By Rev. Heather Blais,
Today’s first reading is from the Acts of the Apostles, the second part of a two volume work written by the author of Luke’s Gospel.* It reads a bit like a travel log of the apostles, narrating the church’s expansion. What began as a small group of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem will ultimately spread throughout the Roman Empire. The first twelve chapters are largely focused on events in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and pay close attention to Peter’s work preaching, healing, and in a section we’ll focus on today, Peter’s baptism of one of the first Gentile converts. The remainder of the text shifts its attention to Paul, and his missionary activity in present day Turkey and Greece, his arrest and interactions with religious and government officials, including the Emperor in Rome.
The theme in today’s section is the offer of salvation to all persons. In simpler terms, it is about:
On the day of Ascension Jesus tells the disciples, “...you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 NRSV). When Jesus tells them this, they have no idea this will mean offering a message beyond the Jewish community these apostles had spent their entire life grounded in. Yet that is exactly what we see playout in today’s lesson, where after an unexpected experience, Peter finds himself arguing, “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34 NRSV).* Like so many other instances in the two thousand plus years of the Church - there is a bit of controversy.
Our story begins with a Roman centurion named Cornelius (Acts 10:1-8).** As an officer of the Roman army, he would have worked alongside other centurions in leading a group of several hundred soldiers. Cornelius was described as devout and God-fearing. One day at three in the afternoon, when it was common to prayer, Cornelius had a vision of an angel.*In this vision, Corneilus is affirmed for his prayer practice and financial generosity to those in need. He is then instructed to send some folks to Joppa to retrieve a man named Peter, with very specific instructions on where precisely they would find him. This specificity would have been proof to both men that this event was beyond either of them, and was truly an act of divine intervention and guidance.
Meanwhile, Peter was staying with a local tanner who lived by the sea and he went up onto the roof to pray at mid-day, which was not a customary prayer time (Acts 10:9-13). He grew hungry, and while a meal was being prepared he fell into a trance. He sees a large sheet - picture a picnic blanket - with all kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds. Then a voice, the divine presence, telling Peter to get up, kill, and eat. Now, this would have been mildly disturbing to Peter, who as a faithful Jew honored his faith’s dietary practices.
In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, there is a very specific outline of what is considered clean and unclean foods (Leviticus 11/ Deuteronomy 14). For example, in Leviticus 11, God instructs Moses and Aaron that the Israelites should not eat: camels; hyraxes - which are a robust guinea pig like creature; rabbits; pigs; shellfish; eagles; vultures; hawks; owls; storks; herons; weasels; rats; lizards; and other creatures. The purification rituals required after becoming unclean were tedious, laborious, and often kept one apart from the rest of the household or community. Therefore, it was really prevented at all costs.
So to have this divine encounter where God is seemingly instructing Peter to kill and consume any kind of creature, was alarming to say the least (Acts 10:15-23). Peter insists, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” (Acts 10:15). But the voice repeated itself three times - “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15-16).
As Peter puzzled over the meaning, the Spirit instructed him that some people were now arriving, and he was to go with them without hesitation (Acts 10:15-23). In light of these guests, and their reason for coming, Peter begins to understand what his trance was really about. While in reality Jews and Gentiles did eat together, it was a common perception amongst Gentiles that Jews and Gentiles could not eat together.* They knew they were viewed as unclean because they ate foods that were seen as profane by Jews. Yet in this divine encounter, the sheet full of a rich variety of godly creatures, symbolizes all of humanity - Jew and Gentile. In Peter’s divine ‘aha moment’, God shows him that we should not call anyone profane or unclean (Acts 10:28). And it is what emboldens him to go with Cornelius' servants.
Upon their arrival, Peter finds Cornelius and several folks assembled (Acts 10:24-48). They are eager to hear what God has to say through Peter. Peter then preaches to the gathered body, telling them the story of Jesus Christ, the transformative power of God’s love, and the calling of the apostles and the Church. While he was still speaking, much like the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard. They began speaking in tongues and all were astounded. Peter, recognized the Spirit as a marker of baptism, and called for water to baptize these new believers.
Meanwhile, this event astounded the believers described in the text as ‘the circumcised’. You might be wondering what circumcision has to do with anything. Up until this point, if someone was moved by the story of Jesus, they would have begun the process of converting to Judaism, which for men included being circumcised. Yet the events that had just taken place called into question - what Jewish practices still needed to be honored to follow Jesus? The excerpt of these events that we have in today’s lesson is a report that Peter makes to the ‘circumcised believers’ about these events. This audience would have included folks who were Jewish from birth and those who had joined the Jesus Movement up until Cornelius’ conversion. It meant all of a sudden there were potentially two classes of new Christians:
Have you ever noticed whenever a process is simplified, it always stirs up trouble for those who did it the older way? The Church in Jerusalem was pretty troubled that Peter would break bread with Cornelius and his household. Not because the Jewish people were against the Gentiles, but rather because it appeared at first as though Peter was disregarding the practices of their faith.
So before the Church in Jerusalem, Peter reviewed everything that had taken place-- Cornelius' vision, Peter’s divine encounter, the work of the Spirit, and the baptism of Cornelius’ household (Acts 11:1-16).
He summarizes his rationale by saying, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17). “When they heard this, they were silenced” (Acts 11:18). In that silence, the Church in Jerusalem seemed to recognize, at least momentarily, that this was the work of God, opening the Jesus Movement to the Gentiles. The passage ends with the Church praising God.
Maybe you are wondering why any of this still matters. Well, because, as the Church, we continue to struggle with similar questions today:
Or maybe more on point for us today is,
Here at James and Andrew we proclaim with joy and love: This is God’s table, and all are welcome here, no exceptions. Molly and I are repeatedly told that this is a very meaningful practice. Except, the official teaching of the Episcopal Church is that one must be baptized to receive communion. Depending on what parish you attend, that practice may be enforced. We are one of many communities that chooses to practice what is often called ‘open communion’ because we believe Christ’s radical hospitality and love supersedes some traditions and practices - though admittedly it is a tight rope and a challenging path to navigate. Particularly because it is not a practice embraced by our entire tradition, and we generally like to make decisions as an entire Church body.
The general idea behind open communion is that it doesn’t matter how one first comes to Christ - it might be through baptism or it might be through receiving communion. Many folks are in discernment, seeking. The belief behind open communion is that if one experiences Christ, that peace that surpasseth all understanding, in receiving the bread and the wine, they will eventually make the next practical step in Walking the Way of Love by becoming baptized, joining the body of Christ. It is also a point of hospitality to ecumenical and interfaith friends who worship with us in certain circumstances, and in those instances baptism would never be expected.
This would be more in keeping with the way Christ broke bread and shared with all of the gathered people. Do you think Jesus really inspected all 5,000 people’s belief systems before offering them fish and bread?Communities that practice open communion are saying, we want to embody what we see Jesus doing every time he breaks bread and shares a meal with the gathered people. We are echoing Peter’s experience of sitting down with those he would not customarily break bread with for the sake of Christ’s bigger table. Because when we break bread together, barriers are broken, relationships are built, and lives are changed.
At an upcoming General Convention, likely in 2024, the Episcopal Church will once again discuss the practice of open communion - this idea that all are welcome to receive communion. One colleague recently reflected that in our denomination’s history this particular conversation has been more controversial than women’s ordination or same sex marriage. And given how loud we were on those issues, that kind of blows my socks off. Time will tell where our Church lands, but I have to hope with enough time we will eventually land in a place of radical welcome as a denomination.
Sometimes the Church has even created barriers that were not ever there to begin with - such as the case with individual communion cups.*** Professor Hilary Bogert-Winkler of Sewanee advised the Episcopal Church on the history of individual communion cups in an article that was in circulation during the early months of the pandemic. She shared that in the late nineteenth century the common cup began to be seen as a place of germ transmission and individual communion cups were the result of the sanitary reform movement. Though the movement began with seemingly innocent origins, there were racial overtones that caused irreparable harm to the Church.
“The rise of the sanitary reform movement and debates about individual communion cups accompanied increasing immigration and the growth of the American middle class. White middle class Americans sought to establish boundaries between themselves and their broader, increasingly diverse society, in part, through attempts to ensure physical purity. In other words, “cleanliness is next to godliness” became a way to equate physical health with moral superiority, and to exclude certain members of society seen as “unclean”—primarily Blacks, immigrants, Indigenous people, the poor, and other social outcasts–from the ideal community envisioned by the white middle class.”
This is why in our diocese we were strongly discouraged from using individual communion cups during the pandemic. We chose instead to engage in spiritual communion, waiting, achingly so at times, for when we could share the common cup again. And thank God at least some churches avoided the racially charged practice of individual communion cups.
Otherwise, we would not have Michael Curry as our Presiding Bishop. When his Baptist father went to church with his Episcopal mother for the first time, he hung back when she went up to communion. He wondered whether the priest would really allow her to drink from the same cup as the white folks. When she did sip from the cup, and then it continued to be sipped by the folks who came next, his father was blown away. Michael Curry’s father would say, “Any church in which Blacks and Whites drink out of the same cup knows something about the Gospel that I want to be part of.” ****
The Gospel, again and again, is about building a bigger table. Whether that’s Peter and Cornelius, Jews and Gentiles, Baptized and Unbaptized, Blacks and Whites, Rich and Poor, Red States and Blue States; Low churches and High churches; the Powerful and the Marginalized; and so on and so forth. God is calling us to always be building a bigger table.
So, as we head back into the world today, I’d invite us to keep reflecting:
* This introductory paragraph draws on commentary written by Gary Gilbert in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, published by Oxford University Press in 2011, pg 197, also to single references on the following pages in order of reference: 198, 224, 204, 219.
** If the first sentence references scripture, that references scripture touched on throughout that paragraph.
**** Michael Curry, Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times, pg 35.
Meet our Preachers
Rev. Heather Blais,
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm, Associate Rector