Photograph by Lenstravelier via Unsplash

Pentecost and losing the plot

Many Bibles offer an editorial heading in Acts 10: “The Conversion of Cornelius.” A friend of mine who is an Acts scholar says the passage would be more accurately titled “The Conversion of Peter,” because it is only there that Peter finally understands his own Pentecost sermon.

On Pentecost, Peter boldly stood before everyone who would listen in Jerusalem and explained the Pentecost miracle by quoting the prophet Joel. The people weren’t drunk, “rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.’” (Acts 2:16-17a CEB)

After this powerful moment, Peter is a superstar in the early church and the focus of the story in Acts. He heals a lame man in the temple (Acts 3:1-10). He preaches with confidence with John in the temple (Acts 3:12-26) and defiantly stands before the council when he is challenged (Acts 4:1-12). He calls out the hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), works additional miracles, and endures persecution (Acts 5:12-42). Things couldn’t go any better for this one who had previously denied Jesus.

Unfortunately, Peter and the disciples lose the plot in Acts 6 (and their central role in the book of Acts). When called upon to arbitrate a disagreement where widows were being neglected because of their ethnicity, “the Twelve called a meeting of all the disciples and said, ‘It isn’t right for us to set aside proclamation of God’s word in order to serve tables.’” (Acts 6:2 CEB). The disciples’ response to the problem seems to be, “Whoever heard of a leader being a servant, waiting on someone at a table? We’ll be expected to wash feet next!” So, in an effort to not be like Jesus in John 13, they appoint the first deacons who will be in charge of serving people.

With this choice, suddenly, the story of Acts doesn’t follow the twelve anymore. Now, the story follows two men who were among those appointed to handle the concern of the widows. Stephen boldly preaches the gospel and goes on to be the first martyr of the church (Acts 7), and Philip spreads the gospel to outsiders: the Samaritans and the eunuch from Ethiopia (Acts 8). In a further dramatic twist in Acts 9, a persecutor of the church named Saul changes sides and foreshadows a storytelling direction change to come in Acts.

Acts teaches us that when the people of God lose the plot, God will raise up those who still know the story—people like Stephen and Philip. The other bit of good news is that if you’ve lost the plot, it isn’t too late to get back in the story.

By the time Acts returns to Peter’s story at the end of Acts 9, he’s in Joppa, working miracles for Jewish believers there. In Acts 10, an angel tells a Gentile God-fearer named Cornelius to reach out to Peter, and he does so instantly. At the same time, Peter has a vision which tells him to eat the “unclean” animals, and Peter refuses—three times!

To Peter’s credit, though, he does go to Cornelius’s house when asked, and when Cornelius confesses his faith, Peter finally recaptures the plot. “Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all!” (Acts 10:34-36 CEB) It turns out when God pours out the Spirit on “all people,” God actually means all people. Peter finally understands the sermon he preached on Pentecost.

Peter understanding his Pentecost sermon eight chapters after he preached it has always served as a helpful reminder for me that our practice doesn’t always meet our proclamations and aspirations. The hard work of “all men being created equal” proclaimed in July 1776 wasn’t quite enough to change our practices in America. It took a Civil War, and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to free the enslaved in the rebelling states. Then, it took the 13th Amendment in 1865 to free all the enslaved in all the states (except for the incarcerated who can still be treated as property). It took the 14th Amendment in 1868 to make explicit that the Bill of Rights applied to everyone—except Native Americans. It took the 19th Amendment in 1920 to include women in that vision. It took Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act in 1964—after a 3-month filibuster—to again, painfully remind us that our practice trails our aspirations far too slowly. When reviewing the news and hateful rhetoric in contemporary American society, one wonders if we can honestly say “everyone is created equal” truly is an shared aspiration in this country or if divisive hate is winning the day.

The birthday of the church on the day of Pentecost was only the beginning of the church’s long journey, where too often its declarations and aspirations haven’t matched its practice. We see this in the history of the church in our country. From 1619 to today, too many people who claim Jesus as savior have denied rights for all—even denied basic humanity to some while simultaneously proclaiming that everyone is created in God’s image.

There is good news, however. Acts teaches us that when the people of God lose the plot, God will raise up those who still know the story—people like Stephen and Philip. The other bit of good news is that if you’ve lost the plot, it isn’t too late to get back in the story. Though Peter thought he was called to minister to Cornelius, it was Cornelius who was able to show Peter what his Pentecost sermon truly meant and help him find the plot again.

Rev. Dr. Robert Wallace is senior pastor, McLean Baptist Church, McLean, Virginia.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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