A Case for Tolerance

Acts 11: 1-18 "A Case for Tolerance" May 19, 2019


Now the apostles and the brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 But Peter began and explained to them in order: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, something descending, like a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came down to me. 6 Looking at it closely I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. 7 And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I said, ‘No, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ 10 This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. 11 At that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesare′a. 12 And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brethren also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 And he told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon called Peter; 14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ 15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” 18 When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.”


Intolerance towards others who are different is not hard to explain. It in some ways, it’s only natural. We may not want it to be, and we may know it shouldn’t be – after all, that person might be very nice if we got to know them. But, it goes back to our cave man days. Back when we wore bear skins and used stone knives, we learned to be cautious around people who were different. In fact, it probably kept us alive. You don’t just run up to a stranger who isn’t from your tribe, they might just kill you with one of those stone knives.

All this is stored in what scientists call our “lizard brain.” This is the part which holds our basic instincts. It’s all about survival. Fear. Anger. Fight. Flight. Wariness of others – all of this goes way back. We are hard-wired to be cautious about those who are different. And, so it takes a conscious decision to override those age-old reactions. To make it worse, if our first experience with someone of a different race or a different ethnicity – or even different sexual orientation – if that experience happens to be bad, it leaves a deep impression. So, now anytime we see someone who looks like that person, it stirs up bad feelings – we may even feel nauseous.

I recall my first pastorate. I learned that the Catholic Church had just called a new priest. I happily made my way down the street to introduce myself. I was just out of seminary. I was open-minded about people of other faiths, at least I really wanted to be.

I knocked on the door. This older priest answered. “Hi! My name is Stephen Melton. I am the pastor of the Presbyterian Church – just down the road” I pointed just so he could see how close we were. I will never forget what he said, “Well, I will pray for you.” He didn’t say it in a kindly way.” His demeanor was more like: “Well, when I look down from heaven and see you roasting in the fires of hell, I will shake my head – If you had only been a Catholic – you would not be in the predicament you are in today – so, I will pray for you.” That was the nicest exchange we had. He didn’t care for Protestants.

Three years later. I moved to a new church. One of the members was a man named Ralph. He was the spitting image of the unkind Priest. When I saw him, I was nauseous. He could have been the priest’s twin brother. It took me two years to shake loose of that intolerant memory. I eventually did. Ralph was a great guy. I officiated at his wedding.

That’s how it can happen. Our brains are not only hard-wired to be suspicious of people who are different, it we’ve also had a bad experience with someone who is different, then, from then on:

Those people are devious.

Those people are shady.

Those people are untrustworthy.

Easy to see how intolerance can develop.


Today, we have a story of two people with a life-time of intolerance. Romans didn’t trust Jews. Jews didn’t trust Romans. They had lots of good reasons to be wary of one another.

Cornelius is a Roman Centurion. He is a captain in the local army. Romans are occupiers of Judea. They are not kindly landlords. They are ruthless over-lords. However, Luke tells us Cornelius, is not the typical Roman brut. He prays regularly. He gives to the poor. He is a good man. But, regardless of how good he is, he knows full-well, Roman soldiers are not allowed in the homes of a Jew. And, truthfully, most Roman soldiers had no desire to hang out with Jews. They were occupiers and the Jews were the occupied. Then, one day, God gives Cornelius a vision. God tells Cornelius to find Peter, the Jew.

About the same time God is busy sending messages to Cornelius, God sends a vision to Peter. Peter is sitting down to a meal when all of sudden, he falls into a trance. In his trance, he imagines a sheet coming down from heaven and in the sheet are all kinds of unclean animals – all the stuff the book of Leviticus says you are not supposed to eat. God tells Peter to dig in. Peter is appalled. “No way, God!” But God is persistent: “Peter, if I tell you it’s clean, then it’s clean.” While Peter is pondering this vision, he hears a knock at the door. Cornelius has sent three men. They ask Peter to come to Cornelius’ house. Eating in the home of a Gentile, even if he was a nice Gentile, is something you didn’t do. It was forbidden – just like eating unclean food was forbidden. But Peter understands God’s unsubtle message. He goes. Cornelius falls at Peter’s feet. Peter lifts him up and says, “Now, I get it. God is no longer partial to just Jews. Anyone who loves God and does what is right by God, is acceptable.”


Everything seems wonderful - Cornelius and Peter have their metanoia moments. They’ve seen the light. Peter and Cornelius are on a different path – they now more tolerant of others. But do you see the problem? The rest of the church back in Jerusalem is still on the old path. When Peter steps into Fellowship Hall, the whole church is waiting for him. The news of his dinner with Cornelius gets back before he does. The congregation was not happy. Imagine it being WWII. You discover your Rabbi had dinner at the home of a Nazi captain. They were angry:

“What were you thinking, Peter?”

Peter tells them the whole story. After hearing about Jesus, the Gentiles were overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit. Peter says, “When I saw their sincere love for God, I had to ask myself, “Who am I to hinder God?” Then, for a moment, in verse 18, Luke says the whole congregation was silenced. I wonder what was going on in that moment? Was it like that moment when crowd was all ready to throw the first stone? Was it like that moment in the book of Revelation when all the creatures in heaven waited to see who could open the seals and save all time?

But, then, Luke says, after that moment, they praised God. The Holy Spirit had just made a case for tolerance and, it worked.


Yet, there’s something else more powerful going on. See, the story from Acts is not just about the conversion of Peter and Cornelius. I mean it is. Cornelius is changed. Peter is changed. Both them walk away at the end of the story more tolerant than they were at the beginning of the story.

But what really happens, I mean, what I believe is the point of the story, is this: Listen. Notice how the church changes because of the Cornelius and Peter. See it? This isn’t a story about how the church converted Cornelius and Peter. It is a story about how Cornelius and Peter converted the church. Do you see that?

The congregation was all set to see the world as they had always seen the world. We only eat this kind of food. We only accept this kind of people. We only allow this kind of behavior. This is the way it is.

This story is about how God changed the early church. This is often how God changes churches: new people join and through them, God makes us into a new people. We share our message about Jesus, which is what Peter did. But our goal is not to make other people like us. Our goal is to somehow love them, as they are, and by that love, God will make all of us into who he wants us to be.


When people join a church, we often set them down and tell them, “This is how we do things here.” Now, on the one hand, all of this is very appropriate and polite. It’s usually considerate. This is what we do. This is what we believe. This is the food we cook for funeral dinners. This is how the Deacons spend their money. This is the type of music we sing. This is who does the Children’s Time. This is what we put on the Communion Table and this is what we don’t put on the Communion Table and on and on. This is how WE do things.

However, we need to always keep in mind this story from Luke. Maybe when a new person says, “Have you ever thought about doing it this way, or have you ever thought of accepting these kinds of people or doing that kind of mission?” We ought to stop, or at least pause to pray and listen more carefully, because maybe they are being sent by God to convert us, to change us, to give us our opportunity for metanoia?

I don’t know if that’s always true, but it could be.

Mother Teresa once said, “If you spend too much time judging people you have no time to love them.” Clearly our goal is to love them as they are and who knows? Maybe they’ve been sent by God so we can learn to be more like them?

It happened to Cornelius. It happened to Peter. It happened to the early church. It may just happen to us.



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