Isaiah 49:1-6, Acts 10:1-23
July 9, 2017
Today we have one of those “stories within a story.” There are several of these in the Bible. Maybe you remember the one about the healing of Jairus’ daughter. Jesus agreed to come to Jairus’ house and heal his daughter, but along the way he encountered the woman who had been bleeding for many years. Do you remember that one? Luke told that story, too! It’s found in Chapter 8 of his Gospel. I think he liked those kinds of things. And there are others.
Well, in this one, an angel Comes to visit this man named Cornelius. And Luke is very careful to describe him, so everyone would know some important things about him. First, he was a Roman Centurion. He was a soldier. He was an officer. And Luke even gives us the name of his unit. He commanded “The Italian Cohort.” That sounds like the name of a spy movie, doesn’t it? (“The Italian Cohort.” Starring George Clooney!)
Luke is telling us that Cornelius was an important man. He was also a good man. He was not a ruthless tyrant. Luke tells us that he was “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God.”
So I think we can understand that part of the reason God gave him this vision was because he was a good man. But it was more than that! In describing him this way, Luke is telling his readers that Cornelius was an important man, a good man, and a Gentile man! And that’s very important here!
Well, the story within this story is that of Peter. And Peter is on the housetop, and he sees this vision. He sees a great sheet lowered from Heaven, filled with all sorts of “unclean” (meaning “non-Kosher”) animals. And he is told to eat, which he refuses to do! He tells God he has never eaten anything unclean. And God says, “What I now call clean, you must never again call unclean.”
Before long, Peter puts the two stories together. And he realizes that last statement from God was about more than just food! Because, as you know, this man – this Gentile man – was also considered “unclean!” And as Peter’s vision ended, and as he was “perplexed” about what it might mean, the messengers from Cornelius came knocking on his door. And he went with them, and he told them the story of Jesus. And as he was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on them, and they began to speak in “tongues” – in other languages, just like the disciples did on Pentecost! And this became one of the biggest controversies in the early church. “What about the Gentiles?”
Think about it. The Church began in Jerusalem. It was Pentecost – AD 1, or AD 30, depending on how they actually counted the years. And, as Peter says here, “You know that the word was sent to Israel.” That was true. The ministry of Jesus was directed predominantly to the Jewish people. The people who witnessed the events of Pentecost were Jews in Jerusalem. They were Jewish worshippers who witnessed Peter and John heal the lame man at the gate of the Jewish Temple! And they were Jewish people who heard the teaching of Saul after he had been transformed on the Road to Damascus.
But now, the word was coming to the Gentiles! Peter told Cornelius that day that he had “put two and two together.” He thought about these two things that were happening, and he understood what God was telling him! He now realized that “God shows no partiality,” as he said. And the Good News was “For All the World.”
We understand that as the readers. But for them, that was a big controversy. And that controversy would go on for several chapters in Acts. Remember the first big controversy was about the Jewish leadership trying to deal with what was now the ongoing ministry of Jesus. This one is now “Who would be included” in that ministry. And clearly God was expanding that ministry beyond the initial converts who were mostly Jewish.
So then, what are we to think about this story? Well, first I think we need to see the amazing nature of what was happening in those days! Clearly God was starting something. And as you’ve heard me say before, when God starts something, he really starts something! But more than that, we need to put ourselves into this story, or more accurately we need to put this story into ourselves!
You’ve also heard me say that whenever we think we have God “all figured out,” that might just be the point at which we know him the least. Well, what we’re going to see as we move forward in Acts is that God was clearly beyond what many in those days thought he should be, and what he was doing was far beyond what they thought he should do! Many were stuck in their religious and social “conventions.” They found it hard to accept that God was including those who had been “outsiders.”
So then, we need to ask ourselves, “Are we ever stuck in our own religious and social conventions?” “Are there ever, for us, those who are “included” and those who are not included?” Those are not easy questions. They are big challenges to our faith! Last week I talked about how we humans tend to resist “change.” It’s the “Big ‘C’ word!” And a number of you commented about that.
Well this is a story about huge change in the early church. Many could not accept it. What about us? What changes in our world are hard for us to accept? You know, if you add three letters to the word “change” you get the word “challenge!”
What “changes” are “challenges” for us? And I include myself in this! Changes can be challenges for me, too! If “challenge” were spelled “a-nge” the difference between the word “change” and the word “challenge” would be the word “All.” I know that’s the wrong spelling, but it’s close. And it’s a good thought! Because the word “all” could be one of the biggest “challenges” in “change.” It was for these people in Acts. Is it for us as well? Are we accepting of all people? What about people who are not like us? We have some diversity here in this church. And I’m glad for that! But in too many churches “birds of a feather” do tend to “flock together.”
Well, the last part of this is about how we reach out – to all the world! We should always be giving thought to that. How does our witness reflect on he kingdom of God? And by “witness” I mean both what we say and what we do! And the latter is often the most important! It’s true that actions do speak louder than words! Especially negative actions! It’s not just about what people hear from us. It’s about what they see!
So as we think about that witness, may we also think about who might be touched by that witness. Is it indeed mainly those with whom we are comfortable, or is it “all the world?” God shows no partiality. Do we?
Eternal God, we thank you that we love because indeed you first loved us! We thank you for those “witnesses” whose words and examples have made a difference in our lives. Help us to make a difference in the lives of others. May we truly grow in our ability to be the light you have called us to be in the world. For we pray in the name of Jesus, our light. Amen!