May 6 is the day we will focus on Christians in the Middle East, as we kick off the Week of Prayer and Witness with Christians in the Middle East.
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 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?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
In the LSG we talked quite a bit about two aspects of this passage: it’s strangeness to us and the power dynamic.
This is not a common story, and its topic is rather foreign to us. Peter’s vision about clean and unclean animals, the idea that a good Jew could suddenly begin to disobey the dietary laws—these are radical ideas. Similarly, the admission of uncircumcised Gentiles into the fellowship was a radical thing. It’s as though something you have grown up knowing to be true is suddenly changed, with no warning, and your whole life and the whole life of your community is shaken to the core. As Richard put it, this is “THE crisis” of the early church. There’s not much in our contemporary culture that mirrors this change, so it can be hard to understand the depth of the issue here. No wonder the church in Jerusalem questioned Peter (and maybe even his sanity!).
Beyond the strangeness, we talked about power. The church in Jerusalem, the Jewish Christians, are the ones who think they have the power here, and they are using it when they talk to Peter. But then Peter tells this story about God’s power, and the “insiders” are suddenly silenced, then moved to praise. God’s power is stronger than our boundaries, stronger than our visions of “right and wrong,” stronger than our insider power, strong enough to move us from defensiveness to silence to praise.