Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” But Peter began and explained it to them in order: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 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?” When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
– Acts 11:1-18
Sometimes I wonder why Jesus led the disciples through those three years of ministry in the villages of Galilee. Some of those moments of teaching make more sense than others. For instance, the way Jesus ministered alongside the disciples for awhile and then sent them off in pairs to follow his model: going from town to town – preaching, healing, and casting out demons. They were not perfect, but they would come back to Jesus and the group with their stories to tell… stories of joy and stories of frustration. Then there were other times, such as Jesus asleep in the boat as a storm almost overtook him and the disciples. Another time while they were boating, Jesus came to them walking on the water and called Peter to come out and join him. Those times, while good lessons in trusting Jesus, sometimes seem slightly less practical for those of us in the landlocked Midwest with no intention of trying to plod our way across our ponds and lakes.
Storms come in many forms, as Peter found out, and the turbulent waters he tread upon the sea of Galilee were small compared to what he faced in Jesus’ final days on earth and the weeks and months that would follow. After Jesus’ death, the disciples had all tried to find some kind of peace and solace in a new routine – some of the disciples even going back to their old livelihoods. The Resurrection turned everything upside down. After Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples tried to establish themselves as a small community of prayer and piety, waiting for Christ’s return. Pentecost shook that foundation as the Holy Spirit moved among them, spreading God’s kingdom out among the people in Jerusalem. Following Pentecost, the believers sought to make a life together as a community within the city of Jerusalem, and were succeeding, despite conflict from both inside and outside their group. Then persecution broke out and no one was safe in Jerusalem anymore. Within perhaps only weeks of this, Saul the persecutor of Christians had become a believer and was preaching the name of Jesus in Damascus, and not just Saul, but the Samaritans were becoming believers as well as the Holy Spirit poured out upon them as well as the Jews. Now even the Gentiles were becoming believers and recipients of the same Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ himself had imparted upon the apostles. Roman soldiers – former worshippers of pagan gods and the emperor of Rome. What was the world coming to? All of Peter’s attempts and the attempts of the early church to settle down and establish themselves were constantly overturned, seemingly by God’s own hand. How could anyone continue to go forward in the face of that constant change?
What about the changes going on in our own communities as well? The stock market acts like one of those roller coasters with twice as many sudden drops as gradual inclines. Insurance rates rise while the number of jobs that provide insurance disappear. Technology has slowed as industry seems to focus on refurbishing old ideas rather than come out with new ones. National morale and faith in our government is low among liberals and conservatives alike. Our churches continue to struggle to reach not just one, but often two and three different generations in our communities. These are turbulent times in which we live. How can we cope, let alone live as ‘more than conquerors’ in these times?
The Romans sought to grab control of anything that threatened their way of life. The Pharisees believed that if we would just live right, God would reward us for our good behavior. Peter however, remembered the word of the Lord. One of the most important roles of the Holy Spirit in our lives is to bring back to our memory God’s word – not simply for winning arguments or bible trivia contests – but to help us understand where God is and what God is doing in the midst of turbulent times. As Peter watched the Holy Spirit poured out on that Roman household, unclean gentiles and enemies of the Jews though they may have been, he remembered Christ telling him three years before – “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit,” and through that memory, he was able to make the connection and understand what it meant to truly be part of God’s Kingdom. To be baptized by God was when willing hearts opened their doors to God’s Spirit, Who came and lived inside them, cleansing and transforming them from the inside out. The baptism by water, although it was an important experience and sign for the people, was the outward sign – the public proclamation, of the real act of salvation that happened between the person and God.
That does not, as many have claimed, make salvation and entry into God’s Kingdom, a purely private experience. It makes it an experience that we, either as individuals, or as the church, cannot control. Peter did not save these gentiles – God did. All Peter had to do was show up (which took more humility and courage in this case than we may read at face value) and tell Cornelius and his household about Jesus. God could have sent Cornelius a postcard with the kind of message that Peter brought them, but I believe he wanted Peter to be present, not as the lead actor in this event, but as a witness… so that Peter could tell the rest of God’s people exactly how powerful God’s love was… how no boundary could stand between it and a heart that was ready to receive it. If Jerusalem did not want to receive God, then God would find his lost children among the enemies of the Jews.
Let us therefore turn aside from our fruitless attempts at controlling things that are beyond our control. Let us give up trying to earn God’s good grace. Instead, let us take example from Peter and remember the word of the Lord and let it guide us in our understanding of how we are to live in turbulent times. Incidentally, if you have not read or heard God’s word, it will probably be difficult for you to remember it – so we need to return to the Scriptures on a regular basis. Jesus Himself, and his followers after Him took comfort in knowing God’s word and living a life guided by God’s word and prayer and that allowed them to find peace and rest, even amidst the assailing storms in life and to walk in grace and victory over the turbulent waters of constant change.