Uniform 10.18.15: Peter Takes a Risk


Acts 10:24-38

Sometime back in the mid-1960s, a friend of mine invited me to accompany his mother and him on a trip to one of the beautiful state parks in our state. The main event on our itinerary was swimming in the park’s lake.

Perhaps you can imagine the scene. It was a beautiful mid-summer day in central Georgia. The trucked-in white sand that formed the lakeside beach felt hot and crunchy underfoot. The brown lake water lapped gently against the shoreline. Out beyond the swimming area, folks rowed their rented canoes or pumped the pedals on their rented paddleboats. Kids stood in line at the concession stand, waiting to purchase their Cokes, frozen Zero candy bars, and snow cones.

A long safety rope buoyed by a series of regularly spaced blue and white floats marked off the swimming area. Another such rope divided the swimming area into two sections. Looking at the lake from the beach, the larger area to the right was designated for white folks, the smaller area to the left for black folks. Sure enough, there were white folks swimming in the white folks area and black folks swimming in the black folks area.

My friend and I—we were eight or nine years old—were playing in the white folks section near the rope that kept us separated from the black folks section (even at my young age, the situation struck me as being absurd, given that, rope or no rope, we were in fact swimming in the same water). At some point, I went underwater, and when I came up, I was on the wrong side of the rope! I can still see the black boy, younger than I was, pointing at me and saying, “Mama! There’s a white boy over here!” I slunk under the rope, back to where I belonged. Looking back, I find it ironic that I was the one in that ridiculous situation who felt segregated and marginalized. But my experience lasted all of six seconds. It wasn’t the story of my life.

That rope in that lake separated human beings from each other. And I crossed that line. I did so, though, with all of the innocence and carelessness that a child could muster. I did it accidentally. I did it at no risk to myself. And I did it to no good effect.

It was a different story when Peter crossed the line that had been erected between Jews and Gentiles. We should remember, though, that Peter wasn’t the only one in the story who crossed that line. The Roman centurion Cornelius crossed it in his openness to what Peter had to say to him. If what needed to happen was going to happen, if what God wanted to happen was going to happen, then Peter had to be open to Cornelius and Cornelius had to be open to Peter. A Jewish Christian had to be open to a Gentile and vice-versa. If the line was going to be crossed, it had to be crossed from both sides. Everybody was going to have to move beyond thinking in terms of “us” and “them” to thinking just in terms of “us.”

Many of you know the name Will Campbell. Campbell, who died in 2013, was a white Baptist preacher from Mississippi who was very active in the Civil Rights movement. He walked alongside the black students who tried to integrate Central High School in Little Rock. He was the only white person invited by Martin Luther King, Jr. to the meeting where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed in 1957. He participated in the Birmingham bus boycott movement and was an advisor to the folks conducting lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville.

Lawrence Wright retold this story about Campbell that Campbell had told in his book Brother to a Dragonfly:

He was a preacher and a devout believer, but Campbell claims he was not really a Christian until his friend Jonathan Daniel was murdered in 1966. Daniel was a young theology student from the Episcopal seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who had gone down to Lowndes County, Alabama, to register blacks to vote. He had walked into a country store with a white priest and two black friends, and when he came outside with a Moon Pie and a soda pop, he was shotgunned into eternity by a sheriff’s deputy named Thomas Coleman.

Campbell got the news of Daniel’s death while he was visiting his friend P. D. East, the colorful and defiant editor of the Petal, Mississippi, newspaper called The Petal Paper. It was East, years before, who had badgered Campbell into giving him a definition of the Christian message in ten words or less. “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway,” East recalled. “Let’s see if your definition of faith can stand the test. Was Jonathan a bastard?”

Campbell was still in shock and deeply grieving for his friend. Mainly to get East to shut up, Campbell admitted that Jonathan was a bastard.

“Was Thomas a bastard?” East asked.

It was easy enough to agree to that.

Then East pulled his chair around, put his bony hand on Campbell’s knee and, staring directly into Campbell glistening eyes, whispered, “Which one of these two bastards do you think God loves most?” [The First Church of Rednecks, White Socks, and Blue Ribbon Beer,” Rolling Stone (December 13th-27th, 2000), retrieved from http://www.maryellenmark.com/text/magazines/rolling%20stone/920S-000-031.html on October 8, 2015.]

And so Will Campbell, who had once crossed over to the civil rights side of the line, now crossed over to the side where the racists were—not to be one of them, mind you, but to treat them as God’s children. He reached out to Klansmen. He even visited James Earl Ray in prison. It was risky business, for which he paid a price.

God’s radical love calls us to cross the lines, sometimes to be with people that our fellow Christians—and maybe even we ourselves—will be surprised to see us be with.

It’s God’s business. It’s kingdom business. It’s grace business. It’s love business. It’s people business. It’s risky business.


1. Cornelius had a vision that led him to send for Peter. Peter had a vision that compelled him to go to Cornelius. What significance do those visions have in the story? What do they teach us about what is going on?
2. Have you ever taken a risk in order to be obedient to God in reaching out to someone? What happened?
3. Peter said that God had shown him that he “should not call anyone profane or unclean” (v. 28). Do we view any group as “profane” or “unclean”? What would God have us do about such an attitude?
4. What lines do we need to cross if we are to live out God’s love in our community? How risky will such crossing of lines be?
5. Peter preached about the ministry of Jesus to Cornelius and his friends and family members. How is our ministry like Jesus’ ministry? How is it different? What changes do we need to make in our attitudes and actions if our ministry is going to be truly Christ-like?

Reference Shelf

God Shows No Partiality

Verses 34b-35 begin with a universalistic emphasis. “God shows no partiality [Testament of Job 4:8; Rom 2:11; Gal 2:6; Col 3:25; Eph 6:9; 1 Pet 1:17; James 2:1, 9; 1 Clement 1:3; Barnabas 4:12; Polycarp, To the Philippians 6:1]. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (cf. Eliahu Rabbah [13] 14—“Do I show partiality? Whether Gentile or Israelite, whether man or woman, whether male slave or female slave obeys a commandment, the reward for it is immediate”). One stream of ancient Judaism held that there were righteous Gentiles. For example, t. Sanhedrin 13:2 records an anonymous saying: “the children of the wicked among the heathen will not live [in the world to come].” Anonymous statements are generally earlier than the comments on them. So this may be from the pre-AD 70 period. It implies that there are righteous Gentiles who will live in the world to come.

This saying is opposed by Rabbi Eliezer and supported by Rabbi Joshua (both leading rabbis of the period AD 70–90). Eliezer, who usually speaks for the House of Shammai, says, “None of the Gentiles has a portion in the world to come, as it says, ‘the wicked shall return to Sheol, all the Gentiles who forget God’ (Ps 9:17). ‘The wicked who shall return to Sheol’ are the wicked Israelites.” Rabbi Joshua, who usually speaks for the House of Hillel, says,

If it had been written, “the wicked shall return to Sheol, all the Gentiles,” and then said nothing further, I should have maintained as you do. But in fact it is written, “All the Gentiles who forget God,” thus indicating that there are also righteous people among the nations of the world, who do have a portion in the world to come. (Sanders, 466-67)

Peter’s speech begins with a statement showing affinities with the anonymous saying and Rabbi Joshua’s comment about it (cf. also b. Sanhedrin 105a; b. Baba Kamma 38a). Cornelius, it is implied, is a righteous Gentile. As such, God answers his prayers. Peter is now present to tell him about the prayed-for redeemer and the forgiveness of sins.

Charles H. Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 97-98.

False Distinctions

Verse 28 is especially crucial. Here, Peter makes explicit what the crucial problem is that this story addresses: relations between Jews and Gentiles. Through Peter’s voice, readers learn that it is “unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.” Interaction between Jews and Gentiles was a bit more complex than this. Yet, as Paul’s testimony shows, Christian Jews from Jerusalem did not always associate freely with Gentiles (Gal 2:11-14) . . . Peter’s words also interpret explicitly his understanding of the visionary experience on the rooftop: it is people whom God had commanded Peter not to call common or unclean. Peter has learned that laws requiring one to distinguish between clean and unclean animals had encouraged him to distinguish between clean and unclean people. The vision on the rooftop, combined with his experiences of meeting Cornelius’s servants, has shown Peter that being a Gentile does not disqualify one from fellowship (v. 29).

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007) 172

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Uniform Series Curriculum Editor.


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