The Great Unwashed

Last night at church, our pastor preached out of Acts 11.  He’s currently preaching through a book of Acts every Wednesday night.  I missed last week because I was downstairs with the kids but quickly got caught up with the scenario.

Acts 10 described the apostle Peter getting a vision from God.  The Lord showed Peter a vision of a large sheet let down from heaven.  In the sheet were all sorts of animals, reptiles and birds (v. 12).  Then a voice said to him, “Get up Peter; kill and eat them.” “No, Lord,” Peter declared. “I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure and unclean” (v.13-14).  But the voice spoke again:  “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean” (v. 15).  God did the same thing 3 times, then the sheet disappeared back up to heaven.

Peter had no idea what the vision meant.  Then men sent from Cornelius, a godly Gentile, appeared at his door.  God had told Peter to get up and go with them without hesitation, for He had sent them (v.19-20).  Peter went down, met them, and went with them to Cornelius, who longed to hear Peter’s message about salvation.

Cornelius had gathered his relatives and close friends to hear Peter.  Peter and Cornelius talked, and Peter explained that meeting with Cornelius in Cornelius’ home was against his religion.  But Peter now knew that God had extended His grace to the goyim as well and Peter could not deny it.  Cornelius explained about his vision and the Lord telling him to summon Peter.  Now everyone was on the same page.

Peter started talking.  He explained about God not having any favorites, despite the Jewish nation being the covenant people.  He explained about Jesus and his resurrection.  And even as he spoke, the Bible say, the Holy Spirit fell (v. 44).  The Jewish believers in attendance were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on Gentiles, too.  They baptized the new converts on the spot,thereby sealing their citizenship in the heavenly kingdom.

Hallelujah for that!  I would not be part of the beloved if that had not happened to this girl.

But the problem came when Peter returned home to Jerusalem, which is where chapter 11 of Acts picks up the story.  The Jewish believers who had become Christians didn’t understand Peter’s reasoning.  “You entered the home of Gentiles and even ate with them!” they said (v. 3). Why hadn’t Peter made them become Jews first?

Peter, ever patient, had to explain himself.  He finished up with:  “And since God gave these Gentiles the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord JEsus Christ, who was I to stand in God’s way?” (v. 17) .  The others could not argue with that and instead praised God.

As Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel to the Gentile nations, they always went to the synagogues first.  They laid the case for Christ at the feet of the true tree to see if any fruit would sprout.  After that, they went to the Gentiles.

But not every Jew was receptive to this new belief.  In fact, Paul, Peter and every other proselytizing disciple was persecuted.  They were imprisoned.  They were killed.

Just a couple of  chapters later in Acts 13, Paul encounters resistance from the Jews:  But when some of the Jews saw the crowds (people who turned out to hear Paul), they were jealous; so they slandered Paul and argued against whatever he said (v. 44).  At that point, Paul turned to preach to the Gentiles instead:  When the Gentiles heard this, they were very glad and thanked the Lord for his message (v. 48).

Ever felt displaced and replaced?  This story of envy and jealousy is as old as Cain and Abel.  I think instead of seeing the great gift God bestowed and how it fulfilled the Jewish faith, all the Jews could see is that it was wrong.  It didn’t fit into their paradigm.  I’m reminded of the parable of the Prodigal Son.  The older son was jealous of  the younger son getting their father’s love and blessing after squandering his early inheritance in heathen living.  Dad even killed a fat calf to celebrate!  Where was *his* reward?!  He’d labored and been obedient and never strayed from the path.

Our ideas of rewards and blessings from God are so tied up in our preconceived ideas.  The heart of the Father has always been to reunite all people to Himself, and Jesus’ sacrifice is that bridge.  Somehow, in the Jews’ historic struggles to follow God consistently, that message got lost.  They digested “chosen people” and “seed of Abraham” but not the message of Isaiah: All nations will come to your light; mighty kings will come to see your radiance (Is. 61:3). Also, And because of his experience (death), my righteous servant will made it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins (Is. 53:11).

We are not so different from this venerable race.  We like to think, as Christians, we know what God’s plans are for us and the world.  But we don’t.  We can’t put God in a box and decide some people will never come to know his saving grace.  For our message is one of inclusion and love.  Yes, we’re a set apart people, holy to the Lord.  But it’s not a club.  Let’s be satisfied with what we are meant to do here and welcome others who just might be on a very similar path.  We are unique and we are loved.  It’s enough.

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