Acts 10 is a key chapter in the book of Acts and the history of the church and the world. Were it not for Acts 10 then in all likelihood we wouldn’t be here. It’s importance is reflected in the space which Luke gives this incident and its results for the church and the world wide spread of the gospel. Acts 10 begins with Cornelius’ vision, then we see Peters’ vision, then Peter goes to visit Cornelius as a result of the vision, and then in 11:1-18 Peter recounts the vision he had to the church in Jerusalem and explains its implications. And it ends with the church rejoicing at the salvation of the Gentiles. From then on we see the mission to the Gentiles really take off. And then in Acts 15 in another key passage as regards the gospel and Gentiles we see Peter recount again this incident from Acts 10 what he learnt and its implications to the church.
This incident is vital for the spread of the gospel, it is also vital that we learn its lessons and think through its implications for us. Because it reminds us that the gospel is for all, that there is no one church culture which the gospel is for.
Why is this so vital? Because sometimes the majority church culture makes it hard for others from different cultures or social groups to hear the gospel and find welcome in church. It becomes a barrier to the gospel itself, and even worse tragically sometimes we assume that our cultural norms are gospel norms when they are not. But we will come to think more about that later. First of all we want to work out the principles we see in Acts 10.
God confronts our prejudices. You may be thinking but I'm not prejudiced, this doesn’t apply to me, I can switch off, I know the gospel is for everyone. Imagine for a minute that we stepped back into Acts 10 and had a chat with Peter at breakfast pre-vision. We ask him who the gospel is for? What do you think he would have said? It was for everyone. We ask him if he was prejudiced against the Gentiles? He would have replied no. If it was only for Jews? He would have said no. In fact I think Peter would have walked us through what he had seen and learnt. He was with Jesus when Jesus proclaimed the Centurion’s faith the greatest in Israel, when Jesus healed the Gentile lady because of her faith. He would tell us about the great commission to make disciples of all nations, and in Acts 1:8 to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
He would tell us about the mixed make up of the early church, he would talk about his visit to Samaria, that he was one of those who appointed Philip through whom, via the Ethiopian Eunuch, the gospel went to Africa. Peter would have thought just as we might be tempted to, and yet God still confronts him with his prejudice. Not a prejudice of thinking but of practice and culture which was a barrier to the spread of the gospel.
Before Cornelius can hear the gospel Peter must be changed because even as the men set out to find him, Peter, as he is at breakfast, would have refused to go with them because (28)”it is against our law for a Jew to associate with Gentiles or visit them.” Even though Cornelius is a devout God-fearing man he has not undergone the outward signs or full conversion to Judaism, so Peter would not have gone to see him or eat with him. The Jewish traditions of purity would have made Peter ritually unclean, and Cornelius would not have heard the gospel.
And so God confronts Peter with his prejudice in this vision. One of the things I love most about this chapter is its honesty about Peter’s stubborn clinging on to his traditions and comfort, how hard it was for God to change his thinking and yet God persevered by grace. This passage is just so realistic about how hard we find it to change our thoughts, cultural norms and expectations. God lets down a sheet with all sorts of unclean foods on and tells Peter (13) "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Three times Peter refuses to eat because the food is not clean for a Jew to eat, three times God pronounces it clean “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” And still even after that as the sheet is taken up into heaven what is Peter doing? (17)Wondering what the vision meant, and whilst he is thinking it through the men arrive from Cornelius(19), and the Holy Spirit tells Peter to “get up and go down stairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
Don’t you just love the grace of God we see there; the loving gentle way he challenges Peter to get him thinking, the perfect timing, God’s gracious perseverance, and the gentle but blunt direction of the Spirit. God wants Peter to learn this fundamental lesson, to recognise the character of the God he worships because that will change his actions and attitudes.
God will not leave Peter in his prejudice because it affects his mission. In the same way God wants to confront our prejudices. Not just in terms of our thinking but in terms of our action, God confronts Peter and then sends him out, theology into practice.
The church is not to be a Jewish monoculture, it is not for converts to Judaism first. What are our assumptions about church culture? What are our prejudices? Do they limit our sharing about Jesus? Who do we exclude in the way we do things? Where is our prejudice not one of thought but of action and assumption?