ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH May 10, 2015
We live in a world full of boundaries. There are natural boundaries, like bodies of water, deserts, mountain ranges, and gorges, which define ecosystems, geographical areas, and function as borders and obstacles of travel. There are also manmade boundaries we adhere too, such as lines painted on gym floors and playing fields, and other physical boundaries such as fences and walls. There are of course also political boundaries, which define the borders of nations, states, provinces, and municipalities. We also have personal boundaries. These are boundaries that people place on themselves, guidelines, rules, or limits, which we create to define ourselves, and to feel safe around others.
Perhaps one of the most important boundaries we face and deal with, are cultural boundaries. These social boundaries run along the lines of ethnicity, language, and religion. There are many examples of cultural boundaries, from Quebec’s official language of French within a mostly English speaking Canada, to the ethnic communities found in large urban centres such as Little Italy and China Town. Sadly, many of the issues the world is dealing with presently are due to the lack of knowledge or understanding of the importance of cultural boundaries. For example, after the two World Wars, many of the countries in the Middle East and in Africa were created or their borders changed by the Western powers, based on physical geography. Therefore, the cultures and religions of the inhabitants in these areas were not considered. The end result has been that many such countries, like Iraq were created, bringing people of very different cultures and beliefs together as one nation, when historically these groups were perhaps enemies, or at least not allies.
In the end, whether natural or manufactured, visible or invisible, boundaries are a big part of our lives. Boundaries can both segregate and reinforce identities. Of course, this can be both positive and negative. We can be set apart or isolated in many ways. Our physical appearance can define us, as we may be identified and judged based on our gender, age, and ethnicity, etc. However, things that are less obvious, such as our beliefs, politics, nationality, or social class, may also set us apart. But, as I said, boundaries can also help us to identify what we are and what we are not. Boundaries help us to know who we really are. We learn to identify with “our own people” and discover who we are not, based on our differences from others.
In the book of Acts, we find two individuals that have their own respective boundaries and cultures. At the beginning of Acts 10, we learn about a man named Cornelius. Verses one and two, describe him as, “a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. [Whose] family were devout and God-fearing; [and that] he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” We are told that one day around three o’clock, Cornelius has a vision where he sees an angel of the LORD, which tells him, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” After the vision, Cornelius responds to the angel’s words and sends three of his men to find Simon Peter.
The narrative then continues with the entrance of the second character, Simon Peter. In the introduction to Peter’s story, we discover that he too has a vision. He is up on the rooftop praying, when he falls into a trance, where “He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’” However, Peter was convinced he could not follow this command, as he replied, “Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice then spoke to him saying, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
From this passage, we learn that although he is a follower of Jesus, Peter is a Jewish Christian. He follows a kosher diet, as was the Jewish custom. For Peter, it was important to follow his traditions and laws as well as to follow the example of Christ. For him it was a natural progression to move from his Jewish roots, to become a Jewish Christian. However, he also believed that his traditions were a key factor in being Christian. The Jewish laws, including diet and circumcision, were important to Peter. However, the response from the voice, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean”, puzzled Peter. While Peter is pondering the vision he had seen, the men sent by Cornelius arrive. The Spirit then tells Peter to go down, meet the men, and go with them, because the Spirit sent them. After inviting the men in, Peter gave them lodging for the night. The following morning, Peter, Cornelius’ men, and some of the believers from Joppa set off to Caesarea to see Cornelius and his family. Peter and the other followers did this despite the fact that it was unlawful for Jews and Gentiles to associate, or to visit with each other. Peter however, goes in faith because of the words of the LORD, saying that he “should not call anyone profane or unclean.” He recognizes that God is telling him that God shows no partiality, and that people from all nations who fear and do what is right in God’s eyes are acceptable to God (verse 34). When they arrive, Cornelius, his friends and family greet them. Peter then shares the story of Jesus, and the Good News of Christ to the people who were gathered.
The encounter between Cornelius the Gentile and Peter the Jewish Christian is a big deal for the early church. There are clearly defined differences and boundaries, which separate these two men and their respective cultures. Their upbringing and religious practices were very different, yet they still come together. It is during this crossing of cultures and boundaries where we see the true work of God.
This brings us to today’s scripture passage; “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, ‘Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.”
From this short passage, we witness what was a remarkable revelation at the time. Even though Peter had a vision telling him that God accepted all who had faith and followed his way, this scene proved that faith in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, was not for one chosen people or nation, but for all! The Holy Spirit transcended the cultural boundaries, and to the surprise of the Peter and the other Jewish Christians, the Spirit fell upon Gentiles.
Even though this story revolves around Peter and Cornelius, it really isn’t about them. They are only secondary characters. The true protagonist in this passage is the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that works despite human boundaries, bringing Peter and his fellow believers together with Cornelius and his friends and family. It is the Holy Spirit that transforms Peter’s thinking and understanding of the Christian faith, recognising that all who believe and follow Christ are children of God, regardless of their culture and upbringing. The Holy Spirit is the one who changed those who were “in” and those who were considered “out” of Christ’s church. The Holy Spirit expanded the ‘inner circle’ of God’s people and made it grow further outward, encompassing more and more people. The boundaries that had been created were being crossed and torn down.
God’s grace is great, and transcends the many boundaries that humans have created. In this story, we see how God’s grace was not bound by the limitations of the believers. The Holy Spirit was poured out on the Gentile’s as well as the Jewish Christians. The Gentile’s experienced the Holy Spirit for the first time, opening their eyes to the love and faith of God, while the Jewish Christians came to see that faith in Christ was not only for those of Jewish descent, but for all who wanted to believe.
This message is important for the Christian Church and us today. There are still many boundaries and obstacles in our world. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we continue to practice exclusion and push people aside, and put up boundaries. Society and the Church struggle with prejudices and other forms of segregation. Whatever these may be, we still hold onto the “us” and “them” labels. However, like in the story, we can take comfort in knowing that we are not left to our own, imperfect devices. Peter and Cornelius were important in crossing boundaries between the Jewish Christians and the Gentiles; however, they could not do it on their own. The Spirit came to both of them in visions and spoke with them. The Spirit empowered each of them to move from their places of segregation, their own inner circles, and to expand. The Spirit showed them how they could see the world differently. The Holy Spirit broke the cultural and religious boundaries between the two. The Spirit descended upon the Gentiles as Peter shared the Gospel with them. The Spirit opened their eyes.
It is the work of the Spirit that creates change. And the Spirit, is still in this world creating change! Are we willing to listen? Are we willing to let the Spirit empower us, so that we too can move from our places of segregation and our own inner circle, and expand? The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. Can we too be astonished believers, amazed at the power of the Holy Spirit? As we move into the season of Pentecost, let us pray that the Holy Spirit may move through and amongst us, and push us to cross boundaries we would never imagine possible! Amen