"Without Hesitation, Without Distinction" by Rev. Jiliian Hankamer
Think for a moment about things that make you hesitant. Things that bring you up short or cause you to pause. I’ve told you before about my hesitation to tell people what I do for a living, but I’m also hesitant to answer questions when people say, “Hey you’re a Pastor, you’ll know the answer to this.” Without fail, they want a quick, tidy answer to a complex theological or church issue like the person who recently asked me who my boss is. When I responded “My entire congregation” they were obviously confused.
Even with my elevator-talk explanation of Baptist polity, their eyes had glazed over.
Maybe speaking in front of people makes you nervous. Something like the Passing of the Peace might give you pause if you're more introverted. Perhaps you’re hesitant when it comes to new technology, trying new foods, or traveling to unfamiliar places. Maybe the things that pull you up short are more personal, but no matter what causes you to pause, hesitation can be a good thing. Hesitating can keep us safe. Other times our hesitations hold us back, keep us from trying new things and ensure our safety at the expense of learning.
Distinctions function the same way. I think Jo Ann Alley would agree that for a person having a heart attack the distinction between a medical doctor and a Ph.D. is important. Call me a snob, but I see a difference between someone whose mamma tells them they’re a good preacher and someone who attends an accredited theological institution and learns how to preach. Erich tells me that calling the sport soccer instead of football leaves Americans sounding more than a little silly. And I’ve learned there’s a definite distinction between what the rest of the world calls a potpie and what people in Central Pennsylvania call a potpie.
Of course, other distinctions aren’t so important, such as an ad a friend of mine saw on Facebook Marketplace recently. The listing was for a 20-foot boa constrictor which the owner labeled as “VERY FRIENDLY!!!” in all caps – like that makes it more appealing! Socks with sandals, fanny packs labeled as “small cross body bags,” people who think seeing the movie replaces reading the book – these are all distinctions that fail. That are so bad or so silly or so unsightly as to be meaningless. Which, when we’re honest, is the dark side of hesitation and making distinctions.
Give humans enough time and we’ll find a comfortable fence to sit on or a way to justify why we’re different from those people. And the church is no better than the rest of the world. In fact, we might be the worst, most ironic offenders when it comes to telling people who’s acceptable to God and who isn’t. Of course, that message flies in the face of the Gospel and this morning’s story from Acts.
First, a quick refresher about Acts. Written at some point between the mid-60s to the mid-second century, Luke and Acts were originally one book. Church tradition holds the book’s author to be Luke, a sometimes companion of the Apostle Paul, but scholars dispute this. Acts is neither a gospel nor an epistle but holds a slightly “other” place as a history of the formation of the early church after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. As we’ll see in today’s story a major theme in Acts is Gentiles and how they fit into this new movement.
Today’s story focuses on a meeting between Cornelius and Peter. The Narrative Lectionary cuts out most of Cornelius and Peter’s conversation, but the verses Jan read gave us the overarching point of the passage and arguably the theme of the book of Acts. Starting in verse 1 we’re introduced to Cornelius, “a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God…” which means he’s a foreign military commander and what’s often called a “God-fearer” in the New Testament – a Gentile sympathetic to Judaism, who practices some aspects of Jewish piety but isn’t a convert. During prayer, Cornelius has a vision of an angel telling him to send for Simon Peter who was 35 miles away in Joppa. Being a pious man, Cornelius does just that and we’re told the next day, while Cornelius’s servants were on their way to him, Peter has this remarkable vision.
While praying on a housetop, Peter gets hungry. As his meal is being prepared, he falls into a trance and sees a “great sheet descending,” lowering to the ground by its corners. A commentator I read this week mentioned that one of his students dubbed this “a meat blanket,” imagery I find helpful with envisioning its being covered with every kind of animal.
A good Jew, Peter is startled when the voice of God says, “Rise, Peter. Kill and eat.” This meat blanket includes animals Peter knows to be unclean and therefore unavailable to him, so he responds, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” The voice of God comes again saying, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” We’re told this back-and-forth happens 3 times before the meat blanket is taken back up.
Peter is perplexed by God declaring clean something that’s always been impure, but there isn’t time for him to ponder why God would give him this instruction because at this moment Cornelius’s servants arrive. Again, the Spirit comes to Peter, this time saying, “Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation for I have sent them” and Peter obeys, going with the servants to Cornelius’s home.
On the surface, this story is an odd combination of things. It’s not immediately clear how Cornelius’s vision fits with Peter’s. What does food have to do with people? Or Jesus? The connection goes back to scriptures because in Leviticus 20:24-26 God says to the Israelites,
“…I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not make yourselves detestable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground crawls, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.”
“…the text explicitly associates the Israelites’ distinction from non-Israelites and the distinction between clean and unclean foods…Separation from the Gentiles and separation from unclean food [go] together.” So, while the connection is subtle, it’s understandable and deeply cultural because “the same disposition that encourage[s] pious Jews to separate themselves from Gentiles encourage[s] separation from unclean foods. Peter’s vision makes it clear that only God gets to decide what’s clean and unclean, common and uncommon, and in this passage, God is breaking “down the categories of purity and cleanness by which Peter [has] ordered his world.”
And it’s not as though Peter’s given time to process this change God’s making because he’s told, “Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation for I have sent them.” Some translations use the word “distinction” here and in Greek the phrase is meden diakrinomenos which can be translated as “without hesitation,” but the root of the word “literally means ‘to make a distinction’ between two alternatives. Recognizing this nuance, Mikael Parsons notes that ‘[t]he primary connotation is for Peter to go ‘without hesitation,’ but the sense of ‘without discrimination’ cannot be far from the surface.’”
In other words, Peter doesn’t use any handy excuses to get out of following God’s command. It would have been a cinch to say he can’t meet Cornelius because the meal wouldn’t be kosher, and as a good Jew, he isn’t allowed to dine in places where unclean foods are being served. He could have respectfully but firmly demurred. But instead, Peter gets up and goes. He meets with Cornelius and their meeting leads to revelation.
We heard the stand-alone verses 34 and 35 because, as I alluded to earlier, they are the truth, the focus, and the Good News of this story. Peter says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” My friends, Peter’s “vision was not about food or what one can or cannot eat. [His] vision is about people. Peter – or any of us – can no longer deem to call ‘unclean’ or ‘profane’ or ‘unworthy of our community’ or ‘unwelcome’ those whom God has made clean already.” The partialities of the world don’t matter, in fact in God through the person of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, the partialities of the world are actively broken down. The walls we build to keep others out don’t matter. The labels we use to demean and put folks in their place are wasted breath. The societal structures that give one group power at the expense of another only serve to break God’s heart because we are God’s beloved. Each of us, individually and corporately. “End of story. No qualifications. No get-out clauses.”
Our God not only lays claim to us without hesitation or distinction, but God also lays claim to all people without hesitation or distinction. It doesn’t matter if you want to be claimed. It doesn’t matter if you never acknowledge the claim. It doesn’t matter if you tell God where to stick this claiming. You are God’s.
So, the question we must ask ourselves is who is God calling us to claim without hesitation? Who is God calling us to love without distinction? Who is God waiting for us to stop seeing as “unclean” or “unworthy” and start seeing as simply “beloved?”
 J. Bradley Chance, “Acts,” Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary.
 Eric Barreto, “Commentary on Acts 10:1-17, 34-35” from www.workingpreacher.org
 Chance, 170.
 Coleman Baker, “Commentary on Acts 10: 44-48.
 Liz C. “Narrative Lectionary: There is no “other!” (Acts 10:1-17; 34-35) from www.revgalpalsblog.org