August 14, 2011

Lens of Labels

For the past couple of months we have been looking at the action of the Holy Spirit in the lives the early church. You can look through the topics of the since June to see some of the posts. First, of course, was the ‘sound of a great rushing wind’ that signified the arrival of the Holy Spirit and transformed humble men and women into brave evangelists.

Peter, an unlearned fisherman, preached the first sermon of the new church and converted thousands. His actions were frowned on by the authorities, but even after experiencing prison and questioning, he maintained his convictions.

The church faced challenges and met them by ordaining the first deacons, among them Stephen, who boldly preached and converted people in Jerusalem. He also faced the Jewish council and was condemned to death by stoning. Then persecution assaulted the believers. This might have spelled the end of a human movement, but God works differently. Due to the persecution, believers left Jerusalem and carried the message of salvation. Philip was one of those who evangelized far and near. He went first to Samaria, then to the eunuch from Ethiopia and then to the coastal towns along the Mediterranean.

Last week we saw how Saul, the young Pharisee from Jerusalem, was changed into a believer while on his way to Damascus. We heard how Ananias, in response to the urging of the Holy Spirit, ministered to Saul, despite his reputation. Transformed and converted, Saul preached the Good News in Damascus and then in other areas. “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up; and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it was multiplied.” (Acts 9:31)

The Holy Spirit is not a respecter of socio-economic, ethnic, national, or any other man-made boundary as Peter learns in Acts 10. Humans on the other hand, like to attach labels to one another. Too often these labels divide us or make us look scornfully at someone different than we are or with different beliefs. Last week Saul was blinded and "something like scales fell from his eyes" when Ananias visited him. The labels we give each other are a filter or a lens that distorts our view of the face of God in one another. The early church was not immune to the Lens of Labels.

Peter was happy as the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Sometimes, he traveled to other Jewish communities like Lydda and Joppa (see Acts 9:32-43). In Joppa, he healed a woman named Tabitha (or Dorcas). “It became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. And he stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner.” (Acts 9:42-43)

Joppa is on the coast of the Mediterranean, south of Caesarea about 25-30 miles. Unbeknownst to Peter, the Holy Spirit was on the move in Caesarea. “In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort…He was a devout man who feared God…One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, ‘Cornelius.’ He stared at him in terror and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’ He answered, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.’ When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.” (Acts 10:1-8) The trip for the slaves and soldier would have been an all day, or all night, trek.

Meanwhile, God prepares Peter with a perplexing vision. “About noon the next day…Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.” (Acts 10:9-16)

God tells Peter that all things are clean, even animals Jews were forbidden to eat, based on Levitical laws. By extension, all persons are holy and clean, too, even those we might consider 'unclean' or even our enemies. Peter doesn’t understand the symbolism until the emissaries from Cornelius arrive. They “were standing by the gate. [and] called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there…the Spirit said to [Peter], ‘…get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.’ So Peter went down to the men and said, ‘I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?’” (Acts 10:17-21)

The trio form Cornelius explained, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” (Acts 10:22-23) Their response, perhaps, made all the pieces click into place in Peter’s mind. Ordinarily the Jewish fisherman would not have considered going to a Gentile home at all, esp. one that housed a Roman army officer. The occupying Roman army was not popular with the Jews and was to avoided if at all possible.

However, perhaps still wondering at his vision, Peter invites them into Simon’s house for the night. In the morning, he and “some of the believers from Joppa” head for Caesarea where “Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.” (Acts 10:24)

The Galilean fisherman and the Roman centurion find themselves face to face, brought together by God who wants to bridge differences and bring all creation to faith. They share their visions and then “Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” He goes on to preach Jesus Christ and the resurrection ending by saying, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:34-43)

It is then that God affirms Peter’s testimony when “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Acts 10:44-48)

Notice that the “circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” Sometimes it is easy to categorize people by our human descriptions. ‘Gentile’, ‘pagan’, ‘unbeliever’, ‘Protestant’, ‘Catholic’, ‘reformed’, ‘barbarian’, ‘slave’, etc. are only some of the ways Christians have labeled one another through the centuries.

God gave Peter, and us, a new definition “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter realized "God shows no partiality." Perhaps, like Peter, we are called to reach out to those outside our circle, outside our comfort zone. Is there someone you avoid because they are 'different', or don't believe the same way you do? Remember, in God's eyes, they are clean and holy, too. Can you try to see this person through God's eyes, instead of through the lens of labels?

Next week, we'll see how the Gospel begins to spread widely throughout the Gentile world, causing the early believers to reevaluate their beliefs about the 'goyam'.

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