Bible: Breaking a thousand-year tradition

August 20 — Acts 9:10-20; August 27 — Acts 10:19-33

Aug 14, 2017 by

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I’m thinking of a fable where a wolf is accepted into lamb society. As Aesop tells it, the wolf in sheep’s clothing is a fraud. But Saul’s transformation is real. The sheep hunter becomes a sheep.

Duane Beachey

Beachey

Think what it took for Ananias and the Jesus community to allow Saul to fellowship and teach among them. Getting over their suspicion of this man, who had been such a threat, was tough. But people can change their thinking or switch sides. Even a fierce opponent.

But Saul was not just a philosophical/religious opponent whose ideas differed. He had been a threat to the lives of Christians. Forgiving the man, who stood by approvingly as Stephen was stoned, had to be a lot harder for the friends of Stephen. Knowing that Saul had come to Damascus to find other “Stephens” would have been hard to forgive.

It’s no wonder it took some convincing for Ananias to accept God’s call, or for Ananias to convince the church to welcome this former enemy. Paul never took the grace that required for granted. He openly confessed the terrible role he had played.

Giving full inclusion even to former enemies is at the heart of Christian reconciliation. We see great examples from South Africa or Rwanda and other warring countries. Still it is a challenge.

The leap of faith for Peter may have included overcoming his hostility toward Roman soldiers who occupied Israel. But the sense of the story about Peter and Cornelius is that ethnic animosity was the far greater challenge. Peter had walked with Jesus for three years, had seen the risen Lord, had heard the call to go to the uttermost parts of the Earth. And yet it took a vision of a sheet from heaven for Peter to even consider entering Cornelius’ home.

The first thing Peter said when he entered the home was, “You know it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a gentile, but God has shown me not to call anyone unclean.” And the first question Peter had to answer upon returning to the Jerusalem church was why he had entered the home of a gentile.

For more than a thousand years, going back to the time of the judges, Jews had developed a deeply held belief that gentiles would defile them as a holy people. The first chapter of Judges lists each tribe and the peoples they had failed to drive out or destroy. The importance of ethnic purity continues on through Ezra, who forced the men to leave their foreign wives and children.

We see the Samaritan woman astonished that Jesus, a Jew, would ask a drink of her, a Samaritan. We see the centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant allow that Jesus would not need to come to his home but need only say the word. He assumed a good Jew would not enter his home.

So Peter’s vision was a huge eye-opener that caused him to say, “Now I know God has no favorites but accepts anyone who fears God and does what is right.”

Peter’s second epiphany was seeing the Holy Spirit falling on these uncircumcised gentiles, just as it had on them at Pentecost. The church had accepted gentile converts to Judaism before, but here is God’s sign of acceptance of gentiles.

This was the miracle of the early church. In Ephesians Paul tells us Christ put to death on the cross the hostility between Jews and gentiles, making one people out of two. But it took a vision from God and signs of the Holy Spirit at work in Cornelius’ home to get these Jewish Christians past what they had always believed from their Scripture.

Duane Beachey, author of Reading the Bible As If Jesus Mattered (Cascadia, 2014), is a Mennonite pastor serving two small Presbyterian churches in eastern Kentucky, where he and his wife, Gloria, served with Mennonite Central Committee for eight and a half years.


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