Fifth Sunday of Easter – April 28, 2013

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Acts 11:1-18Psalm 148Revelation 21:1-6John 13:31-35

By Russell Pregeant

The book of Acts tells the story of the early church, and it is a story of transformations. Characters, most particularly Peter and Paul, undergo transformation; and so does the church itself. Paul’s change is the most dramatic—a complete turnaround from a bitter opponent of the gospel to a courageous bearer of the word into the Gentile world. Peter’s is equally significant, however; and both characters’ faith journeys are central to the plot of Luke-Acts.

Peter has already undergone several transformations in the Gospel of Luke—from fisher to follower (5:1-11) to a member of Jesus’ inner circle (8:49-56; 9:18-20; 9:28-36); from one who denies Jesus in the hour of trial (22:54-61) to agonized penitent; then to confused witness at the empty tomb (24:12) and finally to recipient, with the other remaining disciples, of Jesus’ missionary commission (24:36-49). In Acts, he reappears as a bold preacher of the gospel (2:14-36; 3:11-4:22) and healer (3:1-10); and in this Sunday’s epistle reading he is changed in a way that also transforms the nascent church itself.

The centrality of Peter’s report to the Jerusalem church to the plot of Acts is underscored by the fact that it comes as a climax to a thematically unified series of incidents that begins at 10:1. First (10:1-8), a devout Gentile in Caesarea named Cornelius is recipient of a vision in which an angel informs him of Peter’s ensuing visit. Second (10:9-16), Peter falls into trance and has a vision of various animals, both clean and unclean, in which the voice of the Lord (Jesus) commands him to “kill and eat.” (10:13) When Peter objects that he has never eaten anything unclean, the reply is “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” (10:15) At this point, the issue at hand seems to be whether the traditional dietary regulations apply to persons in Christ, and the answer is that God has rescinded these laws—and that, indeed, is probably the point of the story in its original (pre-Lukan) version.

As the chain of stories progresses, however, this point is melded into another. In the third segment (10:17-23a), emissaries from Cornelius come and invite Peter to Caesarea. In the fourth (10:23b-48), Peter comes to Cornelius, enters his house, and immediately explains why he, a Jew, has entered the home of a Gentile—something normally prohibited: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” God’s cleansing of the animals is thus reinterpreted as applying to human relations: since no person is unclean, there is no barrier to free association of Jews with Gentiles. This point is reiterated, moreover, as Peter preaches to the Gentile audience, declaring that “God shows no partiality” but accepts anyone from any nation “who does what is right and acceptable to him.” (10:34) Following Peter’s sermon, the Holy Spirit falls upon the Gentile audience, and Peter uses this event to justify the baptism of Gentiles.

Peter’s speech in chapter 10 is essentially a statement of God’s plan (boule) of salvation. As outlined already in Acts 1:8, this plan—which begins with the creation of the world (Acts 17:24) and ends with Christi’s return in glory (Acts 17:30)—involves the progression of the proclamation from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, “to the ends of the earth.” In the course of this progression, one barrier after another is transcended. The inclusion of Samaria shatters the age-old enmity between Jews and Samaritans, and the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-40) performs a number of functions. Apparently a convert to Judaism, the eunuch is nevertheless prohibited from full participation in the life of the Israelite community by virtue of his mutilated body (Deuteronomy 23:2). In addition, although race did not play the same role in the ancient world as it came to do in later times, the fact of his blackness would not have gone unnoticed as a sign of further inclusiveness. And, finally, as Clarice Martin has shown,[1]Ethiopia was known as “the end of the earth” to Romans, so that the eunuch’s baptism stands as a proleptic realization of the geographical goal of the mission.

The breaking of one final barrier is the subject of the Cornelius cycle—that between Jews and Gentiles. A turning point comes in Peter’s speech, the descent of the Spirit (complete with speaking in tongues as at Pentecost), and the baptism of the Gentiles. Peter’s report to the Jerusalem church in chapter 11, however, is the actual climax. The “apostles and believers” in the congregation, having heard of the inclusion of Gentiles, ask Peter why he has gone to the uncircumcised and eaten with them. Peter’s response is to rehearse the entire Cornelius cycle, ending with the question, “If then God gave [the Gentiles] the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

This question, together with the descent of the Spirit on the Gentiles, makes the point in unmistakably clear terms. It is God who has decreed the inclusion of the Gentiles! The members of the congregation affirm this point in the final verse (11:18): “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” And in this verse we see that it is not simply Peter who is transformed, but the church itself. Its mission and message are now fully inclusive, in an unhindered way, as is its constituency. Henceforth it is a community in which human distinctions no longer apply; the final barrier is broken.

The importance of this breaking down of ethnic distinctions is signaled by the amount of space given to the Cornelius cycle; it is a central motif of the entire narrative. Ethnicity, however, is only one of many barriers that are broken down in Luke-Acts. Others are those that excluded the poor and powerless, sinners and tax collectors, and women. The reader of Luke-Acts is thus encouraged to think beyond these specific instances of inclusion to the broader notion of inclusiveness itself—that is, to consider other barriers, not yet broken in the history of the church, and to ask whether these, too, might need to fall. And a key resource in this process of consideration is another aspect of the lectionary selection that reflects another theme central to Luke-Acts: the action of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who directs the entire course of salvation-history and who—as Peter acknowledges in 11:12—abolishes the distinction between Jews and Gentiles. This suggests that when considering issues of inclusiveness the church needs to look beyond both scripture and tradition to human experience for signs of the Spirit’s guidance.

The witness of Luke-Acts on the issue of inclusiveness is an important resource for the contemporary church, even though the issue of Gentiles is no longer operative. Racism in various forms remains a problem, as do prejudices regarding sexuality, immigration status, etc. There is a danger, however, in making uncritical use of this resource in that it can easily lead to mischaracterizations of Judaism that feed anti-Jewish sentiments. One could get the impression from the Cornelius cycle that Judaism and the early Christian community (in some sense still a Jewish faction) were unreceptive to Gentile converts altogether. This was not the case historically, however, and in fact the references in Acts to “God-fearers”—Gentiles attached to the synagogues—gives partial acknowledgment of this fact.

The real issue at stake in the Christian mission to Gentiles was that of circumcision, as we can see not only in Paul’s letters to the churches in Galatia and Rome but also in Acts 15, where some members of the Christian community who “belonged to the sect of the Pharisees” argue that Gentile converts must submit to circumcision. My concern is that this requirement not be caricatured as some kind of ethnic exclusivism, since circumcision was the long-standing rite of entrance into the Israelite faith community, which its adherents had every right to maintain. As Christianity began to develop its own inner dynamic, it was probably necessary to drop this requirement; but Christians need not, and should not, characterize it as narrowness or bigotry. Sermons stressing Christian inclusiveness on the basis of this theme in Acts should therefore proceed with some care.

It could be helpful in this regard to pay attention to how carefully the author of Luke-Acts has demonstrated the continuity of the new faith with the faith of historical Israel in the opening chapters of Luke. And it is important to keep in mind that transformation does not in itself require rejection of the past. Perhaps Christianity had to go its own way in order to fulfill its own potential and Judaism had to retain its distinctive characteristics to continue its own role in God’s economy of salvation. The two communities can remain siblings without either ignoring their differences or setting themselves up as rivals or enemies. The issue of circumcision is complicated, of course, by the fact that the church was still in some sense a Jewish sect when the matter was under consideration. At that point, it was an inner-Jewish issue.

In choosing to forego circumcision, however, the new community in effect chose to constitute itself as a different faith community, which transformed the issue into an inner-Christian one. And, with Jesus now at its center, rather than the Torah, it was baptism rather than circumcision that made sense as the rite of entrance. Given that circumstance, the transformations recorded in the Cornelius cycle were both necessary and good. My own judgment, however, is that sermons on these texts should put far more emphasis on the transformations that are necessary today in order to be true to the gospel’s inner dynamic.

The gospel reading, Jesus’ statement of the “new commandment” in John 13:31-35, provides an important complement to the theme of inclusiveness in Acts to the extent that love motivates inclusion. Although the Johannine writings do not explicitly command love of the enemy or of those outside the Christian fold, they hold up love within the community as an essential mark of that fellowship. And this is particularly clear in John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The lack of an explicit command to love those outside the community, moreover, does not exclude love of the outsider; and John 3:16, in fact, strongly suggests otherwise, declaring as it does God’s love for the “the world.” For just as the disciples’ love for one another is based explicitly upon Jesus’ love for them (13:34; 15:12), Jesus’ love for them is a reflection of God’s own love, since Jesus’ role is specifically to reveal God (1:18). To love as Jesus loves is thus to love as God loves, which necessarily means to love “the world” in the specific sense of loving all persons.

To be sure, in some passages in John “the world” takes on a negative meaning as the human social world that stands in opposition to God. In others, however, it simply means creation itself. And in yet others, such as 1:18 and 6:5 (which declares that Jesus died for the sake of the world; see also 4:42 and 12:47), it refers to the human social world as something redeemable. It thus seems legitimate to read Jesus’ command to “love one another” as implying a love that also reaches beyond the community to the world outside, seeking to include others (without distinction) within its nurturing arms.[2]

The statement of the new commandment in John 13:34-35 comes in the context of Jesus’ reflections on his coming death. In v. 33, he tells the disciples he will be with them only a little while longer, and this statement is preceded by the declaration that he has already been glorified, that God has been glorified in him, and that God “will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.” The thought progression here is complex, but the basic points are that the glory of God is manifest in Jesus, most particularly in his death, and that Jesus himself is glorified by God, so that there is a mutuality in the process of glorification. As Bultmann comments on the related passage 12:23, 27-31, “the doxa [glory] of the Father and of the Son are bound to each other. For if the Father is glorified through the work of the Son, i.e. reveals himself, so at the same time the Son is glorified as the Revealer.”[3]

The tense of the verb in v. 31, however, adds an important twist. The Greek edoxasthe (“is glorified” or “has been glorified”) is an aorist passive, which indicates action upon a subject, already completed. This means that, although it is Jesus’ death in which the process of glorification reaches its final stage, there is a sense in which God’s glory has been manifest in Jesus all along and that Jesus himself has thus been glorified all along. We therefore read in John 1:14 that “we have beheld his glory”; and 2:11, where Jesus reveals his glory through the “sign” he performs at Cana, shows that this applies to his entire ministry, not just his death and resurrection. It is thus made clear that the incarnation itself, in which the “Word became flesh” (1:14), is redemptive—which is entirely consistent with the Johannine view that Jesus’ role is precisely to reveal God.

Jesus’ death remains important for John, since Jesus “also takes up his death into his service”[4]—that is, includes it in the process of revelation. What we do not find in John, however, is a consistent presentation of Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice. In 1:29, John the Baptist hails Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” and in v. 36 he again refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” The phrase does not recur in John, however, and at no other point does the Gospel of John link “the gift of forgiveness of sins specifically to Jesus’ death.” What we find, instead, is that forgiveness is “the effect of [Jesus’] word (8:31f.).”[5]We must therefore recognize in John a subtle countercurrent to the emphasis upon Jesus’ atoning death in the Western (Latin) church that is at the root of the Eastern (Orthodox) church’s emphasis upon the incarnation itself as salvific; and this fact provides an opening for working around problematic atonement theories that make God into a legalistic tyrant who demands blood as punishment for sin.

The vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” in Revelation 21:1-6 contains elements that can complement the reading from Acts. The declaration in v. 5—“See, I am making all things new”—can be read as a way of taking the theme of transformation one step further than does the book of Acts. In the latter, we see the transformation of individuals and the church; in the passage in Revelation we have the image of the transformation of the world itself. Shorn of its supernaturalist elements, it is a powerful testimony to God’s intention to transform the world into a community of peace and justice, rid of the crimes for which the author of the apocalypse justly accuses Rome and that remain with us today.

[1] Clarice J. Martin, “A Chamberlain’s Journey and the Challenge of Interpretation for Liberation,” Semeia 47 (1989): 105-35.

[2] See, further, Russell Pregeant, Knowing Truth, Doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 199-202.

[3] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), 429.

[4]Bultmann, The Gospel of John, 429.

[5] Ibid., 97.