Trusting the Spirit (October 25, 2015)

Scripture passage and lesson focus: Acts 11:1-18

Writing at least a generation after the events he was recording, Luke knew firsthand how difficult it had been for the first Jewish Christians to accept the reality that God included Gentiles in the plan of salvation. He was also aware that the Jewish Christian communities and the rapidly increasing number of Gentile Christian congregations experienced understandable tensions and difficulties appreciating each other as members of the one body of Christ. As commentator Luke Timothy Johnson observes, “Luke has some literary and religious motivations for extending the Cornelius episode still further.”

Luke seems intent on reminding both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians that it was God who took the initiative to bring these two groups together in the church. Luke wants to remind his readers to trust God’s Holy Spirit. To do so, he retells the remarkable story already found in chapter 10 about how God’s Spirit brought Cornelius and Peter together. This time Luke presents the story from Peter’s perspective.

Acts 11:1-3 — Why eat with Gentiles?
The news that Gentiles had accepted the gospel and received the Holy Spirit traveled very quickly throughout Judea. One would think that this would be a cause for rejoicing among the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. However, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, his fellow believers, identified by Luke simply as “those from the circumcision,” confronted him with a question. “Why did you associate with Gentiles and share a meal with them?” they asked. They were more upset about Peter’s Gentile dinner companions than with the surprising new reality that those Gentiles had now joined the ranks of believers. Evidently on the matter of table fellowship their Jewish tradition had not been altered by their Christian faith.

Acts 11:4-12a — Peter defends his behavior
Knowing that Peter was being challenged by Jewish Christians who will confront him later on the same matter (see Acts 15), Luke describes how Peter defended his actions by presenting a step-by-step account of his life-changing vision. When God instructed Peter to eat meat considered unclean by his Jewish tradition, Peter vehemently refused. A second time God spoke: “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” Without even mentioning Cornelius, the Gentile centurion who played such a prominent role in the preceding chapter, Luke points out that the Holy Spirit had taught Peter not to discriminate against Gentiles. There was no reason not to join with Gentile believers around a common table.

Acts 11:12b-18 — Don’t hinder God
Six fellow believers accompanied Peter when he met with the Jewish Christians who questioned his behavior. They were the same companions who had witnessed what happened when Peter met with Cornelius in Caesarea. Peter carefully described how the Holy Spirit was present as Cornelius and his household listened to his message. For his Jewish Christian colleagues, Peter stressed that the Gentiles had come to believe and had experienced the gift of the Holy Spirit in the very same way as the disciples had at Pentecost.

Peter also reminded his colleagues that Jesus said that his followers would be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16). In light of his experience with Cornelius and his family, Peter asked his interrogators a counter-question: “Who was I that I could hinder God?” The Jewish Christian questioners did not have an answer to Peter’s question. Their silence acknowledged that Peter’s fellowship with Gentile believers was God’s will.

Rather than questioning Peter, the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem praised God for giving Gentiles “the repentance that leads to life.” It was not easy for them to accept God’s surprising offer of grace and forgiveness to Gentiles. But they agreed with Peter that they should not hinder God. As John Calvin commented on this episode, “God was the Initiator and Controller of the whole affair … we resist God not only by openly opposing Him, but also by our inactivity.” The Jerusalem Christians were no longer critical of Peter’s decision to share table fellowship with Gentiles. Instead, they chose to trust the Spirit.

For discussion 
Why is forgiving or asking for forgiveness so difficult for some people? Are there Christian people in your community with whom you would not enjoy sharing a meal together? What barriers to fellowship separate you from fellow Christians? We often pray, “Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.” Have you experienced being forgiven? Have you forgiven persons who have harmed you?

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.