Here we see Peter becoming criticized for how wide his welcome as a believer is. The folks who criticize him do so not just because of prejudice, which they are harboring in their heart, but also because they know their Bibles. They can turn to pages that seem to exclude people like Cornelius, who have not been circumcised and do not keep every letter of the ceremonial law. How can Peter welcome them?
This same attitude rears its head throughout church history, and even today.
It reared its head when people quoted their Bibles to argue why women must be silent. “Look,” they said, “the plain words of Scripture say women must be silent in the church. Wives must submit to their husbands”. And so they rejected women called to speak, act, lead, by God. They put down those who embraced them.
It reared its head when churches and communities began to put away rules forbidding people of different races to cooperate, to socialize, to marry. “It clearly says,” they would say, “to not let the foreigner into the assembly; and for the people to only marry their own tribe” and would list verses from Scripture to justify this.
Today we see it again, don’t we, in those aghast that some believers welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people into full fellowship in the church? And that our society is beginning to recognize them and their families as having civil rights?
Yet Peter stands strong in his decision to move beyond what he had always been told the Bible said, to move beyond even its literal meaning, as he followed the lead of the Holy Spirit whom those Scriptures pointed to.
Today as then the question is not “What did God say?” but “what is God saying?” for, as the United Church of Christ oft says, “God is still speaking”.
I think it is because Peter’s insights come not through the literal words of Scripture but a living experience of the still-speaking God he knows as Holy Spirit that Peter does not answer their criticism as we often do by lining up Bible verses or arguing theology. Instead he shares his story, his experience of God the Holy Spirit working through the lives of Cornelius and others. This story transforms him and his hearers.
This reminds me we cannot convince others of what God is doing when God does a new thing simply by winning arguments, lining up reasons, or listing Scriptures. Ultimately it is only through encountering the Spirit at work in us & others they can begin to see what we have come to know. This happens through relationships that are open and authentic across the divides that have emerged, ones in which we can genuinely share our stories.
Let us be open to authentically being led by the still-speaking Spirit into deeper inclusion and welcome. Let us also put aside the need to convince others or prove we are right, instead living genuine lives of connection, openness, and community.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher,