The Acts of an Easter People: Open Acceptance
A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist
April 28, 2013
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
“Bless his heart.”
Isn’t that what we do in the south when we say hateful things but don’t want to
sound hateful? We just add those
three little words at the end and think that makes everything all right.
They did it in the hills of West Virginia, where I grew up, but they did
it with a distinctive mountain twang.
They said things like, “That boy is dumber than a sled track, bless his
heart,” or, “That girl ain’t got the sense the good Lord gave a milk cow, bless
her heart,” or, “That child is uglier than homemade sin, bless his heart.”
So, I can almost hear some of those people from the hills of Galilee,
where Peter grew up, saying about him, “That feller just don’t know where to
draw the line, bless his heart,” because in today’s lesson from Acts 11—he
The story really begins back in chapter 10, and if it sounds familiar to you
don’t be surprised. This is a story
that gets told more than once in Acts, because it describes a watershed moment
in the spread of the gospel: that moment when the earthen dam of human tradition
collapses, and the good news about Jesus goes crashing, splashing through the
breach, washing over everybody in its way, even the Gentiles.
It starts with a Gentile named Cornelius, a commander in the Roman army,
and one of those Luke describes as a “God-fearer,” which means that even though
he was a Gentile he had profound respect for the God of the Jews.
“He gave alms generously,” Luke says, “and prayed constantly to God.”
One afternoon around three o’clock, as he was praying, he had a vision of
an angel who told him to send to Joppa for a man named Peter who was staying
with Simon the Tanner. So when the
angel left Cornelius called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from his
ranks, told them what he had seen and heard, and sent them to Joppa.
About noon the next day, as they were on their journey, Peter went up on the
roof of Simon’s house to pray. He
was hungry. He wanted something to
eat. And while he was waiting and
praying he had a vision. He saw
something like a sheet being lowered down by its four corners.
It had all kinds of four-footed animals in it, and reptiles, and birds.
And a voice said, “Get up, Peter.
Kill and eat.” But Peter
could see what was in the sheet, and it was all those things forbidden by
Leviticus, chapter 11—
Camels and badgers, rabbits and pigs;
Scallops and oysters, lobster and squid;
Vultures and hippos, herons and bats;
Weasels and geckoes, lizards and rats![i]
—all the foods that the Jews considered non-Kosher, or “unclean.”
“You will make yourselves unclean if you eat those things,” Moses had
said. “If you so much as touch them
you will be unclean until evening and have to wash your clothes” (Lev.
11:24-25). And so Peter said, “Not
on your life, Lord! I have never
eaten anything unclean.” But the
voice said, “Don’t call unclean what God has made clean.
This happened three times, and then the sheet was taken back up to
Now you know that when something is repeated in the Bible it’s because it is
important. It was important that
Peter get this message through his thick skull, bless his heart, because about
that time those three men who had been sent by Cornelius arrived.
The Spirit said, “Peter, there are some men at the front door looking for
you. Get up and go with them.
Don’t let anything stop you.
I’m the one who sent them.” So,
Peter went downstairs, opened the door, and found three
Gentiles standing there.
“I’m the one you’re looking for,” he said.
“What do you want?” And they
said, “We’ve come from Cornelius, the Roman
commander. He is a good man who
worships God. All the Jewish people respect him.
An angel told him to invite you to his house. Cornelius wants to hear
what you have to say.” And here’s
the first clue that Peter was being led by the Spirit: he invited these men,
these Gentiles, to come in and be his guests.
For Peter it would have been like sitting down in front of a big plate of
fried vulture, fricasseed gecko, barbecued weasel…
But they stayed the night and the next day he got up and went with them, and
some of the Jewish believers from Joppa went along.
The day after that they got to Caesarea and found Cornelius and a whole
group of other Gentiles waiting for them.
Peter introduced himself by saying,
“You know that it is against our law for a Jew to have anything to do with those
who aren’t Jews. But God has shown me that I shouldn’t say
anyone is not pure or ‘clean.’
So when you sent for me, I came.
Now, what’s this all about?”
And Cornelius told him. He said,
“It was around this time four days ago that
I was here in my house praying when suddenly some kind of angel stood right in
front of me. He said, ‘Cornelius, God has
heard your prayer. He has remembered your gifts to the poor.
There’s a man in Joppa named Peter who is staying
at the home of Simon the Tanner.
Send for him. He’ll tell you
everything.’ So I sent for you right away.
Now, what does God have to say?”
Peter was flabbergasted. He said:
Holy Spirit! I see that it’s true;
When you’re ready for God, God is ready for you;
Doesn’t limit his love, doesn’t ration his grace;
He will save anyone—anytime, anyplace![ii]
And as he began to tell those Gentiles
about Jesus the Holy Spirit fell upon them, and they all began speaking in
tongues, and Peter said to those who had come with him, “Can you see any reason
not to baptize these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
And so he ordered them to be baptized, and then he stayed with them for a
Bless his heart.
Because when he got back to Jerusalem he had some explaining to do.
The Jewish Christians, the ones Luke calls “the Circumcised,” wanted to
know why he had been spending time with the Uncircumcised and eating with them.
It was against the law!—the Law of Moses, that is—contrary to the clear
teaching of Scripture! Last week I
was trying to imagine a comparable situation in our own time when I bumped into
Victor Davis. Dr. Davis is a Baptist
minister. He taught our January
Bible Study last year. We started
talking about this passage and I asked him, “Victor, in our time, in our Baptist
tradition, who would be considered ‘unclean’?
And he didn’t hesitate. He
said, “The gays.” So I thought, what
if a local Baptist minister went on a mission trip to New York and found out
when he got home that pictures of him hanging out at a gay nightclub in
Manhattan had been published on the front page of the
Don’t you think there would be a special called deacons’ meeting that
very afternoon, and don’t you think that when everybody was assembled the deacon
chair would hold up the newspaper and ask, “What’s this all about?”
That’s how it was for Peter when the circumcised believers demanded to know why
he had been keeping company with the uncircumcised.
And starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story (reading
from Acts 11:5-17, NIV):
“I was in the city of
Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large
sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where
I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the
earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. Then
I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and
‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
“The voice spoke
from heaven a second time,
‘Do not call anything
impure that God has made clean.’
This happened three times, and then it was all
pulled up to heaven again.
“Right then three
men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was
The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about
going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s
house. He told us how he had seen an angel
appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter.
He will bring you a message through which you and
all your household will be saved.’
“As I began to
speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning.
Then I remembered what the Lord had said:
‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the
Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same
gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I
could stand in God’s way?”
And this may be the most remarkable thing of all—that when those people heard
they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to
Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Bless their hearts.
Because as far as I know this is the first time in the Bible when
experience has trumped Scripture; when what people have seen and heard has
claimed more authority than the Bible.
For them, when the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles it was proof that
God was doing a new thing. Peter
turned to those who were with him and said, “Can you see any reason not to
baptize these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
And the way he knew they had received the Holy Spirit is because they
were speaking in tongues. It’s what
happened to Peter and those others on the day of Pentecost, when they were all
together in one place, praying, and suddenly there was a sound like the rush of
a mighty wind, and flames of fire appeared over their heads, and they were all
filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit
gave them the ability. A huge crowd
gathered, people from all over the ancient world, and they were amazed to hear
these uncultured Galileans speaking their languages—Parthians, Medes, Elamites,
residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and
Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both
Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—they heard them praising God in their own
That was all the proof Peter needed that God was up to something, and
that this was what the prophet Joel had been talking about: that time when God
would pour his spirit out on all people.
sons and daughters will prophesy,” he said.
“Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants,” says the Lord, “On both men and women, I will pour out my
Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”
And here they were, uneducated men and women, people who had never taken
a foreign language class in their lives, extolling the wonders of God so that
people from all parts of the ancient world could hear it and understand it.
I’ve been telling you that Easter changes everything, but it certainly changes
this, doesn’t it? When Jesus died
the curtain of the temple was torn in two, and when he rose from the dead, the
stone was rolled away. The power of
God burst forth and filled his people, made them fearless witnesses, powerful
proclaimers. They shared the good
news with everyone: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia,
and in today’s lesson even with uncircumcised Gentiles who not only heard the
good news but received it, and were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to
speak in unknown tongues, so that Peter said, “If God gave them the same gift he
gave us, who was I to stand in the way?”
It seems clear from this story that God wants everybody, everywhere, to
hear the good news and receive it.
The circle of his love is large—large enough to take in the whole world.
So why do we make it smaller?
Why do we limit God’s love? Those
Jewish Christians in Jerusalem weren’t opposed to welcoming Gentiles into the
church; they just wanted them to be circumcised first, wanted them to become
Jews. Then they would let them in.
But God pushed Peter out the door of the church and in through the door
of a Gentile home, practically forced him to preach the Gospel, and then poured
out his Spirit upon those Gentiles until they were full to overflowing, praising
God with a loud voice, speaking in tongues, so that even the Jewish Christians
had to admit: “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads
to life.” And here’s an important
point: God didn’t require them to be circumcised first; he accepted them just
the way they were. So why do we want
everybody to become just like us before we can accept them?
Why did we have so much trouble welcoming people of other races into this
church? Why did we have so much
trouble welcoming Christians from other denominations?
And I know it makes us uncomfortable, but let’s go back to that gay
nightclub in Manhattan for a minute.
Suppose that Baptist minister said to the deacons, “You don’t understand; I was
witnessing to those people. I told
them the good news about Jesus. I
told them what Peter said to those Gentiles, that it’s true: “when
you’re ready for God, God is ready for you; he doesn’t limit his love, doesn’t
ration his grace; he’ll save anyone—anytime, anyplace.”
And suppose he told the deacons that right after that the Holy Spirit
fell on those people, and they began to speak in other tongues, praising God
with a loud voice. I know that
sounds far-fetched, but believe me; it is no more far-fetched than what happened
in the Book of Acts. Would that be
convincing proof? Would those
deacons respond as the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem did?
Would they say, “Then God has given even to the gays the repentance that
leads to life”? Or would they drag
that minister outside the city gates and stone him to death?
What would you do if you were one of those deacons?
Bless my heart, every time I hear this story it forces me to deal with the
possibility that God is willing to accept people I am not, and every time I hear
it I need to ask, “Lord, am I calling something ‘unclean’ that you have made
“And if so, would you show me?”
[i] My wife is a
Everything begins to sound like
children’s books after a while.
[ii] I wrote this
rhyme based on Acts 10:34-35 (channeling Dr.
—Jim Somerville © 2013