Last week, in our series of messages from Acts, we learnt from Acts 9 what happened to Saul on his way to Damascus. We saw that what changed Saul from a persecutor of the church to a defender of the faith was a vision in which he saw the crucified Jesus, the one whom he believed was under God’s curse, at the right hand of God. Saul realized that God’s way of ruling and conquering was by allowing himself to be the target of human hatred and violence. Jesus conquered his enemies by allowing them to kill him. Jesus had placed himself under the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23, but by virtue of his innocence had transformed it into a blessing. And with this conviction Saul became Jesus’ twelfth apostle.
Today, on account of the report from the Romania team, communion, and the barbeque, I am going to be extremely brief. I would love to be able to read all of Acts 9.31-11.18 but let us restrict ourselves to only the portion of text that deals with the theme of the sermon—Acts 10.1-20. I have asked Alice to read for us the text for today.
This is a well-known and quite humorous scene from the bible. The foremost apostle is unable to control the growls of his stomach, and possibly to maintain a degree of respect withdraws to the roof of the house. And there God teases him with foods he would have never dared eat. Think of it. Peter is on the roof daydreaming about the next meal. The aroma of the meal wafts up and he falls into a trance. He hears a voice, “If you’re hungry Peter, here’s food!” All excited, he looks upward only to find an abominable pig with an equally distasteful lobster. “You’re kidding, aren’t you, Lord?”
These days, if we have to specify a Jewish person who believes in Jesus, we would use the phrase “messianic Jew.” How quaint! Luke’s phrase in Acts is “followers of the Way.” Later, the followers of Jesus will be called Christians. But never in the bible do we have a qualifier, an adjective, to tell us that the Christian is a Jew. Why? Because during those early days of the church, most Christians were Jews. In fact, till the text we read today, all the believers were Jews in some way. The Samaritans were products of mixed marriages. So they had Jewish blood in their veins. And any believers who were not ethnically of Jewish stock had formally converted to Judaism. In fact, to say Jewish Christian would have been quite redundant. Of course a Christian would be a Jew. It would be like saying American Californian. It’s a useless phrase. But something happens to Peter that would eventually make the phrases “Jewish Christian” and “messianic Jew” meaningful.
The way in which Luke tells us the story of Peter and Cornelius shows us that Peter was quite reluctant to approach uncircumcised Gentiles. Circumcision was the sign of one’s being a part of God’s people. How then could the apostle circumvent circumcision?
You see Peter was not opposed to taking the Gospel to Gentiles. What he was opposed to was that the Gentiles should receive the Holy Spirit without the sign of circumcision. Circumcision was what made the male Jew holy and clean in the sight of God. How could it be otherwise for Gentiles?
George W. Bush is in the process of providing amnesty to selected illegal immigrants. This is a good move on his part. But what is he doing? He is saying that though these people broke US immigration laws, he will forgive. That is a commendable decision. But do you think he can waive the requirement that naturalized citizens need to take the pledge of allegiance? He can. But he won’t because it would be preposterous to think that one could become a citizen of the United States of America without pledging allegiance to its flag and to the republic for which it stands. You want to be a citizen then salute the flag.
And that is what Peter expects. You want to be a part of the people of God then go through the pledge of allegiance. But that is what God changes. The Holy Spirit is poured out on Gentiles without the requirement of circumcision.
What does Jesus do by this? What are the implications of the fact that he does not require Gentiles to get circumcised? I believe there are three.
First, circumcision was performed only on males. So Jewish women could never be full members of the covenant community. They shared in the covenant blessings only in so far as they were related to a man. A girl was related to her father, a wife to her husband, and a mother to her son. By relegating circumcision to the position of an ethnic marker rather than a theological marker, Jesus does away with the gender inequality. Women Christians are full members of the people of God. They do not need to be related to a male Christian.
This is a point the church has had a hard time implementing. We have forgotten that the letters in the New Testament were written in response to specific situations in the various churches. While we may not know what these situations were, we cannot forget that there were circumstances that provoked the writing of these letters.
Furthermore, the church has been largely male dominated. And we have applied the passages that warn against woman leadership quite woodenly while at the same time being lax about the issues raised in those same letters about male leadership. We insist on 1 Timothy 2 and the restriction on women but at the same time provide exceptions to 1 Timothy 3 and the requirements of male leadership. We need to juxtapose the words “I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man” with the words “For if a man has not the art of ruling his house, how will he take care of the church of God?” If we believe that God can choose a single man against these words, on what basis do we insist that he cannot choose a woman?
Women are full participants in the covenant. Men are to be their partners, not their crutches. And certainly not their masters! I daresay that this oppression of women by the male dominated church has grieved God much. We have quenched the Spirit enough. It is time to change.
Second, Jesus does not do away with circumcision for Jews. But what he has done is change its meaning. It is no longer a marker of who belongs to the people of God. It is a marker of who is a Jew. Though Jew and Gentile stand equally before God, they are not identical. The sign of circumcision places them physically within the heritage of faith that started with Abraham. Gentile Christians also have the same heritage. But we cannot claim it physically. What this tells us is that the gospel has gone and should go first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles. The order within the history of salvation should never be forgotten. God has not rejected the Jews. If we think he has, what gives us the confidence that he will not reject us? If we dare to believe that God will not reject us, then we cannot but believe that he will also not reject the Jews. If we keep this before us, we will avoid the past atrocities of the church when Christians persecuted Jews. By not requiring Gentiles to undergo circumcision, Jesus is reminding us of the crucial order: to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile. Rather than fuel anti-Semitism, this change is intended to do the reverse. And when understood properly, that is what it does. Being part of the people of God means being separated by and for God. Before Jesus died and was raised, the Jews bore circumcision as the mark that separated them for God. Today Christians bear the cross as the mark that separates us for God.
Third, Jesus tells us, “Your past does not matter. What matters is that I am reaching out to you. What matters is that I want to show you how much I love you. What matters is that I want to pour out my Spirit on you.” It does not matter what we have done. We may be born into a family with a sordid history. We may have indulged in all kinds of devious and evil practices. We may think that we have messed up so badly that no one—and certainly not God—would want to have anything to do with us. But by doing away with circumcision Jesus says that we don’t need to clean things up before we come to him. In fact, we cannot because he is the real Mr. Clean. Cleaning us up is his job. We can approach him as we are ruined, messed up, broken. And he will accept us. His challenge is, “Can you believe that I will accept you?” Please do not leave today without the firm conviction that Jesus will not turn me or you away because of our faults and sins.
We will move now to communion.