I want to focus on the story of Peter and the gentiles today. It’s from Acts 10. We’ll get there in a moment, but first I have a question for you about Mennonite moments.
Have you ever had a Mennonite moment? More specifically, have you had a Mennonite moment in the shower?
This sounds weird. You’re wondering: What is a Mennonite moment? Is it allowed, even in the shower? Is that the only place it can happen? What about Menno Simons? He didn’t even have a shower. Does a Mennonite moment involve peace? Does it have something to do with baptism? Is it a historic thing, like being burned by Catholics or drowned by the Swiss? Can you have a Mennonite moment . . . if you’re not a Mennonite?
The answer to most of these questions is ‘no’. Except for the one about a Mennonite moment being allowed and the last one about non-Mennonites being able to have Mennonite moments. The answer to those two questions is ‘yes’.
A Mennonite moment is that little blip of guilt when you wonder if some normal thing you’re doing is somehow unethical. The Mennonite moment in the shower is the moment when you realize you’ve been in for a while, you’re totally clean and now you’re just wasting water. Somewhere someone is going thirsty because of your long shower—at least that’s what you feel. As a Mennonite you find this especially tricky because we Mennonites are practical people. We want to live our faith. If we can’t peace and respect for the least of these in the shower, we start feeling guilty. So, in your moment of Mennonite guilt, you start itching to agitate for social change. You want to get someone somewhere to do something. Jesus wouldn’t stand for it, you think.
Your Mennonite moment continues, maybe it becomes a Mennonite minute. The truth is, you think, we’ve got lots of water in Canada. We have so much we freeze it and play games on it. We’ve got so much that a person probably couldn’t see it all in one lifetime. There is lots. It’s inexhaustible. But your mind keeps going. You remember that this is what we used to think about timber and bison and cod. Now we know better . . . so you turn the shower off. You decide to relax in the breeze on your back porch instead. This time you put your (Mennonite) clothes before going out to enjoy the sun.
As you watch the sunlight scatter down through the new leaves, you realize that the bigger question is what should you do if things change? What do you do if there isn’t enough? How do we keep the American’s out? How do you make sure you get what you need? How could you jump the line? How could you get ahead? You begin to imagine the country in some post-apocalyptic state: all the trees are dead, crops have been burned off, power lines are down, the entire town of Carp has descended into the Deifenbunker. What then? Who gets the good stuff? Who gets the water? What happens when things are scarce?
* * *
Our reading from Acts comes at a crucial place in the biblical story. It’s a pivot moment. The whole story makes a turn just about here. Up to this point the biblical story is mostly, almost exclusively, about the Hebrews, those worshipers of One God who would eventually become known as Jews. That’s not a problem in itself. They were called to bless the whole world after all. It just means that when Jeremiah writes something nice, like “for I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you,” he isn’t really writing to me or you. He’s writing to a specific ethnic group. If we aren’t part of that group, reading that nice passage is a bit like reading someone else’s mail.
This is even true of the gospels: the ‘you’ in the gospels isn’t you and me. It’s a group of mostly Jewish people crowded around Jesus. When we heard in our gospel reading (John 15) that Jesus says “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you . . . .” There too, the ‘you’ isn’t you or I, it’s a cluster of people around Jesus.
So where does this change?
The answer is that it changes here, in the book of Acts. Officially the book of Acts is the companion volume to the gospel of Luke. It tells the story of the early church. It tracks two leaders, first Peter, who worked primarily with the Jewish people, then it turns its attention to Paul, who worked mostly with gentiles. Our Amish cousins call everyone who is not Amish “the English.” To the first-century Jew, all others were “gentiles.” “Goyem,” I think, is the Hebrew.
Less officially, the book of Acts is about disruption, change and a massive pivot. It’s a post-apocalyptic story. It’s about a question of scarcity: “Who should get the water?”
In Acts 2, a few chapters before our reading, Jesus’ former students were huddled together in a room in Jerusalem. I imagine they thought the story was done. It was like the story had run itself into a fence or border wall. Jesus had come and gone. What now?
The Jesus character had tied himself to a rewrite of an ethnic story. The insiders and the imperial powers had said “no.” What now? What should these abandoned disciples do? How could they push the story forward?
The answer was just this: don’t manage or manipulate. Let it go. And all at once the room they were in was filled with God’s presence. It wasn’t because they had gotten out a whiteboard and drawn up a strategic plan for conquering the world. It wasn’t because they had some way to ensure they got what was theirs. Nope, the room was just filled with God’s presence. It was a holy presence. The best analogy they had was that it was like fire and wind.
Then these former students of the Anointed One began to talk about their experience. If you know the story, you know that the significant thing was that they were speaking in foreign languages. At that moment, the rewrite that Jesus begun was completed by the Holy Spirit. No longer was the story defined by language or culture or ethnicity. And now we, readers of the story, realize that everything that came before—the focus on the descendants of Sarah and Abraham, the nation of Israel—this was all good in itself, but it was a singular way of setting up a global story.
If the Bible is like a complicated apartment building, with lots of little rooms and hallways, this is the code we need to get in the front door. Here we, all the peoples of the world, enter as people who belong.
To change the analogy a bit: where the early church thought they had hit a wall, they found a doorway, the story pivoted. There was a future. It wasn’t one they chose. It was given to them.
Extending the new story line, though, was hard. This is what we see here with Peter in Acts 10. What happened was that a solider named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, had been searching for God. He may not have put it that way. Not everyone who searches for God knows that’s what they’re looking for. Depending on what sort of picture of God they have, they might think that God is the very last they want. Either way, Cornelius was a good man. He gave to the poor. He was devout. He prayed in some fashion.
God recognized the good will of Cornelius and decided to send Peter to tell him the story of God’s way with the world. Peter’s gut response, was “absolutely no!” Associating with a gentile violated his basic assumption about God’s plan. It took a dramatic vision and surprise guests, for God to get Peter on board.
Eventually, Peter does pay Cornelius a visit. To understand his resistance we must remember that, while God may have respected Cornelius’s devotion, to Peter the man was a symbol of the occupation.
Actually, he wasn’t a ‘symbol’ of the occupation, he was the occupation. In him Peter would have seen the oppression of his faith, the crushing of his people, the violation of holy places, the enablement of corrupt leadership, and the unraveling of morality’s fabric. So when Peter says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality,” when he says, “in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to him”—this is all big deal. This is the flowering of what was begun when those disciples began speaking in other tongues.
Something we should never, ever overlook is the fact that from the very beginning the Christian message has been translated. The Gambian theologian Lamin Sanneh has reminded contemporary Christians of this. Nobody needs to take on the language or the culture of the earliest believers to get in. The change in Acts is a profound moment of revelation.
At its best, what we see here is a globalism without hegemony. It’s a vision of universal respect that anchors cultural and linguistic diversity in the work of God’s Spirit. The Romans and the Greeks had something like a global vision, but theirs came with a forced Greek culture.
Other religions have global vision, but many require learning the language of the founder to really get serious. This work of the Spirit in Acts is different. It means “Many Peoples Sunday” is not some new, squishy politics of inclusion. It is a recognition of the church’s ancient roots.
While Peter speaks to Cornelius and his household, God’s presence again asserts itself. They say it “fell,” as though it somehow dropped from a higher realm. This time it is the gentiles who speak in manifold tongues. They praise God. Peter and his colleagues are astounded. What astounds them is that these gentile believers don’t need to become like the Jewish contingent to experience God. They don’t need to grow the beards and make the faspa. They don’t need to speak English. They don’t need to like the four-part harmony. They don’t need the same politics.
Peter sees al. He looks at his colleagues and says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” He’s daring one of them to speak up, to say that the way things have always been done is more important that the crazy stuff God was doing right before their eyes. There’s enough water of everyone, that’s his conclusion. There is not challenge of scarcity when it comes to baptism and inclusion in the people of God.
So what does this mean to us? If this biblical story is an earlier chapter of our story, how does it affect the lines we are writing now?
One simple, very local, answer is that it means we don’t need to be defensive in church life. We don’t need to defend ‘our’ way of doing church. There’s enough water to go around. We can be generous.
Another answer might be that we may as well anticipate surprises in the Christian life. The bouncer from Argentina just might become the pope. One of my ecclesial superiors is a man who was once a vulnerable immigrant in a big-city homeless shelter. The visitor might be the future council chair. The problem person might be a gift. The sense of unease we feel in our gut might be a prompting toward something new.
Another possible application of the story of Peter and Cornelius is that we would do well to take seriously the goodness of cultural diversity. We don’t need to begrudge other cultures a seat at our churchly table. The diversity’s been with us from the beginning. It’s how ‘we’ got here. It is ‘us’. Without shirking at all, we can say that the church is only Jesus’ church when it includes many peoples.
There could be many more applications of this passage to our lives, but I’ll mention just one more. It’s this: with God’s grace our story will go on. It can be hard to imagine when we receive a harsh medical diagnoses or when we get fired or when we lose someone we love. When things like that happen to us it looks like our story has run into a wall. What this story from Acts tells us is that we can watch for the pivot. We can watch for the new thing that makes sense of the old.