“The Word of God Grew and Multiplied, Acts 10-15” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Part One: Spooky Jewish Hell Dream

I do not know, and certainly cannot prove, that the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” number in the Book of Mormon musical is based on Peter’s remarkable dream in Acts 10:10-15. But it could have been. It is exactly the sort of image that I would use to try to convey to contemporary Latter-day Saints–dancing coffee cups and other forbidden items torturing the young Mormon with their forbiddenness and demanding to be consumed. I would probably throw in some cigarettes and beer–and maybe a Playboy or two. But you get the point. It was dream designed to confront Peter with the things that made him the most religiously uncomfortable.

It is also, I would argue, the most important scene in the most important book of the New Testament. This is a hard call to make, of course. Certainly, the birth of Christ, the Sermon on the Mount, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection are the most important events recorded in the Christian Bible. But the narrative arc of the New Testament itself is about the development of the Church–from a small sect of Jewish reformers to the most important institution in the known world. And Acts is the turning point of that story.

We need to understand that the first half of Acts is essentially an argument between two factions about what kind of thing “the Church” is. In one corner we have Peter, who sees a “Christian” as a type of Jew. In the other corner is Paul, a convert from Judiasm, who sees Christianity as something for the world. It’s more complicated than that. Way more complicated than that. But the head-to-head match-up gives us a good place to start.

And the turning point of the whole story is the conversion of Cornelius. Cornelius is not just a gentile. He is a Roman centurion stationed in Caeserea, whose whole purpose in life would have been to try to pacify an increasingly rebellious Jewish population. That’s as about as gentile as one can get. But Cornelius was “a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway” (Acts 1:2), and he has a vision telling him to meet a man named Peter. Simon Peter.

Peter will meet him, but he has to be prepared first. God has to make Peter understand that part of his role is to bring to gospel to gentiles like Cornelius–and that they don’t have to become Jews first. This is why God sends Peter the Spooky Jewish Hell Dream:

And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance. And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending upon him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air.

And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven. (Acts 10:10-16)

That’s it. No instructions about Cornelius. No exhortation to teach the gospel to the world. Just a series of images that make Peter extremely uncomfortable, and a commandment not to allow religious discomfort get in the way of his duty as a minister of the gospel. But Peter gets it, and when, like, ten seconds later someone tells him that Cornelius wants to seem him, he knows exactly what to do.

And this is how it starts. Cornelius, by general agreement among the people who generally agree about such things, was the first Christian convert. But it was a one-off. The official policies still have to be hammered out, which takes is to the other bookend of this week’s reading, Acts 15: The Council in Jerusalem.

Part Two: The First Christian Council

Peter’s interactions with Cornelius did not play well back in the Burg. The main body of Jewish Christians, which the KJV refers to as “they that were of the circumcision,” confront him with the fact thta he “wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them” (Acts 11: 2-3). He retells the story of his Spooky Jewish Hell Dream, and he may or may not have convinced them, but they “held their peace” and acknowledged that “God also [hath] to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:20).

And then we cut to Antioch, where Steven had been preaching for some time, but only to the Jews. The Syrian city of Antioch was one of the first Christian congregations, largely because it had a large Jewish section that was very receptive to the Christian message. But let’s be careful here, since there were a lot of cities named “Antioch” (Antiochus, like Alexander, liked to name stuff after himself). And the Antioch of Acts 11 is not the same as the Antioch of Acts 13, which is called “Antioch in Pisidia” and is now in Turkey, though a very different part. The later Antioch is the site of Paul’s first missionary journey, accompanied by Barnabas.

It is in Psidian Antioch that Paul throws down the gauntlet to the Jewish faction that dominates Christianity. Paul preaches first to the Jews, who are not impressed. So he speaks to, and converts, a large number of gentiles: But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming.

Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles. For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth. And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was published throughout all the region. (Acts 13:45-49)

Well, the Church could handle one gentile, even a Roman centurion, as kind of a mascot. But now Paul had delivered a whole urban congregation of exceptions, and the Church was at a crisis point. Paul forced them to decide whether or not Christianity was a branch of Judaism or a thing of its own. The stakes were pretty high. If Christian converts had to be Jewish converts too, they had to obey the Law of Moses. They had to observe dietary restrictions. And they had to be circumcised. This latter point was what we now call a “substantial barrier to entry.”

So there was the first General Conference, taking the whole of Acts 15. And, unlike recent versions of the same event, it featured a lively debate between Paul and Barnabas on one hand, and the bulk of Jewish converts to Christianity on the other. Peter, because of his recent vision, listened intently and, in the end, stood against the circumcision squad and carried the day. I imagine:

And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? (Acts 15:7-10)

As a result of Peter’s conversion, the Apostles issued their first general epistle to the Christians of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: “Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment” (Acts 15:24). But with this decision in hand, Paul was free to begin converting Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire and setting up Church in many of the major cities. Had the decision gone the other way, the history of the world would have worked out very differently.

The first council of Christianity did some remarkable things. In it, the apostles debated with each other intensely, weighed the consequences of their decisions, and came to a decision that dramatically expanded the pastoral reach of the Church. But to do this, they had to radically reconsider their idea of what it meant to be a Christian, and they had to do things that went against their religious sensibilities and made them profoundly uncomfortable.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I think one could make a fair bet that had the decision go the other way Christianity would not even exist today, or if it did, it would be a small and obscure sect.

  2. Given middle-of-the-summer schedules it’s not going to happen at church or at home, but I would enjoy a discussion about Acts 15. Do we understand the council as a once-for-always event, establishing the Christian church and never repeated? Or do we understand the council as an exemplar of church councils–an instruction in process? Or do we understand the considerations and outcome as an examplar of inclusion and come-as-you-are approaches to institutional religion? (Clearly not mutually exclusive except in the strongest forms.)

    I have heard all three argued.

  3. Chris, from the text, my understanding of the council was that it was an as hoc event organized to solve a specific problem: “Loose-canon Paul just baptized a whole town full of gentiles, and we need to figure out what to do about their foreskins.” I don’t get the sense that they saw it as a standing meeting. Just a problem that had to be solved quickly, and all the main players were in town.

  4. Michael, I think there’s more to it than an ad hoc everybody’s-in-town meeting. First of all, Paul and Barnabas and some of the other were appointed to go up to Jerusalem specifically to discuss the questions. And when they’re done the “whole church” (KJV) / the “entire church” (Wayment) / “with the consent of the whole church” (NRSV) sends Judas and Silas with a formal letter.

    This implies a structure and process for discussion and decision making, some sense of who needs to be in a meeting to count as the “whole” or “entire” church, and an order of communication which is not as simple as sending Paul back with an answer.

    Furthermore, what the council meant at the time is only the beginning of the discussion of what it means to us today. For example, in today’s Church the topics of debating each other intensely and radically reconsidering ideas are important. Where and when does that happen? Are we open to intense debate and radical reconsideration? Should we be? Or was circumcision a singular question?

  5. MrShorty says:

    I will throw this out there. 4 years ago, when our SS class discussed the vision of the unclean beasts, someone made an interesting suggestion. I was suggested that the great commission given before the Savior’s ascension to take the world to all nations was enough revelation to make this vision unnecessary. Peter only needed this vision because, as a Jew, he still mistakenly believed that the gospel was only for the Jews and not for the Gentiles. If Peter would have recognized his “false” traditions, he would have been reaching out to the Gentiles sooner.

    I think this part of the discussion stood out to me because we also discussed OD2. Many have suggested that the priesthood could have been extended to all men sooner, if we as a people (leaders and followers) had cast off our racist traditions sooner. The comparison of these “parallel” stories, which, if memory serves was outlined in the manual, really stood out to me. Another aspect of the parallel that stood out to me was how readily our class accepted that Peter could have made a mistake based on his “false” traditions, but we are much less tolerant when someone accuses modern prophets and apostles of making errors based on their false traditions.

  6. stephenchardy says:

    I think that recognition our sexual orientation is inborn and not a choice could have real meaning in considering Peter’s dream. If God made sexual minorities a particular way, if LGBTQ+ people are not a result of personal choices, then shouldn’t we, in the spirit of Peter’s vision of not calling God’s creations “unclean,” accept and embrace them as they are? Isn’t that the vision?

  7. Another Roy says:

    MrShorty,
    I love the concept that God is waiting for us to fulfill the highest ideals in the gospel just as fast as we are willing to unchain ourselves from the false and narrow traditions that are holding us back. I believe that humanity has made halting and non-linear, but still significant, progress towards the realization of those ideals.

  8. MrShorty says:

    @Another Roy: I’m not sure if I love the concept or not, but I find the idea quite interesting. It really came home to me 4 years ago reading Ben Spackman’s NT GD blog entry on Philemon (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/benjaminthescribe/2015/10/gospel-doctrine-lesson-40-colossians-and-philippians-but-mostly-philemon/ ) where he tackles the question of slavery — specifically, why does the Bible allow/tolerate slavery? Why did the Biblical authors not condemn slavery from the very beginning? The explanation he gives is similar to what you describe — it took until the 19th century before mankind in general (the Nephites apparently abolished slavery before the rest of the world Alma 27:9) was ready to abolish slavery. I’m sure there’s a lot more that could be said, but I guess the question that it brings to my mind is, does God really need to wait until we are ready for something? What “revelations” are currently living under that God is just waiting for us to relax our grip on false traditions so He can give us the real truth?

    I guess it boils down to this. I like the idea that mankind might be making progress (halting and non-linear as it is). I am saddened that some things seem to take so long (Really? Humans could not prepare themselves for abolitionism until the 19th century?). Perhaps as it applies to the contentious and divisive LGBT+ issues, I determined this past week that I don’t want to be on the Church’s side of these issues if they are rooted in false traditions. I want to know that they are rooted in eternal truth, not accomodationist “revelations” because we as a people are just not ready to fully embrace LGBT+ people.

    God giving revelations that accomadate us where we are at has been an interesting concept to me.

  9. MrShorty says:

    @stephenchardy: I don’t know how far down that rabbit hole to go. It seems to me that it is more nuanced than just “God made them that way so it should be embraced.” Assuming that God made me with all my characteristics and traits, some of the proclivities God gave me are good and I should try to embrace and develop them. Some proclivities seem to be morally neutral. And some proclivities are believed to be bad and I should try to overcome them (laziness, promiscuous, etc.). Even though we acknowledge that LGBT+ is, at least partially, inborn (does inborn mean it is part of God’s creation or an outgrowth of the fall?), I don’t think that necessarily means that it should be embraced as morally good. As I noted in my previous comment, though, I no longer want to go around declaring morally wrong if that declaration is rooted in tradition and not eternal truth.

  10. I seriously question whether the world has turned against slavery. We may not defend buying and selling people today, but we cannot be separated from our Chinese manufactured goods, even those produced in prison by forcing political prisoners to work 16 hour days. Hello, Christmas lights!
    We like to rename practices and congratulate ourselves on how advanced we are in comparison to people of earlier times. No we would not have stoned the prophets. We will cover their graves with monuments. Just as we would never pull out our debit cards to support modern day slavery. We will rename it globalization and celebrate the good fortune we enjoy by being able to stuff our homes on the backs of others’ suffering.

  11. GEOFF -AUS says:

    I did not raise it in class, because I have a TR interview coming up. But it struck me strongly how Peter had to overcome his culture to allow the church to progress, but many of us, and our leaders cant even considder the possibility. Often we relate the scriptures to ourselves, not this one.

    I spoke to the teacher after class and he supports the church stand on homosexuality and women, and sees these as eternal principles, and did not see any relationship between peters revelation, and our present situation.

    It is generally accepted that about 5% of the population are gay. Which means for every person born mormon there are 450 born gay. What this says I’m not sure, but there is certainly not an equivalence. God likes gay people more than mormons? I want to be on Gods team, and on these issues, I’m pretty sure (personal revelation) the church is not. But how many want the church to change? How long before this position becomes untennable?

  12. Outthere85016 says:

    Geoff Aus
    The homosexual lifestyle is unsafe now and it would be unsafe in the eternities. Who do you think is going to be right on this issue in the end the first presidency and the Quorum of The Twelve or you?

  13. GEOFF -AUS says:

    Outthere
    I don’t understand how a married monogamous gay person who is living the gospel, has a lifestyle that is unsafe? In what way is it any different from you or me? What is unsafe? God sent them here, knowing what they are capable of, just like us.
    And I expect it will have to be God that inspires someone who is open enough to listen, and is in the position to change policy.
    I think at present we have leaders who, like you, know what the answer is so don’t ask the question.
    I asked and my personal revelation, is that we are not to discriminate against women or gays if we are to love as God does.

  14. Outthere85016 says:

    Geoff Aus
    I know it’s unsafe because I’m right smack-dab in the middle of it. You’re not doing gay members any favor by supporting them in sin.

  15. Wondering says:

    Outthere5016, Just curious, but how is it that you are right smack-dab in the middle of a monogamous, committed same-sex marriage? or enough of them to know that they are somehow more unsafe than a monogamous, committed heterosexual marriage?

  16. Wondering says:

    On or related to “knowing” the answer and therefore not asking the question:
    Peggy Fletcher Stack, The Salt Lake Tribune, January 29, 2010, writing of the publication of the expanded version (working draft) of Edward Kimball’s Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball, noted that: “Spencer Kimball told one interviewer before the [1978 priesthood/temple eligibility] change, ‘I don’t know that I should be the one doing this, but if I don’t, my successor [Ezra Taft Benson] won’t.’”