(Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35)
Chapters 13-17 of the Gospel According to John contain Jesus’ farewell conversations with his disciples. In these conversations, he gives them a new commandment, which is to “love one another as I have loved you” (13:34). Jesus goes on to say, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (35). There is a hymn that immortalizes these words. That hymn is, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love,” and the chorus is, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
Sadly, this is often not the case; often, Christians are not known for their love and are, instead, known for other things. According to Wikipedia, Christians are criticized for “violence, corruption, superstition, polytheism, homophobia, bigotry, pontification, abuses of women’s rights, and sectarianism.” Now, these criticisms are not all true or are not true all the time, but the point I’d like to make is that they are viewed as true by many, which means that many do not know we are Christians by our love.
Jesus commanded his disciples to love one another as he has loved them, but they and we are not always successful in doing so. Today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles illustrates one of the ways Christians were not successful in doing so. It reports the pushback Peter received from the circumcised Christians in Jerusalem after he had gone into the house of Gentile, uncircumcised men, eaten with them, proclaimed the gospel to them, and baptized them after they had received the Holy Spirit. It may be difficult for us today to understand the magnitude of what had taken place. Today, Christians are not expected to fulfill the requirements of the covenant made with Abraham. However, at the time that this took place, allowing Gentiles who had not fulfilled the requirements of the Abrahamic covenant to become baptized disciples of Jesus was radical. That is why the circumcised Christians in Jerusalem were upset with Peter and confused that the Holy Spirit had allowed this to happen. Had God lost his mind?! Was Peter deluded?! What was going on?!
What was going on is that God was redefining who could be a Christian. God was redefining who could belong. The scripture passage from Revelation states that God is making all things new (21:4). God is doing a new thing, creating a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no separation between God and people (1, 3). The era begun with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus redefined life. Eternal life – life lived in communion with God – was now available to everyone. The first Christians, who were faithful Jews and were thus circumcised (if they were men), believed that eternal life was only available to those who had fulfilled the requirements of the Abrahamic covenant. Even Peter believed this until the Holy Spirit intervened and led him to a new belief.
The Holy Spirit intervened by sending Peter on a journey with Cornelius, his relatives, and his close friends. Cornelius was a Gentile, a centurion in the Italian Regiment of the Roman Empire (Acts 10:1). Although he was a Gentile, he was God-fearing, prayerful, and gave generously to those in need (2). He had not, however, formally converted to Judaism and undergone the covenantal act of circumcision. The story of Peter and Cornelius is long, with many twists and turns, all orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. I will not report all of those twists and turns. Suffice it to say that the Holy Spirit led Cornelius to send men to Peter to ask him to visit Cornelius in his home. At the same time, the Holy Spirit gave Peter a vision indicating that God was doing a new thing and led Peter to go to Cornelius’ home when asked to do so.
When Peter and the disciples who went with him arrived at Cornelius’ home, they found a large gathering of Gentiles there. Peter said to them, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me” (28-29)?
Cornelius answered Peter’s question, saying, “Four days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us” (30-33). At that point, Peter then proceeded to proclaim the gospel to Cornelius and the Gentiles gathered in his home.
While Peter was proclaiming the gospel, the Holy Spirit descended on the Gentiles present (44). The Jews who had come with Peter were astonished that the Holy Spirit had been given to Gentiles (45). But Peter, who had been prepared for this by the vision and guidance granted him by the Holy Spirit, proclaimed, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy spirit just as we have” (47). So, the Gentiles were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ without first having to be circumcised.
Even though the Jewish scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) states that only those who have fulfilled the requirements of the Abrahamic covenant can belong, God did a new thing by taking down that boundary. Remember, Peter said to Cornelius, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean” (28-29). Regardless of what the law states, regardless of the requirements of belonging previously defined in scripture, God had shown Peter that he should not call any person impure or unclean – and, by extension, God has shown that to us, as well. Regardless of what the law states, regardless of the requirements of belonging previously defined in scripture, God has shown us – through Peter – that we should not call any person impure or unclean.
Just because God had shown that to Peter doesn’t mean that Peter didn’t get pushback for extending the gospel to uncircumcised Gentiles. As already stated, when he returned to Jerusalem, he was taken to task. Because of their current beliefs, which were legitimately based on their laws and scriptures, the circumcised Christians felt that Peter had behaved blasphemously. God was doing a new thing, but they didn’t know that yet. Peter had to convince them that this was true. He explained what had happened step by step (Acts 11:4). At the end of the story, the circumcised believers understood and exclaimed, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (18). Yes, indeed, God had done just that. God had redefined who belongs.
We Christians often draw boundaries that separate people into those who belong and those who do not belong. We do so because of our current beliefs, which are often legitimately based on our understanding of laws and scripture. But the experience of the apostles show us that God can do new things that then lead us to new understandings and new beliefs. We have seen that recently in the life of Paul, who was transformed from a persecutor of Christians, based on his understanding of Jewish laws and scriptures, into a Christian lover of all, based on his new understanding of the new thing God was doing in Jesus Christ. We see that today in the life of Peter, who was transformed from an apostle to the Jews, based on his understanding of Jewish laws and scriptures, into an apostle to both Jews and Gentiles, based on his new understanding of the new thing God was doing in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the Word (with a capital W), and that Word is alive, which means that the Word isn’t static: The Word is kinetic – active, lively, dynamic. The Word (with a capital W) thus informs our understanding of the word (with a small w) of scripture, with the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. We are disciples, which means that we are students – life-long students – and thus must be open to new understandings related to the new thing God did and is doing in Jesus Christ.
Like Peter, we may experience pushback from fellow Christians who don’t understand why we are believing and behaving as we are. Like Peter, we can tell the story, step by step, that led us to new beliefs and behaviors. Our fellow Christians may or may not ultimately understand and agree with us. But that doesn’t mean we are wrong. Peter and the other apostles who did not require Gentile believers to be circumcised in order to become Christian continued to receive pushback from those who believed one had to be circumcised in order to become Christian. The disagreement continued until, finally, a meeting was held in Jerusalem to try to reach a consensus (Acts 15). There was much discussion back and forth. Finally, it was agreed that conversion to Christianity by Gentiles should not be made difficult; in other words, Gentile Christians did not need to fulfill the circumcision requirement of the Abrahamic covenant. God had done a new thing in Jesus Christ and had thus made a new covenant through him.
Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment, to love one another as he had loved them. Those disciples then drew a boundary around who it was they were to love. God through the Holy Spirit led select disciples and apostles to a new understanding about who it was they were to love, thereby dismantling the boundary that had been set. When these select disciples and apostles then crossed the false boundary, other disciples and apostles who did not understand why they were believing and behaving as they did were upset. They challenged the new beliefs and behaviors. But the Holy Spirit had made it clear to those who had received a new understanding that the false boundary was not to be maintained, so they would not go against the Holy Spirit. Eventually, the false boundary fell away.
This process has happened throughout the history of Christianity. Humans create boundaries based on our current understandings and beliefs, but God chooses a select few to enlighten us with new understandings and beliefs and those select few challenge the current boundaries. They receive pushback from those of us who do not yet understand. But those who sincerely feel inspired by the Holy Spirit and called by God do not back down. They do not support any boundaries that are not in alignment with the new thing they have been led to believe God is doing. Jesus commanded that we love one another as he has loved us, and those who sincerely feel inspired by the Holy Spirit and called by God to love beyond a false boundary can act as prophets to the rest of us, asking us to move beyond what is comfortable and familiar into the new thing God is doing. When we are challenged to move beyond what is comfortable and familiar, may we faithfully discern if it is, indeed, God who is calling to us through a modern-day prophet.
Last week we celebrated Jesus as the Good Shepherd and we as his sheep. We heard the 23rd Psalm, which always feels comforting – at least, to me. But let us remember that the Good Shepherd also asks us to follow him through uncomfortable, challenging landscapes. Annie Dillard has a quote about the power and presence of the God we worship. She states, “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.” We are here because we love and worship the God who is creating a new heaven and a new earth, a God who is doing a new thing. If we want to participate in God’s new thing, then we must be prepared to be led through uncomfortable, challenging landscapes. We must come prepared for wherever God lead us. We must come prepared to love one another as Jesus has loved us. Maybe then, they will know we are Christians by our love. Amen.
Sermon by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, May 15, 2022, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.
 Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.