Crossing the Threshold
This summer during sermons on race and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, we referred to the pivotal account in Acts 10 where we find Peter crossing the threshold into a new way of acceptance. We thought it would be good to take a deeper dive into the story so that you could learn for yourself how powerful it is and to discern how God may be moving in your life right now.
God prepares us for what God is preparing for us
Our story opens with a man named Cornelius who was a spiritual man but not part of the Jewish religion. Cornelius prayed and gave money to the poor. One day he was saying his prayers (and I love this detail) at 3:00 in the afternoon, he has a vision where an angel pops into view. The angel says God has heard your prayers, seen your good deeds, and wants you to connect with Simon Peter.
Cornelius says, “Will do!” He’s a military commander, and he sends out some of his men with a mission to bring Simon Peter to him.
Meanwhile, God is working on Simon Peter’s heart to prep him for this meeting with Cornelius. In this story, we hear the familiar theme of how God is always preparing us for what lies ahead of us. Many events we think are just random now may become important later on. God works simultaneously on Peter and Cornelius’s hearts.
I wonder who God is bringing into your life to give you what you need for your growth and development. This passage sets a reminder to take stock of the people in your life, to seemingly random encounters, and enter them with a spirit of holiness. You just never know the blessings they may add to your life or yours to theirs. What if the people you encounter, you had a thought that maybe God has put them in your path for a reason. How might that change initial encounters, how you listen, how you engage?
Peter’s revolutionary vision
God gave Simon Peter a vision. Peter was hungry waiting for lunch when he fell into a trance and saw some creatures carrying a cloth sheet with non-kosher food on it. He hears a voice that tells him three times to go ahead and eat and never call unclean what God has called clean. I love the little detail about three times. Whenever Peter is involved, the number is 3. He denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed. And Jesus asked him 3 times after the resurrection if he loved Jesus and now, he gets told three times to ignore everything he thought he knew about the purification rituals and distinctions about clean and unclean behaviors.
You can’t blame Peter, this was so radical, it would take at least three times for any of us to get it. He is being told that the dietary restrictions found in the Old Testament no longer applied. These rules were part of his Jewish identity. This is what they were told to do to keep themselves distinct from the rest of the people in the world to remind them that they had a special calling to bless the rest of the world. But the lesson from the vision went way beyond the kosher rules.
This was about the categories of ritual purity–defined as clean and unclean. Most of the 600+ commandments in the Old Testament had to do with ritual purity and Peter was essentially being told, “All that stuff you learned, that stuff that is the fabric of your life–that shapes your idea of right and wrong, that mark you as a faithful person–forget about it. God wants you to accept everyone that you have been trained to think is outside of God’s love. God wants you to accept them as they are.”
I don’t know about you, but I would discount such a vision immediately and chalk it up to weird stuff you think about when you’re too hungry. But Peter just kind of chews on it. Then an angel tells Peter to go with the men who will be coming for him.
The next thing you know three of Cornelius’s men show up and they tell him about the angel and bring Peter to Cornelius. I can only imagine that Peter is thinking, “Really, God? You want me to go to a centurion’s house. Centurions represent the brutality of Roman rule over the Jewish people! A centurion carried out the execution order to crucify Jesus? And you think it’s a good idea for me to go to a centurion’s house?” Even though he must have been confused and terrified and a little honked off at God, he obeyed and went with the men anyway. God’s commands may honk you off, but obey them anyway.
When they arrive, Cornelius prostrates himself and worships Peter. Peter must have thought. Not what I was expecting–at all. He tells Cornelius to get up. I’m a mortal like you.
Cornelius thanks Peter for coming and invites him into his house.
Peter stands at the door, sees all of Cornelius’s men, and says, “Well, uh, you do know that it is against Jewish law for me to associate with you.” Sounds like a real jerk. Then he makes the connection. “But, I’ve been told not to call defiled what God is calling clean, so I will come in and tell you about Jesus.”
And then Peter crosses the threshold and goes into the house. A small step for Peter but a giant leap for Christiankind. This step was as perspective-changing as Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk. Thousands of years of division were overcome. If not for this event, Christianity would have remained a sub-sect of Judaism and it would have never reached any non-Jewish people. If you don’t have Jewish lineage, the reason you and I are here today is rooted in this event.
Acceptance rather than division is the new norm
When Peter walked across the threshold, it changed everything. The Old Testament laws and regulations and distinctions between people evaporated. The important thing was following Jesus’s way of spirit, of kindness, of openness, of forgiveness, of prayer, of acceptance.
Just as Peter stepped over the threshold, we are always called to summon the courage and step across the lines and barriers that divide people and offer unconditional acceptance and love. The lesson of Acts 10 is that Old Testament legalism or judgmentalism against another human being stands on the wrong side of the threshold and history. Not only that, they deprive themselves of the blessings that people who are different from them can bring into their lives.
The passage tells us that this transformation was all the doing of the Holy Spirit. Or, as you may remember from our Pentecost sermon, “a spirit of holiness.” To invite a spirit of holiness into your life is to always press to acceptance and love. God’s agenda is to keep opening the circle of our relationships, not to close them.
I wonder what threshold God is calling you to cross over today. Whenever you are feeling smug, self-righteous, or better than another human being, re-read Acts 10.
When the night is over and day arrives
I’m reminded of the wisdom story where the master asked his disciples: “how do we know when the night is over and the day has arrived?”
And the disciples pondered the master’s question. One answered: “Master, the night is over and the day arrives when you can see a house in the distance and determine if that’s your house or the house of your neighbor.”
Another disciple responded: “Night is over and the day arrives when you can see an animal in the field and determine if it belongs to you or to your neighbor.”
A third disciple offered: “Night is over and the day has arrived when you can see a flower in the garden and distinguish its color.”
“No, no, no,” thundered the master. “Why must you see only in separations, only in distinctions? The night is over and the day arrives when you look into the face of the person beside you and you can see that she is your sister, he is your brother, that you belong to each other, that you are one. Then, and only then, will you know that night has ended and the day has arrived.”
A new day is dawning
If we want a new day to dawn in our lives, a new day to dawn for our church, for our nation and world that is so bitterly divided, we do well to ask in our hearts if we are going to be people of the light or people of darkness. Acts 10 shows us the way forward on the hot-button divisive issues and what to do about the spirit of meanness and snap-judgments that plague our moment in history.
I can think of no better way to symbolize and enact the coming of the light than to gather at the table on World Communion Sunday. A table of radical love and acceptance that we all stand in need of grace, forgiveness, and love. It’s a table of oneness, of brother and sisterhood. It’s the place where we get to bask in the light. Amen.