Joy in the Promise of Love fulfilled: Christ, Isaac and the Gentiles
Acts is my favorite book of Scripture because it tells of the exuberant joy that propels Peter and his brothers and sisters out to share God’s love with the gentiles (those who were not yet God’s people). The starting point of that joy for me - and likely for a Jew like Peter who would know his Scriptures - was that God had fulfilled his promise to Abraham, confirming not just his promises, but his power, his will, his way, his perfection, in other words, confirming who God is: that through the people God calls who respond to him in faith (Gen 12:1-3; 22:1-18), all the nations of the Earth shall be blessed.
To understand the significance of this passage from Acts where Peter is commanded by God in a dream to go and eat meat with the Gentiles (uncircumcised because they aren’t Jews), we have to think for a moment about the Scriptures Peter might consider. Foremost, given Abraham’s importance, would be Genesis 12:1-3 where God promises that Abraham’s descendents would be plentiful, and they would be a blessing, that is, they would witness to God in order to draw others, specifically, gentile nations, to God.
The second passage Peter might recall, having followed Jesus all the way through his life death and resurrection, is that of Genesis 22 where God asks Abraham to sacrifice the son whom he’d desired so greatly, and who seemed out of reach. By supernatural grace - because Adam and Sarah are too old to be able to conceive children - Isaac is born. Yet while still a young man, God asks Abraham to sacrifice this son of pure grace: Isaac. In obedience, Abraham walks Isaac to the place he’s going to sacrifice him and gets ready to do so. An angel intervenes though and through it, God calls Abraham. Abraham replies, “here I am, Lord.” God replies, “do not lay your hand on your son Abraham, for now I know that you are faithful since you have not withheld your son from me.” God himself will provide a burnt offering, my son.” God does of course provide that offering as an atonement, a sacrifice for the sin of every human being: he provides himself, his only Son, an act of pure grace, Jesus. By the sin of one man, Adam, all humans fell; by the act of one man, Jesus, foretold in the story of Abraham the Father and Isaac his son of grace, so all humans have life by the perfection of grace: the perfect faith of the God man, Jesus Christ himself.
Peter could not have missed these two linked stories as the confirmation of God’s promise to reconcile at least the faithful Israelites to God. But then he receives another vision, one written about already in Isaiah, heard again in God’s revelation to John we read for our Epistle this morning: “on this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well -aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is case over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations, he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces … Lo this is our Lord for whom we have waited; lust us rejoice in his salvation.
Peter, recounts the vision God revealed to him:'”Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' But I replied, 'By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' But a second time the voice answered from heaven, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. The Holy Spirit told me to go with [the three men sent from Caesarea] and not to make a distinction between [these gentiles] and us [Jews] … And as I began to speak [of God to them], the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
And in this way, God, in Jesus Christ, through his Holy Spirit sends Peter and his brothers and sisters out in joy: God has accomplished what he promised; he is bringing about a new heavens and earth, not somewhere out there, not merely at the end of time; but right here, right now; this place right here where he is never absent, but where he is in fact even more present to us as we have his life in the Scriptures revealed to us, transforming us from the inside out, by his Holy Spirit.
We see God present in just this way not just in Peter, the Jew, but in the gentiles with whom he breaks bread. God’s new heaven and earth, God’s doing a new thing, is his fulfillment of the very old thing he promised: that by faith we gentiles would be gathered to him. That by faith, we would be filled with his Holy Spirit and equipped, even in our ignorance, our deafness and blindness, our hardness of heart, our trials, our frailties, equipped in the Spirit to go out, just as Peter did, to take part in God’s gathering mission.
Peter has to overcome clinging to old habits of understanding and interpretation and likely some real doubt in order to see the Spirit drawing him into the joy of God’s love being poured out to the gentiles whom he feared, the gentiles whose customs didn’t conform to his expectations or desires, whose ways seemed foreign and well, just wrong. Once he allowed God to penetrate his clinging to old ways and his doubts and fears, what did he see: the vision of God being God: God bringing all people to himself, to their perfection in him. So I offer you the challenge: in what ways might God be calling you to go out to people and places where you least expect God to be at work? Are you willing to respond to this call as Abraham and Peter did: “here I am Lord? Where will you send me?” If not, why not? AMEN.