A common theme the past two Sundays has been people’s commitment to being in the right leading them to be in the wrong. Two weeks ago, it was Saul, whose good and true commitments to orthodoxy and unity within the Jewish community had caused him to persecute the followers of Jesus. And last Sunday, it was the religious authorities, whose commitment to keeping the Sabbath led them to oppose Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath. By the standards of Law and revelation given to God’s people, Jesus’ opponents were not wrong. We shouldn’t really shake our heads dismissively at them and their attitudes. By all accounts available to them, they were right. But God was doing something different, something new — turning the old definitions on their head and opening gates that had so long been shut. Today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles picks up on this theme of being in the wrong in the name of being right. And it’s worth looking at once again.
In Acts 10, we have the story of Peter and Cornelius. Peter is the leader of the disciples and not wholly sure where to land on the question of welcoming Gentiles into the fold. One day he receives a vision in which he is commanded to eat foods forbidden in the Law. While still reeling from this, he is summoned to the home of a Gentile named Cornelius. He goes and preaches about Jesus and Cornelius readily accepts the Gospel and the Holy Spirit pours down on him. In today’s reading, from the following chapter, Peter is questioned by the Jerusalem church about what happened: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” And so, Peter walks them through it:
I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times.
The vision puts Peter in an awkward position. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” sounds clear enough, but these are foods that God’s very own revelation had called profane. At any other time in his people’s history, Peter’s initial refusal to eat unclean foods would have been the right answer for a Jewish man of good faith. Peter would have been approved by God, not rebuked. But of course, God is doing something new. Whereas the Law was concerned with marking out boundaries for community life, God is now opening the doors to everyone, so those old boundaries no longer matter. But Peter can be forgiven for needing to adjust to the new reality.
He continues to tell his story, about how he had been immediately summoned to Caesarea to preach to a household of Gentiles, then saying:
And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Peter doesn’t truly understand what’s happening until it is confirmed for him by the Holy Spirit falling upon the new Gentile believers. The pouring out of the Spirit on the disciples had confirmed things for Peter at Pentecost and it does so again here. And, sure enough, Peter’s testimony to this is also enough to win over the Jerusalem church:
When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.
This story — and the two from the past two weeks — is another reminder of a truth that has come up time and time again on this blog: that, for Christians, as much as we may care about good theology or as much as we may love our liturgies and practices, it is neither Scripture nor Tradition that are to be the arbiters of goodness, truth, and beauty. Rather, it is the presence of the good fruit of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives that guides our way.
What ties Saul, the religious authorities, and Peter together is that they all longed to be faithful to God, but this very commitment blinded them to what God was doing around them. It took courage for Saul to admit he was wrong about Jesus. It took courage for Peter to take a public stand on behalf of the Gentiles and admit he was wrong about the relevance of dietary laws in the new world of the Gospel. It takes courage to admit when we’re wrong — especially when we’re wrong in the name of being right.
And yet there’s great joy in this place too. For, this is where the Spirit is blowing, where the ways of grace are leading us. And so it is a very wonderful and joyous thing to be wrong — even if we’re wrong in the name of of being right.