Border Crossing: Astounding Hope in Laredo (Acts 10:44-48)
By Mary F. Foskett
"Why are you here? Go back!" This is what Catherine Archer at the Holding Institute knew some local community members were thinking as they witnessed the influx of persons crossing the border and taking up residence in Laredo, Texas, last year. But if this was initial reaction, it was neither defining nor determinative of what would happen next. When those same local residents were able to put faces and names to the statistics and hear the stories of suffering, hope and yearning that the newcomers were bringing with them to the U.S., she found that, as was the case for many, "you soften a lot." Resentment gave way to new relationships, and friendships formed to take the place of fear. Communities can be surprised by joy when relational borders, not just national ones, are crossed.
With the Pew Research Center estimating the segment of the U.S. population comprised of first- and second-generation immigrants will grow to 37% by 2050, ministries like the Holding Institute are crucial to the future of communities such as Laredo and the lives of its people, long-time and new residents alike. Inspired by Matthew 25:35, "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in," the Holding Institute is a Christian organization that works with families entering the United States from Central America. One of their key objectives is to educate newcomers and help them learn or improve their conversational English as well and as quickly as they are able. Along the way, they help build and strengthen relationships among newcomers, and between immigrants and long-standing residents of Laredo. ESL classes become the catalysts for transformation.
The Biblical story recounted in Acts 10:44-48 is also a story of transformation and relational border crossing between people who, though not at all strangers, were practiced at holding each other at a distance. It is a story of surprise and joy, and lives transformed by new relationships and new understandings of self and other forged by the Spirit. It is an old story with an important word for a new day.
This brief passage is really the conclusion to a larger story that begins with the visions of Cornelius, a Gentile and a centurion (10:1-6), and Peter, a Jewish disciple of Jesus and a leader in the early Jesus movement (10:9-16). Through this series of visions and the prompting of the Spirit, Peter is led to pay a visit to Cornelius' home, where Cornelius and his friends and relatives welcome Peter, along with the Jewish believers who accompany him. The encounter is among the most significant in all of Luke and Acts. Whereas Jews and Gentiles lived in the same towns and cities and interacted with one another in everyday encounters and business transactions, they did not typically engage each other socially to the extent of sharing hospitality and meals that fell outside Jewish dietary restrictions. This is a limitation that Peter acknowledges in 10:28. The communities, in other words, were like familiar strangers.
What Peter and Cornelius learn along the way is the Spirit acts despite us and in the very spaces we try to maintain between ourselves. Even though Peter confesses in 10:28 "God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean," he also reveals that he doesn't understand why Cornelius, a Gentile, has sent for him. It is only after Cornelius explains that "all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say" (10:33), that Peter finally is able to say, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (10:34). As Peter bears witness to the Gospel message, the Holy Spirit falls upon all who are within hearing (10:44) and, for the only time in Acts, does so without being preceded by baptism. The believers are "astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles" (10:45). What they witness is undeniable, though, because they see and hear for themselves how the Gentiles are "speaking in tongues and extolling God" (10:46). Thus the Spirit's presence confirms the truth of Peter's newfound understanding. God truly shows no partiality among nations. God's people are of all nations and they stand before God on level ground.
The result is not only Peter's declaration that the Gentiles ought to be baptized because they have received the same Spirit as Jewish believers, but the forging of real relationship. Peter stays at Cornelius' home for not one, but several days, presumably eating with and accepting the hospitality of this Gentile household (10:48, cf. 11:3). Borders have been crossed, eyes have been opened, and deeper relationships have been formed. All has been made possible - in the most surprising ways -- by the active presence of the Spirit. The crossing of relational borders and the forging of new relationships continues to be enabled by the movement of the Spirit. The only task of the people is to be open enough to perceive and respond to its prompting.
Mary F. Foskett is Kahle Professor of Religion and Director of the Humanities Institute at Wake Forest University. She teaches and publishes in the area of New Testament Studies.
The Holding Institute teaches immigrants English so that they can build successful lives in the U.S.
Bible Study Questions
1. What relational borders exist in your community?
2. Where do you see opportunities to engage each other in new ways?
3. What does it mean for Peter to be Cornelius' guest and for Cornelius to serve as Peter's host?
For Further Reading
Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Abingdon Press: 2003.
"Immigration." Pew Research Center. http://www.pewresearch.org/topics/immigration/
Interfaith Immigration Coalition. http://www.interfaithimmigration.org/
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