July 12, 2020
I love Peter. Perhaps you remember from the Gospels that Peter is the one who:
- –walks to Jesus on water—then sinks; –rebukes Jesus for saying he will die
- –arguing when Jesus tries to wash his feet; –cuts off servant’s ear when Jesus is arrested
- –denies Jesus 3 times
Peter means well, but doesn’t always have the best follow-through. He is impulsive. And he is argumentative.
In this story of Peter’s rooftop vision, we again see his argumentative side. Even in a divine trance, Peter is arguing with God. God says, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” And Peter says, TO GOD, who has just dropped a sheet full of animals OUT OF THE SKY: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”
God tells Peter to eat three times, then the sheet is taken back up with all of the animals still alive and well. That’s about when Cornelius’ men show up at Simon the tanner’s house asking for Peter. They want him to come with them to Caesarea.
It is, I think, no coincidence that Peter is in Joppa. Does that city name sound familiar from Sunday School? This is the same city Jonah—another person famous for arguing with God—sailed from heading in the opposite direction from where God told him to go.
In his commentary on Acts, Willie James Jennings notes that “[t]he deepest reality of life in the Spirit depicted in the book of Acts is that the disciples rarely, if ever, go where they want to go or to whom they would want to go.” Peter’s presence in Joppa reminds us that this is not new behavior on the part of God. The Jewish stories of patriarchs, matriarchs, and prophets are filled with people going places they don’t want to go, connecting with people they would rather avoid.
In Jonah’s case, it took a storm at sea and three nights in the belly of a fish to get him to actually go and preach God’s message to Nineveh.
Peter, it seems, doesn’t require quite such extreme measures. He has learned a few things along the way. He may argue with God on the rooftop, but when the delegation from Caesarea shows up, he gets it. He gets that the animals were a metaphor for people. He gets what God meant by the words: “What God has made clean you must not call profane.”
And so he goes to the place God is sending him—Caesarea—even though it’s not the place he wants to go; he goes to be with the people God sends him to—the household of Cornelius, a Roman army officer—even though those are not the people he wants to go to.
This week, Andrew Brown shared a story of God leading him to go somewhere he didn’t want to go, to be with people he was nervous to join. He shared about participating in the protests on Mass Street. Here’s part of what he shared:
“I heard a call in my soul, “What is a white ally?” I have tried to address my own White Fragility issues. I watched the events on the news and said that, as a white ally, it is my duty to watch and bear witness, but then something flashed on the news: it not enough for white allies to watch but they need to participate and be part of the Black Lives Movement. . . . with fear in my heart I fought the voices in my head saying “don’t do this” and listing every reason not to. I moved towards the barricades and there I stood looking down on Mass street from the North. I was fearful first of the tents and the other protestors. Who were these people? But soon my fears were calmed as they were all wearing masks and passing out waters.
“I came home that day and read more about what they were protesting and learned even more about Mr. Rontarus Washington. The following day I returned. I had less fear in my heart but still felt the presence of those who went before me. I still asked, “What am I doing? Am I really putting myself in danger? What if a car attempts to drive through the barricades again or someone starts shooting?” A spiritual voice led me to the line in a hymn that says, ‘We shall not be moved.’
“As cars drove by this second day, the situation was more frightening. As cars approached, drivers often made like they were going to crash into us before they would turn off, or yelled things like “White people are oppressed too,” or “God loves the KKK.” But despite these epithets, people who were with me were always calm. We raised our fists in solidarity and looked straight ahead, unmoved by their hatred. Other drivers honked and raised their fists and yelled back ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and ‘No Justice, No Peace.'”
When Andrew went down to Massachusetts Street, he allowed the Spirit of God to be in charge, to lead him where he was afraid to go. Maybe you, also, have stories of being led into uncomfortable—even fearful–situations, of being called to work with people you would rather avoid. Maybe God is calling you right now in a direction that makes you reluctant, resistant, uncomfortable.
In the Bible study material we’re using for our Wednesday night study, Yale professors Harold Attridge and David Bartlett discuss two key realities in the book of Acts:
- God is in charge.
- The world gets turned upside down.
This idea of the Spirit sending us where we wouldn’t choose to go on our own—that’s God being in charge.
I’m also interested in the idea of the world being turned upside down. This story of Peter and Cornelius is considered by many Biblical scholars to be the pivot point of the book of Acts. It is where the decisive turn is made toward including Gentiles in the community of Jesus-followers. Peter’s world—and soon the world of all of the dedicated Jewish followers of Christ—gets turned upside down.
In that spirit of turning things upside down, I’ve been thinking about something that came up in the recent Menno Media seminar on “Equipping Ministry for Anti-Racist Change.” Pastor Delante Gholston said that part of our anti-racism work in the church has to do with how we read the Bible. He asked, “What lens are we reading scripture with?” and urged us to know where we are in the story.
Thus far, we’ve been looking at this story as if we are in the position of Peter—carriers of the faith possibly called into “enemy” territory to share the Good News. I’d like to turn that reading upside down and consider what it means for us if we are, instead, Cornelius. The privileged one. The one backed by the protection and power of empire. The one who is also moved by the Spirit, but rather than going where he doesn’t want to go, he sends other people there on his behalf. The one who is also moved by the Spirit to hang out with people he might have preferred not to hang out with—but does so in his own home surrounded by his family, his slaves, and, most likely, at least some of the armed soldiers he commands.
Another panelist, Pastor Jerrell Williams, said it is important for black people to re-claim the biblical text and recognize that the oppressed are the carriers of the Gospel.
So I think those of us who are white Mennonites would do well to consider the position of Cornelius in this story—rather than assuming we are the Gospel-carrier, Peter. As Cornelius, we recognize that in the world of the Mennonite church and in broader society, we are in positions of relative privilege and protection. We may be more comfortable inviting people of color into “our” spaces than we are going into theirs. We may want to send other people to connect with those who are different—then they can give us a report or write a book for us to read.
Now here I want to be clear that I am not criticizing Cornelius. He does exactly what God calls him to do. He sends people to get Peter and bring him to Caesarea. That’s what God asks—maybe because God knows that that is what Cornelius will be willing to do. Cornelius is faithful—in his own way.
I planned this sermon series before listening to the anti-racism workshop. I planned this sermon assuming that we were Peter in this story. Which is why I stopped the reading—that you heard from Dave—where I did. Far enough for us to get the point to go where God sends, to be brave and let the Spirit lead us.
But if we’re Cornelius, well, then we have to keep going. I encourage you to read the rest of Acts 10 this week. Here’s the condensed version: At Cornelius’ house, Peter gives a sermon explaining the significance of Jesus and the Holy Spirit falls on everyone who hears Peter speak. They are baptized and Peter stays with them for several days further instructing them about Jesus.
This is where the risk comes—and the sacrifice—for Cornelius: with the baptism. Because, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the baptism of spirit and water leads to baptism of fire. When we follow Jesus and allow the Spirit to control our lives, we cannot hold our power in the same way; we cannot maintain the hierarchies in our relationships or insist on protecting our own status and wealth at the expense of others. Inviting Peter to his home might not have seemed like much of a risk for Cornelius, but that was the first and necessary step to baptism.
And what now? We don’t hear about Cornelius beyond Acts 10. But I wonder what this baptism meant for him. Did he keep his slaves? Did he continue to serve in the Roman army? Did his wealth get turned over to a common purse?
I wonder what our baptisms mean for us. Are we open not just to the beloved baptism by water, but also to the baptism of Spirit and of fire? The workshop panelists talked about the importance of these transformative baptisms for anti-racist work.
I wonder what our baptisms mean for us. Will we allow the Spirit to lead us to places we don’t want to go, to people we’re not too sure about? Will we follow people we are used to leading? Share our money as witness to God’s bounty and justice? Will we read the Bible in new ways and form new relationships?
Will we let God be in charge even when it means that our world gets turned upside down?