“The Living Body of Christ: Who Do We Keep Out”

The Living Body of Christ: Who Do We Keep Out?

First Baptist Richmond, May 5, 2024

Acts 10:44-48

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.

I once wrote a 300-page doctoral dissertation on the Gospel of Luke. Do you know why? Because I love Luke! It’s my favorite Gospel. And mostly because Luke is such a wonderful storyteller. Do you know that if it wasn’t for Luke we wouldn’t have the story of the Prodigal Son, or the Good Samaritan, or the Road to Emmaus? But apparently, when he got to the end of his Gospel, Luke still had some good stories to tell. In the Book of Acts he tells us about the Day of Pentecost, and Saul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus, and something New Testament scholar Carl Holladay refers to as “the breakthrough event in the life of the early church,” the Conversion of Cornelius.i That’s the one we’re going to look at today.

It begins in the first verse of chapter 10, with the introduction of Cornelius as a Roman centurion, meaning that he was a military man: the commander of a hundred Roman soldiers. But he was also a godly man. Even though he was what the Old Testament might dismiss as an “uncircumcised Gentile,” Luke describes him as “devout,” noting that he and his household had tremendous respect for the God of Israel, that he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. I think Luke is trying to tell us that Cornelius was as close to God as a Gentile could get without actually becoming a Jew, that is, without submitting to the ritual requirements of circumcision, dietary laws, and sacrifices.ii

But one afternoon at about three o’clock Cornelius had a vision of an angel, who stood before him and said, “Cornelius.” He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Sir?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything he sent them to Joppa.”

About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. And Luke doesn’t have to introduce us to Peter. We know all about him, not only from the Gospel but also from his central role in the Book of Acts. He is the chief apostle, the one whose preaching led to the conversion of 3,000 people on the Day of Pentecost. But now, for whatever reason, he is in Joppa, on the Mediterranean Coast. Maybe he’s there on a spiritual retreat. But Luke tells us that while he was on the roof praying, “He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while it was being prepared he fell into a trance. 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.”

I want to pause there for a moment, because those ten words—“What God has made clean you must not call profane”—are crucial. In Hebrew the word for

“clean” is kosher, which you’ve probably heard before, but the word for unclean is tamē, which you probably haven’t heard. Strong’s Concordance defines it as “foul in a religious sense—defiled, infamous, polluted,” like those animals in the sheet Peter saw lowered down. But now he tells Peter to kill and eat some of those same animals. “God forbid it, Lord!” Peter says, shocked by the very idea. “I have never eaten anything unclean or profane!” The voice warns, “Don’t call unclean what God has made clean.” And then there’s a knock on the door, and when Peter opens it he finds three Gentiles standing there.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

They tell him they’ve been sent from a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and that Peter is supposed to come with them. He invites them in to spend the night but the next day he rounds up a few believers from Joppa and goes with them and on the following day they come to Cornelius’s house in Caesarea. There’s a big crowd there; Cornelius has invited his friends and family to hear what Peter has to say. Peter says, “Look, you yourselves know that the Law of Moses forbids a Jew to associate with or even to visit a Gentile, but the Lord has shown me that I must not call anyone profane or unclean. So, when I was sent for I came without objection. Now, what’s this all about?” And then Cornelius told him about the angel who had come to him and told him to send for Peter and to listen to whatever he had to say. And what Peter said, finally, was this: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” That is, he doesn’t make the distinctions we do. He doesn’t regard some as clean and others as unclean. He seems to be ready to accept whoever is ready to be accepted. If we were trying to apply this story to our own context we might ask: What about us? Are we ready to accept those that God is ready to accept?

I know I’ve told this story before, but some of you weren’t here to hear it. It was May 13, 2008. I had been pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church for exactly two days. At staff meeting on that Tuesday morning we were talking about the woman who had come forward on Sunday to join the church. I looked at her application for membership and in the margin, in pencil, someone had written, “Needs to be baptized.” “Why is that?” I asked. “It looks like she’s coming from the Methodist Church.” “Well, yes,” I was told, “but it’s our policy to baptize anyone who hasn’t been immersed.” And my reaction was exactly the same as if a nice Gentile boy had come down the aisle and someone had written a note in the margin saying, “Needs to be circumcised.”

I was shocked.

I know that in the Baptist tradition we practice believer’s baptism by immersion. It’s the only way I’ve ever done it and the only way I ever will. I love it that we wait until you are old enough to make up your own mind about Jesus before you are baptized, and that nobody carries you down the aisle of a Baptist church and nobody pushes you down. I love it that we baptize by immersion, which is a powerful symbol of being washed, of dying and rising to a whole new life, or even of being born again. What I didn’t love was the idea that someone who had become a Christian in another tradition—where they have their own beautiful reasons for doing things the way they do—couldn’t simply transfer their membership from that tradition to this one. Why were we asking them to start all over again with baptism, which is the initiation ritual of Christianity?

My questions in staff meeting started a church-wide conversation that went on for two years. We weren’t talking about changing the way we baptize, but we were talking about changing our membership policy so that we could welcome

those who had come to us from other Christian traditions without requiring them to be re-baptized. It seemed to me that we were treating Christians of other denominations the way the Jews used to treat Gentiles by letting a religious ritual stand in the way of their full inclusion. The Jews would say those Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to become Jews; we were saying those Methodists had to be immersed in order to become Baptists. But on that rooftop in Joppa Peter heard the voice of the Lord telling him, “Don’t call profane what I have made clean,” forcing him to reconsider his long-held understanding of who was in and who was out.

By the time he gets to Cornelius’s house he is able to acknowledge that even though the Law of Moses would forbid him to do what he is doing the Word of the Lord is teaching him something new. “God has shown me that I must not call anyone profane or unclean,” he says. And that’s huge! Only a few days earlier if you had told him that there was a Gentile who wanted to join the church he might have said, “That’s wonderful! But of course he will have to be circumcised and begin following the Law of Moses.” A few chapters later some of the traditionalists in Jerusalem will say that very thing.iii But Peter’s mind is being opened in ways he never imagined, and after Cornelius tells his story of seeing an angel who praises him for his godliness Peter is able to say, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” That is, he doesn’t make the distinctions we do. He doesn’t regard some as clean and others as unclean. He seems to be ready to accept whoever is ready to be accepted.

And so Peter begins to tell these Gentiles the good news about Jesus, the Messiah. And based on his experience in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost he may have assumed that his hearers would 1) be cut to the heart, 2) repent, 3) ask

for baptism, and 4) receive the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is impatient. While Peter is still preaching the Spirit falls, throwing the whole thing out of sequence. It would be like Cheryl playing the Hymn of Invitation before I’d even finished the sermon, or people coming down the aisle to join the church before I’d asked them to come. Peter wasn’t finished yet, but the Spirit had heard all it needed to hear. Peter sees these Gentiles rejoicing, he hears them speaking in tongues, and he realizes that something more powerful than the order of worship is at work. He says to those who are with him, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these who have received the Spirit just as we have?” And no one among those six Jewish believers who had come with him from Joppa could think of a single good reason. They had witnessed this miracle with their own eyes.

But word got back to Jerusalem, and those Jewish believers who hadn’t seen it wanted a full accounting. Peter was baptizing Gentiles? What?!? So he laid it out for them step by step, telling them the whole story of being up on the rooftop in Joppa, of seeing the sheet lowered, of hearing a voice say, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat,” and being told that what God had made clean he should not call profane. That led him to the home of Cornelius where he first told them that he shouldn’t be there, but then admitted that God had made it clear to him that he shouldn’t make distinctions. And so he shared the gospel with those Gentiles, and while he was preaching the Holy Spirit fell on them and they began to speak in tongues. “And I remembered the word of the Lord,” Peter told them, “how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave [to these Gentiles] the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:16-17). And here’s the real miracle: Luke writes, “When they heard this, [Peter’s critics] were

silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

Frank Stagg says that ultimately, this good news was too much for the Jewish believers to accept. In his commentary on Acts he writes: “The problem of accepting uncircumcised Gentiles became increasingly difficult for Jewish Christians, leading to their eventual self-exclusion from the Christian community….iv That which finally proved unacceptable to them was the fact that Christianity threatened to release even the Jews from the ritual law and demanded the equality of Jews and Gentiles in the kingdom….v Christianity did not demand of Gentiles that they become Jews; it did not require them to become members of the Jewish nation. Instead, it formed a new community in which Jew and Gentile were equal, or rather in which the matter of being a Jew or a Gentile was irrelevant.”vi

It’s like some people were saying fifteen years ago when we were talking about letting Methodists become members without immersing them. Some said, “If we do that we’ll have to take the name Baptist right off the building.” But you know what? We did it, and we didn’t take the name Baptist off the building, and some of those Methodists have turned out to be pretty good Baptists. It’s like my brother-in-law, Chuck, the Episcopal priest, said to me in those days when I asked if I would have to be re-baptized in order to join his church. He said, “Absolutely not! We would accept your baptism. But we would also immerse you in the Episcopal way of doing things.” Maybe Peter learned to say to those Gentile converts, “We’re not going to ask you to be circumcised, or follow the Jewish dietary laws, or make ritual sacrifices. But we are going to ask you to learn the way of Jesus, and to walk in it for the rest of your life. Are you ready to do that?” And if

someone said yes to that question, no matter who they were, could there be any good reason to keep them out?

—Jim Somerville © 2024