Between yesterday and tomorrow
The world in which we live is never quite the same from one day to the next. Whether changes happen gradually or suddenly, we sooner or later come to realize that our world is no longer what it used to be. Depending on our past history, present situation and future prospects, that realization may fill us with a mixture of sadness, worry or eager expectation. Young people often remind their elders that it is not wise to expect their children to live as though things were the same today as they were “back then.” Every today is unique. Every day brings its own “trouble” (Mt 6:34), but it also brings new opportunities that cause us to “rejoice” (Ps 118:24).
So, what does it mean when Jesus encourages the disciples to ask God for nourishment specifically for today? Does our hunger today differ from the hunger of a previous generation? Do we today hunger for different things? Do we, therefore, need different kinds of nourishment? There is food for the body, food for the spirit, food for the mind. People hunger for love, for hope, for joy. People feel deprived emotionally, aesthetically, materially. What different sorts of food might be required most today?
Let us focus on one particular set of examples to illustrate how – during days that called for significant adjustments in the life of the church – God “nourished” the young church with the kind of food for the mind and for the spirit that was necessary to enable it to deal with the new challenge.
Day One: the day of the big sheet (Acts 10:1-23)
As Luke tells the story, Peter in the town of Joppa rose from noon-hour prayer one day when some people knocked at the door. They introduced themselves as messengers from a Roman centurion at Caesarea by the name of Cornelius. They requested Peter to come with them to Caesarea to visit Cornelius and to speak to his extended family there. Under normal circumstances, Peter would no doubt have turned the messengers away without giving it another thought. Don’t these Gentiles know that Jews and Gentiles don’t mix, and certainly don’t visit with each other or – God forbid – maybe even eat together?
But today was different. Peter was still trying to make sense of what had just happened (Acts 10:17). Just a few minutes earlier Peter had seen something strange and heard something even stranger. A “voice” (Acts 10:13) had encouraged him to kill and eat various sorts of animals that Peter found revolting. Ever since youth, Peter had been taught that eating meat from so-called unclean animals was strictly forbidden by scripture (Lev 11:4-46; Deut 14:3-20). So, if Peter were to do as this voice said, he would be acting contrary to the will of God.
What sort of voice could this have been? These words did not sound like a message from God. On the contrary, they seemed like an invitation to sin. Wasn’t this the kind of thing that the serpent in the garden had said to Adam and Eve, urging them to eat of the fruit from the forbidden tree? By cleverly changing the word of God, the serpent had succeeded in making a prohibition sound like an invitation (Gen 3:1-5). Peter was determined not to fall for a trick like that. He reacted with horror: Never! “I have never eaten anything . . . unclean.” (10:14) But the vision and the voice persisted (10:15): “Stop trying to make impure something that God made clean!” [author’s paraphrase].
Peter must have been puzzled: When did God ever make such food “clean”? Could this perhaps be a reference to the time of creation when God looked at all the living creatures God had made and pronounced them “good” (Gen 1:24-25)? Peter must have had a lot of unanswered questions.
Peter must have seen a connection between the vision on the roof and the visitors at the door. The voice in the vision had invited Peter to eat impure meat, and the visitors at the door were pleading with Peter to come and eat with impure people. Both invitations created a problem for Peter. For a person of his religious upbringing, both actions were unthinkable.
Where to turn for guidance?
No doubt the first question to arise in Peter’s mind was this: What would Jesus advise his disciples to do in such a situation? But that question only raised more questions, such as these: When did Jesus ever enter the house of a Gentile? Did Jesus ever talk about the possibility of being invited into the home of a Gentile? Jesus had ministered almost exclusively in Jewish surroundings. The Pharisees and Sadducees, the tax collectors and the street people, the lepers, the fisher folk and the carpenters, the rich and the poor – practically all of the people Jesus dealt with were Jewish in language, culture and upbringing and lived in the cultural world of the Judaism of the time. Jesus himself was born of a Jewish mother and grew up in a Jewish home.
True, it is reported that Jesus did occasionally respond to the plea of a Gentile, such as the Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:24-30), the Gerasene Demoniac (Mk 5:1-20) and the Roman Centurion at Capernaum (Mt 8:5-13), but such encounters were the exception. Mark even reports that Jesus gave the Gentile woman to understand that to help her daughter would be like throwing food to the dogs (Mk 7:27). So, it is understandable that when Peter was confronted with the invitation to come and help Cornelius and his household, he felt unprepared for such a momentous step. How to deal with such a totally unexpected turn of events? Was Peter finally persuaded by the memory that Jesus had at least sent the Syrophoenician woman on her way with an encouraging word: “you may go – the demon has left your daughter” (Mk 7:29)?
Day Two: in strange territory (Acts 10:24-48)
When Peter and Cornelius met (Acts 10:23-43), they quickly came to understand that God had been at work in both of their lives long before either one of them was aware of it. Cornelius was one of those Gentiles who had been attracted to Judaism and the God of the Jews for quite some time. Luke emphasizes that Cornelius was a “devout man” (10:2) who feared God and was highly respected by the people. He and his household had already been praying (even doing so at the Jewish hour of prayer). He frequently supported Jewish causes financially (10:2, 22). Cornelius even had had a vision very like the vision that Peter had experienced. Now the household of Cornelius was ready and waiting for Peter to say something (10:33). It seemed that God had personally set the stage and opened the door for Peter to step in. All that was left for Peter to do was to preach a sermon about God’s gracious impartiality.
When the sermon ended, the assembled company had an experience almost identical with that which the disciples had at Pentecost. The Gentiles began to speak in tongues – an outward sign that the Holy Spirit had been poured out on them. God had taken control of Peter’s visit. Not only Peter, but also the “circumcised believers” (Jewish Christians, 10:45) who had accompanied Peter from Joppa, had become convinced that under these circumstances, baptism was entirely appropriate. There was complete silence when Peter asked whether anybody had any objections. So Peter proceeded. Baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ” (10:48) confirmed that God had indeed conferred the Holy Spirit. With the baptism of Cornelius and his household, a new day had dawned. Things would never be the same again in the Early Church.
This calls to mind the scripture that Jesus had read in the synagogue at Nazareth at the beginning of his public ministry.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
(Lk 4:18f., a combination of phrases from Isa 42:7 and Lev 25:10)
At that time Jesus announced “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). The baptism of Cornelius and his household marks a new stage in that fulfillment. Peter probably did not even realize how significant a step he had taken. From his perspective – from his context, from his new today – it was clear that what had happened was indeed God’s will. But would others in the church see it that way, too?
Some days later: the day of the inquiry (Acts 11:1-18)
In the very next verse Luke reports that the authorities in Jerusalem were not amused when they heard what Peter had done in Caesarea. For the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem it had seemed entirely appropriate to continue to practice circumcision as Moses had commanded. So they called on Peter to explain why he had departed from the divine requirement that had become part of standard procedure. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” (Acts 11:3). Peter simply related, step by step, the series of experiences that had led him to do what he had done, and he pointed to the six witnesses who had accompanied him from Joppa (11:12) and who could confirm the truthfulness of his account.
As Peter was defending his actions, he suddenly remembered that Jesus had actually said something that could clarify the case at hand. Jesus had said “. . . you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (11:16, referring back to 1:5). Suddenly it became clear: what Jesus had been talking about had now actually happened – not once, but twice. It had happened first at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came on the Jewish disciples, and it had now happened again in the house of Cornelius when the Gentiles were granted the same experience. What more was there to be debated? God had poured out the Holy Spirit on Gentiles – uncircumcised as they were! Was God not saying loudly and clearly that circumcision was no longer to be regarded as a divine requirement? To ignore that insight, Peter claims, would have been to “hinder God” (11:17).
Peter’s testimony was convincing. On this today Peter’s critics “were silenced” and “praised God.” They acknowledged that “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (11:18).
Some time later: the day of the big debate (Acts 15:1-29)
Only a few chapters later, Peter and James (and now also Paul and Barnabas together with the apostles and elders) again are locked in dispute. Something had changed in the Early Church that made it necessary to look at that whole Jewish-Gentile issue again, but this time from a somewhat different perspective. An official meeting was called to debate the statement “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1).
Evidently there were powerful leaders in Jerusalem who still insisted that before a man could become a Christian, he had to become a circumcised Jew. Peter gave a passionate argument against that statement, concluding: “On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:11).
In a classical understatement, Luke reports that there was “much debate” (15:7). Many scholars today are convinced that the “Jerusalem Conference” was the most significant meeting in the entire history of the church.
According to Luke the terms of the agreement were sent to the churches in the form of a letter. The key sentence in that agreement reads as follows. “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (15:28-29).
But did this letter settle the issue once and for all? Was everybody satisfied after receiving it? Well, Paul was no doubt very pleased because of what the statement did not say. Although several essentials were listed, circumcision was not one of them. But what about the eating of food “sacrificed to idols” (15:29)? According to Paul’s own words, the eating or not eating of such food is immaterial. Paul later wrote to the Corinthians: “. . . we are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (1 Cor 8:8b). In these matters, says Paul, Christians are free to consume or to abstain. Of course, Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, will not force his freedom on others (such as the majority of Jewish Christians) who may be overcome by a guilty conscience when they eat certain foods (1 Cor 8:9, 13; 10:25-32). For the sake of those who are “weak,” Paul will refrain from exercising his Christian freedom. He would rather abstain than give others a guilty conscience over things that really are of little consequence.
On the today of the “Jerusalem Conference,” the church was guided to let pastoral sensitivities prevail by honoring both the freedom of the one group and the conscientious reservations of the other. Paul would regard such a course of action as “fulfilling the law of Christ by bearing one another’s burdens” (cf. Gal 6:2).
Between yesterday and tomorrow
How can we in the church hope to meet the new challenges of our own today? After the death and resurrection of the Christ, the disciples quickly discovered that they could no longer meet Jesus in the flesh and request from him direct responses to questions that had not been addressed adequately before. But neither did the followers of Jesus feel that he had left them without guidance. They had several resources at their disposal for addressing such issues.
They consulted Holy Scripture. They remembered what Jesus had said and done. They relied on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They debated and prayed with their sisters and brothers in the faith.
What are some of the most pressing issues that demand our attention today? The list is almost endless, but it will certainly include the following:
the ever-widening gap between rich and poor
the level of starvation throughout the world
the pollution and depletion of the earth
the possibly irreversible change of climate
the spiritual void among so many of the world’s inhabitants
the dehumanizing conditions under which so many people must exist today
In a world in which the context changes from day to day, it is not possible to reach absolute and final conclusions on any subject. Nevertheless, the rich gifts and promises of God and the power of the Holy Spirit do enable us to find God-pleasing ways of walking responsibly today.
When new and vexing issues arise, there can be another gathering of the faithful at which everyone can speak their piece and expect to be treated with dignity and respect. People can study the scriptures, worship together, sing praises to God, share one another’s pains and joys, debate and pass resolutions. The final decision may not be to everyone’s liking. Some may even swallow quite hard. But when it is all over, people can confidently say “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. . . ” God is opening up new possibilities and is calling us to new ventures, the ending of which is still unknown. Thank God for again giving us the “bread” that is appropriate for today!
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Ps 118:24)
From the Central Western Europe and Central Eastern Europe regions: Questions worth pondering
Every day God creates new realities and opportunities. We only need to recognize them.
Where do we see in our everyday lives the new opportunities that God creates?
As representatives of western, central and eastern Europe, we are accustomed to planning, anticipating and organizing everything.
Are we really able today to accept God’s action as a promise or an opportunity?
Many people are looking for work, lack adequate housing or are ill.
Can we adequately translate our Savior’s words “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” and what does the word “bread” mean to us today? Apart from food intake, do we recognize the real needs and dire necessities of persons in our immediate vicinity?
Bread is not only food. We often need more in our daily lives.
How can the “bread of life” not only fill our stomachs, but also satisfy our hunger for meaning and fulfillment?
Nearly everything is available to us. Supermarket shelves are full. We have an overabundance of information.
What is the quality of our physical and spiritual nourishment today and how do we measure it?
We often only take a small part of our fellow human beings into consideration and are therefore often unjust toward them.
How can we see into the hearts of our fellow human beings and hear what they are really saying (“aufs Maul sehen,” as Luther put it), and reach the whole person?
We often only turn to people who are immediately around us – people we can confide in, friends.
How can we avoid frequenting only our individual church circle? How can we make room for others, including strangers?
"Today" also means speaking the language of today.
How can we avoid empty clichés and speech bubbles and bring people the good news of Jesus Christ in clear, comprehensible language?