Beyond accepting to all persons we meet for their inherent worth, as Jesus did, we can learn from the early Christian church how institutions can be open and accepting in order to achieve diversity and wholeness. This occurred as the church went beyond its Jewish origins and brought Gentiles into the fold. This experience is worth examining in detail.
It began at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came to the apostles and “pious Jews from every nation” heard them speaking in their own native languages. Peter addressed his “fellow Israelites” and told how Jesus the Nazarene performed miracles, wonders, and signs, was crucified, died, and was buried, and was raised up from the dead. He exclaimed, “Let all Israel know beyond question that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Three thousand people accepted Peter’s message, were baptized and brought into the community (Acts 2:1-41).
Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch
This message soon spread beyond Israel to Gentiles. The first recorded occurrence happened when an angel from the Lord sent Philip to the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. There he encountered a eunuch, treasurer for the Ethiopian queen, riding in a chariot. The eunuch was reading aloud a selection from the prophet Isaiah about a sheep being led to slaughter [Isaiah 53:7-8]. He invited Philip to get into the chariot and explain the passage. Starting with that section, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus. As they came to some water, the eunuch asked to be baptized. So Philip baptized him (Acts 8:26-40).
Peter and Cornelius, the Centurion
In Caesarea an angel came to Cornelius, a centurion who gave generously to the Jewish needy and prayed constantly to God. The angel told him to summon Simon Peter (Acts 10:1-8).
Meanwhile Peter had gone to the rooftop to pray. He saw a vision of a sheet being lowered to earth with all kinds of four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds. A voice told him, “Kill and eat.” Peter declined, explaining, “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice insisted, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This happened three times. Then the sheet was pulled back into heaven. As Peter went downstairs, Cornelius’ messengers arrived with their invitation (Acts 10:9-23).
Peter accepted and journeyed to Caesarea. There he found that Cornelius had assembled a gathering of family and friends. Peter told them that it was forbidden for a Jew to associate with or visit with outsiders. However, God had shown that he should never call a person impure or unclean. He told them, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in any nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:24-43).
As Peter was speaking the Holy Spirit fell on everyone who had heard the word. Speaking in their own languages, they praised God. Whereupon Peter baptized them in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 10:44-48).
However, when he returned to Jerusalem circumcised believers criticized Peter for entering the home of the uncircumcised and eating with them. But after he told them the complete story, they calmed down. They praised God for enabling Gentiles to change their hearts and lives (Acts 11:1-18).
The Jerusalem Council
Paul after his conversion on the road to Damascus became a missionary to Gentiles with considerable success. Although a former Pharisee, he didn’t insist that Gentile converts undergo circumcision and adopt other strictures of Mosaic law. But other Pharisee believers insisted that they should.
This led to a major meeting in Jerusalem attended by Paul, Barnabas (a fellow missionary), the apostles, and elders. Paul described “the signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles.” Peter insisted that God “made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith.” James declared that “we shouldn’t make trouble for Gentiles who turn to God.” At his suggestion the council unanimously adopted a letter which demonstrated acceptance by telling Gentiles that the only burden placed on them would be avoidance of sexual immorality (though undefined) and idolatry (Acts 15:1-29).
For Us Today
This experience of the early church teaches us how our churches can become open to everyone. We can welcome all persons, including those who differ from the majority because of race, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, immigrant status, and other characteristics. We can apply what Peter discovered: “God doesn’t show partiality to one group of persons over another” (Acts 10:34). It is a valuable lesson as we seek to live in God’s kingdom on earth.