April 28, 2013
By now, our bold and joyful refrain of “Alleluia!” has surely lost a bit of its shiny newness.
The bright dawn of Easter Sunday has passed, and the news of our Lord’s triumphant resurrection has begun to settle into our hearts and minds.
But as was the case with the first Christians, the full magnitude of Easter takes more than a day or two to settle in.
Christians who follow the liturgical calendar observe the season of Easter for 50 days.
Fifty days to spread the Good News; 50 days to proclaim resurrection to the world; and 50 days to travel to far-away places with the message that God is doing a new thing in Jesus Christ.
It was during the first Easter season some 2,000 years ago that the disciples discovered that the rumors were true – that Jesus Christ had in fact been raised from the dead. And so, they wasted no time spreading the Good News.
The appropriately named Acts of the Apostles reports how the first Christians spread the Easter message to the world: by teaching and preaching, and by baptizing many into the faith.
But as modern-day Christians know all too well, growth cannot happen without at least a few growing pains.
As we heard tell in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter was no stranger to growing pains.
There was perhaps no more passionate a believer in the early church than Peter. He had been teaching and preaching about Jesus among the gentiles in Caesarea with great effect.
In Acts, it is reported that the Holy Spirit came into their midst and they began “extolling God.”
But even before the days of e-mail, Facebook and Twitter, rumors traveled fast.
Soon, the news of Peter’s work among the gentiles reached the religious leaders in Jerusalem.
They knew that Peter had been teaching and preaching, but now they had gotten wind that Peter was also eating with the gentiles.
They summoned Peter to defend his actions.
Teaching the gentiles? Fine.
Preaching to the gentiles? Fine.
But eating with the gentiles? Absolutely unacceptable!
For Jews – including Peter – the observance of strict dietary laws was not a matter of ritual piety or cultural observance; it was a matter of worship and identity.
In the midst of an empire that was not only non-Jewish, but also often hostile to the Jewish people, dietary observances served as a reminder to Jew and gentile alike of the distinction between those who were included in God’s covenant with Abraham and those who were not.
And so the religious leaders in Jerusalem received the news that Peter had been sharing meals with the gentiles with mix of anger and fear. For them, Peter was not only blurring the lines between those who were God’s people and those who were not God’s people, he was forsaking God’s laws.
But Peter didn’t see it that way – at least not anymore. He had been converted.
He tells the authorities in Jerusalem the same story he had told several times before. He had a vision in which all sorts of animals appeared before him. He heard God’s voice telling him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But as one would expect from an observant Jew, Peter replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
But then the voice of God spoke again and said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
As Peter went with some friends to a nearby house, he couldn’t help but think about what he had heard the voice say.
“Did I hear that correctly?” he must have wondered. “Surely God didn’t mean that the gentiles are to be treated the same as we are.”
But then he remembered the words of Christ, reminding the faithful that one day soon, they would be baptized, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit.
And then, Peter asked himself one final question: “Who am I that I can hinder God?”
The religious leaders who had summoned Peter didn’t respond with a long, carefully articulated theological treatise as to why Peter was in error. They didn’t rebuke Peter for his actions or label him a heretic. And they didn’t make a motion to enter executive session to discuss what they had just heard so they could render a verdict.
Instead, they fell silent for a moment in awe of what God was doing in their midst. And then they rejoiced, praising God for extending to the gentiles “the repentance that leads to life.”
Far too often, the church forgets that last part.
Far too often, the church forgets that, every now and then, the only worthy response to what God is doing in our midst comes, not in the form of a theological treatise, not in an official church-sanctioned rebuke, and not in deliberations or verdicts. Sometimes, the only worthy response is silence, coupled with awe and praise.
And so, now that Easter has settled into our own hearts and “Alleluias” can be found on our lips once more, perhaps our ongoing Easter mission is to keep watch for the places and people in our midst who have been labeled “unclean,” or “excluded,” or “outsiders.”
These are the people in urgent need of hearing the news that Easter has come. These are the people who desperately need to hear that there is a “repentance that leads to life.”
As the blessed Apostle reminds us, every time we exclude or label someone or something “unclean,” we run the risk of hindering God.
Peter gives us a glimpse of a world in which the news of the resurrection shatters earthly parameters of clean and unclean, accepted and excluded, or insider and outsider. Peter’s Easter witness is lived through preaching and teaching and baptizing and fellowship with all who yearn for the repentance that leads to life.
And if we will allow it, our own Easter witness can reach to the ends of the earth and to the ends of time, proclaiming the miraculous news that in Christ, God is making all things new!
— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Ky. He holds a BA in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master’s of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He also serves on the steering committee for Reading Camp, an international ministry begun in the Diocese of Lexington that promotes the growth and development of struggling and at-risk children by providing non-traditional summertime educational opportunities.