It is the very first church controversy, and like the hundreds, if not thousands, since then, it threatens to tear apart the church.
The controversy is ancient, but its content could be pulled from today’s newspapers – who should be allowed in the church and who should be kept out?
Jesus’ final instructions to the disciples before he ascends to heaven is that they are to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In other words, the disciples are to spread the gospel far and wide.
And they have done exactly that.
But as they soon discover, a funny thing happens when you start spreading the Gospel. Sometimes the people who hear and respond to the message of Jesus are not who you were expecting. And sometimes they are not the people you want in your church.
That is what has happened to Peter. The bumbling disciple who fled when Jesus was arrested, who denied ever knowing Jesus, who cowered in fear behind locked doors after the crucifixion, is now a bold proclaimer of the good news of Christ.
In response to those proclamations a centurion, a Roman soldier named Cornelius, wants to be baptized. He is a Gentile, that is, not Jewish.
Good Jews, which all Jesus’ followers were, would have nothing to do with Gentiles. To even touch one was to be made unclean.
But Peter has a vision, which we heard described in today’s reading. A large sheet is dropped down from heaven, full of four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles and birds of the air – all animals that Jews are prohibited from eating.
A voice tells Peter to eat them. When he protests, the voice tells him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
The next day, Peter goes to Cornelius’ house, where a great number of Gentiles have assembled. He says to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
He adds, “I truly understand now that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
While he is speaking he is amazed to see that “the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles,” who begin praising God. So Peter baptizes the whole lot of them.
That might have been a nice, happy moment, but now news of those Gentile baptisms have reached Jesus’ Jewish followers in Jerusalem, and they are not amused.
“Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” they demand.
Peter explains to them step by step what happened, including the vision and voice from God. “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning,” he tells them.
“If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
When the others heard this, scripture says, they were silenced. At least temporarily.
We might wonder what the big deal was for a Gentile to be baptized and become a Christian. Many Christians today believe one of the main responsibilities of the faith is to convert as many non-believers as possible.
But in the years immediately following Jesus’ death and resurrection this was a very big deal.
First, the disciples and other followers of Jesus did not identify themselves as Christians. They were first and foremost faithful Jews, as Jesus himself was.
That means they followed all the Jewish laws, including the dietary restrictions and purity codes, which they believed had been handed to them directly from God. These laws were at the very heart of Jewish identity.
So if these Gentiles begin to follow Christ, what does that mean for Jesus’ Jewish followers? Can the Jewish followers share meals with them when the Hebrew scripture prohibits such a thing?
Are these Gentiles who follow Jesus of equal status with those who first believed?
Peter may have temporarily silenced those who criticized him for baptizing Cornelius and his followers, but the issue of what to do with Gentiles believers became a true crisis in the early church as the Gospel continued to spread.
Many of the Jewish believers argued that if Gentiles were going to follow Jesus they would first have to become Jews – the men would have to be circumcised and all would have to follow Jewish dietary and purity laws.
The Gentiles, perhaps understandably, did not agree with this argument. They did not want to be Jewish; they wanted to follow Jesus.
Finally, church leaders met in Jerusalem for the first ever church council. They listened to both sides of the issue, and listened as Peter and Paul told of the good works done by Gentiles who had begun to follow Jesus. They testified that the Holy Spirit did indeed seem to be at work empowering them.
After much debate and listening they agreed that, as scripture puts it “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” to allow the Gentiles to follow Jesus without first becoming Jewish.
It is hard to overestimate the significance of that decision. If the council had decided the other way, then Christianity may very well have been relegated to a sect of Judaism, and we most likely would not be sitting here today.
Whenever I hear people complain that the Church is doing some new thing that they think ignores the authority of Scripture – like ordaining women or allowing gays and lesbians to fully participate in the life of the church, including the sacraments of ordination and marriage – I wonder if they have read the Book of Acts.
The overarching message of this book that records the earliest history of the church is that through the Holy Spirit, God is continually doing new things in the world, working in the most unlikely ways and places, breaking down barriers and creating new worlds.
That does not mean that we casually throw out the old to embrace the new. The Book of Acts shows us how the church is to discern when God is calling us to move in new directions. We, like the council of Jerusalem, come together to pray, to listen, to debate, to tell of the experiences of God’s people.
That is exactly what the Episcopal Church tries to do. Our General Convention meets every three years to pray and study scripture together, to listen to one another, and to debate the issues that have arisen in the life of the Church.
It’s what the Church did in the ordination of women; it is what the Church did for decades in slowly but surely allowing gays and lesbians full inclusion in the church. I was privileged to be part of the vote at General Convention four years ago that changed our marriage canons to allow all of God’s children the right to be married in the church.
Sometimes this process takes years.
But eventually a decision is reached, eventually we say “it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us” to do this new thing.
The Bible itself shows us that scripture, important and sacred as it is, is not the only source of divine revelation. Faith traditions that insist human experience can not be a source of God’s truth are, ironically, at odds with scripture.
If we follow Jesus, then we must expect surprises and new implications of the Gospel.
If the early disciples, who stood much nearer to Christ than we do, were not prepared for the Spirit’s fresh initiatives, how much less prepared are we?
If Peter’s generation of Christians could be astounded, what might the Spirit have in store for us?