Partiality

There’s a certain irony here:  Simon Peter’s comfort staying in the home of a Jewish Tanner and his great discomfort entering the home of a spit and polish Roman centurion. It says something about our prejudices.

Acts 10: 34-43 Our text for today comes from the pen of the same person who authored the Gospel of Luke.  Tradition says that Luke was a traveling companion to the Apostle Paul and not a disciple of Jesus.  His Gospel wasn’t written until about 90 A.D. or some sixty years after Jesus’ life and ministry.  The book of Acts was written sometime after that. That, of course makes great sense because at that time fewer than five percent of the population were literate, and those were of the wealthy elite. Luke is the only Gentile to have his writings included in the Bible.

 

The first part of our passage starts with Peter’s admission that the way God sees and accepts people is a challenge to Jews, good news for Gentiles and of great interest to Luke.  He uses Peter’s speech to summarize the life, teachings and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean no less, who was anointed by God with the Holy Spirit and with power and that he went about doing good and healing those who were oppressed the devil.

 

Acts 10:34-43 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

To appreciate the importance of these words of Peter you need to understand the context out of which they arose. It all starts with Cornelius, a Roman officer stationed at the Roman capital of the area located in Caesarea. Luke sets the stage with this description of him. He was “a centurion in the Italian Cohort.” “He was a religious man, and he and his whole family joined in the worship of God. He gave generously to help the Jewish people, and was regular in his prayers to God.” And, because of his faithfulness in a vision he was instructed by an angel of God to summon Simon Peter to come to his home.  At the time Peter is in Joppa, a good thirty miles south of Caesarea, rooming with a Jewish tanner.

 

Tanning is considered one of the world’s dirtiest occupations.  It wasn’t that tanners were ritually unclean, but there was a social repugnance for tanners because of their stench and filth.  It was said for a tanner to look for a wife any place other than the family of another tanner was a waste of time.   Simon the tanner may have stunk to high heaven but, from Peter’s point of view he was a Jew.  The picture we are given is that Peter is living and breathing the smells of the tanning operation when he goes up on the roof top, probably to catch a breath of fresh air off the Mediterranean.

 

While there, like Cornelius, Peter also has a vision. A sheet full of unclean animals come down from heaven. A voice commands Peter to kill and eat these animals, but he refuses since they are ritually unclean according to Jewish law. Then the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (10:16). When the messengers from Cornelius arrive, Peter realizes that the vision is not just about unclean food, it is about unclean people.

You’ve got to remember another story rooted in Joppa.  It’s the story of Jonah who refuses God’s call to preach grace to the Gentiles and quite unsuccessfully tries to flee.  Peter goes with Cornelius’ servants and enters his house.  That’s important.  Cornelius is a Gentile, an official in the occupying Roman. He may revere God and give alms generously, but he is a Gentile, not a member of the people of Israel.  Does he belong to the people of God as Peter does, or not?  In the story of Cornelius Peter says to Cornelius ‘I need not tell  you that a Jew is forbidden by his religion to visit or associate with anyone of another race.  Yet God has shown me clearly that I must not call anyone profane or unclean…”

 

There’s a certain irony here:  Simon Peter’s comfort staying in the home of a Jewish Tanner and his great discomfort entering the home of a spit and polish Roman centurion. It says something about our prejudices.

 

Luke has Peter beginning his sermon saying “God shows no partiality,” for “in every nation anyone who fears and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  To say that “God shows no partiality” means that belonging is not matter of one’s ethnic background. The issue is faith and the kind of life that flows out of faith.  Some how that piece of good news has taken a back seat to latter day orthodoxy.

 

Then Luke, through the voice of Peter, offers a summation of Jesus’ life and work. “You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

We could spend a great deal of time on just those few sentences.  “…preaching peace by Jesus Christ”;  “he is Lord of all.” And then, after last Sunday seeing the significance of Galilee for Matthew reading Luke saying that though the message began in Galilee he speaks only of how it spread through Judea.  Then he describes in other terms Jesus’ ministry: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.  This is quite a challenge to orthodoxy.

For those of you who have problems with the phrase ‘oppressed by the devil’ I want to assure you that what Peter is quoted as saying isn’t what you may think he means.  It wasn’t until dualism became common a couple of centuries later that ‘the devil’ took on this cloak of being God’s adversary.  Luke already reminded us of the story of Jonah, well here is a reminder of the story of Job and God’s prosecuting attorney.  The one who challenges us in our easy faith.

In the thirty ninth verse of this passage Peter reports the Easter story: We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. (Again, notice Luke’s refusal to acknowledge Galilee). They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Peter declares that Jesus was about the business of changing people’s lives. He sums up Jesus’ ministry by saying that he “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil”.   Regardless of whether evil should be personified or not, we  do see and experience that which diminishes life for individuals and communities. We’ve seen and experienced how it can dominate our will and remove the freedom to live in ways that are life-sustaining. It is seen in addictions and compulsions that drive the lives of individuals and the systems of abuse from which families and societies cannot seem to break free. What ever this is, it is like an undeniable infection or cancer that takes life away. To heal, the Gospels tell us that Jesus overcame what was killing people in order to restore them to life.  The same today.  That which is killing people, destroying lives and making life hell has to be named.  In simply theological language, the goal is that people might be released from sin. The Greek word usually translated “forgiveness” is aphesis, which literally means “release.”   Living destructively brings people to a point where the pattern of destruction defines the present and limits the future.  For a person to have a different life, such behavior must no longer define us. This is what forgiveness means. It means that the grace of God brings release from  living destructively so that through a word of grace there can be a different future.

For Luke, not only is it important to him personally, but he will later joyfully report how Peter says the same to church leaders in Jerusalem.  He says “this means…that God has granted life-giving repentance to the Gentiles also.”

Of course the question for us today is whether we embrace such grace.  Do the words of Peter’s experience has resonance with us?  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

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