By Pastor David M. Choi
God shows no partiality. Regardless of one’s race, class, gender, or nationality, God accepts all who do what is right and walk in the fear of his name. Peter receives this stunning revelation by way of his encounter with Cornelius, as he – along with his close friends and relatives – receives the preaching of the gospel and turns from his sins (Acts 10:24-33).
When God called Jonah to go and preach to the Ninevites the message of repentance, he fled in hopes of prevaricating God’s command. It displeased Jonah greatly that God would show mercy and goodness to a people he and Israel had grown to hate. If Jonah could have his way, it would be for God to destroy them, because he thought Nineveh did not deserve the same grace Israel had received (Jonah 4:1-2). Fast forward to the New Testament, we see Israel caught up in a similar hatred but now towards a different group of people, namely, the Romans. Israel wants God to destroy their oppressor, Rome, just as they desired for God to destroy Nineveh. But God will also show them mercy.
Therefore, it is not insignificant that, unlike his predecessor Jonah, Peter does not begrudge God’s loving acceptance of non-Jewish people as well as Israel’s enemy. Peter does not work against God’s will. Instead, he submits to it, to carry out God’s goodness as a vessel of that very goodness. Specifically, he submits by preaching the truth of what Christ has done and is now doing amongst them through the power of the Holy Spirit, and thereby he submits to the work of the Holy Spirit by now including Gentiles within Israel’s sacred fellowship (Acts 10:34-43).
To be clear, Peter is not the one who brings this about! Peter merely testifies to the one who does. The Holy Spirit has fallen upon Israel, and now we see the Holy Spirit falling upon Gentiles, gathering them into the fold of God’s holy people (Acts 10:44-45). They are outsiders no more. God will speak to them, and relate to them in ways they could not have imagined. And they will experience God’s acceptance of Israel as truly their own, since they are now all one in Christ Jesus. Jesus has brought together these people, and, as we’ve already seen, he will continue to form relationships of beauty and controversy.
As Christians, our relationships should always be marked by beauty and controversy. Beauty because, at their core, our relationships are marked by God’s grace. Controversy because we should love the ones the world and society teach us to hate. But if we’re honest, our relationships rarely take on this form. We continue to love those who love us back, and we continue to love those who look like us, think like us, espouse to the same beliefs as us, and act like us. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (Matt. 5:44, 46). Jesus calls us to love our enemies, including those who are different from us. Indeed, if you love those who only look like you, what reward do you have?
The Spirit of God is always calling us to move into the relational unknown, where it is brimming with the gifts of unforeseen friendship. Yet, we often respond to God like Jonah, rather than responding to God like Peter, don’t we? True. It’s hard and uncomfortable, not to mention strange and awkward. (I’ve been there!) Moreover, it gets infinitely more difficult if they’re people we are not so particularly fond of. Still, God calls us to be with those we’d very much prefer to avoid: “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people?” (Acts 10:47) So, how do we speak and relate to people who we have nothing in common with, or even people we find difficult? If we are to follow in the steps of our boundary-transgressing God, how should we go about doing so?
If nothing else, this passage shows us that we should always start by remembering that God’s Spirit knows no bounds. God’s love is for them – namely, those who are different from us and those who we think are undeserving – just as much as it is for you. Jonah did not believe this, but Peter did. Does your life and do your relationships reflect the Spirit’s work in this way? That is, would you say your relationships and friendships are marked by beauty and controversy? If not, what are the areas in which you need to grow? After a time of reflection, go to God. Ask him for his help.