Today we are in Acts chapter 10, in the city of Caesarea. But to fully appreciate it, we have to go back and visit Joppa a little. Here’s our text, from Acts 10 verses 1 – 48.
In Caesarea there lived a Roman army officer named Cornelius, who was a captain of the Italian Regiment. He was a devout, God-fearing man, as was everyone in his household. He gave generously to the poor and prayed regularly to God. One afternoon about three o’clock, he had a vision in which he saw an angel of God coming toward him. “Cornelius!” the angel said.
Cornelius stared at him in terror. “What is it, sir?” he asked the angel.
And the angel replied, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have been received by God as an offering! Now send some men to Joppa, and summon a man named Simon Peter. He is staying with Simon, a tanner who lives near the seashore.”
As soon as the angel was gone, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier, one of his personal attendants. He told them what had happened and sent them off to Joppa.
The next day as Cornelius’s messengers were nearing the town, Peter went up on the flat roof to pray. It was about noon, and he was hungry. But while a meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the sky open, and something like a large sheet was let down by its four corners. In the sheet were all sorts of animals, reptiles, and birds. Then a voice said to him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat them.”
“No, Lord,” Peter declared. “I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure and unclean.”
But the voice spoke again: “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.” The same vision was repeated three times.
Then the sheet was suddenly pulled up to heaven.
Peter was very perplexed. What could the vision mean? Just then the men sent by Cornelius found Simon’s house. Standing outside the gate, they asked if a man named Simon Peter was staying there.
Meanwhile, as Peter was puzzling over the vision, the Holy Spirit said to him, “Three men have come looking for you. Get up, go downstairs, and go with them without hesitation. Don’t worry, for I have sent them.”
So Peter went down and said, “I’m the man you are looking for. Why have you come?”
They said, “We were sent by Cornelius, a Roman officer. He is a devout and God-fearing man, well respected by all the Jews. A holy angel instructed him to summon you to his house so that he can hear your message.” So Peter invited the men to stay for the night. The next day he went with them, accompanied by some of the brothers from Joppa.
They arrived in Caesarea the following day. Cornelius was waiting for them and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered his home, Cornelius fell at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter pulled him up and said, “Stand up! I’m a human being just like you!” So they talked together and went inside, where many others were assembled.
Peter told them, “You know it is against our laws for a Jewish man to enter a Gentile home like this or to associate with you. But God has shown me that I should no longer think of anyone as impure or unclean. So I came without objection as soon as I was sent for. Now tell me why you sent for me.”
Cornelius replied, “Four days ago I was praying in my house about this same time, three o’clock in the afternoon. Suddenly, a man in dazzling clothes was standing in front of me.He told me, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your gifts to the poor have been noticed by God! Now send messengers to Joppa, and summon a man named Simon Peter. He is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner who lives near the seashore.’ So I sent for you at once, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here, waiting before God to hear the message the Lord has given you.”
Then Peter replied, “I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right. This is the message of Good News for the people of Israel—that there is peace with God through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee, after John began preaching his message of baptism. And you know that God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. Then Jesus went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
“And we apostles are witnesses of all he did throughout Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him to life on the third day. Then God allowed him to appear, not to the general public, but to us whom God had chosen in advance to be his witnesses. We were those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he ordered us to preach everywhere and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to be the judge of all—the living and the dead. He is the one all the prophets testified about, saying that everyone who believes in him will have their sins forgiven through his name.”
Even as Peter was saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the message. The Jewish believers who came with Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles, too. For they heard them speaking in other tongues and praising God.
Then Peter asked, “Can anyone object to their being baptized, now that they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did?” So he gave orders for them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Afterward Cornelius asked him to stay with them for several days.
Two weeks ago, we heard from Luke about how important Peter is in the early church. He visits and encourages them, performs miracles in their midst, and many come to faith in Christ because of these signs.
Our story today is about Peter and Cornelius. Those of us who were at family camp two weeks ago already heard a preview of this from Ben Langford, who talked a lot about Cornelius and the implications for the modern church.
I want to reach back to that last little line from our passage last week. Just a simple statement about where Peter is staying in Joppa. He’s staying with a guy named Simon, who is a tanner. Remember I told you to try to remember that because it was going to be really important.
I have never met a tanner, but I have read some about that profession– which is still a profession today. So you know that a tanner is someone who takes the skin of a dead animal and turns it into leather. Do you remember back in the Old Testament where touching the skin of a dead animal makes you unclean? Because this is Simon’s profession, what he does every day, this guy is ritually unclean. At all times.
Does it get more ritually unclean than being a tanner–working with dead animals and their flesh and blood, every day?? Having pungent animal skins hanging out on your porch to dry, and scrubbing blood off the floor…maybe battling maggot infestations and scavengers who keep trying to get into your shop… I mean this is a gross job for anyone. But for people who were told that coming into contact with a dead animal would make them ritually unclean, this guy’s job is as bad as it gets.
In the ancient world and in the modern era, tanning is a stinky trade. It’s so repulsive in fact, that in ancient Judaism, it was one of only a few legitimate reasons a woman could divorce her husband–if he was a tanner. For those of you who are very familiar with marriage regulations in ancient Israel, you’ll have to look to the Mishnah for this instruction, it’s not in the Bible.
This tanning profession is just plain repulsive. It is pushed out to the fringes physically and metaphorically speaking. It is nasty business and the wealthier people don’t want this anywhere near them. So this is a job done among the poor and those lower on the social ladder, who don’t have a choice about who moves into the neighborhood or how bad they make it smell.
This actually reminds me of a staff retreat that we took when I worked at Pepperdine. My first few years there we would take a fun retreat every May and about 60-70 of us in Student Affairs who would go stay at a nice hotel and have educational sessions, times of worship, team-building, and recreation. When the recession hit, those trips were yanked away and instead we got to have day-long meetings and local excursions. So one year we were at a historic beachfront hotel in Ventura, eating at delicious restaurants, and the next year they loaded us up on a bus and took us to two places. Sun Valley, where our garbage was processed, and Vernon, CA, a city south of LA.
The visit to Sun Valley was educational in a few ways–it was cool to see how the disposal company took all of our refuse and sorted out what was recyclable, compostable, and what went to the landfill. At that time, they were diverting more than 75% of the refuse meaning less than a quarter of what we tossed in the garbage cans made it to the landfill.
I’m sure many of you have been to a dump though, and you know what it smells like. It’s terrible. And our trip leader asked us to note the distance from Malibu to Sun Valley–and notice how far our trash traveled, how far away we sent it. Over 40 miles. What did that say about us as a community, that we had an infrastructure that required garbage to be taken that far away to be processed; and what did it say about how we were regarding ‘the other’–those residents of Sun Valley who had to live with the stench of our trash every day. Yuck. Metaphorically and literally, just yuck.
Then we went to Vernon, CA–a primarily industrial city of about 5 square miles. Vernon has less than 100 residents, no parks, all housing is owned by the city and occupied by city employees; but it has its own power plant and meat packing is the primary industry. You’ll also see rendering plants, food processors, metal-working operations. This isn’t a city that’s designed for people to live in. It is a place for stinky, dirty, toxic industry. Just a few months ago actually, there was a battery recycling plant there that was shut down for long-term arsenic and lead leakage and emissions. Yikes. Not a place you want to live near…
Well on our tour, when we step out of our air conditioned shuttle bus and onto the streets of Vernon, our eyes and noses are filled with the thick gray smog we saw from our windows. The smell is repulsive and literally knocks some of us back. And although the city itself has few residents, it shares its contamination, and emissions, and stench with its neighbors in every direction for miles and miles. A representative of a group called Communities for a Better Environment takes us on what they call a Toxic Tour. This is to raise our awareness of the communities that are most directly impacted by toxics and pollution–namely low-income communities of color. The tour guide talks about the oil refineries, ports, and metal recycling facilities and other industrial byproducts that are linked to asthma, birth defects, and cancer. We hear from local residents who are organizing to hold the industry leaders and government officials accountable for toxic pollution in their neighborhoods.
It was eye-opening to say the least. I don’t think there was anyone in our group who didn’t go home and immediately take a shower–the stench was that bad; soaking into your clothes and skin.
And there are a few things I want to pick up on from this stinky tour and trace through our story as we think about Peter at Simon the Tanner’s house. Simon the Tanner is likely on the fringes of society. No one with the means to live elsewhere is going to choose to live near a tannery. Just like the city of Vernon and its neighboring cities–anyone who has the chance gets out of there. So what does that say about Peter that he’s staying with this guy? He’s staying overnight for some unknown period of time in this stinky, filthy, ritually unclean house. Does he have no other options? Was this guy offering the best weekly rate? Or is this a tiny step in his understanding about what makes you clean…?
And as he’s up there on the roof to pray, you know what smells are wafting up from below–that metallic smell of blood, of animal skins, and chemicals used to process the leather. There’s no escaping or denying where he is staying. His nose gives him an ever-present reminder that he is staying in the unclean home of an unclean man.
We don’t know his ethnicity or whether he is a believer, all we get to hear about him is his profession and that he’s hospitable in allowing Peter to stay with him.
And this is another instance in the book of Acts where we encounter someone who is ritually unclean. This time he’s not the main character of the story–like the Ethiopian Eunuch–but, he is giving hospitality to Peter.
And as I think about Peter receiving hospitality from this tanner, I am reminded of the strangely beautiful hospitality I received from strangers in the mountains of Honduras.
Throughout high school and college and grad school, I went on lots of mission trips, mostly to impoverished areas in Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador. And each time I stepped into a community for the first time, and saw and smelled how people were living, my knee-jerk reaction was to be disgusted, and sad. The smells and the sights were overwhelming initially… So many people with physical disabilities, malnourishment, and malformed bodies. You see kids searching through the trash to find something to eat or some mistakenly discarded treasure. people living in homes of cardboard and metal roofing, without electricity or plumbing or any of our modern conveniences. Most of these homes didn’t have toilets. There were communal areas where everyone would go–not toilets, mind you–just “areas” that were socially designated as where you go.
The smells were. the. worst.
No, they didn’t make us use the great outdoors to relieve ourselves. In some places where we went, like schools, there were toilets we could use. And they were like the ones in these pictures. Some difficult navigation, but we made it work.
And on one particular trip in Honduras, it was a medical mission, I remember we traveled to a remote mountain village and set up a small medical station. And all of the local residents knew we were coming and lined up. Everyone got a pill for worms–no tests administered, just as a precaution. Most of what we were treating were a variety of infections that they just needed antibiotics for. But there were also abscesses to be drained. The sights and sounds and smells were not for the faint of heart.
But the thing they forgot to mention as we were traveling up to this remote area in the mountains–was that there were not restroom facilities. Our little medical station was just a gathering place with partial shade where we set up shop. And when I inquired about a bathroom, someone from the village was nominated to show me the way. They led me on a small journey on winding roads past several homes until they found just the right one–the family that had an outhouse. There wasn’t electricity or plumbing, but there was a toilet on top of a deep hole. And the family graciously greeted us and handed me a roll of toilet paper to take to the outhouse.
And I don’t know how many of you have been in a context like this, but toilet paper was a precious commodity there–many people in this village and in the mountains did not have toilets, let alone toilet paper. But they took me to the home where they knew the owner had the best toilet, which was private, and also toilet paper. And that owner was incredibly kind and hospitable not only in allowing me to use their toilet, but also in giving me their precious roll of toilet paper to use. It’s hard to imagine given the world in which most of us live. But this was a big deal.
And for some crazy reason, this story about Peter staying with the Tanner got me thinking about the toilets in Honduras. Because it seems to me that accepting the hospitality of “the other” is critical to accepting and embracing those who God has already included. It’s a big part of what breaks down the dividing wall. Being willing to walk the stinky streets that are filled with toxic air. Being open to hearing that the filth in the air is because of our consumption, because of our economic demands for particular products and particular prices. Accepting the hospitality of the locals who are eager to share freely with us about the environmental impacts of our way of life.
Friends, God was already there. We weren’t on mission to “bring God” to the stinky streets of Sun Valley. We weren’t waving the banner of God’s restorative justice and concern for the poor when we visited Vernon. And in Honduras–although we went there on what we called a medical “mission” trip, it wasn’t primarily us bringing the love of God to the people of Honduras. Through accepting the hospitality of the locals–strangers–we came to learn that God was already there.
God had gone before us and was already at work. We got to show up, and serve as learners and partners.
And it seems to me that as Peter was staying in the home of Simon the Tanner, accepting the hospitality of this ritually unclean man–that is when and how he knew that God was already there. God had gone before him, and he was not “bringing God” to them–rather, God was already at work. Peter just got to show up and partner in what God was up to. Thank goodness he was listening.
But it wasn’t quite as simple as that. It’s a slow process of revelation for Peter.
The significance of the sheet with the animals coming down seems like it could go a few different ways. And Peter was perplexed by it. God’s telling Peter that no longer should they consider these things unclean–God has made them clean. But what things is he referring to? Is it the animal carcasses, the animals that used to be off-limits for eating, or is this a metaphor for the people they have considered unclean?
I mean on the one hand, Peter is staying in the home of a tanner, where there are animal skins and blood, and if you touch them you’re considered to be unclean for the whole day. So the vision could be about this–saying that it no longer makes you “unclean” to touch the carcass. Or maybe the food that’s prepared for him in this house isn’t kosher–and the vision is a way of saying that the Jewish dietary restrictions no longer apply? Maybe, but those things aren’t in the text.
If we look at the context of the vision, we see that while Peter gets the vision with the sheet and the animals, Cornelius gets a vision that tells him to get Peter to come and share his message with them. And since our story is about the conversion of Gentiles–whom the Jews have historically labeled as unclean–it seems that at least one probable meaning of vision is that the sheet with the animals is a metaphor for the cleanness of people. That God is telling Peter to no longer consider unclean those people whom God has made clean.
In other words, that God is the one who gets to decide.
SO here we have Peter. And he’s faced with a critical decision while he is at Cornelius’ house. Will he accept what God seems to be up to here, name it and partner with God? Think about who Peter is. He’s Simon, son of Jonah. (Remember Jonah–the guy who God chose to preach a word of repentance to people that Jonah didn’t want saved…Jonah wanted to decide who was in and who was out…Peter has to decide whether he’ll continue to walk in the way of Jonah or follow God into an unknown future) And he’s a fisherman. Ironic? Sometimes I wonder if little details like that are in there for humor rather than historical accuracy.
Anyway, we remember when Simon (Peter) was called–it was Simon and Andrew who were brothers, and James and John who were also brothers. So these four guys were out fishing together–because that was their job. And they are the first ones Jesus calls. Remember that Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter. Later Peter, James, and John become the tight inner circle among the 12–they’re the ones Jesus lets accompany him when everyone else stays behind. And they feature prominently throughout the gospels. But Simon Peter is a fisherman. He’s not one of the teachers of the law; he’s a commoner. And he messes up like crazy.
Remember when he denied Jesus THREE times right before his crucifixion? And isn’t it interesting that here in our story it takes three times with the sheet thing for Peter? That is something I had never noticed before. It says that it happens three times. And I imagine it as three times the voice saying “get up peter, kill and eat.” and three times, Peter protests, “oh no, nothing unclean has ever touched my mouth! I won’t do it!” Three times. Just like his three times denying Jesus, and then three times Jesus asking him to “feed my sheep.” Three times we have this scenario with the sheet and the voice. This is the THIRD time for one of these little episodes where it takes THREE times for Peter to finally get it.
Peter is the quintessential forgiven sinner. And I wonder… I wonder as he is standing in Cornelius’ house, hearing his story of an angel appearing to him, I wonder which of Jesus’ words are echoing through his head and heart as he reflects on all of this… Would he be the prodigal son’s older brother, who had always been included, was always with the father, but was jealous and couldn’t accept that this wayward son–who had no right to be included–would be welcomed with open arms? Would he be the man in the parable whose ginormous debt was erased, and who then turned around and severely punished and threatened a man who owed him very little? Would he be like these–people who had been given so much and forgiven so freely, but were unwilling to accept that this grace and forgiveness are for everyone?
We know how what happens next in this Cornelius and Peter episode. Peter finally gets it.
“I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism.”
This is HUGE for a Jewish man to say this. A Jewish man whose daily prayers likely included thanking God that he was not born a woman, a gentile, or a slave. You guys have heard of this famous Jewish prayer, right? Now it sounds like we don’t have written record of that prayer before about 200 CE, but this notion of being grateful for being a man (rather than a woman), free (rather than slave), and for one’s ethnicity; that had been around for hundreds of years in Greek culture and so it’s likely that this Jewish prayer was in use at the time. Anyway, for Peter to proclaim that God shows no favoritism–Peter, a Jewish man whose religion is incredibly sectarian–I mean they believe they are THE CHOSEN ONES. They are. For HIM to say “I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism”–that’s HUGE!
And so the message that Peter brings to Cornelius–this whole encounter that’s guided by the Holy Spirit on both ends–the message is a proclamation of God’s truth, a way in which God has already been at work in the world and now Peter sees and accepts it. He says “In every nation God accepts those who fear him and do what is right. This is the message of Good News for the people of Israel—that there is peace with God through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” THIS is the Good News! And while Peter is making this bold proclamation, the Holy Spirit falls on all of the listeners and they start speaking in tongues and praising God. Peter and his Jewish friends don’t need any further evidence. It’s time for baptism.
And doesn’t Luke do a fun little thing here with the language–remember in the story with Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, the Ethiopian was the one to say “look, there’s water–does anything prevent me from being baptized?” Here with Peter and Cornelius, Peter is the one to say “can anyone object to their being baptized?” And so we see that as the believers interact with Gentiles, they’re learning about God’s work in the world and they’re getting quicker in naming and proclaiming it.
So here’s where this hits home for us: I want you to consider someone you have always believed to be on the outside–maybe we have rejected them historically or still reject them, or they get marginal, partial acceptance. Think about a person or people group that fits that description… And let’s hold that together with what we learned and considered about Peter today.
Because Peter was faced with a huge decision when he went to Cornelius’ house. But rather than hang onto the power of deciding who is in or out, he lets go of that and proclaims that he sees God doing a new thing here. He realizes that God doesn’t show favoritism but accepts everyone. He realizes that his attitudes and behaviors need to change as well. He affirms God as JUDGE–God is the one who decides who is in or out. Peter’s responsibility is to accept and live into God’s reality. And so I wonder:
Where do we see this today?
Who have we excluded? Where have we been guilty of trying to declare who is in or out? About whom and to whom do we need to proclaim that now we see clearly that God does not show favoritism but accepts people from every nation who fear him and do what is right…? Changing our patterns of thought and beliefs and behaviors–that doesn’t come easily or without pain and struggle. And it takes time. As we go out today, I hope you will continue to wrestle with the implications of Peter’s words for us today.
S4E4 Show Notes:
Wednesday, May 6, 2020
PreacHer: Jen Hale Christy
Summary: This is the third time that it has taken Peter three times to get it. For the message to sink in. But when it does, watch out world–Peter is relentless on a mission to declare the good news that God is FOR EVERYONE.
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Dave Hill says
Outstanding! Thanks for this wonderful lesson. So much information displayed here and I will read again to see what I missed the first time. Thank you for all you do. Dave
Thank you, Dave! Your encouragement and support mean so much.