Text: Acts 11:1-18
Fifth Sunday of Easter, Series B
Listen to the sermon here.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi shares a story of his student days in England. He was deeply touched by reading the Gospels and seriously considered becoming a convert to Christianity, which seemed to offer a real solution to the caste system that divided the people of India. One Sunday, he attended church services and decided to ask the minister for enlightenment on salvation and other doctrines. But when Gandhi entered the sanctuary, the ushers refused to give him a seat. They suggested that he go elsewhere to worship with his own people. He left and never came back. “If Christians have caste differences also,” he said to himself, “I might as well remain a Hindu!”
Those ushers were precisely like the group that criticized Peter in our first reading. In both cases, something stood in God’s way, and it was race. God confronted Peter’s prejudice. God used a vision to bring a radical change in Peter’s attitude and it is a good thing he did. We are still dealing with these issues today. This is something the Bible speaks to. This morning, we will first look at our own prejudices. Then we will see what attitudes we should have by looking at what God himself has done.
Examine Your Prejudices
It’s hard for many of us to imagine Christians getting upset with each other over whom they eat lunch with. So we sometimes assume Peter’s Jewish Christian colleagues were angry with him because he shared the gospel with gentiles. We may think that they thought of the gospel as belonging exclusively to Jewish Christians. That’s not correct. What exactly plunges Peter into hot water? The sentence right before our text gives the answer, “Then [the gentiles] asked [Peter] to remain for some days.”
Bad news travels fast, and we can almost see them waiting for Peter at Jerusalem’s city gate with fire in their eyes and hands on their hips. Did his Jewish Christian colleagues harshly ask him, “Why did you tell a houseful of uncircumcised people about Jesus”? No, they called Peter out for fraternizing with the Gentiles. In anger, they demand, “Why did you enter the house of uncircumcised people and eat with them?!” These Jewish Christians were not unhappy because the Gentiles received grace but because Peter had associated with them!
While God has brought many of Peter’s Jewish contemporaries to faith in Jesus Christ, they still didn’t share meals with non-Jewish people. After all, it’s a lot easier to remain kosher that way. There was never a restriction against such interaction between Jews and Gentiles in God’s Law. It had become a thing somewhere along the line, and, without really thinking about it, it continued to be a thing even for those who walked with Jesus. They probably did not even recognize this bigotry and prejudice instilled within them. The Jewish believers had been indoctrinated into believing that they were truly superior and that all others were inferior. It was a wall of isolation between the Jews and anyone, and everyone, who was not Jewish. Peter violates one of his Judaism’s strictest taboos by eating with uncircumcised gentiles. So he must defend himself before some of Christianity’s earliest heroes.
Now, did you hear what Peter said later? “Who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” What was it that could have stood in God’s way? It was his own prejudice. That’s the same attitude that the Jewish Christian leaders had to deal with. The same attitude stood in God’s way when Gandhi went to church that day. Racism is an attitude that always stands in God’s way. Racism is thinking your race is superior, valuing it above another, and treating others as undesirable or evil. It says that skin colour really matters at the end of the day. It says that my race or ethnicity is superior or should be treated better than another.
Is this a problem today? We know it is. When we think about our history, we recall that race was a major factor in the American Civil War and the Civil Rights movement in the 60s. This isn’t just an American problem but a massive, global, history long, devastating, bloody, murderous problem. And it affects each one of us. We can all point to occasions where we have witnessed racism and prejudice.
In fact, it has become commonplace today to respond to racism with more racism! Today, people everywhere, including in our public schools, are taught race-centred thinking. They are taught that people of European descent have made society racist for their own benefit. As a result, they claim racism is baked into the system and is inescapable. If there are differences or disparities, it must be because those of European descent are inherently racist, and so is everything they touch. And they say that there is no hope of ever-changing this. The only solution to this racism is more racism. They claim that society must be prejudiced against white people by favouring other races.
That attitude is out there, and I want you to see that our text today addresses it. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Responding to racism with more racism is reprehensible. Being racist is always a sin. Judging people based on the colour of their skin or where they were born is morally wrong. Privileging one person over another because of differences in race or ethnicity is evil. That is precisely the same attitude that those who questioned Peter had.
This text invites us to examine our own hearts and see if that same prejudice exists there. Are there prejudices in your hearts that would stand in God’s way? We need to fight racism wherever it appears: in our communities, in our school curriculums, and most importantly, in our hearts. You must take some time to examine your own prejudices and repent of them.
Reflect On What God Has Done
How can Peter convince the church’s earliest heroes to make room at their tables for Gentiles? He doesn’t think he can do so by arguing with them. Peter defends his actions by basically saying, “Don’t blame me, blame God. Who was I to resist God?” Peter knows that he must somehow show that his sharing of the gospel through eating with Gentiles is God’s idea, not his. So Peter recounts the story of his vision and trip to Cornelius’ home.
Here, we read about dreams and visions, angels and human messengers. The Holy Spirit unexpectedly fell on Cornelius and his family, and God granted even to the Gentiles repentance unto life. It was God who changed Peter’s mind. It was God who moved Cornelius to invite Peter to preach. It was God who sent the Spirit. It was God who converted this Gentile and his household. The fingerprints of God are all over this story and the rest of Acts. That’s how churches grow. Whatever role we play, it is God who gives the growth.
God’s actions show that he is not partial. Rather than fight racism with more racism, the Almighty demands that we be unbiased and impartial, as He is. That is the conclusion that Peter came to. In his sermon to Cornelius, Peter noted this, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-36). That’s also the conclusion we need to come to. God’s actions show that he is not partial. We can see this in his act of creation and in his act of redemption.
God made all ethnic groups from one common ancestor. Every single human is made in the image of God. There are massive implications if all human beings are made in the image of God. Regardless of the colour of their skin or ethnicity, all people are created in the image of God. Being in God’s image doesn’t mean we are saved. We are all distorted by sin. There is no exalting ourselves above others if we are both dead-bent rebels together on our way to hell. The unique ways that we were created to reflect the glory and worth of God have been ruined.
What was it that God gave to the Gentiles? He gave them salvation. He provided them with salvation and gave them an equal footing with the Jews. Peter notices that these Gentiles get an equal share in God’s kingdom. Christ died to reconcile both Jews and Gentiles — in his body on the cross. God so loved the world that he gave his only son. Not just one race, but all of us. Christ has redeemed people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. Consider God’s work in our own day. There are over 3 million Lutherans in North America, but 24 million Lutherans in Africa and 11 million Lutherans in Asia. God continues to be impartial.
It is essential to recognize that the sin of racism, like all other sins, cannot be overcome by human strength or resolve. We need new hearts with new allegiances to King Jesus, not old hearts still aligned with sin. Only by the power given by Christ can we combat the sin of racism. Christ is our Deliverer from sin, and his death earned for us forgiveness for all of our offences.
What stood in the way of God was human racial prejudice. God has the answer to alienation, racism, prejudice, hatred, to estrangement. Division and hostility among people come from sin. What’s wrong with the world is sin, the evil in each of us. Sin is what’s systemic. We can pass laws, and we may curb the behaviour, but we’ll never get rid of sin entirely. We absolutely must fight against racism wherever it appears. There may be times when we have to rally or march for change, but that’s not going to eliminate the problem altogether. The only thing that can thoroughly address that is Christ. The ultimate answer is not racial favouritism, which is nothing but more racism. Jesus alone is the answer to racism because his blood was shed for the whole lot of us! Christ can take two divergent people and make them one. He doesn’t remove the differences, but He can unite them together. They are bound together in a baptismal unity that transcends all differences that divide human beings. God forgives all sinners by grace through faith. The blood of Christ doesn’t just restore our broken relationship to God; the blood of Christ also brings us near to one another.
May, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.