Our text begins as a simple story but in fact most of it repeats and expands on a defense of Gentile baptism (Acts 11:5-17). At one level it is a remarkable story since it calmly treats the early church’s battle over the conditions that needed to be placed on converts, specifically Gentiles new to following Jesus. Peter is trying to get Jerusalem, or more precisely some Jewish Christians, to understand the mission to the Gentiles.
These people seem not to understand that God’s message through Jesus Christ is not merely for some specific group but for all of the world to hear.
Our text elaborates on what we had heard already in Acts 10. It drives home the point that Peter is again laying out God’s initiative. “What God has made clean, you must not profane” (Acts 11:9; see Acts 10:15, 28).
Even today we in the church often want to talk narrowly to some self selected group, namely those like us. How appropriate that the starting point for the mission to the Gentiles in Acts takes on baptism. No one works for baptism it is a gift, freely given to all irrespective of age or color or station in life.
The text warns about spiritual incest. Peter is combating at the beginning of the mission to the Gentiles a group of people who want to lock the doors and set up a Christian zone. A zone that sets up walls—unintentionally maybe—but none the less walls. The walls are set such that the message of hope brought to the people of the First Testament (OT/HB) easily became an inbred message of hope only for like minded people. Peter is contending that the church must break out of the box, tear down the fences and extend God’s message into every community irrespective of their origins.
A story (I hope apocryphal) is told about a church who placed a "for members only" sign on their front lawn. Anyone they disapproved of was not welcome. As the congregation aged, members began to die until finally the last three members posted a notice in the obituary column which read:
- One hundred year old, middle-class church that once had 200 members.
- Address: 1888 Church Street. Cause of death: unfriendliness towards strangers, for-members-only attitude, disdain for all people who weren't our kind of people.
- God forgive us for the sin of selfishness.
We tend to be exclusive with our standards for who is to be in our ideal church. If Mr. Jones drinks we want to be cautious about his becoming a member. That woman wears too revealing dresses so look out for her. That man is divorced and running around with another woman. That family is on welfare. She was short with me the other day, we don’t need her. There are a lot of people we would like to impose our rules on, aren't there? And so we would fit in very well with the some of those parties Peter was battling.
Throughout Acts we hear that it was God who sent his Holy Spirit on the Gentiles and converted them to the faith. God changed a Saul into Paul. God converted a Roman centurion named Cornelius. The action of God that we read about from the past is still acting today. We may have difficulties today but God is working amongst all our trials and tribulations. God is on the move, advancing toward his kingdom, and in all of our difficulties and sufferings, we need to keep that in mind.
Gallup polls report that the percentage of Americans who say that they would like to experience spiritual and religious growth rose from 6 in 10 in the early 1990s to 8 in 10 by 2001. Are we prepared to step out of our self imposed boxes and see that God is in unexpected places?