Acts 10 is a remarkable chapter in the Bible.
God’s people have lost their way. And Peter is right there with them. It’s good to see even the Apostle Peter struggling with this, even as a redeemed follower and lover of Jesus. Peter still has a ton of things to learn, and he’s also rather infamous at saying both Yes, Lord, and No, Lord! in the same breath.
This is an incredibly important moment in the life of the church. The big question is if the church will be Jewish or not. Everyone expected the answer to be yes, but God’s saying no. That doesn’t mean it has nothing to do with what had come before. It’s not like everything is reset and no one has any idea what to do or where to go or what to think. There is tremendous continuity, but God is opening this up in a fuller way, by his command. He’s preaching the gospel to Peter—truly, truly ALL ARE WELCOME IN JESUS. If God calls it clean, then it’s clean.
How can we make application to this?
It’s definitely awesome that we get to eat bacon and crawfish. I love me some bacon.
But just as Peter was thinking about this (his vision earlier in the chapter), Cornelius’ men knocked on the door and invited him back to travel with them. Peter gets the word that he’s to follow without hesitation. He travels with them the next day, and they go through the mechanics of what must have been an awkward introduction.
Peter had never before stepped into the house of a Gentile. Everything in his body, in his life, in every fiber of his being, in the way he thought and lived would have said this is forbidden. It would have made his skin crawl to be there. He would have never expected to be there. He had a million cultural and religious assumptions going off like alarm bells. AND don’t forget it was the Roman soldiers who had carried out the execution of Jesus, so Peter might have thought he was about to die.
Cornelius falls to the ground to worship Peter. But Peter brings him to his feet telling him he’s no angel or special person. He’s just a man like Cornelius is.
Peter then talks about it why he shouldn’t be there. “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with our visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” (Acts 10:28–29)
It’s a gospel moment for Peter. The scales are falling from his eyes too. That’s not just a metaphor for Saul when he comes to know Jesus the first time. It’s true for Peter, who has already been a discipline and an apostle. He’s known Jesus for years now. He was there. He was in. But he still didn’t fully see. He still didn’t fully know and grasp the true power and extent of the love of God, which is rich and free. Jesus was still at work showing and speaking (these words in Acts 10 are in red!) to the unredeemed, cultural and religious assumptions that Peter had. AND, Cornelius isn’t yet a believer. Peter’s spending time with someone on the outside.
So—what would this look like for you? How is the gospel more real and more full and more powerful than your cultural and religious assumptions today? How are you risking even your religious and cultural assumptions because Jesus calls you to visit homes of people you’ve been taught all your life to hate and avoid? Where is a place where walking with Jesus means you walk somewhere you never, ever, ever in a million years would have ever, ever, ever walked?
Peter was willing (and he didn’t do this perfectly by any means) to follow God even when he didn’t know exactly where or why he was going. That’s a picture of faith like Abraham. It’s the opposite of Jonah, who got off track in Joppa because he didn’t want to go where God led him. We don’t have to have all the answers every second to follow Jesus. He’s leading us to new places. He’s breaking down barriers.
What might this look like?
Do you remember the “Lincoln” movie that came out? The movie focuses on the end of his life, especially the big push to get the 13th Amendment into the Constitution. That required a two-thirds majority vote, which meant Lincoln needed every Republican and four Democrats to vote for it. Lincoln was courting Kentucky Representative George Yeaman. Yeaman made a speech during one of the votes on the house floor. He said,
“Although I’m disgusted by slavery, I rise on this sad and solemn day to announce that I’m opposed to the amendment. We must consider what will become of colored folk if four million are in one instant set free…And, and! We will be forced to enfranchise the men of the colored race—it would be inhuman not to! Who among us is prepared to give Negros the vote? And, and! What shall follow upon that? Universal enfranchisement? Votes for women?”
The House floor erupted with shouts. But not in protest—in agreement. They could not fathom how it would ever be possible for black people—or women—to ever get to vote.
Thankfully the Amendment passed. Lincoln got the votes he needed, including one from Yeaman. What I want you to think about is that Yeaman thought he was right. We can look back and know that he was wrong. It seems very obvious to us. But he couldn’t see it, at least not in that moment. He was communicating what he knew was truth. It was very consistent to everything he knew to be true about people, about race, about America, about God. He was blind.
Of course that was in the 1860s, which was a long time ago.
Let me give you another example from the 1960s, one hundred years later. I have recently made a friend named Sam Graham. He was born and raised and still lives in Memphis. He’s a grandfather, a successful business man, an elder at Independent Presbyterian Church, and a member of the board at Covenant Theological Seminary. He has the credentials.
Sam has written a chapter in the book Heal Us, Emmanuel. Independent Pres is a great church. They have done a great job. They have stood for truth. They have much to celebrate. But they were also bucking a very deep-seated, important truth of Southern culture, the one that says you don’t air your dirty laundry in front others. Many people wanted to get past and ignore and put behind them the church’s history regarding the Civil Rights movement and their participation in it.
Sam writes about how in 2013 (so now we’re three years ago, not 150 or 50 years ago), the pastor at Independent Pres preached a sermon on reconciliation, and he bravely addressed this difficult history and topic. During church that day, Sam read a statement to the body. In it he said,
“Just as we celebrate those aspects of our history at Independent Presbyterian Church of which we are proud, we must also acknowledge with sadness and renounce and repudiate those practices in our history that do not reflect biblical standards. We profess, acknowledge, and confess before God, before one another, and before the watching world, that tolerance of forced or institutional segregation based on race, and declarations of the inferiority of certain races, such as once were practiced and supported by our church and many other voices in the Presbyterian tradition, were wrong and cannot and will not be accepted within our church today or ever again. The Lord calls us to repent of the sin of prejudice; to turn from it and to treat all persons with justice, mercy, and love.
As a church, we will strive to be more intentional and proactive with ministry opportunities for the congregation to serve the city of Memphis as redemptive, Gospel-driven agents seeking the peace and prosperity of ALL of Memphis.”
The next year, another prominent church in Memphis invited Independent Pres to join them in another repentance and reconciliation service. This one was to commemorate that fifty years early, Second Pres had been the site of a kneel-in. Black and white students had peacefully gathered and kneeled at the entrance of the church to protest the policy that black people were not allowed to worship in that church.
The best way I know to communicate what happened next is to quote at length from Sam’s essay.
“When I walked into the sanctuary that morning, I arrived at the same time as an elegant, older African American lady. We walked in together. She had friends and family waiting for her inside, and I saw some ministers from my church and gravitated toward them. The service was a series of speakers (alternating between Black and White) giving testimonies about what had happened and why we must acknowledge it, repent, reconcile, and move forward together. I discovered the lady with whom I had walked into the sanctuary was the sister of Joe Purdy—the first Black man who had been denied entry to the sanctuary in 1964. Carolyn Purdy McGhee told of her brother’s gentleness, his godliness, his character, his lifelong quest to honor God, his dedication to the Christian faith. At the end of this service I had the opportunity to meet her. I told her I was the spiritual offspring of the men who had blocked her brother from the sanctuary fifty years before. They were good men in so many ways, but I could not explain or justify their actions toward her brother. I expressed remorse for what had happened. She was incredibly gracious toward me, and we prayed together. I prayed a prayer of repentance. She prayed a prayer of forgiveness. We both wept.
What happened during the kneel-in controversy of 1964–65 is well documented. Those who were in positions of authority at the time are either well advanced in age or no longer with us. I knew many of them. They were kind to me. My forefathers in the church were dedicated to historic orthodoxy. Social changes did not fit into that paradigm. They did not care for change. They preferred things the way they were. The mixing of the races was against how they had been raised and lived their lives. Did they have a significant blind spot concerning the Gospel and race? Yes, they did. Do we have significant blind spots today? Of course we do. I pray God’s grace of sanctification will reveal them to us.
Weeks after the kneel-in commemoration service, Carolyn Purdy McGhee invited me to her home. We both knew there was unfinished business. I am not sure whether she was nervous about my visit to her house. I know I was. This was a step of faith by both of us. When I knocked on her front door, she welcomed me into her home and introduced me to her family. They were all hospitable and kind. She asked me some honest, tough questions. What does it mean to be a Bible-believing Christian in a city where White people and Black people still practice cultural segregation—especially in our churches? Doesn’t Revelation 7 describe the church as the redeemed from every tribe and nation? How could Christian men act the way they did to her brother in 1964? She held her Bible in her hand and asked, “Is this the same book they had? Did they really believe what it says?”
Her questions were not accusatory. Her tone was not angry, but rather one of great pain with a genuine desire to understand. I sought to explain what I had been told. Our church’s forefathers had serious fears of godless Communism running rampant in the Civil Rights Movement. They would die at their posts before allowing the desecration of God’s sanctuary by political demonstrators. There had been increasing theological liberalism in the Presbyterian Church, which was openly denying the cardinal doctrines of the faith. Carolyn listened carefully. She simply pointed to a photo of her brother, held her Bible in her hand and gently but firmly said, “My brother Joe was there simply to honor God in the face of godless racism and evil manmade segregation. He was a mild-mannered Christian young man seeking to peacefully enter a Christian church in his hometown.”
Again, those church leaders thought they were doing the right thing in the 1960s in Memphis. They were Christians. They were godly people. They had very reasonable reasons—to lock out black people from worshiping at a Presbyterian church.
I’m going to let that sit there. I don’t want to wrap all of this up with a pretty bow. I’m not sure I could. I’d like for you to be thinking about what it would look like for the gospel to break into your life or our lives, or just somewhere that you might have a cultural blindness that keeps us.
I’d like for you to consider if you have ever been a Cornelius. If so, then what was that like? If not, then why have you functioned around your own people all the time?
Have you ever been a Peter? Are their Cornelius’ in your life? Who might God be calling you to travel toward, to visit, to befriend and to preach the gospel of the love of Jesus to?
is the gospel real enough? Are we reading the same Bibles? Is there work still left to do?