Have you ever been hungry? I don't mean the basic hunger when it's three o'clock in the afternoon and you've been too busy to get any lunch. I mean the kind of hunger where it seems like you'll probably never be satisfied. In the ninth chapter of the book of Acts, Peter is terribly hungry. It's about noon, so it's not too late in the day when he begins to feel pangs in his belly. I think that this is no ordinary hunger, but the kind of emptiness that you feel when you're not only physically empty but also spiritually drained.
The last thing we see of Peter before this is that just the previous day, he had been called on to perform an impossible task. A disciple named Tabitha had become sick and died. They had called Peter to help them in their grief, yet instead of morning, he has raised her from the dead by the power of Jesus. Notice it was by the power of Jesus and not by his own power. Still, any great spiritual effort like that can drain you of energy. So I imagine that Peter is not only physically hungry, but spiritually famished at this point. He has taken a walk on the flat roof, a comfortable, place in the heat of the day, breezy beneath a fluttering awning. He can smell lunch cooking inside the house. We don't know how it happens, but Peter falls into a trance, and has a vision from God.
Peter sees a great sheet coming down out of heaven, filled with every kind of living creature. A voice says, "Arise, Peter. Kill, and eat!" Now, Peter is a good, observant, religious Jewish man. His whole life he has followed the proscribed kosher diet. He has avoided certain kinds of foods, including pork, shellfish, carrion birds and predatory birds, and many other things. But now he sees a sheet filled with every kind of animal, and the voice of God tells him to make a smorgasbord! He thinks, "Maybe God is testing me," so he remains true to his convictions. "Certainly not, Lord," he says. "I have never eaten anything unclean before." But the Lord is indignant, and replies, "What I have declared to b be clean, don't you dare call unclean!"
This is too radical for Peter. He doesn't know how to handle something as drastic as this. If he obeys the voice, then he disobeys the Law of God. If he disobeys the voice then he disobeys God. Not wanting to obey or disobey, he does what any of us would do. He does nothing. This is why the Lord has to repeat the vision two more times, until he finally gets it. (How many times will God have to repeat Himself before we finally get it? On the surface, this vision seems to be all about food. Like a lot of Christians, Peter can’t see beyond the surface meaning.)
While Peter is still inwardly perplexed, messengers from Centurion Cornelius arrive. Four days prior, the Roman captain had been praying as best he knew how. An angel had appeared to him, telling him to send for Peter, who was staying at the home of Simon the Tanner in Joppa. Now, the messengers stand before Peter, extending the invitation to come to Cornelius’ house. And Peter has a decision to make.
Perhaps he decides right away, but I like to think that all the way to the Roman villa, Peter is still unsure what he should do. Just like sticking to kosher foods, observant Jewish people were supposed to stick to kosher company. Each Roman home had its own shrine to the gods and ancestral spirits. Peter knows that this qualifies Cornelius’ house and every Roman home as a miniature pagan temple, so he will defile himself if he enters it. When he arrives at the door, there must be a suspenseful pause as he stands on the threshold. What will he do? Peter remembers Jesus’ instructions as the Lord had commanded them to go through the cities of Israel, proclaiming the Good News. They were to enter a house, kiss the mezuzah, and let their shalom rest on the house. But that was how they were to enter Jewish households. There was no mezuzah—how could Peter give his peace to this Roman house?
Then, beyond the strangeness of the home is the unlikelihood of the man Cornelius. As Peter wavers on the threshold he thinks his memory might be faltering—is this the same Roman captain who had come to Jesus so his servant could be healed? Or is it the one who had carried out the crucifixion, and later proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of God? Or is it someone even worse? His own servants had declared him to be “a righteous and god-fearing man, well spoken-of by the entire Jewish nation”—but what were they going to say about their master? Peter isn’t sure. So he lingers at the threshold.
Today, I wonder—whose threshold have you been lingering at for far too long? Jesus has called you, but are there places you fear to go in the name of grace? Are there people who are just too much of a stretch for you to accept? Philip’s evangelism in Samaria was odd enough, but Samaritans, hated as they were, were at least semi-Jewish. Here, Peter stands at the threshold of his Roman oppressor, of one whom he had determined to be beyond salvation. Following Jesus’ command to pray for his enemies is difficult enough—Peter knows this because he’s tried it a few times. But enter his home? Have a meal with him? Eat his non-kosher food? Share Jesus with him? See his enemy saved? As he stares down at the threshold it seems to get larger and larger, looming up like something that he might stub his toe on, like something that might make him stumble and fall—and if he falls, Peter fears his Jewish traditions might shatter.
Thresholds can be dangerous things, you know. In one house we lived in, we had a threshold that was too large—we kept hurting ourselves on it. Thresholds were originally higher than they are today. They were designed to keep thresh, or straw that was scattered to keep in warmth and act as carpeting, inside the house. They were also designed to keep mud on the outside. They were designed as a barrier—but make it too large and you will hurt yourself. Now Peter lingers at the threshold, deciding what he will do. Some thresholds, once you cross them you can never go back. What will you do as you linger at the threshold of sharing God’s grace?
Peter decides to step inside, into the warmth of hospitality unexpected. He sees not an enemy but a man. He sees not only a man, but a whole family, and a gathering of friends, eager and waiting to hear the Good News about Jesus. Peter’s prejudices melt away as he says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean (Acts 10:28).”[i] Peter repents of his former attitude and embraces this family as his own. I wonder, what prejudices do you need to release, in order to embrace the beautiful people that God is bringing into your life unexpected?
Peter continues to say, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him (Acts 10:34-35).” Contrary to some claims, this verse doesn’t indicate universal salvation. It does, however, mean that everyone is welcome in the kingdom of God when they come to the Lord in holy fear, and doing what is right by receiving Jesus as their Savior. As Peter shares the Gospel that day, Cornelius and his entire household are saved, filled with the Holy Spirit, and baptized. “All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also (Acts 10:45).”
From that moment, nothing would be the same in the church. Crossing that threshold had been a point of no return for the Jewish movement called The Way. Gentiles, foreigners, former idolaters—people of every language and nation and kind began to be welcomed into the faith. Yes, it would require adaptation and change (two words that are still difficult in the church today) to accommodate this new kind of Christianity. But the world and the Kingdom of God would be better for it. I wonder, what thresholds are before you today? What barrier, designed to keep some out and some in, is God asking you to cross? God says, “What I have declared to be clean, don’t you dare call unclean!” Then he calls you to have the courage to walk over the threshold and take a step of faith.