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Acts 11:1-18

A Dangerous Read for a Holy People

I am who I am.Yahweh.The name of God. A name defines, a name controls. When someone calls my name, I turn, look and pay attention.But when God gave His name, “Yahweh,” to Moses, it has always seemed to me like God cheated a bit. I have a new application that works with my email and browser called Crystal Knows. Crystal Knows reads the names and email addresses of those I am messaging giving insights into that person’s personality; suggesting edits to my messages based on online data compilation. My profile, which is available to anyone who has Crystal Knows, says, “Emily is a quick learner with strong analytical, creative, and social skills, but may seem sarcastic sometimes.” I feel like it pretty much hit the nail on the head. When you call my name, this is what you get. However, if God had a profile on Crystal Knows, it would just say, “God will be whoever God will be.” It seems like a cop out answer to Moses’ question[1]. We as pastors, on the other hand, have made a living out of knowing God. The mysterious will of God made plain in three easy fill-in-the-blank sermon notes. Not only do we have Biblical and theological knowledge, but as Nazarenes, we have doctrine that defines who God is and who we are as God’s holy people. We can know so much about God. So Acts 11:1-18 and the voices in scripture that seem to evidence God’s nature as ultimate freedom to “be whoever God will be,” should be at least a little unsettling to us, “Holy people.”When God does something revolutionary and unexpected (like filling Gentile sinners with the Holy Spirit), it is often us religious God-knowing folks who are spreading the rumors and demanding the Peters to give an explanation. So at the beginning of Acts 11, here Peter is, being questioned by the church in Jerusalem because he was eating with sinners. This eating was a guilt by association, who you ate with was who you were. So you can imagine the churches concern when Peter, one of the inner three disciples of Jesus, the rock, is making himself unclean by how he is eating. In response, Peter tells a story that was about as blame-shifting possible. He starts like this, “I was in the city of Joppa praying.” This is a great beginning. Whenever I want to defer blame, I usually start out with, “I was praying, when…” too (Crystal Knows I’m being sarcastic). Then there is this amazing vision from God where a large sheet is lowered by its four corners full of unclean animals and a voice from heaven tells Peter to “Get up, kill and eat.” So if you are tracking, you might see something pretty over-the-top about Peter’s story. As Peter explains the vision he has during prayer, he sees all kinds of food that would make him unclean (the very thing he is being accused of); but even when the “voice” tempts him to become unclean by his eating, Peter refuses. Not only does Peter make a point of saying, “nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth[2],” but he also refuses this voice he heard during prayer three times! Peter is truly righteous when it comes to purity around eating. Peter is making the very strong claim, that God was the main actor in this story, not himself. Not only does this story start out in prayer, but the Holy Spirit tells Peter to go with the three men and then the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles. Not to mention the repetitive use of the numbers three, four and seven; indicating perhaps that this new thing was a holistic and sacred phenomenon[3]. Peter’s action in the text is limited to defending his own righteousness in eating, following the Holy Spirit’s lead, and remembering that Jesus said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” He then concludes, “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.” For us, “Holy people,” I think there are a couple of things that stand out about this text. For decades I have heard this, “God is the same, yesterday, today and forever.” I think there is a lot of truth to that. But could it be that there is a voice reaching out in scripture, just historical and just as valid, that wants to say to us that God’s nature is actually ultimate freedom to be whoever God will be. That maybe God can change? If that is the case, then immediately, the question this text raises is: where in our times, is the Holy Spirit falling on people that we before excluded? Or perhaps: what rules have we had and what things have we called profane, that God has now made clean? Truly, Acts 11 is a dangerous passage for those with a holiness code. It is one of those passages that makes us question everything and turn to God in prayer. And maybe that is the point. I wonder what we might be missing if we are not in prayer. What if we are not seeing the visions of God and hearing the voice of God? What happens when the three men show up at our door, but we have not been in prayer? Could it be that we will not make the connection? That we might miss what God is trying to do? About the Author [1] Exodus 3:13-15 [2] Emphasis mine [3] See Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003, 1198, Number Systems and Number Symbolism