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No Separation, Part 2 -- Acts 10 (6th Sunday of Easter)

Photo credit: Jan Richardson, used with licensed permission

Last week’s Scripture left us with this beautiful moment of inclusion and embrace. Remember? The Ethiopian Eunuch – one who had been kept on the margins of community – was welcomed all the way in. We found ourselves in a world with no separations – and at the end of the Scripture, with the Ethiopian Eunuch, we all went on our way rejoicing.[1]


Well, from there, the Way of Resurrection keeps radiating out – in its every-expanding circles of embrace. And this morning’s Scripture brings us to an even bigger challenge – even bigger walls of separation. We are introduced to two communities  – two communities that encounter each other at the intersection of the world’s boundaries and barriers.[2]

There is Cornelius, the Roman Centurion. He is a Roman soldier – from Rome – from Italy. But we are also told that he is “a God-fearer.” That’s someone who is drawn to the God of Israel, but hasn’t observed all of the regulations that mark Jewish identity – and importantly, he hasn’t been circumcised.[3] He hasn’t done the things required to come all the way into community. Even so, we are told that he prays to God (the Hebrew God), and gives generously to the poor.


We have Cornelius. And then we have Peter – Peter, a devout, observant Jew, who since Resurrection, has emerged as a leader in this new Jesus movement called “the Way.”


Now, in their world, in the rules of their world – Cornelius – the Roman soldier – would have had little to do socially with the Jewish folks whom the Empire oppressed. They might have interacted in the public square – but he wouldn’t likely have invited them into his Roman imperial home.

AND, the local Jewish folks would have likely returned the favor. Now, we should say that the writer of Acts probably overstates it when Peter says that it is against the law to associate in any way with a Gentile. More precisely, they wouldn’t have had them in their home, and they certainly would not have eaten at the same table. Under both Roman and Jewish rules, they would not have mixed and mingled.


But then the Holy Spirit gets to work. Cornelius has a vision – an angel (a messenger from God) appears, and says: “Go send for this Peter – this devout Jew.” And at about the same time, Peter has a vision – it’s a vision with all sorts of animals – and a voice that says three times: “What God calls clean, you are not to call unclean.”


Cornelius sends a delegation to Peter: “Please, come to my house.” Peter hears a voice that tells him to say yes, and he invites the Roman delegation into his home – to spend the night in his house as his guests – before they set out together back to Cornelius.


Notice the boundary crossing that is already taking place. They are talking to each other. And, Peter invites these Roman envoys to sleep under his roof – he probably even fed them. The world and its walls of separation are already starting to tremble.


The next day, they set out together – this Roman guard, and this devout Jewish man, a follower “the Way” (a follower of Jesus), along with a couple of other apostles. And they head to Cornelius’s house. Traveling together on a shared journey.


And when they arrive – Cornelius – the Roman soldier falls on down before Peter – now, that just wasn’t done. And Peter says, “Rise up, I am myself human.”  Did you catch that? Peter says, we are each human, we are human together. Let’s stand eye to eye as we talk.

Cornelius invites Peter in, and Peter goes in. And there we are – with Cornelius and his very Roman family and household – and Peter and the devout Jewish followers of the Way – all there together in the same room. And Peter names it, “Now you know we’re not supposed to be here together. Our laws say that you are unclean. But God has told me that I should not call any human being unclean. So here I am, ready to listen. Here we are. Together.” Cornelius replies, “Here we are, ready to listen to what we have to say.”

As Peter starts, he says, “First of all, let me say: I now understand that God does not show favoritism.” In that one sentence, the walls of separation crumble and fall. There is no separation. And Peter goes on and tells them about Jesus and the Way of Resurrection.


And then something remarkable happens.  The Spirit comes upon all of them – like Pentecost all over again – but this time both to devout Jews and to Gentiles. The Spirit poured out onto – into everyone. Peter’s crew is astonished – and Peter says, “Can anyone keep these folks too from being baptized – they have received the Spirit just like us.” And they’re baptized – and then everyone, all together, rejoices – they stay there for a few days – they feast together – they live life together.

The Way of Resurrection just keeps radiating out in ever-expanding circles of embrace – transcending every barrier and boundary. This – what’s happening here – this is the world as it should be. Just look. They find their life together – and they live as one – and there is no longer any disagreement or discord ever again. Alleluia Amen!


        . . .


Oh, wait. Change that. Evidently that’s not how it ends. I just turned the page and here’s what happens in the very next chapter. Peter goes home – back to the original followers of the Way – still grounded in their traditions and customs, and he tells them this amazing story, and they say:

YOU DID WHAT?!?!?! You ate at the same table with Gentiles?!?!  Some of them stayed at your house?!? You slept under their roof?!?! You baptized those who had not been circumcised – who aren’t ritually all the way in?!?!  And one more time: You ate at the same table with them?!?!

Peter, have you lost your ever-loving mind?!?!

And there’s more conversation... and they resolve things for a time... but the disagreements don’t end there. This new movement called the Way continues to argue about who is in and who is out. If you aren’t born Jewish and you want to follow this new emerging movement, do you have to follow the Law that has always set us apart? Do the men have to be circumcised? Do the people have to follow all the dietary rules? These are for them not facile questions – these are questions of identity – who are we? What does it take to be us – to be one of us?

In Acts 15, they’ll have a big council, where they again come to some sort of compromise on this question. But the Apostle Paul will set out on his journeys – the self-styled Apostle to the Gentiles. He’ll set out to bring the Good News of Resurrection to everyone. And from his letters – particularly Galatians – we know that there was a group from the home office that was basically following him around – trying to undo what he was trying to do.  He'd show up live for a time in a city – preach that the Good News is for everyone, and as soon as he left, others would show up and say, “Actually, the so-called Apostle Paul has gone a little bit rogue on us.”[4]

And we know, unfortunately, how this question of in and out has played out over the centuries. The Christianities that rose up around the Mediterranean world continued to argue and divide over foundational questions – Who is Jesus? Who is Jesus in relationship to God? Who are we? The Roman Empire will embrace its imperial understanding of Christianity. The Roman Church will split with the Orthodox Church.  Centuries later, the Protestant churches will split from the Roman Catholic church. The Protestant churches will splinter and divide. And on down through to the Presbyterians – to American Presbyterians: We will divide over slavery, over whether women can preach, over whether LGBTQIA+ people can preach or marry. And ever it was thus.

But how can this be? Last week it was so clear, this inclusion and embrace, as the Ethiopian Eunuch dove all the way into the waters of baptism. It’s so clear here in Acts 10 – Peter standing in Cornelius’s home – sharing a meal together. Peter says it clearly: God has shown me that I should call no other human being unclean or unpure. There is no separation. God shows no favoritism. Case closed.

The Way of Resurrection radiates out in ever-expanding circles of embrace. And, though, and – we see that this is also true: The Way of Resurrection unfolds in the complexity of human relationship – in the complexity of community. Even as we embrace the Way of Resurrection, we continue to contend, as we strive to figure what all this truth means. Can it really be this big?

As I think you know, for the past four years, I’ve served on our denomination’s “Permanent Judicial Comission.” It is a curious thing. As one person once asked me: Wait, do you mean your church – your denomination... has a court? Someone suggested that I might want to say a bit more about what this is – this “permanent judicial commission.”

In addition to having decision-making bodies – like our Session (our congregation’s Board), and the regional Presbytery – we have a judicial system whose intent is to resolve disagreements that come up.[5] Just having that system acknowledges that disagreements do come up. We are, after all, human. Together, we seek to follow Jesus in the Way of Resurrection. And following the generations who have gone before, we figure that out in the complexity of human relationship – in community. Our denomination’s judicial commissions are there to listen to the disagreements that arise, and hopefully, to move us toward reconciliation.

Some disagreements we address may feel mundane – but sometimes they raise important issues about how we live the Way of Resurrection in the new challenges each day bring: How do we live life, faithfully, in the new configurations of community that our response to COVID has created? How do we live out our commitment to unity in diversity, in the broad expanse of this multi-cultural world?

I’ve mentioned Janie Spahr’s cases before – they all played out in this judicial system. Janie Spahr celebrated the marriage of same-gender couples, understanding that to be the Way of Jesus. And folks said, you can’t do that. And – it’s too easy to forget this – we lost all those cases. But the conversation continued – never easy, often with substantial pain. And we found our way to a more expansive place.  This week, the United Methodist Church found its way to a more expansive place. Removing all their old rules that had made kept LGBTQIA+ people from coming all the way in.

As I’ve served in this odd little church judicial system, I have developed an even-deeper appreciation for concurrence and dissent – for the value of faithful disagreement as we seek to find our way.  Even the members of judicial commissions do not agree all the time. We decide decisions by majority vote. A concurrence says  -- “Well, yes, mostly that – but I think there is something the majority is missing – here’s an insight you’re missing.” And a dissent says, “Respectfully, I think the Commission has got this wrong.”

Each concurrence, each dissent, is a word in the conversation – and I’ve seen them become – as the conversation continues – in later cases, I’ve seen them become part of majority – or unanimous decisions. Concurrence and dissent can become consensus. The Way of Resurrection works itself out in the complexity of human relationship – in the complexity of community. And we do that – by persisting in faithful conversation – even in the midst of disagreement – especially there.

But what about Acts 10? This scripture we read today – where all is made clear. As we figure out all this complexity, Acts 10 gives us a glimpse – a clearer vision – a new paradigm – a touchstone – it shows us where we should always be heading.  Notice what they do here – these strangers who should not – by the world’s standards be mixing and mingling – and certainly not gathering at a table.

·      In a world of separation, they listen to the Spirit’s nudging.

·      They move toward each other.

·      They acknowledge their shared humanity – and God’s full presence in that humanity.

·      They tell their stories – what they have seen and heard and experienced.

·      They listen. They listen in community.

·      And they share a meal.

Just as we will do here.  When we gather at this table – in our own world of separation and strife – we remember the supper that Jesus convened. We reconstitute this moment of clarity that we glimpse in Acts 10 – Cornelius and Peter and all their community – who should not, by the standards of their day, mix and mingle. They gather for a meal in the complexity of their world. As we do so too – again and again – we travel the Way of Resurrection – through the complexity of human relationship – in ever-expanding circles of embrace.

So let’s not tarry. The table is ready. Everyone is welcome here.



© 2024 Scott Clark 

[2] For background on this scripture and the Book of Acts, see Justo L. González, Acts (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001); Paul W. Walaskay, Acts (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) Robert W. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. x (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002).

[3] See González, pp. 129-32.

[4] See Udo Schnelle, Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology (trans. M.E. Boring) (New York: Baker Publishing Group, 2005)

[5] See PCUSA Book of Order 2023-2025, D-1.01 -D.1.03, pp.127-128 (articulating the purposes of the judicial process).


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