Isaiah 43:14-21, Acts 10:1-16
August 14, 2011
In case you haven’t noticed, I like to look at the book of Acts at this time of year, for several reasons. First of all, Easter and Pentecost were not that many weeks ago. (It’s only the Ninth Sunday After Pentecost, according to the top of your bulletin!) And as I’ve said, these stories are all interrelated. I want us to remember the connection and the flow between them.
But it’s more than that, Because the other reason I like to look at Acts at this time of year is that these are the things that happened as a result of the events of Easter and Pentecost! In some ways that makes them nearly as important as those events themselves. Because this is how those important events affected the world! In other words, Easter is what God did. Now, here’s what happened because of it! Easter wasn’t just a great event to remember and celebrate! The world was changed because of it!
So now we’re looking at another of those stories in Acts. And this one is another very important story. This story raises certain issues in the early church that would continue for some time. So let’s take a look at it.
If you read this whole chapter, you’ll find that this is a story within a story. Actually it’s not quite that. It’s more like one big story. Or it’s like one story that illustrates another. Peter has this vision. And he’s told in that vision that he is now permitted to eat any kind of animal for food. What that means is, he doesn’t have to follow the kosher dietary laws any more. All things were to be considered “clean” to eat.
Well, that message was hard for a good Jewish boy like Peter! He protested. “No, Lord. I’ve never eaten anything unclean. I’ve always kept kosher.” Still, he was given the same vision three times! And he resisted it three times! And even then, he still had to think about it before he accepted it. Notice, there’s no final agreement with God at the end of this. Peter doesn’t finally say, “Ok, God. I get it. That’s fine with me.” There was no story of him rushing out for a pulled pork sandwich! In fact, what it does say is this. “Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed…” In other words, he was still struggling with this, even after the visions stopped!
Ok, so that’s the first part. Then, while he was thinking about that vision, these men arrived from Caesarea. They were the men sent by this Roman Centurion, a man named Cornelius. And look how Luke describes this. “While Peter was still pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him ‘Behold, three men are looking for you.’” Notice, he was still struggling with the vision. He was still upset about being told that his lifelong practices were no longer important! But if you read this story, which I hope you will, you’ll find how Peter works his way through this, and how he accepts the vision of God – eventually. And you’ll find that, in doing so, he also realizes that the vision, and the visit of these men, are actually all about the same thing! God was “making all things new,” as he told Isaiah. “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold I am doing a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19) Peter couldn’t perceive it, at least not at first.
Now, while you’re “pondering” that, let me remind you that there’s more than one vision here. The first vision actually comes to this man, Cornelius. An angel appears to him. And look what it says about that encounter. In verse 3 it says, “About the ninth hour of the day (that’s about 3:00 in the afternoon.) he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, ‘Cornelius.’” Then, look at the next verse. It says, “And he stared at him in terror!”
I want you to notice two things about that. First, the gender here is male! “He stared at him…” What does that say about our image of angels? So much for them being tall, thin, blonde, white women!! Then notice the reaction of this Roman commander. “And he stared at him in terror.” Angels were fearsome beings! The first thing an angel usually had to say to someone was, “Be not afraid!” And it was the same with Cornelius! Well, after that, we hear that this angel has a message from God. And by the way also, the Greek word for angel “euangelion” actually means “messenger!”
So the angel has a message, and I have to say that his message is the heart of this story – these two stories. He said, “Cornelius, your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” In other words, “Cornelius, God has listened to you. And God has honored the fact that you have been seeking him. So the angel’s message is that God has honored this man, a man who was an outsider to the faith! And he was setting up this whole scenario to show his plan in that regard.
Remember who Cornelius was. He was not Jewish. He was a Roman. He was a member of this “Italian Cohort.” I’m not going to try to pronounce the Latin here! But it meant that he was high up in the Roman system. He was a soldier, a leader of soldiers. The word “Centurion” meant he was the commander of a group of 100 men. And of course, he was a Gentile. But! In all that, he was “a devout man.” It says here that he “feared,” that is, he “believed” God. And he lived a life of faith. He worshipped in the temple, he gave alms to the needy, and he prayed “constantly.” And, as the men told Peter in verse 22, he was a man “well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation.” (Verse 22)
That makes for a very interesting picture, doesn’t it? The people then knew who he was. They knew he was an important Roman soldier. That makes me wonder if he wore his uniform or his armor when he worshipped in the Temple! But it didn’t matter. He was a soldier who was well spoken of by the people! They knew him to be a “God-fearing man.” Whatever the picture of this man looked like, he came to represent much more. His story showed that God’s kingdom was to include the Gentiles – those who before would have been considered completely outside of the “official faith” – in all those ways.
That would become a huge issue in those early days of the Church. This story would become the center of a huge controversy over who was to be included, and what would the new Church look like. Was Christianity to be simply a “completion” of Judaism? Was it to be an “upgrade,” in modern computer society language? Or was it truly to be “Good news of a great joy that shall be to all people?”
That’s what this story is about. And that question takes up an large part of the opening chapters of Acts! Peter would be called on to defend this event before the religious council. And now I’m talking about the early Christian council in Jerusalem. And that council was called on to decided what it all meant, and what to do about the inclusion of the Gentiles. Which, by the way, came with some very tricky details. Like that little matter of circumcision. Did a person have to become Jewish, even in that sense, in order to become a Christian? There were those who believed people did. They became known as “The Circumcision Party.” (The image of which boggles my mind!)
As it was, the religious council had a hard time accepting God’s “new plan,” as did the Jewish council only months before when they were deciding the matter of Jesus, and as Peter did in his vision in our story for today! God “making things new” was tough.
Now, at this point I want you to think about how this story relates to us. Last week I asked you to think about the “scales before your eyes.” Remember that? The scales were like Saul’s when he was blind, They represent things that keep you from seeing what God could do. So today I need to ask, “Are you ever so set in your religious ways that God would have a tough time breaking through – even with a vision like Peter’s?” I think you know the answer to that one! I’d like you to think of what that might be like for you.
Is God calling you to see something in a new way? Is he asking you to do something you’ve never thought of before, or something that changes your religious practice or understanding? Are you stuck in an “old way” of thinking about something, and it’s hard to accept the new? Is there some person who you have a hard time accepting, that you know God would like you to reach out to? Do you think God is calling you to a higher level of service or discipleship? Do you think he’s challenging you to a more sacrificial level of giving?
As I said at the very beginning today, the book of Acts is about how the events of Easter and Pentecost affected the world. Otherwise they would just have been events to celebrate. So what about us? Are those events of Easter and Pentecost merely things we remember and celebrate? Or, like the people in these stories, do they affect our lives? Do we have our own personal version of the book of Acts, that tells our story, the story of how God changed us, and set our lives on a new course?
If there were such a book, what stories would be found there? If people were to read your own personal book of Acts, what would they see? Would they see that you’ve lived the victorious life of Easter? Would they read stories of you rejoicing even in the tough times? Would they read about you practicing the radical love of Jesus, reaching out to the outcast, serving faithfully, and giving of yourself sacrificially?
That’s an interesting challenge, isn’t it? What would your book of Acts look like? God was doing a new thing in Peter and Cornelius. And I have to think the ministry of Jesus – that they were continuing – probably looked different than any of those disciples imagined it would. I have to think some of it was hard to take. This story tells us that. Some of it would cost them much. And eventually it would cost most of them their lives.
So the question I’d like to close with today is this. What has it cost you? What has it cost us to follow Jesus? When we read these words, “Behold, I make all things new,” does that mean us? Does that mean you? And is God continuing to make you new?
Eternal God, help us to see more clearly what you are doing in our world, in our Church, and in our lives. Help us to have the courage to follow you. Help us to have the mind of Christ, as we seek to be his faithful people, no matter what the circumstances of our lives. For we pray in his name, Amen.