He grew up in Nazareth, the son of carpenter. He was exposed early on to the traditions of his people—even going to the Temple in Jerusalem as a boy. On the way back home, he got separated from his family and so when he needed to reach out to someone for safety, he returned to the Temple. And the teachers there responded, fascinated by this boy’s insights and the intelligence of the questions he asked.
As a young man, he began reaching out to others in his trade, yet sensing God was calling him to a new work. Seeking to turn his life around at the age of thirty, he reached out to John the Baptizer, and felt the Holy Spirit fill him and empower him.
Driven into the wilderness to fast and pray, he was nonetheless tempted to turn aside from this new path, but in reaching out to God, he was able to begin a new kind of ministry in and to the world.
He traveled about his homeland of Galilee, reaching out to his neighbors with the good news of God’s wholeness. As he taught and healed, he had a growing sense that God was indeed ready for a new thing.
And so his outreach began to go beyond the synagogue and the table fellowship he was accustomed to. God’s wholeness, he realized, was not just for the Hebrew people, not just for men, not just for the righteous and respectable. He reached out to sinners, to traitors, to gentiles, to women, telling them that there was a place in God’s realm for them as well. His travels took him farther and farther afield until he ended up back in Jerusalem.
In the end, he reached out his arms one final time, and allowed them to be nailed to a cross. It was this vision of him that will forever be remembered: a man giving all he had—his very life—in love for the world. His arms were forever stretched out, his complete giving immortalized on the cross. Such a sacrifice—even if it ended in death—could never die. And those who loved him discovered that, indeed, it did not end. His life was renewed in death, and his outreach continues.
The story of the early church was very much the story of the continued life of the man Jesus, called Messiah by his followers. It was the story of reaching out, of invitation, of preaching a message of God’s wholeness, of going beyond boundaries which before had been unacceptable to cross. There is almost no way to explain what was happening without attributing it to God’s activity in the world. Here were people who continued to be inspired by this Jesus they had followed before he was executed by the Romans. Like him, they reached out to the downtrodden, voluntarily giving of themselves and their property that they might find the wholeness that had eluded them. And yet—still inspired by his Spirit—their outreach went even farther. They began to declare that God was making clean that which previously had been called unclean.
Today’s story from the Book of Acts is a wonderful example of how the earliest Christians explained this. Peter—often seen as the mouth of the church—had a vision in which God showed him every kind of animal he could imagine—sort of like Noah’s ark… except in this case, he was told not to save the animals but to kill and eat them. And Peter, thinking, no doubt, that this was a test of his fidelity to God’s law, said that he would eat nothing that wasn’t kosher. Yet God insisted in this vision that it had all been made clean, and was now alright to eat. Peter interpreted this vision as an invitation to look beyond all the ancient laws of ritual cleanness—laws which not only prevented people of his faith from eating certain foods, but also from eating with certain people. It’s an extraordinary account of one man using his position of leadership to reach out to those to whom he was not accountable. It was an enormous risk, because as we’ve all seen, it’s much easier to cater to one’s base, to reach out to those with whom we already agree, to help them insulate themselves from the world and see themselves as special, and their position as God’s chosen people uniquely safe. But Peter insisted that God was leading him and all other followers of Jesus to reach out to Gentiles, inviting them to become equal partners in preaching the good news, compatriots of the commonwealth of heaven.
We have to admit that there is no more vulnerable a position than what we see in the Crucified One, arms eternally open to all comers. But we also have to admit that the church maintained that position when it opened itself to all comers. Has the nature of the church changed? Did God intend it to become an increasingly exclusive community as it extended itself beyond Jerusalem, beyond the Middle East, beyond the Mediterranean? I don’t think anybody could possibly argue that God’s will was for a church less open. The real question is how can a person calling themselves a Christian, if they have any integrity at all, possibly call for a church with open arms, while desiring to live in a nation closed to anyone new, anyone different.
Peter’s message to the church two thousand years ago was that God gave outsiders the same gift that he gave insiders when they believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. So who were insiders that they could hinder God? [Acts 11:17] The vision was about food: that which was okay to eat and that which was considered unclean. But the true message of the vision—at least as far as Peter interpreted it—was about people. Not eating them, of course, but welcoming them. Before, there had been people born inside and people born outside. The church up to that point had concentrated on the insiders. If anybody wanted to become part of the church, they weren’t worthy until they got their papers in order, as it were… until it could be documented that they’d first converted to Jesus’ religion.
But as I mentioned above, one of the things that upset Jesus was how religion was being used to keep people away from God. And this story is one of several places in the Bible where the church realizes that it had been going about things wrong—that a person born on the outside could go directly from being a foreigner to being a full citizen of the commonwealth of heaven without any intermediary steps. It was never about process, but about relationship.
So let’s think of the story of Peter’s vision as more than just a lesson in church government. It was clearly intended to change Peter’s attitudes about everything in life. His response was, “Who am I that I should be a hindrance to God’s work?” If we believe that God is at work not only in all people, but also in all areas of life—because remember, Peter’s vision wasn’t even about church membership—then shouldn’t we also ask ourselves, regardless of who we are or what day it is, “Who am I that should be a hindrance to God’s work?”
—©2018 Sam L. Greening, Jr.