The Apostle Peter:
‘I now know that God shows no partiality.’ … God is not a looker upon the face, does not play favourites, shows no partiality. Can we hear what an upsetting, exciting, world-reversing word this must have been to those whose faith was based upon assumptions of partiality, who had suffered in spite of and because of this partiality, and yet still believed? It was not an easy word to hear. Throughout Acts, step by step, laying scriptural proof on proof, gradually edging us out of Jerusalem and into Samaria, now into Joppa, past the converted Samaritans and then the Ethiopian, Luke has brought us face to face with this Roman soldier so that we may feel the full blast of the gospel, may know the reluctance of the disciples to be here, may know how long and painful was their journey to realise the full and frightening implications of the gospel―God shows no partiality! ― William H Willimon, Acts: Interpretation series
Today, the Church celebrates the Baptism of Jesus. Yet we’re not touching specifically on Jesus’ baptism this morning; we’ll be looking at the baptism of Gentiles in the Book of Acts.
You may recall that last Sunday, we talked about the greatest controversy in the early decades of the the Christian movement. It was this: at the very beginning, the Christian movement was a subgroup within the Jewish faith. When Gentiles, non-Jews, were attracted to the movement, should they become Jews too? Many leaders, like James the brother of Jesus, thought they should. Others like Peter wavered. But Paul stood firm, proclaiming that God had opened the way for Gentiles to come to Christ without becoming Jews first. It was a huge fight. The nearest equivalent we have is the ongoing quarrel between those who welcome LGBTIQ people as full members of the church and those who deny them full participation in the life of the church.
In the past, people have put it to me that I am for the inclusion of queer Christians because I’m a ‘liberal’ Christian, or because I’m some kind of ‘woke inner-city latte-sipping greenie’. A label I utterly reject! — I take my coffee black.
Really though, I am for inclusion because of the way I read the Bible. Today’s reading from Acts comes from one of the foundational scriptural texts of inclusion. Let’s turn to the scripture together, and look at Peter’s dilemma.
Peter is staying in Joppa (today, it’s called Jaffa, and is a district in Tel Aviv, the capital of Israel). Peter is staying somewhere I wouldn’t want to stay, at Simon the tanner’s house. Have you ever smelled a tannery? Simon probably worked his tannery from his home. Maybe you’d get used to the smell…?
Peter is up on the flat roof, having a prayer time. He is hungry, and he has this vision:
He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. (Acts 10.11–16)
Not an appetising menu, I’m sure you’d agree!
Just then, three men come looking for Peter. They have been sent by a centurion named Cornelius, who lived over in another coastal place called Caesarea.
a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. (Acts 10.2)
Things aren’t black and white, are they? This good man, this man Luke calls ‘devout’, was an officer in the Roman occupying forces. His people had invaded and subjugated the land of Israel.
Peter goes with these Gentiles to Caesarea. There, he says to Cornelius,
You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. (Acts 10.28–29)
The vision Peter had received wasn’t only about what to have for lunch. It was about people. It was about how Peter should treat people. In fact, it was about how God treats people. God doesn’t play favourites. God shows no partiality.
Peter had always thought that God does have favourites. He thought his own people, Israel, were God’s favourites. Peter thought he knew what was clean, and what was unclean. He was beginning to find out he had no idea.
So Peter preaches the Good News of Jesus to these Gentiles, these eaters of bacon sandwiches and prawn cocktails. He preaches to them, but he’s not prepared for what happens next. They are converted! The Holy Spirit comes upon them:
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. (Acts 10.45–46)
Astounding! The Holy Spirit comes upon Gentiles! It’s really true: God has no favourites. The Gentiles are also God’s beloved children. You can see Peter’s jaw drop all the way to the ground.
So Peter asks,
Can anyone withhold the water for baptising these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?
No one can. So they are baptised, and now part of the family of Christ. They are members of the household of God. Even more: they are God’s beloved children!
This is all so normal for us, we have to use our imaginations to try to grasp it. We have to visualise a different world, a first-century world of walls and boundaries between Jew and Gentile that we do not experience in our little world.
Yet it’s not just in the first century. There are walls aplenty in the twenty-first century.
I said earlier that the nearest equivalent we have in our century is the ongoing quarrel between those who welcome LGBTIQ people as full members of the church and those who do not.
I grew up in a time when most of us neither understood nor accepted same-sex attraction. As I grew up, I became aware of the emerging consensus that same-sex attraction is a normal part of the spectrum of human life.
So I had the psychologists and sociologists telling me this on the one hand, and preachers telling me something different on the other. They adamantly told me that the Bible condemned homosexuality in all its forms.
For a long time, I lived in the tension. I wanted to fully affirm LGBTIQ people, but the Bible seemed to be against my desire to do so. What happened?
I had two kinds of encounter. Let me tell you about them one at a time.
One set of encounters was with LGBTIQ Christians, queer Christians. A few came out to me. Others were gay, lesbian or bisexual believers who were good people. Not only that, they really had the gifts of the Spirit. And the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace and the rest. Some were ministers of our Church. They were clearly gifted by the Spirit who knows who they are and rejoices in them.
I looked at these people and saw them returning good for evil. Other Christians said dreadful things about them; they responded in loving ways.
It’s like that for many people, of course; when we actually meet LGBTIQ people, or realise that we have family members who aren’t straight, we change our attitudes.
But what does the Bible teach? There are (only!) six or seven verses in the Bible (the ‘clobber’ verses!) that people use to denounce queer people. I’m happy to discuss these verses any time, but this wonderful story from Acts is a much more important passage for us today.
Then—and this is the second encounter—I began to realise in my heart that the Bible gives us an overarching story of a God of salvation, of liberation, of grace upon grace.
Today’s story from the Book of Acts shows us that God delights to break down the barriers that we erect to keep people out. Peter wasn’t convinced to include Gentiles by reading the Bible. But once the Spirit of God had convinced him, he learned to read the Bible differently.
This is a key point: once the Spirit of God convinces us, we read the Bible differently.
We could make a huge mistake here. We could say the Bible is an ancient book, and its statements are not relevant to us today.
Or: we can look at the Bible again with new eyes, eyes that are opened by what the Spirit of God is doing in our day.
This is who we are in West End. We are an open and affirming congregation because we have seen the Spirit of God in people who are not ‘straight’. And so we return to the Scriptures with new eyes, looking for its stories of liberation. And there are plenty of them.
The Church Council is looking at the areas of mission that we are being called to in 2020 and beyond. One is to find ways to be a more welcoming place for LGBTIQ people. I want to say clearly that we need not do this because because we are woke inner-city latte-sipping greenies. We can do it because we’re simple Bible-believing Christians.
Let us do it together in 2020.
West End Uniting Church, 12 January 2020