Summary: The Spirit descends upon Gentile believers before Peter is ale to finish her sermon. When Peter shares what happened with the church leaders they realize that the kingdom of God is open to more people than they had first imagined.
In the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit moves in a mighty, miraculous way. On the day of Pentecost, which is the birth of the Christian church, over 3,000 people responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ and became Christians. A man who had been lame from birth was healed and began to walk, leap, and praise God. Demons were exorcised, and people were raised from the dead. Perhaps the greatest demonstration of the Spirit’s power, however, was the transformation within the early Christian Church itself. It was a seismic change that continues to send tremors throughout the church today.
Predicated upon his own holiness, God has been separating out for himself since creation a people to follow, in faith, his pattern of holiness … God’s command to follow his pattern of holiness is of necessity a call to imitate his moral holiness, and God’s people must separate from anything that hinders them from pursuing after moral holiness. Thus, God’s desire was to call out a people who were separated from anything that God prohibited and exclusively devoted to God’s moral character and will.
The Jews lived out God’s call of separation by prohibiting marriages to other tribes and nations. Joshua’s burned earth policy of destroying everything in the path of Israel’s invading army was meant to keep the Jews separate from any foreign influences. (The burned earth policy was not followed through and the Old Testament records centuries of the Jews turning from Yahweh and following other false, foreign gods.)
God’s call for Israel to be a light to all nations and to bring all nations in to a worship of the one, true God was interpreted by the Israelites as meaning that any non-Jew who wanted to truly worship God must first become a Jew.
By the time of Jesus separation was a central doctrine of the Jewish faith. If a Jew came into contact with a gentile, that person was ritually unclean for a period of time; he or she was not allowed to worship. The separation doctrine also fostered an animosity toward anyone who was not a Jew. Gentiles were considered almost sub-human, while Jews thought of themselves as the elite of humankind.
All of this changed with the cross of Jesus Christ. Paul writes that everyone is a sinner and everyone has fallen short of the glory of God. John proclaims in his gospel that God love the world so much that he gave his son so that everyone who believed might be saved. All humankind was in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. Suddenly the key word was “inclusion” rather than “exclusion.”
Peter precipitated a crisis when he baptized Cornelius, who was a Roman soldier, and his household. Obviously Cornelius was not a Jew and according to the Old Testament standard he and his household could not experience salvation. In the eyes of many earlier Christians, Peter had also desecrated himself by associating with gentile heathen. Peter understood that God was up to something and he proceeded to tell his story.
Peter tells of his vision—of being told three times to eat unclean food and his refusal to do so. He went on to tell the accusing and questioning Jewish Christians that after his vision he was summoned by Cornelius and told to answer the summons by the Holy Spirit. He began to share the gospel with Cornelius and his household, but before Peter could finish his sermon the Holy Spirit descends upon Cornelius. The filling of the Holy Spirit was the mark of a Christian. “If God had made them Christians,” Peter asks, “Then how was I supposed to deny them entrance into the Christian church and fellowship?”
Peter’s critics were silenced. They then began to praise God for what the Spirit had done. Their rejoicing was short-lived, though.
Later in the Book of Acts Luke records conflicts between Paul and members of the circumcision party. The circumcision party was made up of Jewish Christians who rejected Peter’s vision and experiences. The insisted that gentiles who wished to follow Christ had to first become Jews. Paul brought this issue before the first Christian Council (a meeting of Christian leaders). The council decided in Paul’s favor—for inclusion rather than exclusion—but in took scores of years and perhaps even centuries for the change, which was instituted by God, to be widely accepted.
The church has struggled to be inclusive rather than exclusive throughout its history. If we have been in the church for any length of time, we have experienced these struggles first hand. In a previous sermon I mentioned that Jesus seems intent that every time we make a circle in order to define who is in and who is out that he steps out of the circle and dares us to make it bigger.