First Thoughts on Year B First Reading Acts Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 6

William Loader

Easter 6: 6 May Acts 10:44-48

These few verses play a key role in Luke's depiction of the story of the early church. It spread beyond just Jews to Gentiles. He describes their experience as matching what happened with the Jewish hearers on the Day of Pentecost. Non Jews are depicted as receiving the Spirit in the same way as Jews. This is their Pentecost. There can be no discrimination. In Acts 15 he will show that nearly all believers agreed that gentiles could be welcomed into God's people. In Luke's account this all happens because of two visions, one which Peter saw and one which Cornelius a gentile soldier, a Roman centurion, saw.

People who listened to Acts would almost certainly have also listened to Luke's gospel. There they would have read about a centurion whose slave Jesus healed but without entering the entering the gentile centurion's house (7:1-10). That soldier knew that for some more conservative Jews entering the house of a Gentile was forbidden and certainly this was so of sitting down and sharing a meal with them. He tells Jesus directly: "I am not worthy that you come to my house". That problem did not go away. Paul tells of an incident in Antioch in Syria when he and Barnabas together with Peter had been in the habit of sharing meals with Gentile believers. People who came from Jesus' brother James, who by that time was in charge of the church in Jerusalem, objected to the practice, so Peter and even Paul's close companion, Barnabas, withdrew, leaving Paul alone to defend his position (Gal 2:11-14). Paul insisted that such discriminatory behaviour had to stop because God loved and welcome non-Jews on the same basis as Jews.

So, when a few decades later, Luke seeks to give a picture of the early church, which by his time included many Gentiles, he wove together a story which at least in part reflected the issues. For in Acts 10 he shows Peter being shown that just as animals are all God's creatures, so all people are God's, so he should be making no distinctions. In Luke's story that prepares him for the approach from Cornelius, who also had a vision, telling him to make contact with Peter. Contact is made and Peter is soon speaking to Cornelius and his friends, having been shown in his vision to abandon his hesitations about entering the Gentile's home. Following the methods of historians of the time, Luke then gives us a brief version of what he thought Peter would have said. It makes it clear from the start that God does not discriminate. He then has him summarise the message about Jesus in much the same terms as Luke had used in his story of Jesus in the gospel. Accordingly Jesus went about doing good and setting people free from the powers that oppressed them, was killed, but then vindicated by God who raised him from the dead. Typically for Luke, nothing is said about Jesus dying for sins. The focus lies elsewhere: on the way of Jesus and on the fact that he would be the world's judge.

That brings us to our short passage, which describes the response. It assumes that they believe Peter, but emphasises that now the Spirit comes also to these non-Jews who are then welcomed into God's people by baptism. Luke had turned the Day of Pentecost into a symbolic occasion where the Spirit came like a wind, as it had come like a dove on Jesus at the beginning. Now the Spirit came on the Gentiles. Behind both events there is likely to have been some special occasions which Luke has now made into turning points for his story. Other writers, like the author of the fourth gospel, speak of the Spirit being breathed on the discples on the day of resurrection, but placing it at the harvest festival, the feast Pentecost, was symbolically appropriate, even if 50 days later. The expansion to the Gentiles may also have been more complax and Peter's role more ambivalent. Paul shows him wavering. Matthew has Jesus instruct his disciples to go to all nations barely a few days after his resurrection (28:18-20). Luke himself indicates that it also happened incidentally when Gentiles who attended synagogues heard about Jesus from Jewish believers expelled from Jerusalem to places like Damascus and Antioch.

This all means that we have to be a little hesitant about taking Luke's "history" at face value. It is so symbolically laden. On the other hand, the story highlights key issues of abiding significance. If it was debatable whether Jews should not eat with gentiles, at least on a regukar basis, it was clear from the beginning that gentiles who joined God's people should be circumcised, as God made clear to Abraham in Genesis 17. When most the early church's leaders resolved to drop that requirement (as they did in Acts 15), one of the first of many arguments about the Bible erupted. The fundamentalist-oriented believers insisted on upholding what they saw as God's infallible command and accused the others of watering down scripture's demands. They, in turn, argued that the love and compassion shown in Christ ought to be the measure and whatever did not cohere with it, whether in scripture or not, should be set aside. Paul battled such Christians all his life. The New Testament authors reflect a range of approaches, from the more radical stance of Paul, who declares the Christian no longer to be under the biblical law, and even more radically, the author John's gospel, to the more conservative Matthew and Luke, who insists all biblical laws must be kept with the sole exception of those set aside by divine intervention, as in the vision he has Peter see. Compassion had to win. It had always won in Jesus' ministry and in his disputes about what mattered most in scripture and its laws.

Behind this passage is not only the celebration that gentiles equally matter to God, but the deeper reality that in the name of this God no discrimination against other human beings based on race, ethinicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, or sinfulness has a place. In a secular world where most nations give at least lip service to human rights for all, people in the church sometimes lag behind and at worst perpetuate the very thing which Jesus lived and died to undermine, but that struggle in Christianity began already in its first decades.

Gospel: Easter 6: 6 May John 15:9-17
Epistle: Easter 6: 6 May  1 John 5:1-6