Great Joy to All People – July 29, 2007

Acts 10:1-23, Acts 10:34-48

July 29, 2007

I’m borrowing these words today from the Christmas story. This is part of what the Angel said to the shepherds in the fields. “Be not afraid! For I bring you good news of a great joy that shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

I’ll bet you never expected to hear those words in July! But I want to remind you of them today, not just as a reminder of God’s promises – not just in a “Christmas in July” kind of way. Anyone ever been to one of those? A Christmas in July celebration? That’s fine, and we should remember that event, even half-way through the year. Maybe you want to start your Christmas shopping! By my calculations, there are only 148 more shopping days!

That’s not the main reason for this, though. What I want you to think about is what the Angel said about this “great joy.” It shall be “to all people!” And that meant, it wasn’t just for the Jews! Yes, they were the ones who had been waiting for this “Christ” to come. They were the ones whose prophets had foretold it all for several centuries now. But when it finally came, the angel said the great joy would come to “all people.”

Fast forward some 30 years. The shepherds had gone to Bethlehem. The wise men had seen the Christ child and given him gifts. Herod had tried to destroy the baby. Jesus had grown to be a man and he had spent three years going all around telling the people that the kingdom of God was in their midst! Now, after his untimely death, his followers were empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue his ministry and to begin the age of the Church. Those were wonderful times in which the spirit of God was working in a powerful way. I told you before, I think this book might be better titled “The Acts of the Holy Spirit!”

Now these words would come back into play. Because now in this tenth chapter of Acts we start to see more of this controversy I told you about last week. The controversy was, what part if any, would the Gentiles play in the Church? Were they to be part of the picture. And in this and the later chapters, we would see that they were. This good news truly was for all people.

In this first reading, verses 1 through 23, there are two different stories. And I think Luke weaves them together wonderfully! Because I think we’ll see that they are very much related! First, he tells us of this man named Cornelius. He was a Roman Centurion, which means he was a Gentile. But he was also described as being “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God.” Cornelius had this vision in which God told him to send to the city of Joppa and bring back this man named Peter. So he sent his servants with that task.

Meanwhile, as they were on the way to Joppa, Peter himself was having a vision of his own. He dreamed he was up on the housetop and he saw what looked like a great sheet coming down from heaven held by the four corners. And when it was opened, he saw that there was in it all kinds of animals. And the voice of God was heard to say, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.”

Now, what’s that all about? Well, what was really at stake here was the Jewish food laws – the Kosher laws. God was telling Peter he did not have to “keep kosher” any more. And Peter was very resistant! He was a good Jew, and he had always obeyed those laws. But God was also insistent. He showed Peter the same vision three times! Each time he said, “What God has declared clean, you must not call unclean.”

Well, while Peter was thinking about that, these guys showed up who had been sent by Cornelius to “fetch him.” And at that same time, the spirit said to Peter, “Three guys are coming to fetch you.” “Don’t hesitate to go with them.” Do you see how the spirit was working in those days? The Spirit was giving very audible messages. Don’t we wish we had God speak to us in that way?!

So Peter goes to the door and meets these three strangers, and before they can even introduce themselves, Peter says to them. “I am the one you are looking for.” And when they tell them their story, he puts them up overnight and he goes with them the next day. And in the paragraph, which we didn’t read today, we find the connection between these two stories – these two visions! And we see the impact this has on Peter!

Again, we didn’t have time to read this whole story, but I would encourage you to do so – later on. Peter meets Cornelius, and he says this in verse 28. “You know how unlawful it is for [me] a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” Peter saw that the vision of the animals in the sheet was about not just the kosher laws! It was about the fact that this great joy shall be to all people!

Cornelius then tells Peter his vision, how he was told by God to send for him. So then, Peter proceeds to tell these Gentiles the good news for the first time. And what happens? In verse 44 of the part we read, it says, “While Peter was still speaking – he wasn’t even finished yet! While he was still speaking the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.”

Please notice that sometimes the Holy Spirit does not wait for people to complete their task! Sometimes we feel like we have to have the right words to say to people, and that we have to complete the task of saying everything correctly in order for God to act. And sometimes we feel that if we aren’t up to that task, then we’d better not say anything. We forget that we have to trust that what we say and do for others is not in our hands! It’s in God’s hands!

Well, I’d love to tell you that this good news of the inclusion of all people in the kingdom of God was well received, and everybody rejoiced and was glad. But of course, it wasn’t. As I said, this became a big controversy from this point on in the book of Acts, and in the early Church.

The news of this story traveled rapidly back to Jerusalem, and when he got there himself, Peter is met by people who are upset. “Why do you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” In other words, “Why do you do these things that are so wrong in our tradition?!?!” It seems the attitude of being unable to see past one’s own traditions to recognize that God is working in a mighty way, is not reserved for the Jewish leadership in those days! But remember, this was tough even for Peter to accept, and he saw the vision – three times. Now he had to explain it to people who did not see the vision!!

We will begin to see more of this whole controversy as we go through the next few weeks. But for now, let’s try to see how this experience impacts us. Had we been good Jews, like Peter, or like his colleagues in Jerusalem, how would we have reacted to this new work of the Holy Spirit. Remember, we would have been taught from early in our childhood that we were the chosen people. It wouldn’t have seemed right somehow for Peter to have gone to these people. And we may have had a hard time accepting it, too.

It’s always easier to have a God we can “predict,” isn’t it? It’s always easier to have a God we say we understand fully. That whole bit about “seeing in a mirror dimly” is always the tougher part of the faith. It’s always harder to say “You know, when it comes down to it, I don’t know God fully, but I know that he knows me!” Clearly, God was beginning to work in the lives of these people who wouldn’t have been “on the ‘ins’” before. Would we have been indignant? Or would we have rejoiced that more people were coming to know God?

Look what Peter said about it. “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have just received the Holy Spirit just as we have?!” No matter how hard it was to convince him at first, in the end, Peter looked at the evidence of what was happening and he said, “God is working here!” Who is to prevent baptizing these people?” Of course, there were those who wanted to. At least until they could be properly “indoctrinated” or at least until this whole controversy could be “sorted out.”

It is sometimes tough for us to accept the experience of the Holy Spirit in someone else. Sometimes when they tell us about it, we can feel the skepticism rising within us. We know that’s not the voice we should be listening to, but it’s so hard to ignore. We need to look at what’s happening before our eyes. We need to search our hearts. And I mean our hearts, not necessarily our minds. Our minds would “reason” it out. “They’re not our kind of people. They don’t believe what we believe. They don’t know our way of doing things. They’re not like us, therefore they can’t be one of us.”

Sometimes it’s just as tough for us to accept such experiences of others as it was for Peter. Three times he fought it, until the third time he accepted it. When the Spirit tries to work within us, do we fight it? Do we say, “No Lord, that’s not the way things happen!” or “Lord, I’m uncomfortable with that kind of thing.” Or do we say, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth… but not necessarily in my life…”

Do we do that? Or, do we actively seek the presence of God in our lives? Do we actively seek the touch of the Holy Spirit? Do we have the diligence to seek God’s guidance, and then do we have the courage to follow it when we hear what it is?

Yes a lot of amazing things were happening in those days. And much of it was hard to accept. But like he did then, God still has the power to work in our lives today. God still wants to be in fellowship with us, and God wants to be involved in our world. So let us pledge again this day that we will actively seek to be his people here where we are. Let us listen for and expect to hear his voice calling us, leading us, inspiring us, and challenging us to service. And let us expect that the Holy Spirit will be working in us, maybe even before we have a chance to finish speaking, for it is the Spirit who acts through us!

Prayer.

Lord, save us from that way of thinking that says that we are the final arbiter of everything that happens in the world around us. Help us to figure out ways to open communication with others. Teach us to reach out – even when we don’t feel like reaching out! But help us to seek to be in communication with you even more. Speak to us, work through us, change us. For these things we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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