20 April 2013

‘Who was I that I could hinder God?’ – Bible study (Acts 11: 1-18)

Peter Preaching, Fra Angelico, ca 1400-1455 (see Acts 11: 4-18)

Patrick Comerford


In our Bible studies in this tutorial group over this year, we have been looking at the Old Testament reading in the readings provided in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Sunday of the following week.

Sunday week [28 April 2013] is the Fifth Sunday of Easter. The Year C readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Acts 11: 1-18 or Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21: 1-6; John 13: 31-35.

The Lectionary is urging us to use readings from the Acts of the Apostles on these Sundays in the Easter season instead of the Old Testament reading. The Old Testament readings are reflecting the provided reading from Acts, rather than following a natural sequence. Why do you think this is so?


How many of you are following the Acts readings?

How many of you are preaching that Sunday?

How many of you would choose the alternative Old Testament reading (Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18)?

If so, why?

If not, then why not?

I have prepared some short notes on the Acts reading for Sunday week (Acts 11: 1-18), and we can then see how this relates to the alternative Old Testament reading, and how it relates to the other readings provided in the RCL.

Acts 11: 1-18

1 Ἤκουσαν δὲ οἱ ἀπόστολοι καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοὶ οἱ ὄντες κατὰ τὴν Ἰουδαίαν ὅτι καὶ τὰ ἔθνη ἐδέξαντο τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ. 2 ὅτε δὲ ἀνέβη Πέτρος εἰς Ἰερουσαλήμ, διεκρίνοντο πρὸς αὐτὸν οἱ ἐκ περιτομῆς 3 λέγοντες ὅτι Εἰσῆλθες πρὸς ἄνδρας ἀκροβυστίαν ἔχοντας καὶ συνέφαγες αὐτοῖς. 4 ἀρξάμενος δὲ Πέτρος ἐξετίθετο αὐτοῖς καθεξῆς λέγων, 5 Ἐγὼ ἤμην ἐν πόλει Ἰόππῃ προσευχόμενος καὶ εἶδον ἐν ἐκστάσει ὅραμα, καταβαῖνον σκεῦός τι ὡς ὀθόνην μεγάλην τέσσαρσιν ἀρχαῖς καθιεμένην ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, καὶ ἦλθεν ἄχρι ἐμοῦ: 6 εἰς ἣν ἀτενίσας κατενόουν καὶ εἶδον τὰ τετράποδα τῆς γῆς καὶ τὰ θηρία καὶ τὰ ἑρπετὰ καὶ τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ. 7 ἤκουσα δὲ καὶ φωνῆς λεγούσης μοι, Ἀναστάς, Πέτρε, θῦσον καὶ φάγε. 8 εἶπον δέ, Μηδαμῶς, κύριε, ὅτι κοινὸν ἢ ἀκάθαρτον οὐδέποτε εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸστόμα μου. 9 ἀπεκρίθη δὲ φωνὴ ἐκ δευτέρου ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, Ἃ ὁ θεὸς ἐκαθάρισεν, σὺ μὴ κοίνου. 10 τοῦτο δὲ ἐγένετο ἐπὶ τρίς, καὶ ἀνεσπάσθη πάλιν ἅπαντα εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν. 11 καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐξαυτῆς τρεῖς ἄνδρες ἐπέστησαν ἐπὶ τὴν οἰκίαν ἐν ἧ ἦμεν, ἀπεσταλμένοι ἀπὸ Καισαρείας πρός με. 12 εἶπεν δὲ τὸ πνεῦμά μοι συνελθεῖν αὐτοῖς μηδὲν διακρίναντα. ἦλθον δὲ σὺν ἐμοὶ καὶ οἱ ἓξ ἀδελφοὶ οὗτοι, καὶ εἰσήλθομεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ ἀνδρός: 13 ἀπήγγειλεν δὲ ἡμῖν πῶς εἶδεν [τὸν] ἄγγελον ἐν τῷ οἴκῳ αὐτοῦ σταθέντα καὶ εἰπόντα, Ἀπόστειλον εἰς Ἰόππην καὶ μετάπεμψαι Σίμωνα τὸν ἐπικαλούμενον Πέτρον, 14 ὃς λαλήσει ῥήματα πρὸς σὲ ἐν οἷς σωθήσῃ σὺ καὶ πᾶς ὁοἶκός σου. 15 ἐν δὲ τῷ ἄρξασθαί με λαλεῖν ἐπέπεσεν τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον ἐπ' αὐτοὺς ὥσπερ καὶ ἐφ' ἡμᾶς ἐν ἀρχῇ. 16 ἐμνήσθην δὲ τοῦ ῥήματος τοῦ κυρίου ὡς ἔλεγεν, Ἰωάννης μὲν ἐβάπτισεν ὕδατι, ὑμεῖς δὲ βαπτισθήσεσθε ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ. 17 εἰ οὖν τὴν ἴσην δωρεὰν ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς ὁ θεὸς ὡς καὶ ἡμῖν πιστεύσασιν ἐπὶ τὸν κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν, ἐγὼ τίς ἤμην δυνατὸς κωλῦσαι τὸν θεόν; 18 ἀκούσαντες δὲ ταῦτα ἡσύχασαν καὶ ἐδόξασαν τὸν θεὸν λέγοντες, Ἄρα καὶ τοῖς ἔθνεσιν ὁ θεὸς τὴν μετάνοιαν εἰς ζωὴν ἔδωκεν.

1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8 But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

Reading the text:

In the two previous chapters (9 and 10), Saint Peter has been in the coastal area north-west of Jerusalem. Already, Christians of Jewish origin are living in this area. Further up the coast, in Caesarea Philippi, Cornelius, an officer in the Roman army and a Gentile, has had a vision in which a messenger from God tells him to send for Saint Peter (Acts 10: 1-8).

As Saint Peter approaches Caesarea, he too has a vision in which he saw “the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered” (verse 10). In the sheet are “all kinds” of animals, reptiles and birds (verse 12). A voice says: “Get up, Peter; kill and eat” (verse 13). But at first, Saint Peter resists eating any animals forbidden by Jewish law (verse 14).

At the house of Cornelius in Caesarea, Saint Peter tells the assembled company, which includes both Jews and Gentiles: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (verse 28).

Saint Peter summarises the good news, telling them that “God shows no partiality” (verse 34). The Holy Spirit falls on all who hear him (verse 44), and many of the people who are there, including Gentiles, are baptised.

Now, news of this has reached Judea. When Saint Peter arrives back in Jerusalem, the Christians who are of Jewish origin, who ask why he has broken Jewish law by visiting and eating with Gentiles (Acts 11: 2-3).

Saint Peter explains what has happened, and why. He does this, not chronologically but from the viewpoint of God’s plan of salvation (verses 5-15).

Just as the Holy Spirit came on the apostles at Pentecost, so the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and the members of his household. He recalls a post-Resurrection appearance, in which Christ promises the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (verse 16, see Acts 1: 5).

In defending his actions, Saint Peter say God gave those gentile believers in Caesarea the “same gift” when they believed as he gave to the first Jewish Christians when they came to faith (verse 17).

Saint Peter’s critics are silenced into acceptance (verse 18). God is seen to be working in a new way, and it is accepted in Jerusalem that even Gentiles who turn to God can receive new life (verse 18).

The other readings:

Christ Washing Peter’s Feet (Ford Madox Brown)

Revelation 21: 1-6:

In this reading, Saint John brings us to his vision of the end-times. He has told of the destruction of the old order, under Babylon (or Rome) and of the old heaven and the old earth (Revelation 20: 11). Now Saint John sees the new creation. The “sea” – the time of turbulence, unrest and chaos – is no more (21: 1).

He sees “the holy city, the new Jerusalem” (21: 2) prepared as a “bride” for her wedding. Saint John then hears “a loud voice from the throne” announcing that this New Jerusalem is God’s home among with “his peoples” (verse 3). Death, mourning, crying and pain will be no more (verse 4).

God speaks from his throne, promising to make all things news, transforming all of history, for he is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of everything, and he brings water to the thirsty, life to all.

John 13: 31-35

The Gospel reading was one of the Bible studies earlier this week at the Porvoo Communion Consultation on proclamation on diaconal ministry. The Bible study on Wednesday morning [17 April 2013] was led by Father Kieran O’Mahony, and it provided my reflection at the Eucharist earlier that morning.

In this reading, Christ is preparing the disciples for his departure. After the Last Supper, he washes their feet in a sign of servanthood. Peter misunderstands Christ’s action. Christ tells him that to share in Christ requires accepting Christ as his servant as well as his master. Peter will understand later (verse 7).

Our reading ends with Christ giving his new commandment: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13: 34-35).

Relating the readings to one another:

Can you see the connection between the readings from Acts, Revelation and Saint John’s Gospel?


What about the images of water in Revelation, and the water at the washing of the feet?

What about Peter’s resistance to having his feet washed by Christ, and his resistance to baptising the new Gentile believers?

Can you make a connection between the Old Jerusalem as the location for both the readings from Acts and Saint John’s Gospel, and the passing away of the Old Jerusalem in Revelation 21?

Between the old laws that hold Peter back and the new promises that urge him on?

How about the Old Jerusalem as the location of the old believers and the New Jerusalem that opens its gates to all believers?

Is the New Jerusalem the Church or a promised future that the Church must symbolise, must be a sign of or a sacrament of?

The Old Testament reading:

The Old Testament alternative (Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18) to the reading from Acts (Acts 11: 1-18). It calls the people to be holy (verse 2), like the new Jerusalem is holy. But how are we to be holy?

Being holy involves loving care, but not just for our neighbours (verses 11-13). It involves providing for the poor and the alien (verses 9-10), being just to the worker who can only live by earning wages through labour (verse 13), being just to the deaf and the blind (verse 14), and loving our neighbours as ourselves (verse 18), which is repeated but brought to a new height of expectation in our Gospel reading.

A note on the art work:

The reading from Acts 11 tells the story of Saint Peter preaching in Jerusalem. The painting of Saint Peter preaching is by Fra Angelico (ca. 1400-1455). It dates from 1433 and is the Museo di San Marco in Florence.

This work is part of the Linaiuoli Tabernacle, a large altarpiece that is Fra Angelico’s earliest mature work. The section of Saint Peter Preaching is one of three smaller panels below the main one. The scene shows Saint Mark writing down the sermon on a tablet as Saint Peter preaches, an illustration of the non-canonical ancient tradition that Saint Mark’s gospel is essentially Saint Peter’s eyewitness account.

The illustration comes from ‘Art in the Christian Tradition’, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=47861 [retrieved 18 April 2013]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.


Lord of all life and power,
who through the mighty resurrection of your Son
overcame the old order of sin and death
to make all things new in him:
Grant that we, being dead to sin
and alive to you in Jesus Christ,
may reign with him in glory;
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be praise and honour, glory and might,
now and in all eternity.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal God
in word and sacrament
we proclaim your truth in Jesus Christ and share his life.
In his strength may we ever walk in his way,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. These notes were prepared as an introduction to a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 20 April 2013.

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