The world often seems impossibly divided. ‘Left’ and ‘right’, ‘East’ and ‘West’, ‘North and South’, Black and white, ‘sinners’ and ‘saved’ — such divisions, oversimplified as they are, seem to govern much of our public discourse. As frustrating and even frightening as this may be, it is also a very human state of affairs. We are hardwired to categorize the world around us, to make sense of things and put everything and everyone in their place. And one of the most basic of judgments, which begins to develop from just a few months of age, is the distinction between who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, or in other words, who is like me and who is other, and by extension, who is safe and who is not.
This tendency touches on one of the central conflicts in the earliest Church, which we see play out throughout Paul’s letters and the Acts of the Apostles. This is the Gentile Question: How Jewish did one have to be in order to follow this Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth? This was no small question. For centuries, for the Jewish tradition — and all of the first Christians were Jewish and understood what they experienced in Jesus to be entirely in keeping with, and fulfilling, their Judaism — to be part of God’s community meant being part of God’s people, a nation descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And being part of a people is a big deal. It is more than just genetics and bloodlines. It is history, language, story, and song. For the Jewish people specifically, this involved following ritual, ethical, and dietary practices handed down from generation to generation in the Scriptures, from mother to daughter and from father to son. And so, for someone like Paul, who was not even among the original disciples, to welcome Gentiles — those not part of the people of God, foreigners, outsiders — into the community of the faithful without insisting they become Jewish in the process marked nothing short of a revolution in how faithfulness was understood. It is no wonder this was such an all-consuming issue for the first Christians.
Acts 10 represents an important turning point in this conflict. It tells the story of how Peter, a towering figure among the disciples, was converted from the side that expected Gentile followers of Jesus to become Jewish, to the position that welcomed Gentiles into the Church just as they were. Earlier in the chapter, Peter is sent a dream in which he is commanded to eat unclean (what we could today call non-kosher) foods. Three times he refuses to eat the food, and three times the voice tells him not to call ‘unclean’ what God has called ‘clean.’ Upon waking, Peter is initially confused at the dream’s meaning, but all is made clear when a knock on the door summons him to the house of a ‘God-fearing’ Gentile (a technical term for someone who was intrigued by Judaism without converting) named Cornelius. Cornelius and his friends welcome Peter with joy, and eagerly accept his teachings about what God has done in and through Jesus. And this is where today’s reading picks up the story:
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard his message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. (Acts 10.44-48)
Up to this point in Acts, the Holy Spirit has fallen upon people after baptism. But here, as though to quell any lingering doubts Peter and his companions might have about these Gentile converts, the Holy Spirit takes the initiative, falling on these new followers of the Way before they were officially received into the Church through baptism. The message for Peter is clear: God has shown no partiality. This Jewish Messiah is for everyone. There is still a community of faith, but it is no longer based on family trees, or any of the old markers of ritual and custom. Instead it is based purely on following the ways of God as revealed in Jesus.
While the ‘Gentile question’ was largely settled within the first generation of Christianity — and in fact, Christianity very quickly became a predominantly Gentile movement — the tendency to divide people into ‘in’ groups and ‘out’ groups remains, even in (and, sadly, perhaps especially in) the Church. Differences of economics, education, culture, and race are still prone to become divisions. There is nothing wrong with differences — God created a beautifully diverse world and, let’s face it, a world where everyone looks, sounds, and thinks the same would be pretty boring. The problem comes not with difference but when we make value judgments based on difference. To put it another way, the problem comes when we equate ‘who is like me’ with ‘who is in’. Our job is not to make value judgments but, in the simple command of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, to “love one another” (John 15.12). If we allow love to bridge the gaps between us and our experiences of the world, we will find that our diversity doesn’t make us weaker, but rather strengthens us as a community, humbles us, and deepens our understanding of who God is and what God is calling us to do.
God shows no partiality; God’s Good News is Good News for everyone. This was the message Peter needed to hear, and it is still a relevant message for us today.