The message of Jesus changed from reforming the tribal faith of the Jews to a global revolution when Peter had a vision. It’s easier to belong to a tribe – or a social class, or a congregation, or a nation – than to see God in all peoples and place. But only such a vision lives faithfully to the good news of Jesus Christ.
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In confirmation class, perhaps, or Sunday School, or private Bible reading, we have all probably got our favorite Bible passages. John 3:16, the 23rd Psalm, something like that. Well I’m going to make a case to you tonight that this passage in Acts, this entire chapter, really, is the most important chapter in the entire history of Christianity. Without it, we wouldn’t be here tonight, you and I wouldn’t even be Christians. This chapter tells us how the message of Jesus grew from something of interest just to a small corner of the world’s people – one tribe, really – to a universal message for the entire world. And so also it tells us to deal as generously and broadly with the world as Peter learned to do.
This conviction came to me after two international trips I made a few years ago. We traveled first to the Holy Land, to Israel, Palestine and Jordan. In addition to visiting many biblical sites, we met with Palestinian Christians, had an American-born settler explain to us his claim to the Holy Land, visited a Palestinian refugee camp, and so on. There were lots of lessons to take away from this, but one was the intense sense of religious and ethnic identity held by all of the groups there. I could only call it a tribal identity, a sense of belonging to a group that had limits – a group with insiders, and outsiders.
Soon after that trip we headed to Nairobi, Kenya, where our daughter was living at the time, and we visited here and saw the many animals in Kenya’s marvelous parks. But as we followed the news there, again the matter of tribes came through with overwhelming clarity. As in many countries in Africa – and elsewhere – tribal identities and loyalties have shaped politics and business and the flow of money and development. One can argue ad infinitum about why this is the case and who is to blame, but whatever the reasons it’s a reality today. Each time after Kenya’s election there is violence, along tribal lines, and aided and abetted by senior politicians trying to look after their own fortunes by taking care of their relatives. While we were there one cabinet minister resigned, accused of decisions favoring her own tribe – which she defended to the end! Others awaited indictment by the International Criminal Court, and they also defended their actions, and blamed others, other tribes, as the real culprits.
Tribes. It has a primitive sound to us, often. We often use it for first nations – American Indians, Australian aboriginals, here in Sri Lanka the remaining Veddahs. And while we may feel badly for how these people have been treated, we also probably wonder why they can’t adapt to modern life better. It’s an awkward word for us.
One reason it’s awkward, though, is that we all have our tribal identities. We have school identities that mark us for life – St. Thomas, St. Michael, Ladies’ College, Royal. You’re either in, or you’re not. We have church identities – Methodist, Anglican, Catholic, and more, and we see the flaws in others much easier than we see those in ourselves. And of course politics makes for allies, and enemies. In America today some people would rather their child married someone from a different religion than a different political party!
Now, I’m not making any discovery here. A quick review of the Old Testament shows clearly the varieties of peoples – of tribes – that populated the ancient Middle East, and of the competition, violence and bloodshed among them. Amorites, Edomites, Cushites, Amalekites – and then the big ones, Babylonians and Assyrians and such. In the long centuries from the fall of Judah through to Jesus’ time, much energy was spent keeping the Hebrew tribe – the people of Israel – pure and separate from those around them, the people who didn’t know the one true God. Marriage restrictions kept the blood line pure; kosher food laws kept Jews from even socializing with other groups, as you couldn’t properly sit down to eat with a non-observant Jew. Keeping those tribal boundaries fixed was thought to be critical to maintaining their identity, to knowing who was really following the God of Abraham and Sarah, and who was not. The intent may have been good – but the consequences were not.
In fact, an awful lot of Jesus’ ministry can be seen as an effort not to start a new religion, not even to expand the Jewish community, but to reform this rigid interpretation of the law. Jesus told of a helpful Samaritan and talked to a Samaritan woman – showing that these close cousins should not be seen as an alien people. He ate with Jewish tax collectors, demonstrating that sinners remained part of the household of faith. He healed on the Sabbath, to remind his contemporaries that the sabbath was a gift of grace, not a burden placed upon them. Indeed, Jesus made it clear he had come to the children of Israel, not to those beyond the covenant community – though when one outsider, a woman, said that even the dogs get the crumbs from the table, he relaxed his position at least that once.
The earliest work of the apostles focused entirely on the Jewish community. Those early sermons in Acts were all addressed to Jewish audiences. That’s who the message was for – the fulfillment of the promised Messiah for the children of Abraham.
But let’s stop here and reflect a bit on the world into which Jesus was born. That stark desert landscape and a look at the geography of Jesus ministry can teach us a lot. For example, Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. We likely think that means he grew up among fellow Jews in a traditional, Aramaic-speaking community. But Nazareth was such a small place that it was never mentioned in the Bible until the Gospel of Matthew. It seems to have been a village of maybe 200-plus in Jesus’ time – a few extended families. But Nazareth was not far from a newer, Greek-speaking community called Sephoris, where it seems logical that his father Joseph found work – and probably learned some Greek. All around that region, part of the Roman Empire for many decades by then, Greek was the language used between the many tribes that lived in the Galilean hills and through the Jordan Valley. It seems likely that Jesus spoke at least basic Greek – how else did he speak with Pontius Pilate, the Italian official who ruled Jerusalem during Jesus’ ministry?
The point here is that Jesus operated – and as we shall see shortly, the early church operated – in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, increasingly urban environment, inside an Empire that provided order and security and even opportunity across a huge swath of territory. He may have come to revive the Jews and their faith – but others heard as well. They couldn’t, however, actually join the tribe of Jews, not easily, anyway – until we get to the site of today’s lesson, a city I visited on that trip to the Holy Land.
I had never paid attention to Ceasarea Maritima until it showed up on the itinerary of that trip; I had to study up on where it is and why we were visiting it. At the time of Jesus this town, on the shores of the Mediterranean north of modern Tel Aviv, was an engineering wonder, a stunning achievement by Herod the Great. From scratch, his engineers – and thousands of laborers – fashioned a harbor with a 250 meter breakwater, a palace with a pool overlooking the sea, an aqueduct to bring water 50 kilometers, a lovely amphitheater for plays, and more. It was a showplace of Herod’s power – and all the tax money he had extracted from Israel. It was a government center, and a commercial and cultural crossroads, more important to most people than Jerusalem, tucked up in the central hills. And for the early church, it was important because so many people moved through there. Peter spent time there communicating with early Christian missionaries as they came and went from the Jewish communities scattered across the region. Later, Paul would be in and out of it, and he would leave from there for his life-ending journey to Rome.
So Peter, who led the Jewish-Christians, the early church of Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah – Peter worked in this cosmopolitan place, but focused all his attention on his fellow Jews. Until, one day, he had a vision. He saw a sheet lowered down from heaven, filled with animals and birds and reptiles forbidden to the Jewish table – unclean food. A voice said to him, ‘Peter, kill and eat.’ ‘By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane,’ said the voice, and the sheet rose back into the skies.
About that same time, a Roman official, a military officer, a centurion, Cornelius, also had a vision – a vision to seek baptism in the name of this Jesus, of whom he had heard – obviously in Greek, his only option. And with some friends he came to Ceasarea Maritima as his vision told him, and to Peter, and he explained their request. Then Peter, the leader of the Jewish Christians, the defender of circumcision for converts, the insister on the food laws for those who followed the Messiah – that Peter suddenly understood the power of the gospel for the entire world. ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality,’ Peter said, and a bit later we read ‘While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers (the Jewish-Christians) who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, ….’ Even on the Gentiles. That’s you and me, Gentiles all.
The Christian faith begins, to be sure, with the Resurrection of Jesus, validating his ministry and showing the love God has for Creation. But the church began here in Acts 10, when it broke the bounds of tribe, broke the limitations of language, broke out of a niche in an obscure corner of the ancient Middle East – and became a world-changing faith. Tribal boundaries of food, ritual language, no longer defined the scope of the gospel. The Ethiopian eunuch was baptized, Paul carried the gospel to Syria and Tukey and beyond. And his successors carried it on, and on, and on. Without Peter’s vision, without this break from tribes to a global message, we would not be here today — because we would not be Christians, there would not be the church spanning the globe and reaching every nation.
Now let’s be clear – the Church quickly found it easier to be a tribe than to truly live out the revolutionary message of Jesus and the dramatic vision of Peter. Even in Peter and Paul’s time, battles developed over limits and fences, who was in and who was not. And we have not stopped, including schisms still occurring in the church today. It’s always easier to exclude, to say no, to be separate, than to take the time to understand another perspective, than to learn what truly motivates another person, than to find our common humanity beneath our apparent differences. But the gospel message always remains there in the words of Scripture, always ready to renew our faith and enlighten our thoughts when we will stop and listen.
The message of Jesus changed from reforming the tribal faith of the Jews to a global revolution when Peter had a vision. It’s easier to belong to a tribe – or a social class, or a congregation, or a nation – than to see God in all peoples and place. But only such a vision lives faithfully to the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen. (Acts 10:9-16, 34-38)