Has God ever done something to blow your mind, to upend the way you look at the world, the way you see your life? Maybe it was a sermon you heard, where it felt like God crafted the message just for you. Maybe it was a miraculously answered prayer, or a sudden epiphany that seemingly came from nowhere. Whatever it was, things seemed new and different. You didn’t know what might happen next, but you were excited and wanted to tell someone. So you did.
And they pushed back. Your new insight made them uncomfortable, or challenged their settled certainties. So they tried to talk you out of it, or subjected you to a cross-examination.
There’s no question that we sometimes need the correction of our sisters and brothers. Our enthusiasm for new ideas and insights can quickly carry us past what is wise or biblical. We need a faithful community who can catch us before we dive off a theological cliff.
But that same community is often better at boundary-drawing and heresy-hunting than listening for God. People get anxious with whatever seems too radically new or different, and may try to squelch it.
Even if it means opposing God.
As we’ve seen in previous posts, Peter and his companions witnessed what for them was a startling miracle: the so-called “Gentile Pentecost,” the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household. God had already prepared Peter’s heart; in obedience to God, he overcame his Jewish scruples and came under a Gentile’s roof to bring them the gospel. I think it’s fair to say, however, that Peter probably didn’t expect a dramatic outpouring of the Spirit. To his credit, he recognized that this was clearly God’s will, and ordered that these Gentiles be baptized accordingly.
News traveled quickly (even without social media). Peter stayed with Cornelius for several days, while the news of what happened spread throughout Judea. When Peter arrived back in Jerusalem, therefore, some of the believers confronted him: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” (Acts 11:3, NRSV).
They knew that “the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God” (Acts 11:1). But apparently, that’s not what was uppermost in their minds. Peter had violated an important boundary. They wanted to know why he — of all people! — would stoop to eating with Gentiles, when he knew it would almost certainly make him ritually unclean.
The only answer, as we will see, was to tell the story, and to let what happened speak for itself.
For the moment, however, it’s worth pondering the nature of this challenge to Peter’s integrity. We don’t know the emotional tenor of the objection. Was it something like an angry, accusatory debate between conservatives and liberals in the run-up to an election? Perhaps. By the time Paul’s ministry is in full flower, the early opposition to Peter will harden into a pressure group known as the Judaizers, who will insists that converts behave more like righteous Jews.
But it’s possible to give the reaction a more charitable reading than that. The first response of Peter’s companions in Caesarea, after all, was not anger but astonishment — the Gentile Pentecost simply threw them all for a loop.
The believers in Jerusalem had a few days to think about it before Peter returned — and I imagine their primary emotion was anxiety and confusion. They stood at the brink of a startling new reality that radically challenged a core piece of their collective ethnic, political, and spiritual identity: We are Jews, the people of God. They are Gentiles. And we don’t fellowship with them, unless they first become like us.
The theological question of what God could possibly be up to was too big to manage. These believers instead grabbed for the most obvious lifeline: Peter broke a rule that nobody breaks. Let’s get to the bottom of that.
And when they got to the bottom of it, the bottom dropped out.