To the Next Level – August 11, 2019
August 11, 2019
I’ve always loved the way Acts 10 has a story within a story. However, it does make it hard to figure out where to start and end the scripture reading, without violating the “20 Verse Rule of Thumb,” That “Rule of Thumb” says, “Don’t read any more than 20 verses on a Sunday morning.”
Oh well… We went over by three. But we did need to see the flow of this story. Actually, this story is a “vision within a vision.” This man Cornelius sees the first vision. Now we’re told here that Cornelius is a Roman soldier. He is a centurion. That means he’s an officer, and he’s in command of one hundred men. We are even given the name of his unit, which I find very interesting. His unit was called “The Italian Cohort” I’ve always thought that was an important thing, because Rome was located in Italy, and so this must have been an important group to be named for that actual country.
So we’re told that Cornelius is a Roman soldier – a commander. We’re also told that he is a devout man who “feared God” and “gave alms liberally” to the people. And in this story God honors him by giving him this vision, in which he sees an angel coming to him and telling him to go find a man named Peter.
Meanwhile… as the servants he sent to find Peter were on their way, Peter himself had a vision of his own. And this one’s a big more strange. Peter sees something like a giant sheet being lowered from heaven by its corners, and it’s filled with all kinds of animals. And from the conversation, we surmise that these are non-kosher animals! Because, when God tells him to “kill and eat,” Peter says to God, “No! I can’t do that!” “I’ve always been a good Jewish boy! I’ve always kept Kosher!” And God says “Oy vey!” “I’m telling you to eat!” And the vision happens three times.
So Peter is a bit stubborn, here! Or at least he was “inwardly perplexed,” as it says in the Biblical language! But he finally gets the message. He’s being told in this vision that things were changing – things he had lived by all his life! And that had to have been hard for him! Just imagine. “From now on,” God says, “What I call clean, is clean! And it’s good that word is used. Because, that’s what the Kosher laws were all about – food safety! And that was very important! But God was telling him that was now changing.
I have to wonder what Peter was thinking. “Was he wondering what else was going to change? Was he worried about his health or his spiritual standing? Those two things went hand in hand! Was he wondering, “What am I going to tell my Rabbi?”
That first thing was true. Things were changing! What was once considered to be “unclean” was no longer to be thought as such! Enter now the servants of Cornelius. More specifically, enter now the Gentile servants of the Gentile Cornelius! And as you think about that, remember the three “difficulties” we’ve been talking about in the early church. 1) Teaching in the name of Jesus and how the religious establishment reacted to that! 2) Who was to be included in this new ministry? And 3) the persecution of the church.
Well, we’re back to the second one in spades. At first it was the Samaritans. We know they and the Jews didn’t get along. But they were at least close in relationship and history. Now we’re talking the Gentiles. And that’s taking this “To the Next Level!”
You’ve heard that expression, haven’t you? “To the Next Level” means taking something further and usually in an upward motion. Your organization is increasing it’s vision or it’s scope, and it’s said that it’s taking it “To the Next Level.”
Well, that’s what was happening here. And it wasn’t smooth. There was a lot of resistance to this “Gentile thing.” This controversy would take several more chapters in Acts! It wasn’t until Peter went to the Christian leadership council in Jerusalem and explained the whole thing, and pleaded for the inclusion of the Gentiles, that it was finally decided that they “could be in.” And that was really saying something! That was breaking with the accepted “norms” that the early Christians – who at first were Jews – had been taught all their lives. It was like the Kosher laws Peter was being told about in his vision. These two visions were about the same thing, weren’t they!
So, this is a great story. But what does it mean to us? I’ve often talked about who might be included in our fellowship. I’ve asked you, how would you feel if a dozen or so bikers came to worship on Sunday morning. (We actually have a couple, by the way!) What if we created some “Motorcycles Only” parking spaces out here somewhere? Would there be a point at which you would feel “uncomfortable?” Who else would make you feel uncomfortable if they were suddenly coming to worship? Think about it.
Imagine the discomfort of Peter. He refused God’s change three times. (He was good at denying things three times, wasn’t he?!) Would you react the same way? “No, Lord, we’ve never had such people here before!”
I believe the church is really being challenged these days in who it includes. And some of that is challenging to me, too! If you are honest with yourself, I think you’ll admit you have such challenges, too!
The “comfortable thing” would be to rest in the past. That would have been the comfortable thing for Peter. But instead, he was the one who argued before the Council for the inclusion of the Gentiles. And the finally the Council agreed. And if you read ahead, you’ll find that they relented on the whole “circumcision” thing. And that was a thing! Some believed Gentiles had to become Jews in that way if they wanted to be Christians. But the Council let that one go. They said, essentially, that the new believers had only the requirement to “live the faith.”
On what things like that might we relent? There was a time in my life when you did not come to church without wearing a tie! But things like that are much more relaxed now. What other kinds of things might change like that? And on what kinds of things would we stand our ground? And where is the line between simply wanting our own way and being uncomfortable with God’s ways?
These are not easy questions. This whole controversy was not easy for the early church. But I believe the challenge is to be God’s people, and do what God would want, letting go of our own wants, sometimes even our own sense of what’s “right and proper.”
So that’s the challenge. There’s a real sense in me that God is calling his people to the Next Level. And I don’t have any preconceived notions of what that means. There are enough of those out there – preconceived notions, that is! But whatever we are being called to do and to be, maybe we can think of old Peter, arguing with God about what is Kosher and what isn’t, standing his ground on the traditions on which he was raised – traditions which gave him comfort and security. And then maybe we can see him arguing before the Council, telling them what he has seen God doing among the Gentiles. And with him, we can pray and ask God what he wants to do among us, and then maybe just listen…
Eternal God, help us to be people who seek your will, who love with your amazing love, who see beyond our own mindset, and who reach out with your message of redemption and reconciliation. May your Spirit be in our hearts, giving us the strength we need. These things we ask in Our Savior’s name, Amen.