Not fully experiencing God’s grace in our lives and creating barriers for others to know God’s grace is at stake when we fail to recognize and challenge these limiting powers. As the authors in our study book put it, “Now I realize that there are many hindrances to experiencing the fullness of God’s grace – confusion, fear, prejudice, ignorance, and pride to name a few.” As we try to work through and overcome these hindrances, like with Peter, we discover resistance both within ourselves and from others.
For example, it is not easy to name and challenge our own fears when the fears of others are being magnified and manipulated for political and social purposes across our community, our nation and our world. Here in the greater St. Cloud community there is an intentional effort by some to tap into human fear and to use that fear to legitimize prejudice in order to sow division and to shower blame and shame upon the least powerful among us for all our world’s problems.
Just one example which many of you have read or heard about is the public report of a proposed resolution by one of the members of the St. Cloud City Council to temporarily ban from St. Cloud the future re-settlement of all refugees. As one St. Cloud resident responded, “I think this is a defining moment for St. Cloud and really for Central Minnesota in general because there are people with power in this area that don’t want anything to do with our refugee neighbors.” Tomorrow evening we have the opportunity to stand with our refugee neighbors at the St. Cloud City Council meeting and stand up to those with power to say, “We will not be manipulated to give in to the power of prejudice and fear; we are committed to the call to love all our neighbors; we stand with all who unite rather than divide our community!”
It is true that standing up for a united greater St. Cloud community does not require a Christian to believe that all people will be saved and go to heaven – a belief shared by the authors of the book, If Grace is True. But, no matter what we might believe about who we will be our neighbors in the afterlife, as followers of Jesus, we are clearly commanded to love all our neighbors in this life! And, in fact, it is when we do love all our neighbors that our love for God, the love of Jesus and the power of the Spirit to transform human hearts are given powerful witness.
This is the same Spirit of power that enabled Peter to overcome his prejudice and fear and to begin to create a community of faith that was inclusive of all who repented – all who were led by God’s Spirit to claim God’s grace and forgiveness regardless of their racial or religious background, regardless of their own prejudices and fears. This is the kind of Christian community we are in covenant with God and with one another to help create today. As we build this kind of inclusive and loving community within these walls, we are equipped and empowered by God’s Spirit to help transform the community outside of these walls.
So may we, like Peter, be open to the astounding movement of God’s Spirit among us and beyond us as we open our hearts to the limitless grace of God in our lives and in our world today!