Preaching on the Book of Acts during the Easter season poses no small challenge. First and most awkwardly, it displaces the Old Testament lesson, loudly proclaiming—contrary to the earnest assurances of post-Holocaust Christians—that our supersessionism model of dealing with the Jews is still in fine working order. Secondly, the lessons from Acts unfold in utterly random order, possibly tuned to the other lessons of the day, but doing nothing to contribute to a coherent sense of the flow of action within the book itself. And finally, the selections are short and mainly quotes from speeches such that, even if they were in order, the most dutiful of churchgoers would be left without the slightest clue as to Acts’s singularly exciting plot.
So in Year A we get three successive weeks of snippets from Peter’s speech on Pentecost, the stoning of Stephen, Paul’s address to the Athenians on the Areopagus, and the Ascension followed by the gathering of the disciples in Jerusalem. Now in Year B, we learn how the disciples held everything in common, then hear some of Peter preaching at Solomon’s portico and later to the council after healing the lame beggar though not the healing itself, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (that great inspirer of well-meaning, inclusivity-inspiring, and patently Marcionite sermons), the Holy Spirit falling on the Gentiles, and finally Matthias replacing Judas, which of course happened before everything else. Finally, Year C treats us to Peter before the council, the conversion of Saul, Dorcas restored to life, Peter’s vision of unclean animals, the conversion of Lydia, and the Philippian jailer—at least some action, though no obvious reason why one episode follows another. Despite the disorder, the great swaths omitted might not be such a catastrophe for catechesis, if the rest of the lectionary gave the rest of Acts its due. It doesn’t, of course. The only other time during the rest of the three-year cycle we might hear a word from this book is on the Baptism of our Lord.
What, then, is a preacher to do? Other than ditching the lectionary altogether, the most sensible option is to use the small pericopes as a springboard for discussing larger chunks of Acts. This week’s lection of Acts 10:44-48 could be sensibly expanded to include all of chapter 10 and 11:1-18. It would be ideal to read through this whole selection in worship.
Still, a preface will be needed to account for the extraordinary drama of these two chapters, which are downright startling after the first nine. Herewith the backstory. Jesus the Lord has been raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. The disciples gather in joy to pray and worship, waiting for the promised baptism of the Holy Spirit, Who comes on the day of Pentecost in the presence of devout Jews and proselytes from across the known world. Suddenly three thousand of them believe, repent, and are baptized. A new kind of community develops marked by its sharing in all things, and more Jews are added to their number. Peter heals a beggar lame from birth (the overlap with the man born blind in John 9 is extraordinary), provoking another inspirational sermon and bringing the number of believing Jews up to five thousand. The council tries to mute them, but to no avail, and the excitement after Peter and John’s release is so great that “when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (4:31), as if Pentecost had happened all over again.
Then the first real crisis occurs, and notably the betrayal comes from within the church: Ananias and Sapphira want the form but not the content of righteousness and so lie about the sale of their land, leading to their own deaths. But the ministry continues, especially with healing. An attempt to imprison Peter fails when an angel comes and lets him out, but Gamaliel, a wise old Pharisee, counsels restraint on the part of the Jewish authorities. Another ripple then occurs within the Jewish community: the Greek-speaking Hellenists complain that their Hebrew counterparts aren’t looking after the widows, so the first deacons are appointed to see to this ministry. One of their number, Stephen, suffers martyrdom after an impassioned speech retelling Israelite history and charging the Jewish authorities with unbelief.
Stephen’s death is, in many ways, a victory—and not only because the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. His vision of Jesus (who after all was a martyr too) upon death only reinforces the faith. But it does mean that the strictly Jerusalem-centered preaching has to undergo an evolution. The apostles find themselves “scattered” (8:4) and so have to adjust to the new situation. Philip seems to be the first one to have the gumption to do so: he goes down to Samaria, that repository of suspect Jews, and preaches and performs signs. The afflicted are released and “there was much joy in that city” (8:8). Another internal problem then erupts: Simon the magician, who gave us the word “simony,” is so wildly impressed with the power of the Holy Spirit even after his repentance and baptism that he asks if he might buy it off Peter. Apparently Peter’s rebuke did the trick and Simon learned his lesson. Then Philip runs into a Jew from farther away than Samaria—the Ethiopian eunuch, possibly a proselyte, in any event someone already Jewish enough to come to Jerusalem for worship and read Isaiah in his spare time. The man is baptized and Philip is whisked away to Caesarea. Meanwhile Saul, “breathing threats and murder” (9:1), meets his Maker on the road to Damascus, ends up switching sides, and returns to Jerusalem to make peace with his former enemies. Aeneas is healed and Dorcas is raised from the dead. “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up” (9:31).
The one thing that hasn’t changed through the whole story so far is the objects of the missionary preaching. It’s always the Jews, of greater and lesser repute and greater and lesser receptivity. Moving beyond Jerusalem is a good step forward, but in other cities it is still the communities of Jews that receive (or not) the apostles and their faith. It doesn’t seem to have even occurred to anyone that their message might be of interest, relevance, or validity beyond the boundaries of the people of Israel. And why should it? The Messiah was promised to the Jews. To be a Gentile is to be out of luck from the moment of conception.
This is the backdrop of the Holy Spirit’s great and glorious surprise in Acts 10 and 11. Surprise is too mild a word. It is startling, astonishing, shattering—and causes problems throughout the rest of Acts. (The lectionary only goes as far as Acts 10 in Year B, though, so we won’t hear any more about it. And it never goes past Acts 17 in any of the years; so much for the last 11 chapters.) All of a sudden the faith is to be taken to the Gentiles as well. Salvation is from the Jews but it is not only for the Jews.
The Spirit knew that this would not go down easily. So the shift doesn’t start with either deliberate or accidental mission conversations with Gentiles; it happens with the Spirit’s sovereign work in getting a Gentile’s attention. Cornelius, full of grace, a centurion, sees “clearly in a vision” (10:3) the angel of the Lord. He is not yet told the good news; he is only told that God has received his prayers and alms and is now directing him to seek out Simon Peter staying with a tanner in Joppa. Cornelius has no idea where this is going, but he obeys; and at the other end, Peter has no idea where this is going, either. As with Cornelius, he gets a vision of its own. The Book of Acts likes to repeat things of particular consequence (proving Jesus’s resurrection from Psalm 2, for example, or Saul’s conversion, which gets told three times across the book), so here we are told that Peter’s vision occurred three times in a row, and Peter repeats it in the first person in Acts 11, so the reader/hearer of Acts gets the whole story twice.
It is not the kind of vision that nice Jewish boys have. A great sheet full of unclean animals descends from the sky and a disturbing command comes through loud and clear: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat” (10:13). Peter piously objects and is promptly rebuked: “What God has made clean, do not call common” (10:15). The third time’s the charm and Peter gets the point: it doesn’t refer only to food but to people, too. “God has shown me,” he says when he meets with Cornelius, “that I should not call any person common or unclean” (10:28). So the first big boundary, or as Ephesians says “the dividing wall of hostility” (2:14), has collapsed. Peter consents to meet with the Gentile Cornelius, and even touches him when the centurion falls on his feet to worship him, lifting him up and saying “I too am a man” (10:26)—their common humanity claimed at last.
But that is only the beginning of Peter’s (and the other Jews’) surprises. Cornelius reports his own dream and waits expectantly for what Peter has to say. Peter doesn’t respond immediately with his usual compelling speeches about Jesus raised from the dead; he responds like one who has had the biggest breakthrough of his life. “Truly I understand”—meaning he didn’t before—“that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34-35). Peter then has to tell his story with reference to Israel, because it is “the word that He [i.e., God] sent to Israel” (10:36), and it happened in Judea and Galilee, and the crucifixion was in Jerusalem, and we are now commanded to preach what has been testified by “all the prophets”—of Israel, of course. The result: “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43). And presumably that “everyone” really does mean everyone.
And so it is. The next shocker: Peter doesn’t even manage to finish his sermon when the Holy Spirit, irrepressibly eager to get on with the Gentile mission, falls on Cornelius and his Gentile associates. These men haven’t even been baptized yet—let alone being proper, devout, circumcised Jews who have some reason to get baptized in the first place. The narrator records the Jews’ astonishment: “And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (10:45). They speak in tongues, just like on the Day of Pentecost, and so there can be no reason to refuse them baptism in water. And so baptized they get.
This does not go over well back home. Just because people are believers in Jesus risen from the dead, repentant of their sins, and baptized does not mean they have it all worked out or fully comprehend the breadth of God’s designs. For just such all-star Christians are angry with Peter for associating and eating with Gentiles. Peter has to report the whole story in excruciating detail: first the icky dream that happened three times in a row, then the arrival of the summons from Cornelius and the Spirit’s orders to make no distinction; then learning of Cornelius’s vision; and finally the descent of the Holy Spirit on those Gentiles. Peter himself finally understands something Jesus had said to him ages and ages ago: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (11:16). And so he draws for them the conclusion he’d come to: “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (11:17). Because that’s what it finally comes down to, standing in God’s way or not. The astonishment at this was remembered and recorded, for after Peter finishes, “they fell silent.” You can feel the cogs grinding in their brains, struggling to work it out and accept it, and imagine the hushed voices as one by one they start uttering the unspeakable: “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (11:18). Turns out this resurrection thing is more than anyone bargained for.
The rest of Acts is characterized by two competing impulses. On the one hand, more and more Gentiles get drawn into the family of the gospel, from all over the place. And at the same time, more and more Jews get angry about the gospel, and even the ones within the gospel family struggle mightily to accept its consequences. Can it really be that circumcision is not necessary? Does the Holy Spirit really not want the Gentiles to adopt the customs of Moses? The Jewish leaders of the community struggle bit by bit to get there. The Jerusalem council of Acts 15 is astoundingly modest in its requirements of the new Gentile believers—if “requirements” is even the right word; the letter concludes with a simple, “If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (15:29). The hard-won lesson is this: the unity of the Spirit does not lie in unity of blood or or unity of customs. It lies in faith alone, specifically faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ that gives rise to repentance and leads to baptism in water and the Spirit.
Now at last to ask Luther’s catechetical question: what does this mean? For we are by and large a church of Gentiles now, and the relative power and influence of Jews and Gentiles within Christianity has long since switched. As noted above, efforts to uplift the inclusivity message of Acts often end up anti-Judaic through the back door, likely because they pursue inclusivity as a social good divorced from its very source in the body of Christ, crucified and risen and ascended and distributed to all at the holy supper, in order, in this very specific and divine and irreplaceable way, to create one people of God. It is not surprising that this long-neglected book has been made of central importance again by missionaries, Pentecostals, and emerging-church folks, who rightly perceive that Christendom hegemony has come to function much like the super-righteous circumcision party among the Jews of yore. How often do souls curious about the Lord find themselves put off by His people, because they rightly discern that becoming Christian is primarily converting to a culture rather than converting to a savior? The assumption has long been and remains that “all are welcome”—but only as long as you assimilate to us. That the church itself should be habitually shook up by new believers in specific cultural ways is hardly even considered. New believers don’t know everything and shouldn’t run riot all over the church (Priscilla and Aquila had to instruct the half-knowing though eager Apollos, after all, and the pastoral epistles wisely warn against new converts holding church office), but it is clear enough from Peter and the other disciples’ example that longterm believers don’t know everything either, and they can be mightily surprised by the Spirit’s moving. This is wildly disconcerting and leads to conflict—as the rest of Acts witnesses. But refusing the conflict is refusing the Spirit. This Sunday’s lessons from the Johns set the basic parameters in which the conflict should take place: the confession that Jesus is the Christ who came by water and the blood, and the public witness of love for one another. Do this, and who knows? Maybe even the empire will start to pay attention (again).
The Rev. Dr. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is Assistant Research Professor at the Institute of Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.