In Acts 11, early church leaders move from skeptical critics to joyful recipients of God’s work; can we follow that example today?
Turn in your Bible with me to Acts chapter 11.
In Acts 10, we read about Peter’s visit to the home of Cornelius culminating in Cornelius—a Gentile—and his household receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. Picking up in Acts 11, Peter is criticized by the circumcised believers for going to the home of a Gentile and eating with him.
What happens when a well-respected leader in the church is seen fraternizing with “unclean” people? Maybe there is some criticism. Maybe we demand an explanation. Maybe we respond like these established leaders of the early church in Jerusalem.
How did Peter respond? He told the story of his experience. In fact, the author of Acts takes the time to re-tell the whole story, even though we just read it in the previous chapter. What happened in these two chapters is a Big Deal! Welcoming Gentiles meant redefining how Jewish Christians read the Old Testament. It meant taking love of enemies to a whole new level. And it meant opening the door to a huge unknown presence. Who would Cornelius bring with him into the church? What impact would Gentile believers have on this fledgling movement?
When Peter finished sharing the story of his vision from heaven and subsequent visit to Cornelius, how did the Jewish leaders respond?
Let’s pause here because this is important.
If you were sitting in Jerusalem in the first century, how would you respond to Peter’s story?
I am not surprised by the initial criticism of Peter and would not have been surprised if he received more questions. Questions like, “Why would you go without first consulting us and making sure that we were all of one mind?” “Are you sure that what you saw was really a vision from God?” “That’s great that you all had a good experience, but will it stick?” “How can we maintain our holy witness to the world if we let unclean people in?”
If you read on in Acts 11, you will not see any of those questions. In fact, reading this chapter is one of the most surprising stories in scripture to me. After Peter shared his testimony, the believers in Jerusalem rejoiced! They moved shockingly quickly from skepticism to joy. At first they did not understand what had happened in Caesarea, but as soon as Peter shared what God had done for Cornelius, they understood that the miraculous gift of God’s Holy Spirit had been poured out upon them just as it had been in the upper room.
What did it take to change their minds about the inclusion of Gentiles in this early Christian movement?
Two visions. One sanctified household. One testimony.
The church would never be the same.
When the Spirit is at work, it is not uncommon to see this joyful celebration of God’s work. When we have seen miracles, we live in expectancy of more miracles. Where will God show up next? We are quick to notice, quick to rejoice. There is a sense that everything is going to be okay and we can trust each other and God.
I love that.
We spend so much time worried and anxious—that there won’t be enough, that God won’t be enough. We second-guess ourselves and each other. Our hands go from open and welcoming to closed and tight. Our hearts harden. We have been hurt in the past, and we don’t want to be made fools again. We will be more careful, we will love less freely and trust less wholly. We will build more walls around our hearts to protect them. We may find less joy, but it is worth the sacrifice to feel less pain.
What happened when Peter told the leaders in Jerusalem about his vision and subsequent experience with Cornelius? They rejoiced! In fact, the Jewish leaders in that moment effectively handed the church over to the Gentiles. There were no restrictions on what position Gentile believers could hold. Sunday School teacher, choir director, NMI president, youth leader, usher, district superintendent, general superintendent.
As the story progresses in the book of Acts, it is staggering to see how quickly the leaders in Jerusalem resolved the questions that arose surrounding the inclusion of Gentiles in the days to come. Peter opened the door. Paul brought more clarity. But the openness with which the Gentile believers were welcomed is truly one of the greatest miracles in the Early Church.
I want to be careful in how we think and talk about this story. In our tradition, sometimes we spend too much time looking for a “second Pentecost.” Pentecost was a one-time thing, and this incredible pouring out of the Holy Spirit is not something to spend all our time searching for. But we do have a strong history of embracing the radical inclusivity of God.
In our tradition, we take a bold stance regarding women in leadership. Unlike so many of the most dominant and vocal theological traditions in America today, we have NO restrictions on what position women can hold in our denomination. That same list of positions is open to women: Sunday School teacher, choir director, NMI president, youth leader, usher, district superintendent, general superintendent. Historically, we share a similar experience with the leaders in Jerusalem. Over a hundred years ago, male leaders of the Holiness Movement in America looked around and saw the Spirit at work in the lives of women. Women teaching, preaching, praying, and leading. Like the leaders in Jerusalem, these early Holiness people didn’t worry about losing power or reputation; they just rejoiced at what God was doing in the world. They responded with an attitude similar to Peter’s: “If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I think that I could stand in God’s way?”
It is hard to comprehend in today’s culture how truly radical it was for early twentieth century holiness leaders to entrust the leadership of our fledgling movement to women—in a world where women were not even allowed to vote, let alone lead the church!
The Church of the Nazarene today, once again, has the opportunity to act with boldness and trust. People are coming to us with their stories of God’s Spirit at work in the lives of those some of us might call “unclean.” Maybe we initially respond with criticism. “How could you go into that person’s house and eat with them?” How will we respond when we hear the answer to that question? How will we respond when we hear stories of God’s Spirit at work in the lives of those we might consider outsiders?
Maybe you don’t know a gay person whose life demonstrates the presence of the Holy Spirit, but maybe your daughter does and she wants to tell you about that person so you can rejoice together.
Maybe you haven’t seen a vision for how the church could possibly maintain its identity of purity and fidelity to the faith of those who came before us while welcoming gay, trans, and queer youth, couples, and families of all types, but maybe someone sitting in the next pew over has seen the vision and is just dying to share what they see God already doing in your congregation.
How will you respond? To your daughter, your friend, your neighbor, your youth leader, choir director, even lead pastor when they say, “I think maybe God is at work in the lives of people we thought could never get in, people we thought would always be outsiders.”
Will you receive that person’s testimony with joy? Will you welcome the “wideness of God’s mercy”? Will you marvel at how the Spirit blows? Will you welcome those people who have an incredible testimony of the Spirit at work in their lives and tentatively share their story with you?
What would it take to change your mind?
I hope no more and no less than it took for the leaders in Jerusalem to accept YOU, to welcome YOU into THEIR church. As Paul wrote in Ephesians, “You who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” That Early Church decision is why we have access to salvation today.
May we follow the example of those early pioneers trying to figure out what in the world God was up to. May we go looking with joyful eagerness for the next new place God will pour out his Spirit, and even if it is the last place we expected to find it, may we eagerly embrace the beautiful, transforming, joyous creative work of the Spirit in the world today.
Marissa Coblentz is an ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene who is currently working as an engineer in the public sector. She and her husband and three children reside in Southern Indiana.