To All People – July 24, 2022
Psalm 139, Acts 11:1-18
July 24, 2022
I took the title of this message from the angel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth to the Christmas shepherds. “Behold I bring you good tidings of a great joy that shall be to all people…” Because now in Acts, the part about “to all people” was coming true.
And I love this story! And I didn’t read you the whole story, which is found in chapter 10, because I would have violated the “20 verse rule of thumb” – again! (Don’t read any more than 20 verses on a Sunday morning.) Fortunately, we have a synopsis of that story in this next chapter, chapter 11. Here, Peter is telling of what happened in chapter 10. He was explaining it to the “brethren in Jerusalem.” Because they had heard that something had happened, and it included “Gentiles!” (Yeah… those guys!)
And that’s the focus of this story. This story is about the Gentiles – those who the Jews had looked down on and even despised for many, many years! The Jews had a number of derogatory names for the Gentiles. And now this!
This is the story of Cornelius. And Cornelius was a Roman soldier, an officer. And it’s the story of how he and his family became the first Gentile converts to the Christian faith. Or at least the first prominent ones! And the other believers were not sure what to make of that! And it wasn’t just because they objected to (even hated) the Romans, but because Christianity was first seen as being part of Judaism. It arose directly out of the Jewish religion. Jesus, and all his disciples were Jewish. And the Gentiles were still the outsiders. And now these outsiders were coming to the faith. And some people had a problem with that. This was a huge issue in the early days of the Church!
The main objectors in this story were a group called “The circumcision party.” (And what? Were they guys who went around with badges and knives and scissors? But seriously…) They were those who believed that, in order for a person to become a Christian, they first had to become Jewish. And I’m not going to go into all the details of what that meant! I’ll leave that to your imagination!
Well Peter probably believed that, at least at first. Maybe not the circumcision part, but certainly the Jewish part. I think that’s obvious in first part of this. But he had his mind and his heart changed through the story he was now relating to the brethren in Jerusalem. Again, you can read the whole story in Acts 10. But here Peter gave them the short version – the Readers Digest version.” The “20 verse Rule of Thumb” version!
Cornelius, a Roman officer, was a devout man – a “spiritual” man. And he had a vision of an angel who told him to send for a man named Peter. Meanwhile, Peter had a vision of his own on the housetop. And in his vision, he saw what looked like a giant sheet being lowered from heaven. And it was filled with all kinds of animals – “non-kosher” animals – that he was instructed to eat. And he objected – three times! He said, “No Lord! I’ve always kept kosher!” Just then, the servants of Cornelius knocked on his door and asked Peter to go with them to the home of this prominent Gentile, which he did. And there he told them the story of Jesus, and the whole household of Cornelius was baptized and received the Holy Spirit.
That’s what Peter was explaining to the brethren in Jerusalem. And was telling them that God was saying that the Gentiles were included in this new faith. The non-kosher animals that he was now instructed to eat symbolized the Gentiles. Both were considered by the Jews to be “unclean.” But not anymore! They were to be included in the new faith. The angel’s words were coming true. This was good news of a great joy to all people!
This story presented – to them and to us – the question, who is included in this new faith? I’m sure they were wondering, what did the Angel really mean in saying, “to all people?” And we’re asked the same question. What does that look like to us?
I’ve asked you the question before, what if we started getting an influx of bikers – motorcycle riders – into the church? Would we be comfortable with that? (Actually, we already have them!) What about other people, maybe other people who don’t look like us, or act like us? What about people who don’t believe like us? Who is included in this new faith?
I believe the question is so important, and it goes deeper than we think. And I think it challenges us at the doctrinal level. What about people who don’t believe exactly the way we believe? What do we think about our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters? How about the Southern Baptists? How about some other denominations who we think have questionable beliefs?
We “Presbyterians” are a little different than other denominations. We believe, and we say it in our historic principles, that “people of good conscience can differ.” You’ve heard me quote that many times! We believe that we can have different beliefs than those around us even in the same church. And then, as Paul says in the New Testament, “we forebear and encourage one another” – even if we disagree!
Some denominations are not like that. Some have a set doctrine, and all followers are expected to conform to that. They then have a struggle with other denominations who have different doctrines. We “Presbys” have the harder task of struggling with different beliefs of others, even among ourselves!
As you’re probably aware, there are some Christian sects who believe that they’re “saved,” and everybody else isn’t. I’ve heard them, I’m sure you have, too! And I think of the old joke about the guy who dies and goes to heaven and Saint Peter is showing him around. And they go by a large building where they can hear a lot of joyous singing coming from the inside. And man asks Saint Peter, “Who’s that?” And Peter says, “Oh, that’s the Baptists. They think they’re the only ones here.” And of course, you can substitute any number of denominations in that punch line. I’m not just picking on the Baptists! But what if the punch line was, “That’s the Presbyterians. They think they’re the only ones here!” How would that make you feel? (Actually, they wouldn’t be very good Presbyterians! What with that whole “people of good conscience differing” thing!)
But we are asked the question, who is included in that “to all people” phrase? I believe we’re faced these days with another question. When thinking about who’s included in God’s kingdom. We’re being asked, not only, “What about someone who believes different doctrines within the church?” We’re also being asked, “What about people who say they love God, but are not part of the church?” That’s a huge question for our time! And I don’t think the church has really come to grips with it yet. What about all those other people? And believe me, I ask God that question all the time!
As I’ve said, we’re living in the Post-Modern Age, an age where there is a huge explosion of spirituality all around us – spirituality of all kinds. We live in an age where many people say they are “spiritual” but not “religious.” I’m sure you’ve heard that.
Sometimes my head “spins” when I think about this. Sometimes I’m not sure what to think. That’s why I do ask God what to think. Because I don’t believe the God who “so loved the world” would want us simply to “write them off,” and give them up as “condemned.” I don’t believe God only deals with us who believe – and is not concerned about them. I believe God is much bigger than that.
But I’m not sure what to think. Because there are many “devout” people in this world – devout people like Cornelius! What about the Mormons, the devout Muslims (not the violent factions, but the very devout people?) What about the Buddhists and other religions who have been seeking the divine for thousands of years before the Christians, or even the Jews?
And before we answer too quickly, think again about these early Jewish Christians. They believed salvation came only to them – including Peter, at first. They questioned whether those outsiders were to be part of God’s kingdom. I’m sure the words, “to all People” were uncomfortable to them. I’m sure Jesus’ words, “For God so loved the world” was uncomfortable then, and that’s still uncomfortable to some today!
I’m sure this is challenging. I’m sure this is one time I’m giving you more questions than answers. But I do hope you will think about this! And at the very least, consider that God does indeed love “the world!” And think about what that means to those who might not believe like us, or look like us, or love like us!
And one last thought – before you get out the tar and feathers. Do pray about this. Take it up with God. Ask God what to think, and how to love. And be willing to think about this the way he wants you to think. And be open to loving the people he wants you to love.
Eternal God, help us to understand better your love for the world. We know your love is so powerful that you sent your son. And we know that your love calls us to love the world, too. But we need your strength to do so. We need your guidance, so that we can know how to love like you love. Help us to feel your presence and your Grace. For we pray in Jesus’ name, and for the sake of his kingdom, Amen.