Not THOSE People!
May 19, 2019*
By Pastor John Partridge
How many of you have friends that are so close that they have become family and are included in almost everything that your family does? Or, how many of you with children, have some of their friends that are so close, that they can show up at your house at almost any time of the day or night, just walk in without knocking, help themselves to whatever is in the refrigerator, plop down on the couch next to you, as you’re watching television, and just look over and say, “Hey. What’s up?” Many families have friends like that, but if push comes to shove, we would all have to admit that – legally – they aren’t really family. In order to legally be a member of the family you must either be born into the family, or you must be legally adopted through a very particular and well-defined legal process.
Church membership is a little like that. Anyone can attend church here, and if you come for a while everyone will know that you belong here, but in order to “legally” become a member, there is a process that must be followed. Some churches make the process super easy; others make it harder than it needs to be, and ours is just designed so that you understand how our system of church governance works and are familiar with some of our theology and ways of doing things.
But Jesus’ church was a little of both of those things. The people of Israel, as the descendants of Abraham, were both a family and a church. And, after thousands of years of history there were systems and processes in place for everything. While you might be free to move there from another place, you couldn’t just show up one day and declare that you were a citizen of Israel or announce that you were now Jewish. It just didn’t work that way. Either you were born into the family, or you had to follow a particular, and specific, path of education, ritual, and even surgery, in order to become a Jew. And even then, you, and your family, would probably remain on the outside of much of the culture for generations to come. Taken together, it was hard to even think about becoming a follower of Israel’s God. That was not what God had in mind, and one of the things that Jesus came to do, was to fix that. But changing that culture, and that way of thinking, even among Jesus’ own disciples, was not easy as we see in the story that Luke shares with us in Acts 11:1-18.
11:1 The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
4 Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance, I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. 6 I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. 7 Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’
8 “I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
9 “The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ 10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.
11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’
15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
In this story, the followers of Jesus hear a rumor that non-Jews, Gentiles, had heard, and accepted, the message of Jesus Christ and that Peter had been the one who had told them. And so, when Peter returns to town and re-enters the community of believers, they get in his face and criticize him for doing so. “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” How dare you have contact with people like that? How could you? Good people simply don’t share hospitality and friendship with those people! It surprises us a little, but the followers of Jesus were so much a part of their culture that they couldn’t separate what they had been taught by their culture from the things that were taught in scripture and by Jesus. They had been so indoctrinated by their culture, and by their leaders, that they believed what they had learned, even when scripture taught that these things were entirely wrong. This hits us hard, because we are often guilty of exactly the same misunderstanding.
Peter explains how God called him to do what he had done, but in retelling of his story, we notice how even Peter was stuck in the same cultural pattern. Peter was desperately trying to be a good Jew and he refused God’s direct command two times, before, on the third repetition, he was finally convinced to break from a lifetime of training, teaching, and practice.
And, at the moment Peter surrendered to the will of God, three men arrive and ask him to go with them. Gathering six other believers, Peter travels to the home of these Gentiles, preaches the good news of Jesus Christ, the Gentiles believe, repent of their sins, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. But there is something that we skipped past a moment ago. As Peter prepares to leave his house and travel to the home of the Gentiles, he gathers six other believers to go with him, specifically six other men. And although this may appear to be sexist, there is a cultural, and legal, reason for his doing so. First, Peter, plus six others, is seven, and seven is the number of perfection, and that may have had some connotations for good luck or for the blessing of God, but there is something else. Under Jewish law, the testimony, or witness, of three men is required to establish something as true and factual. So, when Peter takes six men with him, he is preparing for the possibility that he might have to testify about what happens there, whether that something is an act of God or the commission of a crime of some kind we don’t know. But in either case, when Peter returns to Jerusalem, and is criticized by the other disciples, Peter testifies to what happens with seven witnesses, one more than twice the number needed to ascertain the legal facts, so that there can be no doubt about what happened in that place.
God is truly at work, and those people have surely been invited into God’s family.
Of course, “those people” are us, the Gentiles, the non-Jewish believers.
If you’ve been in church for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed that Paul is the one who we generally associate with missionary outreach to the Gentiles, and although that’s true, it is here, that Peter really begins ministry outside of what had been the “normal” outreach to other Jews up to that time. Although Peter’s calling isn’t to become a missionary to the Gentiles, it was Peter and his six witnesses who proved to the disciples and the gathered church in Jerusalem that reaching out to the Gentiles with the good news of Jesus Christ was something that God was doing and something that God intended for the church to do. Can you imagine how difficult it would have been, just a few years later, to convince this same group of people that God was calling Paul to carry the message of Jesus Christ into Greece, and Rome, and to nations full of what were thought of as pagan unbelievers if it had not been for the witness of Peter and his six friends?
What Peter discovered was revolutionary and hard to accept, but it was obvious to every witness that God was reaching out to “those people” as well as to the Jews. It wasn’t just about Israel or the family of Abraham anymore, the boundaries that divide human beings are broken and erased for good. God isn’t just calling the Jews, or the insiders, but anyone who hungers and thirsts for God and for what is right.
And that all sounds fine… right up until we remember that those words are supposed to speak to us in the twenty first century just as they did in the first century. The mission of Jesus Christ hasn’t changed and neither has the mission of his church. These were words that the early church wrestled with and they are words that we are still wrestling with two thousand years later.
Because no matter how far we’ve come, we still seem to find ways to divide people between insiders and outsiders. Maybe “those people” are no longer the Gentiles, but we still find ways of labeling them as “hopeless,” as “outsiders,” “lost causes,” and yes, “those people.”
So, think about who “those people” might be for us. Who are the outsiders, the outcasts, and the unwelcome? And once we have an idea of who that might be, let’s find ways of reaching out them and inviting them in.
Because that’s exactly what Jesus has called us to do.
Did you enjoy reading this?
Click here if you would like to subscribe to Pastor John’s weekly messages.
Click here to subscribe to Pastor John’s blog.
Click here to visit Pastor John’s YouTube channel.