Acts 10 records a massive shift in the Jew’s awareness of the salvation plan of God. To think that the gentiles could be accepted by God was unimaginable to the Jews. In Acts 10 we see this shift in Peter’s awareness, just as Paul’s ministry to the gentiles was about to unfold. The church ushered the creation into a new era of unity in one family, with previous walls of division and rejection broken down. It has sometimes been suggested that this would apply also to other “walls humanity has set up between us,” like distinctions in sexuality.
Throughout the Old Testament there is a constant theme in the prophets claiming that God would take down the wall between Jew and gentile. Isaiah said circumcision would not matter to God in reckoning his family. Joel claimed God would pour his Spirit out on all flesh, meaning all ethnicities. This plan of God was plainly written in the prophets, it just couldn’t be seen by an obstinate racist population. Acts 10 was not saying anything new. It was unfolding what God said in the Old Testament that he would do between Jew and gentile to form a new creation.
Some people hold that theology is a fluid thing, that unfolds in new dimensions unexpected before, as our cultures reform and awaken to new possibilities. That is, it is claimed theology is rooted in emerging culture and its newly enlightened perceptions. This is not how Acts 10 works. Scriptural theology, and that which is presented to us in the incarnation of God in the flesh, is the divine response to human perceptions. It was not responding to new cultural initiatives in Peter’s cosmopolitan day but was enacting a specific plan spelt out in the Old Testament concerning ethnic relationships. God was responding counter to the compelling cultural view of Peter’s time. Again, Acts 10 was not revealing something new and unexpected, but something specifically foretold about our global ethnic relationships. It was not addressing our sexuality, but our ethnicity.
One question to ask is if there are principles in the story that nonetheless could be applied to other areas, like sexuality? Peter’s obstinance, for example. Could we be obstinate about issues and slow to accept changes today? Or Peter’s hypocrisy, in accepting God had forgiven him but not others. Paul also picked Peter up on this hypocrisy as recorded in his letter to the Galatians. Again, Paul was referring to Peter’s racism. Or Peter’s fear of being rejected by his Jewish colleagues. Or Peter’s judgment of others and not of himself? Jesus was strong on this point in the Sermon on the Mount, which seemed pretty universal in scope in building renewed relationships: taking the log out of our own eyes and not from the eyes of others. Excusing our own sin but not the sin of others.
Paul picked up on the ethic that should characterise the church. He spoke about different cultures, different convictions in our relationships, and urged that these not be a barrier to caring relationships. These new caring relationships across previously established borders were part of what was to make the world new. Paul spoke of foods, for example. One person has faith to eat this food, and another person doesn’t. We should receive each other, and not make food a barrier, just as Mark said in his Gospel that “Jesus cleansed all food.” Outward distinctions like food, washings, and sabbath days in the Old Testament, that were meant to image holiness, made way in the gospel to true holiness of heart, which is our love expressed to each other. The ceremonial distinctions of the Old Testament didn’t cleanse the heart, as proved by those who practiced these ceremonies to the letter and yet were led by greed, covetousness, and hatred.
Mark recorded Jesus saying food doesn’t go into the heart but into the stomach and is then purged. So, this is what some at the Corinthian church tried to say about our sexuality. “It’s just a physical thing that doesn’t effect the heart, our true spirituality.” This kind of theology is Gnostic, from the Greek culture. It promotes self-serving, an extoling of our personal liberties, which is characteristic of modern Western culture, especially about perceived self-identity. In Hebrew culture the body mattered as much as the heart. What we do with the body is an extension of the heart. How did Paul navigate these cultural distinctions? With love. The ethic of the church is the cross, doing what is best for others. This is why we receive the person who eats different food: we lay down our own preferences to receive and care for others. And this is also why we don’t insist on our personal claims, if these claims are not in the best interests of the community. This is where the church’s ethic separates from the world’s. The world teaches that ethics starts with us being “true to ourselves.” God teaches the opposite. He says the world is saved as we each take up our cross.
It’s an ethic of care. The woman doesn’t have the right to abort her baby. Her body belongs to her, but the baby’s body does not. However, in Christ, even our body is not our own, because Christ died for us. “We have been bought with a price,” said Paul, “therefore glorify God with your body and your spirit.” This is lightyears removed from modern identity politics. Christ did not please himself, and we are his followers. And in an ethic of care we don’t judge the woman but support her. As a community we support each other in our brokenness as God supports us in his love. This deals with Peter’s self-righteousness and the log in our eye. We aren’t to fear our “Jewish colleagues” in reaching out to others across all barriers. Jesus didn’t fear the reprisals. We are to be socially progressive, but theologically conservative: which means to love and serve others, especially “the sinner.”
Hebrew theology is based around creation. Creation is good, marred by sin. Creation isn’t to be discarded, as in the Gnostic concepts, where we leave the body for a spiritual only salvation. Rather, the body is raised from the dead to inhabit an eternal new heaven and new earth. This precludes individualism and it introduces a theology of care that is far beyond that of any cultural ethic. Though Paul said to accept those of other cultures, these cultures are still to be transformed by the love and image of Christ. Cornelius is saved by faith alone, but is also then transformed, along with us all. Pro-creation is pro-life, including healing the poor, restoring the environment, building loving families as the unit of care, and making peace through suffering and service and not war. It’s a theology of true sabbath, restoring the creation and thus the people who inhabit it. Creation is restored, not a focus on self. Our lives are restored as creation is restored. Christ came to serve, and this is the path out of our brokenness.
In the Hebrew faith sexuality is a part of the creational ethic. It matters, not from a perspective of our personal preferences or identity, but in the sense of what best contributes to the creation and community. Sexuality is grounded in its purpose of bringing forth and nurturing life. Sexuality is also love, fun and mutual sharing, but it is rooted in its primary creational service of life. Divorced from this life giving and nurturing service of love, sexuality fails to be grounded in a love that reaches out in a true creational way: it fails in its “otherness,” the essence of love. God in Genesis has a love that explodes in creation and in its care. This is expressed in Genesis by the theme of pairing of opposites in creational wholeness, in this case “male and female” in monogamy, in love that cares for the other more than the self. This family images God’s love and care into the creation. Sexual faithfulness in this creational purpose is therefore essential, from us all. We are all to crucify our flesh and live for the wellbeing of others, our families, and our children. This is creational theology. It’s the theology of the cross and of love.
Cornelius and all of us are saved to be transformed by the love of Christ, where it isn’t self, by the wellbeing of others at the centre. “In losing our life we find it.” This saves us in the end because a life of self eventually destroys us. That love which brings flourishing to the community brings life to our soul and to us all. That is why Paul said this is the life that inherits the kingdom of God: sustainability, eternally renewing longevity. Today “science” is looking for eternal life in new technologies. But it is found only in the love of God which we receive freely and share.
The issue at stake in the book of Acts is new creation. At Pentecost we see the tongues of all nations being incorporated into one new family of care. This is the work of the Spirit. This unity is what it means to be “in the Spirit,” rather than the self-centredness of nationalism. To focus on the self is to be “in the flesh.” Acts lays the foundation for the love of Christ being expressed through the church to the world, to make all things new. It is a love reflected in the cross, in which we lay down our selves for one another. This brings healing and life to our creation. Sexual faithfulness in family is one of the primary ways this cross reflected a transforming power in the Roman, Greek, and Jewish cultures of Peter’s day. This creational marriage ethic was a revolution to the whole pagan world. It tamed the destruction self-love brought to others. A return to the Genesis model of family, meant the waters of chaos, of gentile destruction, would be turned back. Reformed marriage becomes a dam wall, holding back the floods that bring human destruction. It’s a part of the sabbath/ jubilee renewal of creation: protecting the weak, the young and the woman. The strong serving the weak. We all have different strengths, and these are to be used to serve. This was the revolution that Rome had no comprehension of. This is our ethic.