Christ–For Them and Us
There are times in life when we come to important crossroads, face new and challenging situations. Even if they are opportunities, we may feel stressed because we’re out of our comfort zone. We may wonder: “am I able to do this?” or “what’s the right thing to do?”or “is God guiding me here”? Perhaps what’s required seems like a double dose of faith, hope and love, a little courage.
What’s also true is this: we may one day look back on such a time as a defining moment in our life, or our church.” When Abraham Lincoln’s decided to free the slaves early in the civil war – – a risky decision at the time – – it became a defining moment of his presidency and this nation’s history.
Today’s reading from Acts 10 is about a defining moment in what it means to follow Jesus. Peter is the leader of a very young Christian movement and must make a series of decisions that will change how he and his fellow believers understand God’s purposes. Is Jesus also the savior of Gentiles? Up to this point, the church was pretty much all Jewish.
I want to focus today on how God stretches Peter’s faith by showing him that Jesus is not just for “us” but also for “them”. Let me tell it in four acts.
Act I – A STRANGE, REVOLTING VISION
Joppa is a town by the Mediterranean Sea (35 miles from Jerusalem). Peter has been traveling around that area, meeting with small groups of fellow believers, staying here with Simon the Tanner, whose home in Joppa is right by the water. Its noon and Peter’s gone up to the roof, (they were flat) in order to pray, also sending down word that he’s very hungry. As he prays, Peter falls in a trance and receives a strange vision about food, but definitely not comfort food. His vision repulses him at first, but will be a key to what happens next, so we need to understand it.
As a devout Jew, Peter follows Jewish law and custom not to touch or eat things that make him “unclean”. Unclean is not about germs or dirt but food, people or objects that make one unacceptable to worship in the Temple. We can still find some of these customs among conservative Jews today who keep kosher homes. In Peter’s time however, these laws and practices are much more serious because they reinforce Jews as the chosen people of God, specially set apart for God. Gentiles are not.
So Peter’s vision is unsettling. Down from heaven comes a great sheet with four corners on which are creatures of all kinds, most unacceptable for Jews to eat. Pork, snails, certain birds. Unclean. So what is Peter to do with the command: “Rise, Peter, kill and eat”!?
Like a good Jew he responds “Surely not, Lord, (he says) for these are unclean.” “Don’t call unclean what God has purified” replies the voice. Whoa. What’s that supposed to mean? And it happens three times before the sheet is withdrawn into the heavens, ending the vision! Peter is left wondering, what just happened here? What does this vision mean?
Act II – THE DAY BEFORE
Let’s jump back to the day before Peter’s vision, in a city 30 miles up the shore from Joppa: Caesarea. You can tell by the name it’s not Jewish. Caesarea is the headquarters for Pontius Pilate and the Roman army of occupation. In the eyes of many Jews, that’s not only way unclean, its enemy territory.
But God seems to enjoy messing with human stereotypes. In that city lives Cornelius, a Roman Centurion who is a “god-fearer”, he and his household . A “god- fearer” is a Jewish term for a Gentile who is attracted to Jewish faith and follows many of its practices. We learn that Cornelius is even respected by the Jews in the area for his generosity to the poor and earnest prayers. And it is while he is praying that afternoon that an angel of the Lord appears to him in a vision
When angels show up in the Bible, people’s first reaction is usually fear – – encountering the spiritual world outside normal experience really gets one’s attention— Jew or Gentile— and Cornelius, a Roman captain of 100 soldiers, stares at the angel in fear. But he is assured by the angel that he has found favor with God. Now he is given orders to send people to the town of Joppa and bring back a Jew named Simon Peter. Like the good soldier he is, Cornelius immediately orders two servants and one of his devout soldiers on a mission to Joppa.
Act III – CROSSING THE LINES
So far in this account, two men, 30 miles apart in distance but world’s apart in backgrounds, have received vivid but puzzling visions from God. Neither one understands their purpose but both men revere God and are people of prayer. This is important. Before any of us can help change the world we must be willing ourselves to be changed.
What happens next will change Cornelius and Peter in ways they could not imagine. We left Peter on the rooftop pondering his strange vision about unclean food. As he ponders, the Holy Spirit reveals to him that men have been sent to fetch him and he should go with them.
So when Peter hears someone calling out his name from outside the gate, he goes down to greet them. We can imagine the situation that confronts him however — these men at the gate are not Jews and one is even a Roman soldier. He asks why they have sent for him and learns of Cornelius, the god-fearing centurion, and his vision of an angel. They want Peter so they can hear what he has to say.
Taking this all in, Peter crosses a line he’s never crossed before – – he invites unclean Gentiles into this Jewish home to eat and stay overnight. Peter has just taken his first step into God’s new reality, even though he doesn’t fully realize it— yet. But no doubt he must be remembering the Lord’s voice in the vision: “don’t call unclean what God has purified”
It doesn’t get any easier. The next day they start out for Caesarea. When they arrive Peter must now enters an unclean city and then the house of a Gentile. He has wisely taken six companions along as witnesses but don’t you think he may be wondering if he’s doing the right thing here?” It’s clearly on his mind because notice the first thing he says upon entering Cornelius’ home, finding the large group of family and friends waiting for him.
Luke records: “You are well aware (Peter says to them) that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”
Act IV – GOD IS UP TO SOMETHING BIG HERE
“Why did you send for me?” Peter has asked. Cornelius answers by telling the story of his vision and then says: “and we are now here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” Well. Speaking as a fellow preacher, you don’t get opportunities like that everyday!
Peter tells them about Jesus, about how he has learned that God shows no favoritism and accepts anyone who fears him. Then he gets to the part about everyone who believes in Jesus “receives forgiveness of sins in his name” and all heaven breaks lose!
What Peter and his companions now witness is a whole new world, beyond all expectations. The Holy Spirit doesn’t even wait for Peter to finish his sermon. While he is still speaking, there comes over this group of Gentiles some of the same signs the disciples experienced on Pentecost. Not only do the Gentles want to hear what Peter has to say, they immediately and unmistakably receive the gospel in faith. Right before
Peter’s eyes they begin praising God and speaking in tongues, signs of the Holy Spirit.
What is Peter to do? What else can he do? “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?”, he exclaims, “They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have!”
“Just as we have” This happening in Cornelius’ house is a defining moment. Peter has just witnessed that Jesus is for all people and the gifts of God’s Spirit are given to Gentiles just as they are to Jews. Of course, the whole world has not yet fully received this gift of God. Indeed, we in the church don’t always grasp it either. But we should remember that what awoke Peter and his companions about God’s grace to all people has dawned on many people over the centuries, in small and large ways alike. Let me close with one of them.
Irish the world over celebrate their national pride on St. Patrick’s Day as do many of us who may join in the festivities. Most folks however, are not aware of a great Christian miracle that happened through St. Patrick. No, I’m not referring to the myth that he rid Ireland of snakes. This miracle is a historical fact and much better. Did you know that Patrick was not Irish and at age 16 was kidnapped by Irish raiders and spent six years in brutal captivity as their slave? After a daring escape he made it back to the continent and his family, eventually becoming a priest and a bishop. But then Bishop Patrick began having vivid dreams in which Irish voices would call out to him: “we beseech you to come and walk once more among us.”
Having lost his youth to their injustice, his family and church naturally advised against going back but his conviction grew that God was calling him to go, which he did. In his thirty years there, Patrick established the Christian church in Ireland, probably baptized tens of thousands of converts, ordained hundreds of priests and personified Ireland’s identity as a people. This miracle of missionary work was finally God’s work of course, but the message bearer came in love to his oppressor even as Peter to Jew came to the Roman.
Christ is for “them” as well as “us”. We should never underestimate God’s power to do great things through those who take this to heart. Amen