Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘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; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 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?’ 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.’
The vitality of spiritual experience
The story before us in the book of Acts today is one of THE most important things to happen in the early church. It’s implications for us are really quite far-reaching, but it does take a little unpacking so let’s see if I can put some flesh on the bones for us.
The context is that this took place very early on in the life of the church, in the very first few years. At this point in time pretty much all of the believers would have been Jewish and there was a sense that Jesus had come to save the Jews. This story tells of how God had much bigger plans than the limitations that the Jewish believers had placed on him.
So for a Christian believer who was a Jew it was simply taken as read that as well as being a follower of Jesus they would also keep the Jewish law, the Torah, and that meant that all the men would have been circumcised. But then news comes to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem that Peter has been spending time with Gentiles, who are people like us, basically non-Jews. They therefore summon Peter to Jerusalem to question him and to criticize him. More or less they are saying to him, ‘Peter what were you thinking? These were unclean Gentiles. What on earth were you, a Jew, doing spending time with them and sharing the news about Jesus with them?’
You can sense what is almost a spiritual arrogance in this, that the early believers felt that Jesus was only for Jews. And so Peter explains to them what had happened. He was praying and had entered a trance state. In that state he had a vision of a large sheet being set down in front of him and being told to eat. ‘Well so what?’ we might say. Big deal.
But that’s because we’re not Jews and don't understand the importance of this. Jews, like the people of many religions, have some pretty strict rules about what food they are and are not allowed to eat, and some of the food in that sheet was definitely on their list of unclean foods. In other words these were animals about whom God had said in the Old Testament that they must not eat, such as reptiles and other meat-eating animals.
Yet now God was saying something different.
It is key for us that we understand God is speaking to Peter in a metaphorical image. If we read the chapter before it tells us some more details about this incident and it is clear that before the vision Peter had gone on the roof to pray and was hungry. So God spoke to him through what was on his mind - food. It was a great use of imagery by the Holy Spirit, picking up on what was on Peter’s mind and using that to say something to him while he was in the trance. Peter has no problem with the interpretation of his vision because of what happens next. Three men who were not Jews arrive at the house he’s staying at and it immediately becomes clear to him that the so-called unclean food that God has told him it is now alright to eat is a way of explaining to him that God was telling him to stop rejecting Gentiles as being unclean.
If food cannot be classed as unclean anymore then neither can people.
The Holy Spirit basically said, ‘You must not treat them any differently from yourselves. You must go with them.’ So Peter went with the three men, taking with him six fellow believers who he refers to as brothers.
So who were these three strangers?
Again there is more detail in the previous chapter, but basically they were members of the household of a man called Cornelius. What is significant about Cornelius is not only was he not a Jew, but he was actually a Roman Centurion, a soldier who led a hundred men. He was also a devout God-fearing man who prayed constantly. His prayers were answered when an angel appeared to him, causing him to just stand there and stare in terror. That says something about the magnificence and power of an angel, that a Roman Centurion who would have seen a lot of action should be terrified by what he saw. The angel tells him that God has heard his prayers and that he must now send men to Joppa, to the house of Simon the tanner where a man called Simon Peter was staying. So Cornelius sent two slaves and a devout soldier to go and fetch Peter and hear what he had to say. Now we can begin to understand why Peter took other men with him, after all it was Roman soldiers who had crucified Jesus, so you can understand his apprehension.
Yet what took place when he reached Cornelius’s house changed the church forever.
As Peter began to explain the Good News of Jesus, so the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and all the relatives and close friends he had gathered together to listen to Peter. To Peter it was all exactly the same as it had happened to the first apostles on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell upon them all. When Peter finishes telling his tale to the sceptical circumcised Jewish Christians about how the Holy Spirit had come down on people who were not Jews but Gentiles he completes his story with a question:
‘Who was I that I could hinder God?’
And then silence descends on the room.
It is the silence that comes when all your old beliefs get swept away by experiencing God. The Jewish Christians, though sceptical, know and trust Peter, but they are now faced with a choice. God has acted and done something that they would never have expected. Lesser people would have remained sceptical of Peter. They might even have ousted him. But after the silence they begin to praise God as for the very first time the penny begins to drop that Jesus is not just for Jews, he’s for everyone. Now it’s important for us to realise that this is just the very first step in a long journey that the early church took with this. It was a very long time indeed before there was a complete and full acceptance that Gentiles could be Christians without first becoming Jews, but it was a long journey that led to people like us.
We are here today because the early church listened to God and they changed their mind about what they believed. The experience of God challenged their theology and so they altered their theology.
God has a habit of doing this.
But the question for us is, how does this apply to us today?
I think it says something to us about the spirituality of being a Christian and how vitally important it is to our decision making and our beliefs that we learn to listen to God. Think about it for a moment. Until the Holy Spirit gave them this new truth all that they had to go on was dogma and doctrine; basically what they knew from reading the commandments in the Old Testament.
How often do we try and make decisions based simply on the rules of our religion and what people have taught us?
In our most difficult and trying situations, do we listen to what the Holy Spirit may actually be trying to reveal to us?
In the midst of some of the most challenging times for the church today, does it not spend rather too much time endlessly debating the minutiae of texts when actually we should simply be listening?
If our religion is just about what we are told to believe, but without any actual experience of the spirituality of being a Christian with whom God communicates, in what ways is that actually Good News? All that is is a system of ethics on how to behave and you don’t need any religion to give you good ethics, although of course I would say that ethics which are informed by a belief in God are going to offer more.
Instead what we see here are people who are willing to be spoken to by God and changed by God. These are people who pray, who enter trance states in their communication with God, who see visions and have dreams and are open to the possibility that God speaks to his people.
So here, I think, is the challenge. God is saying to us:
‘If you ask, I will speak to you. But you must be willing to be changed by the experience.’
I don’t think God is in the business of giving us spiritual experiences for the sake of it. How we experience God should impact on how we live and the decisions that we make. Christianity is not meant to be all about warm fuzzy spiritual feelings, but it is meant to include a spirituality that speaks into the very heart of who we are by the words spoken by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. So let us set aside time to learn silence.