We're so glad you're joining us for the Sunday after Thanksgiving,
and the first Sunday in Advent.
When we meet together in person, we share our joys and concerns before we focus on our Sunday school lesson. Think about your needs and concerns right now, and if you like, you can share them in the comments.
Our Sunday school and church is now open so that we can join to worship God, to learn about God’s word and to encourage each other in person. We are grateful to be back together, but we continue to pray for those who not yet able to participate in person or who do not yet feel comfortable participating in person. We are glad that those who cannot be with us physically are able to learn and worship with us here online.
Today’s lesson is on Acts 10:34-47. It is the story of how God opened the way for the gospel to be proclaimed to all people without favoritism. It gives us an opportunity to think about how we relate to those who are different from us. Do we show partiality to those who are like us? Who think like us? Who look like us or who are in the same economic class as us?
If God does not show favoritism, it follows that we should not, either.
The following — slightly edited — prayer was posted on William Hagenbach’s blog. You can see his entire post at https://williamhagenbuch.com/when-favoritism-doesnt-fly/.
Lord, help us hear ourselves when we use words that define people different than us, and then grant us the courage to love beyond our comfort places so that You are known and shown in the world You gave all of us. Amen.
This week's lesson is on Acts 10:34-47.
Today’s passage is an excerpt from a longer story that extends from Acts 10:1 to 11:18. The length of the account, which comprises more than 6 percent of the book of Acts, reflects its significance.
This turning point in salvation history occurred after the day of Pentecost, when the apostle Peter had declared in his gospel message that “the promise is for you … and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39). Given Peter’s surprise in today’s passage, he may have presumed that “all who are far off” referred only to all Jews who were far off (Compare addressees in James 1:1.).
Our lesson text has Peter standing before a Gentile audience, poised to share the gospel. This was a huge step for Peter. To observant Jews, Gentiles were unclean pagans, people who might endanger the apostles’ own religious and moral purity. Any sharing of faith beliefs by Jews to Gentiles would have been “clean” ones testifying to “unclean” ones.
But God was changing that mindset. Two visions happened about 21 hours apart, the first to a Roman centurion named Cornelius (Acts 10:1-6) and the second to the apostle Peter (9-16). Cornelius’s vision happened in Caesarea Maritime and Peter’s in Joppa, about 30 miles away.
Although Cornelius was not a Jewish convert, he was a devout man, praying to the God of Israel and modeling generosity to his neighbors. Recognizing the sincerity of Cornelius’s faith, God chose him to be the starting point for extending the gospel to the Gentiles. An angel appeared to him, instructing him to send for Peter. Then, while Peter was praying, God gave him a vision in which he repeatedly commanded him to eat food that was forbidden to Jews. A voice told him not to call anything unclean that God had made clean.
Immediately after Peter’s vision, messengers arrived from Cornelius, inviting Peter to Cornelius’s house. When he arrived, both men shared their experiences.
Peter’s Message (verses 34-43)
In a message inspired by the Holy Spirit, Peter gives the implications of what the visions mean.
Putting the visions together, Peter realizes that God does not show favoritism among people. Instead, God accepts people of every ethnic or religious background who fear — show proper reverence toward — God and do right. This is the first time a Jew offered a Gentile the opportunity to become a full beneficiary of God’s covenant. This covenant is new, however, because it does not require circumcision.
Peter announced that the peace that Jesus, the Christ, brought is even more than the peace between God and sinners. It is also a peace between divided people, made possible through faith in Christ. He sees this as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that through his descendants all people would be blessed.
Next Peter builds on what his Gentile audience already knows — that the gospel began in Galilee and spread throughout Judea after John the Baptist prepared the way by preaching a baptism of repentance. They also know how Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit at his own baptism, traveled around doing good works and healing people who were oppressed by the devil. Jesus had the power to do that because God was with him.
Even so, Peter and others are witnesses that the people killed him by hanging him on a cross. But even death could not stop Jesus’s mission because God raised him from the dead. As proof, God caused the resurrected Jesus to be seen by Peter and many others. Not everyone saw Jesus. Only those God had chosen to be witnesses. These people ate and drank with him after the resurrection.
This underscores the unique role of Jesus’ followers. All who encounter the risen Christ become witnesses. However, through the two visions, God chose Peter to witness to a new understanding of how the gospel would spread to the Gentiles, beginning with Cornelius’s household.
This is the fulfillment of the command Jesus gave in Acts 1:8 just before he ascended. It is also the fulfillment of what the Old Testament prophets had testified about. No specific prophets are named, but the Sunday school lesson gives examples from Isaiah 33:24, Isaiah 53:5 and 11, Jeremiah 31:34 and Daniel 9:24.
The author also notes that some see this sermon as a condensed version of one that may have gone on for hours.
Although Peter is often characterized as stubborn, impetuous and close-minded, Gilberto Ruiz, professor of theology at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, writes that his portrayal in Acts shows him to be otherwise.
“Jesus’ resurrection and subsequent events lead Peter to reconsider the place of Gentiles before God, to exalt even over the emperor a man executed on a Roman cross, and to reinterpret his Scriptures in light of resurrection faith,” Ruiz writes on the Working Preacher website. “In short, Jesus’ resurrection causes Peter to think differently about his preconceptions and received traditions, including some that must have been deeply ingrained.”
He goes on to ask if our faith causes us to relate to people of different faith traditions, different socio-economic classes, different ethnicities and different political camps differently. Do we relate to them in ways that are life-affirming, as Peter’s faith allowed him to relate to his Gentile audience?
II. Two Outcomes (verses 44-47)
Acts makes it clear that, although the progress of the gospel happened through human encounters, it was the Holy Spirit that guided and inspired every step. Here the Holy Spirit descends as Peter is still speaking, empowering the Gentile hearers and giving astonishing proof of the validity of Peter’s message to the Jewish believers who were there.
The Holy Spirit had previously been poured out at Pentecost, but that was only on Jews. Now the Holy Spirit has come to Gentiles as well. Some refer to this moment as the “Gentile Pentecost.” Even the evidence of the Holy Spirit was the same as on Pentecost as the Gentile believers also began speaking in other tongues.
Again, this is seen as God’s authentication of the inclusion of Gentiles. Jews who had experienced Pentecost would now see that God is including non-Jews as well, thus stressing God’s impartiality.
Baptism is a sign of inclusion in the covenant community, just as circumcision is under the first covenant. Because the Holy Spirit was poured out on these Gentiles, just as had happened for the Jews in Acts 2, Peter proclaimed that no one could oppose their baptism. God had already shown that it should be so.
The scope of God’s salvation is highlighted in today’s pivotal test, when Gentiles received an outpouring of God’s Spirit as Jews had earlier. Questions remained regarding what role former identity markers of God’s people — markers such as circumcision, dietary laws, and observance of special days — would continue to play. Such questions were settled at the famous Jerusalem Council of Acts 15: these external markers were no longer essential to the people of God.
God’s plan was to spread the news of salvation through his old covenant people, the Jews. Jesus was Jewish, as were his closest disciples. All people who were not Jewish were lumped into a single category: Gentiles. (Samaritans could be a complicating additional category.)
To devout Jews, Gentiles were regarded as complete outsiders unless they adhered to the Law of Moses (Exodus 12:48-49, etc.). Today’s passage overturned all that. We can do no better than allow the apostle Paul to summarize this change:
“Christ Jesus … [set] aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity …. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” — Ephesians 2:13-18
The good news of God’s kingdom is now available to all who believe (see Romans 1:16). We should be on the lookout for people such as Cornelius — individuals who may be open to hearing the gospel, but who have never had it explained.
Lord, it should not surprise us that you created for yourself a people from all humanity. Rid us of any tendency to set up walls within the body of Christ that your Spirit has already knocked down. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Our benediction this week comes from the Complete Jewish Bible. The verses are numbered a little differently.
We are a small, rural Presbyterian church in southwestern Pennsylvania.