Shared Birth

  • Acts 10: 44-48
  • May 14, 2006
  • 4th Presbyterian Church, Chicago, Vespers
  • May 21, 2006
  • Hope Christian Reformed Church, Oak Forest, IL

As far as Peter was concerned, he never knew what God would ask of him next.

His life, since that first request, had gone places he never expected. He started out a fisherman, a working man, with a family and responsibilities, a good man, religious, respected, hard working. But with a few words, the strangest and most compelling man he ever met, Jesus, called him away from all of that: “Follow me.” With no idea where they would go, Peter had followed. At first, the miracles kept him following—people healed, made whole again, even Peter’s own mother-in-law restored to good health. But eventually, the words and the stories were what drew him. Half the time, he didn’t understand what Jesus meant, why Jesus did the things he did. Jesus talked about God’s kingdom and righteousness, but he ate with Jews who were marginal, questionable types. Even the occasional Gentile slipped into their company. And yet, Peter kept following. And Jesus became his teacher, and his friend. Peter stored away every detail, every story he could remember—even when he didn’t understand, he had this feeling that it would be important to remember some day.

Peter followed as far as he could during the last weeks of Jesus life, tried to keep up with the whirlwind of what happened as Jesus went to Jerusalem and said cryptic, crazy things about his time ending, put himself in harm’s way.  And for Peter, that whole week crashed to a terrible, crunching halt in those moments after Jesus was arrested: In the early morning, Peter lost his courage, denied even knowing his friend, and wound up cowering in fear with the other men who had followed Jesus.  The women followers ran their errands, but the men holed up, shaking and  afraid until the strange days afterward when Jesus was back from death, back with them, to talk, and eat, and laugh.

But after that denial, after the cowardly hiding, he still couldn’t believe what Jesus would ask of him, “Feed my sheep,” Jesus said. And Peter, the fisherman, who knew nothing about sheep—except that they couldn’t be caught by a net!—Peter said “Yes.” He would take care, he would herd and nourish and protect the people Jesus sent his way.

And then the Spirit came to them, and while all the disciple were filled with its power, while each of them found new understanding and new words, it was Peter whose preaching put the whole puzzle together. Peter was not the most likely of the bunch to be the great preacher, not the most educated, never the most eloquent, a bit of a bumbler. But the preaching seemed to be what the Spirit asked of him. And so he spoke, wove together the whole story of God’s people, tied together the loose ends with the stories and sayings he remembered from Jesus. And it all seemed to work. The Scripture was fulfilled, and there were more and more disciples day by day. Here was a herd Peter could care for.

He did what God had asked—followed Jesus, preached the word, fed the growing flock of believers. He prayed—thanking God for this fulfillment of the promises to Israel, praying for the growth of the community in Jerusalem, throughout Israel.

But he never knew what the next request might be.

That was when the vision came. Peter was in Joppa, recuperating from the hard spiritual work of a few healings, staying with another follower: Simon, a tanner. It was a good place to stay, a good reminder of what he had learned from Jesus. This Simon was a good Jew, but a tanner, a leather-curer. All those animal parts and smells around the house would have scared Peter off before he knew Jesus. Jews could be tanners, but it was a little suspect, just on the edge of being unclean. But this didn’t bother Peter now. Think of all the slightly marginal Jews Jesus had stayed with, eaten with. Peter was proud that he could stay here now without flinching, without checking his religious sensibilities at the door. Simon was a good man, another follower.

The truth was, though, the house was a little smelly, and Peter found it easier to pray away from that stifling distraction. So he spent many mornings on the roof, praying, meditating, running over the Scriptures, thinking through the next sermon. And waiting—waiting for the next thing God might ask.

At first he thought the vision was just the rumblings of his unruly stomach. It was almost noon. He thought of Jesus’ words—one cannot live on bread alone—he tried to focus on the prayer.

But the vision kept coming. A sheet came down, busting at the seams with all the animals, as if Noah’s big boat-full had overflowed. And then the voice, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter’s stomach turned—he knew what the voice meant. Kill and eat—anything in the sheet. The shet was full of unclean animals of all kinds, the things only Gentiles, pagans ate. Bats and turtles, lizards and pigs. Since before he could remember, he was told to stay away, not even to touch them. His mother said so, his father, his sisters…the rabbis, the wise men of the village…even Jesus didn’t eat that stuff. The words were out of his mouth before he knew it: “No Lord, I have never eaten anything unclean.” Peter was born and raised a good Jew, and he intended to stay that way. And then the voice again, “What God has made, you must not call unclean.” And the voice kept saying back, “Peter, kill and eat.” “Peter, kill and eat.” And Peter kept saying “no.” Then the sheet and its menagerie were lifted back to heaven and the vision melted away. Peter had no idea wh?at it meant, even where this vision was from. God or his stomach? The Spirit or something else What God has made, you must not call unclean. But what God has forbidden, Peter thought, you must not touch, right?

And then Peter felt the stirring inside, not a vision, but that quiet whisper of the Spirit. “Peter—three men are looking for you. Go downstairs, Go with them. Don’t hesitate. I sent them.” And so he went down, and there they were—servants of a Roman looking for Peter, called Simon, asking at the gate, desperate for him to come. Their master, Cornelius, a man who knew God, (but a Gentile none-the-less), had seen an angel, and the angel’s only message was to send someone for this Peter, staying in Joppa, with Simon the Tanner. He wanted Peter to come, right away.

To travel a day, be a guest at the home of a Gentile. Peter could barely clasp hands with a Gentile, let alone eat and sleep in his house. Forget following Jewish law on food—who knew what had been in their kitchens! And cleaning and household regulations? Who knew what Gentiles did, and who knew what Jewish laws they broke? By association, through the things they touched, the lives they lived, Gentiles were themselves walking, talking uncleanliness. Even the God-fearing ones really had no idea how to follow God properly, how to live righteously.

The truth was, Judaism was something you had to be born into. You learned righteousness at your mother’s knee. You absorbed it in the food you ate, the blessings you spoke, the rhythm of the Jewish year. You lived surrounded on every side by God’s people, learning the laws and the customs as part of the community.

This shared identity was the only thing that held the people together—occupied by a foreign power, constantly pressured to compromise their beliefs, the laws and the customs were the things all Jews shared. They were all that preserved the community.

Peter could love a Gentile from a distance. but to spend a day’s journey, to accept hospitality on the terms of a Gentile? He had never even eaten anything unclean! To bring the fulfillment of the law and prophets to Gentiles? It could only dilute what was left of his heritage!

Suddenly, the vision and voice of the Spirit all merged in Peter’s head. “Go with them, don’t hesitate.” “Kill and eat.”

As far as Peter was concerned, you never knew what God would ask next.

The walk would take a day, so Peter rationalized with the Spirit and hesitated a bit—for practicality’s sake. And the next morning, he took a group of followers from Joppa, all good followers and good Jews, trembling a bit along with Peter, and they left for Caesarea.

As they walked, as he thought about what God was asking him to do, Peter realized that there was something about this Cornelius that made him even more uncomfortable than the Gentile part. This man was a centurion, a man who was in charge of 100 Roman soldiers. He had power. Peter, for all his bluster, for all that help from the Spirit, was still just a fisherman from Capernaum. Cornelius had an angel visit and tell him to find Peter, and he had three men he could spare for a two day journey to retrieve him. This man was a centurion, a commander in the Roman army, the occupiers, the people who just barely tolerated Peter’s faith, as a Jew, and as a follower of Jesus.

That was what made the arrival so surprising. There was no waiting for Cornelius to tie up more important business before he met with them. Instead, the house was filled with his friends and family, waiting for Peter. And Cornelius fell down at Peter’s feet like he was a God. (The first thing, thought Peter, he’d have to correct Gentiles on…worship is for God only)

So, Peter and Cornelius compared visions, and then Peter started to preach, to weave together the stories of his vision, weaving back to the story of Jesus, the prophets, the fulfillment, pulling it all together, trying to make it fit with the lives of these people.

And suddenly, the Spirit came again, just like it had the first time, the Pentecost. Peter was not even done speaking, and the whole group, Cornelius, his relatives, his friends, began to speak and praise, prophesy, and worship God. Peter and the ones who had traveled with him from Joppa could only stand and watch. This had happened to them. But here it was, spreading beyond their control, beyond their circle, beyond their tradition and training, in a place, with a people who were unclean, who could barely understand the deep, rich history of the this God who they were praising. But the Spirit was present. There was no other explanation.

What more could Peter do? These people were not born Jews. But they knew the God of the Jews, and they praised and they worshipped. They knew God’s Spirit, as surely as Peter did. They were not born Jews, but this Spirit was something they shared. This moment was a new birth, the same new birth that came to the disciples at Pentecost. The old distinctions couldn’t matter. Born Gentile, born Jew, this birth of the Spirit was the birth they shared now.

Peter remembered things Jesus had said:

You must be born again.

I have sheep not of this flock

Go baptize, and make disciples of all nations.

John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.

Who was he, Peter, to oppose what God was doing?

So Peter looked at the others from Joppa and said, “How can we withhold water for baptism? They’ve already received the Spirit!” And they baptized them all.

Peter knew this would change everything. He wasn’t surprised when word reached Jerusalem—the uproar over baptizing people not born as Jews, not born into the faith. The uproar over the falling of distinctions, who was clean, who was unclean.

Even Peter would remain uncomfortable with parts of it. A few years later, when Paul started seeking out Gentiles and baptizing them Peter wondered if he had crossed a line—Paul didn’t teach them much about Jewish ways and righteousness, didn’t require much in terms of practice.

But suddenly, the world was bigger. What God was asking them was so much broader than they’d ever imagined. This story of Jesus was not just fulfillment of the law and prophets—it threw itself open to those of any birth. Jew, Gentile, slave, free, men and women: all kinds, all colors, all nations. It threw itself open to all people of every birth, and made them one.

As far as Peter was concerned, he never knew what God would ask of him next.

The requests eventually took him far from Jerusalem, from everything and everyone he knew. But in every place, there was this shared birth—of new life in Christ and the Spirit.

We never know what God will ask of us next.

The visions we have, the whisper of the Spirit, these things are not always clear to us, and we may question what they mean. But somehow, God is always calling us to something new, to new people and places. Places we never thought we would go. People with whom we thought we had nothing to share.

Sometimes, we are called to the very people and places we know, we have always known, since we were children, we ought not to go, to people and places we never imagined God could visit.
Sometimes, we are called to throw open the story of Jesus to people who we thought might not deserve to hear it.

The story of Jesus is bigger that us, than our identity. It throws itself open to people of any birth. But for all people, in that story, there is this shared birth—new life in Christ, and the Spirit.

Thanks be to God.