Think of a time when you were standing in a busy place with a crowd of people, like an airport, train station, or shopping centre. In the sea of faces surging toward you, can you recall some of the expressions and emotions on the faces? How about the body types, skin colors, clothing, hair styles, tattoos?
Now, can you recall the kinds of judgments about some of these people that your mind probably was making in an instant of time? “ Foreigner.” “Worried.” “Rich.” “Poor.” “Hard-working.” “Friendly.” “Careless.” “Dangerous.”
Probably some of those quick, often subconscious, judgments were both positive and negative—“I like this person, I don’t like that person.” Likely you have been conditioned to judge favorably certain kinds of people (clean, professional-looking), and perhaps you have been taught to be suspicious of other kinds (unkempt, different color). Whatever your judgment, it was made before you even met the person. On the basis of fragmentary information, you made distinctions between people.
Which is God does not do, according to our main text from Acts 11 for Sunday, June 15. Peter learns that God makes no distinction between people, on any basis—class, color, ethnicity, religion (or lack of it). God makes no distinction between those who we might consider worthy and unworthy. God’s love is impartial and inclusive. And Peter also learns that he is to make no distinction either.
This is hard for Peter to grasp. He has always been taught that certain people, especially Gentiles (non-Jews), are to be kept at arm’s length, since they are unclean. It takes three visions and several explanations before he begins to undertand that people like unclean Gentiles are just as dear to God as Peter and the people of his own kind.
And it takes the prodding of the Holy Spirit for Peter to go to the home of the symbol of unclean Gentiles—the Roman soldier Cornelius—and to show him the same impartial acceptance that God does.
Overcoming unfavorable distinctions and entrenched prejudices can take a long time. It will take Peter a long time to assimilate his learning that God’s non-discriminatory policy toward humanity means the same for him. But in our text from Acts, Peter, thanks to the Holy Spirit’s prodding, makes a big start. Peter, the believer who always saw himself as more favored by God than “those people,” is on the road to conversion.
Sometimes our conversion to a more open and charitable outlook toward others can take a while too. The important thing, as for Peter, is to follow the Holy Spirit when it prods us to revise our attitude toward someone we instinctively don’t like, and to take a bold step to engage them.