by Rev. Emily E. Ewing
As Christians today, especially those of us who call ourselves progressive, it’s easy to look at the early church, especially the circumcised believers in our Acts reading and call them judgmental or compare them to all the “other” churches around. Yet that reinforces harmful and antisemitic tropes about Judaism as a judgmental faith tradition and lets us off easy, when we probably haven’t earned the cookies of congratulations yet. It makes us the Peters of the world.
But Peter is far from perfect. In his retelling of the events of Acts 10 to the believers in Judea, Peter reminds us that even after Jesus destroys the binary between death and life, Peter himself is stuck in binary ways of understanding the world. Peter still thinks of the world in terms of clean or unclean; sacred or profane; and never the twain shall meet.
What is more poignant to consider is that this Acts reading is frequently used to support and celebrate full participation of gender, sexual, and romantic minorities in the church. The story goes something like this: the church, like Peter, holds the Truth about God and Jesus, grace and salvation, and brings it to the queer ones, is surprised, and realizes that God loves queer people also.
This is all well and good and if that’s what you need to get to a place where you can accept me and recognize me for my whole self, then by all means, go right ahead. But this story doesn’t begin with Peter.
This story begins with Cornelius, the faithful and complicated outsider in whom God is already at work and through whom the Holy Spirit converts Peter.
It is only after Cornelius has already sent two of his slaves and a devout soldier in his ranks to Peter that Peter has the vision that begins to convert him. The food Peter calls profane comes to him and God tells Peter to eat it. God reminds Peter that nothing They have made is profane.
It still doesn’t register for Peter, though. Not even when God tells him to go to Cornelius. Not until the Holy Spirit has already fallen upon all who were gathered to hear Peter’s word about the Word does Peter inquire about what the Holy Spirit is really up to.
Even in Peter’s retelling of the story, he frames the event in the negative. He wonders, “who was I that I could hinder God?” In the original story, Peter asks, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
This question is still being asked today, even in the progressive church circles. Cornelius, the binary breaker who is described as both devout and part of the oppressive military structure, is too close a comparison to the lived experiences of trans and gender expansive people in the u.s. today to be ignored. The military has been one of the few reliable opportunities for employment for trans people, a reality now in jeopardy with the administration’s trans military ban. Trans people of faith break the binaries the church tries to enforce on gender, sexuality, and wholeness. Even progressive congregations are slow to adopt all gender bathrooms, forgo the gender binary in exchange for expansive language about God and God’s people, or lift up the stories of gender expansive and binary breaking people in the world and in Scripture.
In John Jesus tells us to love one another. It’s how we’re in community together that will demonstrate our discipleship. But how are we, like Peter, still surprised at who Jesus calls as disciples and who receives the Holy Spirit? Do we still wonder why “they” can’t just pick a gender? Country? Language? Do we wonder how to help them, as Peter must have when he first set out, and not even notice the ways the Holy Spirit is working through them to convert us?