Stretching the boundaries

Sep 28, 2015 by

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Peter saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down. . . . In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord!” — Acts 10:11-14

If we think the boundaries of our faith communities shift rapidly today, consider the speed and scope of change in the Book of Acts. When persecution made most followers of Jesus flee Jerusalem, Peter ended up ministering in Samaria, of all places. Astonishingly, Samaritans — a heretical sect in the eyes of most Jews — received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17).

The harbor of Joppa is adjacent to the oldest part of the city, where Simon the tanner had a house by the sea. — J. Nelson Kraybill

The harbor of Joppa is adjacent to the oldest part of the city, where Simon the tanner had a house by the sea. — J. Nelson Kraybill

More surprises followed. Peter went toward the Mediterranean coast to Lydda, where God used him to heal a bedridden man named Aeneas. Word of that miracle reached nearby Joppa — home of Dorcas, a woman “devoted to good works and acts of charity” (9:26). When Dorcas took ill and died, friends summoned Peter from Lydda. He prayed alone over the body of Dorcas, and God restored life to this generous woman.

Bending rules for a devout Jew, Peter lodged with a tanner named Simon who lived by the sea at Joppa. Touching animal carcasses made Simon ritually unclean. Tanners used feces and urine in the leather curing process, making theirs a wretched-smelling business for low-class people. In that unlikely setting, God prepared Peter for the biggest leap of all.

While in a trance, and perhaps hypoglycemic from hunger, Peter saw a great sailcloth being lowered from heaven. It was bursting with critters —apparently a mixture of ritually clean and unclean animals (Leviticus 11). A voice said, “Butcher and eat!” Peter had plenty of biblical reasons not to do so, but the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15).

No sooner had the vision ended than three men from Caesarea appeared at the tanner’s house. Their master, Cornelius — a Gentile centurion of the most powerful army on earth — had sent them on the 40-mile journey to Joppa. Cornelius also had seen a vision, in which an angel of God had directed him to summon Peter to his house. Would the devout fisherman, already stretched to the limit by association with Samaritans and tanners, minister to a military guy in a foreign army?

Peter’s courage in going to Caesarea brought salvation — and the Holy Spirit — to Cornelius and many of his relatives and friends. Peter reminded them that it was “unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.” But since God came “preaching peace by Jesus Christ,” everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:28, 36, 43).

Debate about Jews relating to Gentiles smoldered for decades — much like discussion of church boundaries is on a long burn today. There was a heated conference about boundaries at Jerusalem (Acts 15), a flaring of tempers between Peter and Paul at Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14) and the boundary-related arrest of Paul at Jerusa­lem (Acts 21). Amid this turmoil, the Spirit was at work.

Take heart, fellow Christians embroiled in conflict: The church belongs to Jesus, not to us. If Peter and Paul could disagree and still be brothers, the God who preached peace by Jesus Christ will stabilize and build the church in spite of our struggles.

Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his peace reflections at peace-pilgrim.com.


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  • Ken Fellenbaum

    Nelson, you raised some interesting points – but (intentionally?) left open what specific “boundaries” might be causing “struggles” within the Church in the 21st century. The issues related to the O.T. Law around “clean” and “unclean” were specific to the Israelites and I don’t pretend to understand exactly why but God clearly had His reasons. Regarding the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Kingdom – that’s a little easier to understand since Jesus made it clear that “all nations” were to be evangelized. There will always be issues that will “stetch” Christ’s followers. What is imperative is that we have leaders who know the Scriptures in their entire and are able under the direction of the Spirit to guide believers accordingly while remaining committed to our principle task of making disciples. May the Lord bless you in your new responsibility as President of the MWC.

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