Note: We read the entire 10th chapter of the Book of Acts this morning in worship.
This story from the book of the Acts of the Apostles always brings to mind a favorite memory. One summer during my grad school years, several of my college friends and I rented a house on the beach in North Carolina for a few days, to hang out and reconnect. These were my church buddies, friends from the Episcopal campus community in my college town. Several of us had arrived and were settling in when my friends Jay and Spencer drove up. Jay rushed in and demanded to see a Bible immediately. (This was before Smartphones. Sometimes you just had to wonder about things for a while.) We found one and he looked up the tenth chapter of Acts. Meanwhile Spencer explained: In a Burger King along the way, they had seen several members of a church group, all wearing T-shirts that said in big letters across the back: ARISE. KILL. EAT. And a Scripture citation: Acts 10, verse 13.
Now, ARISE, KILL, EAT, didn’t sound like any summary of the good news of God in Christ that we’d ever heard. And none of us knew the Book of Acts well enough to recognize the story from those few words. But you, of course, know what those words are about. They’re part of Peter’s vision – a message from God, a revelation that the categories that had bound Peter’s thinking and behavior in the past were passing away. (I still think it’s a weird thing to put on a T-shirt!)
This story is sometimes named as the Conversion of Cornelius. But I think it’s really more about the conversion of Peter – Peter’s realization that the God made known in Jesus Christ shows no partiality. Partiality – a funny word; we don’t use it much. Somebody might say they’re partial to chocolate ice cream. Well: What Peter discovers in today’s Acts story is that God isn’t partial to any group of people over any other group. God doesn’t play favorites. God doesn’t like this one better than that one, just because of who or what they are.
It’s a wonderful, profoundly important insight. And what’s just as wonderful is that Peter has it. Peter was one of Jesus’ first disciples. We know him by the name Jesus gave him – the Rock – Peter in Greek, Cephas in Aramaic. We’ll hear that story next week, actually! In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus explains the nickname this way: “On this rock will I build my church.” It makes it sound like Peter is getting this nickname because he is so steady and solid.
Well… maybe. We know Jesus could look right into people and see their hearts.
Peter’s original name, the one his parents gave him, was Simon, which means “hearing.” Maybe Jesus looked at Simon and thought, This one hears about as well as your average rock!… And he’s about as likely as a rock to change his mind.
Now, pig-headed – rock-headed people have their uses. Someone who holds onto an idea or a vision with great determination and faithfulness can be just the right person to do something really hard, like starting a whole new religion, in the face of persecution. Peter did become one of the foundation stones of the Church.
But walking with Jesus wasn’t always easy for someone like Simon Peter, who is not … nimble in his thinking, and takes a while to arrive at new understandings. The Gospels are full of stories about Peter being just a little slow on the uptake. He always thinks he’s got it – and he so rarely does. When Jesus talks about how hard it is for wealthy people to enter the kingdom of heaven, Peter’s the one who says, “We’re poor, Jesus! We left everything to follow you! So what are we gonna get?….”
When Jesus appears to the disciples walking on the water, Peter’s the one who says, “Jesus, I want to walk on water too!” And of course he ends up getting soaked…
When Jesus talks about his coming death on the cross, Peter’s the one who says, “You’ve got to stop talking like this! You’re bringing everybody down!” Jesus has to rebuke him: You’re seeing things from a human point of view, not God’s.
Peter is the only one of the male disciples brave enough to follow Jesus to the High Priest’s house after he is arrested. But he loses his courage, afraid to follow his friend to death, and denies knowing him – three times. When he and Jesus meet again, beside a lake, after everything, Jesus asks him three times: Do you love me? And tells him three times: Tend my sheep.
Jesus knows his friend well. He knows it’s a good idea to hammer the point home. Maybe by the third repetition, it will get through Peter’s rocky head and settle into his big, loving, faithful heart.
And Peter does tend Jesus’ sheep. He preaches Christ crucified and risen to the crowds, to the authorities, to anyone who will listen. He becomes a great and gifted leader. He goes to jail and suffers for his faith. Simon the Rock has got an idea in his hard head: Jesus called me to lead and protect his church. And I’m going to do it.
One of the threats to Jesus’ church – to Peter’s church – is a fellow named Paul. Paul didn’t even know Jesus; he used to persecute Christians. Now he’s going around preaching to non-Jews, telling them they can become Christians without following all the religious practices of the Jewish people. Peter is not so sure about this. Jesus was a Jew, and all the disciples were faithful Jews. Peter fears that Paul is preaching cheap grace and wishy-washy warm fuzzy inclusion, and letting just ANYBODY in.
Then something happens to Peter. We just heard the story. He has a vision of all kinds of animals – many of which are unclean and not to be eaten, in Jewish dietary law. Peter says, God, I will not eat these things; I am a faithful Jew; I have never eaten anything unclean! And a divine Voice says, What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.
Then the messengers from Cornelius arrive – Peter follows them to Caesaria – Cornelius and his household gather to hear Peter’s preaching – and he begins with this new insight, this new revelation: I truly understand that God shows no partiality. EVERY person everywhere, no matter who or what they are, if they honor God and live with justice, they are acceptable to God.
(A brief word on “acceptable”: It sounds kind of minimal, right? Like, just barely good enough. It really means something more like proper or appropriate. It’s used elsewhere for things like the acceptable sacrifice to God; the acceptable time for God’s action in the world. Acceptable, here, means: Just right for God.)
In today’s story from the book of Acts, a big new idea has finally gotten through
the apostle Peter’s rocky head: The Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, isn’t just for Jews – it’s for everybody. God’s love isn’t just for this nation or that nation. What God has made clean, it’s not the business of the church or its leaders to call unclean. When God opens a door, it’s never our business to close it.
Today is the first Sunday in the church’s season of Epiphany. Epiphany means, Revelation. A light-bulb moment. A new understanding of faith, self, world. Our Epiphany lessons are full of big revelations: The revelation to the Magi, those eastern astrologers, that a great King was born in Judea. The revelation that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. This revelation to Peter: I truly understand that God shows no partiality. God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.
Receiving a revelation is one thing. Living in that new way of seeing and being, is another. God shows no partiality – but humans are really good at it. We have a strong propensity to create us-es and them-s, insiders and outsiders, to draw lines and build walls. We use different standards to judge those whom we see as our kind of people, and those whom we see as other. There’s a lot of science that explores this tendency, and lots of history that illustrates it.
And not just history, but headlines. Partiality is in the rhetoric of war: enemies and allies, winners and losers. We forget over and over again Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom: “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”
Partiality is in what lives we allow to matter to us – Iraqi, Canadian, Honduran, Puerto Rican (which is to say, American). It’s in the antagonisms and manipulations of the election cycle. Did you know we are much more likely to fall for false or manipulative news coverage that’s in line with our biases? We’re less critical and careful readers when we are reading positive stories about those we already like, or – more commonly – negative stories about those we don’t like.
Partiality shows up in force at public hearings about workforce housing and school zoning – folks who think they’re just concerned about their property values; who don’t understand – or don’t want to understand – how residential segregation perpetuates racial and economic inequality.
Partiality takes one of its most monstrous forms in resurgent anti-Semitism and emboldened white supremacy.
I truly understand that God shows no partiality. God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.
The heart of discipleship, of faithful living, is trying to live lives that reflect God as we have come to know God,through Jesus Christ and the witness of Scripture. God tells God’s people, right from the start: Be holy, as I am holy. Peter learns that part of God’s holiness is that God loves without boundaries. God’s welcome, God’s care, God’s call are for everybody. Therefore, as Christians, we are called beyond partiality. To be a people who do not call anyone unclean, profane, unworthy, or unimportant.
What does it mean for you to grapple with that call, in this year, this season of the world? Maybe it means coming to the Saturday Book Group this week to discuss how to talk with people with whom we disagree; or to the Witnessing Whiteness series beginning in March, for white folks to explore what our whiteness means. Maybe it means trying to listen to why somebody else’s favorite candidate is their favorite. Maybe it means pausing to grieve far-away hurts and losses – letting them touch our hearts, even though it hurts. Maybe it means something as small as looking around at coffee hour or the Peace, this morning, for the people who are standing alone.
Being anti-partiality isn’t wishy-washy or weak. It’s bold and hard, and there is a lot of work to do. But if Peter, the Rock, could overcome his biases, and rejoice in finding God among those he’d seen as outsiders – then so can we.
May the God who calls us to holiness, grant us wisdom and courage for the living of these days. Amen.