While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Then Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
—Acts 10:44-48, NIV
This is an outrageous story, and it is in the New Testament precisely because it is outrageous.
On the basis of a dream, Peter went to the home of a Roman centurion, of all people, and preached the gospel to them. After they received the gospel with great rejoicing, he baptized them. We must bear in mind that at the time this occurred, all Christians were Jews. They did not perceive Christianity as a distinct religion from Judaism; in fact, the word “Christianity” hadn’t been invented yet. Peter’s actions are outrageous on four counts:
- Peter went into the home of a gentile, which is against the kosher laws. Yes, Jesus interacted with gentiles, but all those encounters were proper; they were outdoors.
- The gentile that Peter visited was an officer in the Roman occupation forces. We would all resent occupation forces in our country, but it was much worse than that. Judea was supposed to be a theocracy, but the Romans put a layer of government over them. Since the head of the Roman government considered himself to be a god, this particular gentile was not just unclean, he was the agent of a blasphemous power.
- Peter wasn’t content just to enter an unclean place and associate with unclean people, he preached the gospel to them!
- To compound all this outrage, Peter went beyond preaching the gospel to an unclean audience in an unclean place hosted by the agent of a blasphemous power, he used (or misused?) his authority from Jesus to baptize them!
This explosive incident sparked a huge outrage that didn’t end with this story. It came up a couple of times; every time it seemed like they resolved it, it came up again.
The church has always struggled to be inclusive of unacceptable people and has gone into it kicking and screaming each time. The irony is that each time, the people who were previously unacceptable are the most vocal in their objection to the new unacceptable people. This is not a sign of strife and division in the church, and though on one level it is distressing, we should see that this is really the Holy Spirit stretching the church to give God greater glory by increasing the number of the redeemed.
If a man rescues people from a disaster, he receives greater glory for rescuing an entire nation than if he just rescues one person, even though we hold that even a single life has infinite value. So the more people who are redeemed, the more God is glorified. Struggles about inclusiveness are only distressing if you are thinking in human terms. Struggles for inclusiveness did not destroy the church in Acts or at any other point in history; they increased it.
Without this inclusiveness of the gentiles, the apostles never would have evangelized Europe. I would not be a Christian, and you would not be reading this website, because my ancestors were the unacceptable people who were at the root of this outrage.
It is scary and upsetting when the Holy Spirit leads someone to cross the line into new and uncharted territory among unacceptable people, but hang on and have faith, and watch the glory of God unfold.