When I was growing up, I never knew that some Baptists did not affirm women in ministry. The church my father pastored had women deacons, had women come to preach, and ordained women into the gospel ministry. My youth pastor was an ordained woman, and as I grew up and attended our missions programs I learned about incredible, fearless Baptist women who served as missionaries. Women like Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong. I was raised on Bible stories where God used all sorts of unlikely people, people normally overlooked or discounted, to do his work and his will in the world. People like Miriam and Moses, Hannah and Eli, David and Deborah, Rahab and Jonah, Mary and Martha.
It wasn’t until I went to college and joined the Baptist Student Union that I met Baptists who were pretty convinced that I had misread my Bible. For them, the Bible was a book full of rules, laying out what was right and what was wrong. Who was in and who was out. Divorced people couldn’t be deacons, women were to remain silent, and don’t get me started on the other groups of people they wanted to pretend didn’t or couldn’t exist at all. For those new friends of mine, the Bible was very clear: the people who didn’t follow their rules could do what they wanted, but they certainly did not belong in the Church.
At the beginning of the book of Acts, Jesus promises his small band of followers that they will become his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. Soon after he ascends to heaven, the Holy Spirit rushes into the room where they are staying and blows the walls off the place. Thousands of devout Jews from all over the known world are touched by that same Spirit, and the church grows exponentially and very quickly. Peter, that one-time fisherman from Galilee, becomes the de facto leader of this new movement.
Things are going swimmingly until the followers of the Way actually follow Jesus’ instructions, making their way out from Jerusalem into the surrounding areas and further afield. As they do, they began to pick up all sorts of new believers. Not just devout Jews but also Samaritans and even an Ethiopian eunuch. And it is at this point of growth and change and expansion that the first church faces a conflict and controversy that will either unmake it or reorganize it completely. They will have to decide: Will the church begin to welcome everyone who calls on the name of the Lord, as the new convert Paul begins to argue, whether they are Jew or Gentile? Or, as the leader of the old guard Peter argues, will those who want to become Christians first need to become Jews?
For Paul, these new Gentile believers should be welcomed in with open arms, just as they are. But for Peter, first they need to learn the rules. They should be circumcised if they are men; they should learn and then uphold the purity laws. Otherwise, won’t everything just descend into chaos? The Church needs to make a decision. And quick.
It is onto the backdrop of this controversy that we begin our Scripture reading for today. And in it we meet a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion. He is a high-ranking official in the Roman army, occupying Israel. He is not Jewish, nor does he want to convert. In fact, if he does, he will lose his job.
And yet, as powerful as he is, Cornelius has begun to suspect that there is a higher power than military might or the Roman Empire. Scripture describes him as “a devout man who feared God.” One day, as Cornelius prays to this God he has begun to know, he hears God’s voice speaking to him. God tells him to find a man called Simon Peter - the Jewish fisherman. And, like one accustomed to giving and receiving orders without delay, that is just what Cornelius does.
At the very same time, Peter has decided to take a day off from the stress of trying to lead and define this new movement of faith, and he has gone back to the seaside, where he always went when he needed to be reminded of who he was and why he was doing what he was doing. There at his friend’s house, he goes up to the roof to pray. But his prayer time is quickly disturbed by a strange vision. A sheet comes down from heaven full of all sorts of unclean animals. And then the voice of God tells Peter to get up, kill, and eat. “God forbid!” Peter exclaims, which is a funny thing to say to God. But God persists. “Peter, you should never call unclean something that I have made and called clean.”
This doesn’t make sense to Peter. After all, he knows all the rules. He can quote them by heart and has been able to since he was very young. He knows what is clean and what is unclean, what you can touch and what you can’t, what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong. But then the vision appears again. And again, God says, “Peter, what God has called clean, you must not call unclean.” When the vision appears a third time, Peter gets the point. After all, it has always taken three tries for Peter to finally get it.
At that very moment, someone interrupts Peter’s prayer, saying, “There are three men downstairs who want to see you. They want to take you to Cornelius the Gentile’s house. He is asking about Jesus.”
Somewhat hesitantly, Peter makes his way the thirty miles to Cornelius’s house. And by the time he arrives, the house is just teeming with Gentiles. “I’m going to hear about this one,” Peter thinks to himself. But he makes his way inside anyways. And there he hears about Cornelius’ faith that had taken root long before Peter arrived. He hears about how Cornelius, having met God, wants to know more about this Jesus.
“You know,” Peter begins, “it is unlawful for me, a Jew, to be here with you, a Gentile. I have Scripture after Scripture that I could quote to prove it.” The people gathered begin to shuffle around, wondering if they should just go on home. This Peter sounds an awful lot like all the other religious folk they have heard about, coming in with his list of rules and his proof-text Scriptures.
And the story could end right there. But thankfully, Peter keeps talking. “It is unlawful for me to be here. But God has taught me something new. God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So, when I was sent for, I came.” Cornelius exclaims, “Preach it, Peter!” And so, Peter does.
Peter is accustomed to giving these sermons by now. After all, he preached one just like it on that Pentecost day as thousands of devout Jews in Jerusalem decided to become followers of Jesus. But this one begins a little differently. “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.” And in that one sentence, everything changes. And though Peter hasn’t worked out all the details of what this will mean, he knows that the Spirit is at work again.
That Spirit takes hold of the Gentile crowd there at Cornelius’ house, and it’s like Pentecost all over again. The Jewish-Christians who have come with Peter can’t believe their eyes! Because the Gentiles are doing the same things they had done! They are praising God and speaking in tongues. Finishing up his sermon. Peter looks around and begins getting the water ready for some baptisms, simply saying, “Who can stand in the way of God?”
News travels fast. And by the time Peter gets back to Jerusalem, the deacon board has already heard about what he has done. “What were you thinking?” they cry out. “You went into the home of a Gentile! You ate with him! You even baptized a bunch of them?! You know we have rules about this!” And Peter nods his head. And then he shrugs his shoulders. He tells them all about what he saw and experienced. And then he finally says, “Look, if God has given these folks the Holy Spirit, who am I to stand in the way of God?”
And the room falls silent. Because there is no good way to argue against that without sounding petty and small. And those who hear Peter’s testimony begin fiddling with their pens and shifting in their chairs and finally say, “Well. Even Gentiles have been given the keys to the kingdom. I’ll be!” And that’s that. After all, Peter was right. When the Spirit gets to work, no one should or can stand in the way.
You know, for years I heard the question, “Is the Church ready for a woman pastor?” The Church kept asking the question even as God called women, equipped them, and then sent them to serve. The Church asks other questions as well, of course. Is the Church ready for this person or that person to be in leadership? Is the Church ready to open their doors to that sort of thing? Is the Church ready?
And maybe it helps to know that we come from a long line of people who weren’t ready. Our history as the Church is written down right there in the book of Acts, and it reminds us of how, from the very beginning, we have loved our rules. We have used them again and again to define who we are and who we aren’t. Who is in and who is out.
But from the very beginning, God has believed in the Church more than we have believed in ourselves. And so, God has constantly been challenging us to dream bigger. To imagine a world that is ruled not by the rule of law but by the law of love. And even in the midst of all the ways we have misread and misinterpreted and misapplied our rules, God just keeps working and moving in our midst. God keeps speaking to us again and again until hopefully, we are brave enough and wise enough to get the point.
We read in our Scripture that women should be silent. And then Jesus sends a woman to tell the others about the resurrection. We read that some people are so sinful that they just have no place in God’s kingdom. And then we see Jesus sit down with these so-called sinners and share a meal. We expect God to show up in the tabernacle and in the Temple and in the Church, but then we also see God show up in the wilderness and in exile and even on dusty roads at the very ends of the earth.
It can be confusing, of course, if we are only looking at the Bible to find the rules. But if we are looking at the Bible to find God, then those very moments of confusion and conflict can become for us windows of grace. And we can let the Holy Spirit blow through them, unmaking our old assumptions and remaking our lives, expanding our understanding of who God is and how God works. Until, finally, we loosen our hold on the need to be right. We stop asking questions like, “Is the church ready?” And instead we just open our arms up to God’s Spirit, already moving out ahead of us, saying, “Well. Who are we to stand in the way of God?”
Let us pray.
God who is always present and at work in our lives and world, continue to speak to us pushing us forward, calling us onward that we might be your people, faithful to the movement of your Spirit in our midst. Amen.