4/11/01 10.45 a.m. Acts 10:9-48 'One in faith'
I don't know how many people can remember leaving their secondary school. I remember looking forward to the freedom that this would bring. No more uniform, timetables, homework, or having to call the teachers 'Sir', at least the male ones anyway! But, of course, most of the rules in school are there for the good of the individuals and the community, and they prepare students for the disciplines of life in the world outside.
This is what verses 9-16 are about. Peter had lived his life according to the Jewish Old Testament law and then became a follower of Jesus. Living a new life. Jesus had fulfilled the requirements of the Old Testament law and also reinterpreted them. The Jews thought that by keeping the commandments you could earn your way into heaven. But no-one is that good, apart from Jesus. The Bible says that everyone sins and falls short of God's glorious standard, Romans 3:23. Jesus paid the price for sin by dying on the cross. So His followers no longer have to worry about keeping rules but are free to follow God's ways, inspired by His Spirit who lives in every Christian.
On two occasions I have accompanied the children from St. Saviour's School to Lichfield Cathedral to take part in 'Open Door'. In the summer the cathedral opens its big doors to school children who take part in worship, learn something about the cathedral and do art, craft, drama and music activities in small groups. The Cathedral was full of many children from different schools but we were able to spot the children from St. Saviour's by their uniforms.
One of the reasons that God gave the law was to make his people distinctive, different from other nations. This was intended to be a witness to other nations, but God's people disobeyed him and pursued other gods. This was why Jesus had to come and bring in a new way for people to relate to God.
Peter was now ready to live his life a new way and God revealed this to him through a vision and an encounter with Cornelius, who wasn't a Jew. The pieces of this story fit together neatly, like a large jig saw puzzle pieced together by an expert. First Cornelius had his vision, which even included the address where Peter was staying. He then sent his messengers to Peter, who was approximately thirty miles away which would have taken them a day to travel. As they were nearing their destination Peter had his vision and, as he was wondering what it meant, Cornelius' delegation arrived as an answer. There were three of them which corresponded with the number of times Peter had his vision !
We have a God who is sovereign and can be found in the small details as well as the big things. We can see something of him in one of the lovely sunsets that we see across the Cheshire Plains and the Welsh hills. We can also see him in the creation of a small animal or a tiny, new-born baby.
The gospel of Jesus frees his followers from the requirements of the law. Not so we can do what we like, but so we can do what God likes, because he has written His law on our hearts by His Spirit.
Have you ever felt excluded ? Perhaps you remember occasions at school when you were the last one to be picked for a sports team, or you were looked down upon because you didn't wear the right clothes. Or maybe you felt like you were the only one who did not understand how to do algebra. Perhaps you moved into a new area or workplace and felt a foreigner in a strange environment. Even in churches people can feel excluded by an 'in crowd' who will not talk to those who are not part of their group.
An orthodox Jew would not mix with a Gentile, or non-Jew. He would never enter a Gentile home or invite a Gentile to his own home, and wouldn't consider sharing a meal with a Gentile. There was an enormous barrier of racial and religious discrimination facing Peter, and the early church. The Old Testament taught that the Messiah would be for all nations, e.g. Isaiah 42:6. Jesus said that the gospel would be for 'Jerusalem,, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth', Acts 1:8.
Cornelius was a member of the Roman occupying forces. As a Roman he would have been encouraged to worship many gods. Verse 2 tells us, He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.
Those who were Gentiles could ally themselves to the Jewish faith and were called 'God fearers'. Perhaps this is what this is referring to. Clearly Cornelius was seeking for God, and this story is about how God is for everyone of any race, colour, sex, intelligence, age, occupation, class, and any other artificial classification you might like to think of.
We may think of ourselves as being unworthy, not good enough for God. We may look at others and think that there is no way that God will break through. Cornelius considered himself unworthy, so much so that he bowed before Peter, verse 25. Saul, who had been persecuting the early church seemed a hopeless case, but Jesus met him and transformed him on the road to Damascus, Chapter 9.
After trusting in Jesus and being freed from demonic powers, former witch Doreen Irvine wrote, " I was overjoyed to think that Jesus could speak to me - a former prostitute, black witch, strip-club girl - and say that, in His sight I was a chaste virgin. In other words I was clean and pure, washed in his blood and justified in His sight."
The good news of Jesus is for everybody. As Christians we are witnesses to the fact that Jesus will call anyone and everyone, even you and me ! We are called to respond to this grace by inviting people to come to church and welcoming those who we do not know in church. Yet we should also be willing to reach out to those who would not come to church and ensuring that we do not place an unnecessary boundaries to people who are seeking God.
We are also called to help those who are involved in spreading the good news around the world. Last week was Bible Sunday and, in the evening service, we heard how the Bible Society is helping people to come to Jesus by translating and distributing the word of God, the Bible. This tells how God has revealed himself throughout history. Peter refers to this when he preaches to Cornelius and the large group of his family and friends who had assembled at his house, verses 24-27.
Peter's words, in verses 36-43 outline the good news of Jesus, rooted in history, observed by witnesses. At the start of his gospel Luke wrote, 1 1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Elsewhere in this letter and in his gospel Luke places the gospel firmly to a specific time. Luke 2 : 1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)
We can be certain of the truth of the gospel. Rooted in time. Observed by witnesses.
In verse 36-43 Peter takes his listeners through the New Testament.
First he refers to Jesus, sent first of all to Israel, but for everyone, because he is Lord of all, verse 36.
He then refers to his ministry, empowered by the Holy Spirit to do good and heal people, undoing the work of the devil.
Peter tells of the crucifixion by the Jews. Jesus was rejected by the very people he came to, verse 39. But Jesus wasn't only rejected by his own people, he was rejected by his heavenly Father. He died physically on the cross, but he also died spiritually, that is to say he was separated from God the Father. Why ? Because, although Jesus always obeyed God's laws and didn't deserve to be separated from God, he chose to take the blame for the sins of the world so that those who receive Jesus are free to know God and follow His ways. We celebrate and proclaim what Jesus has done for us in this Communion Service this morning.
Yet we do not celebrate a dead and defeated leader, but a Saviour who is alive. Peter records that God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen, verse 40. Not everyone saw him, but over five hundred did ( 1 Cor. 15:6 ), more than enough to convince any jury. Even non-Christian, such a Josephus, born in AD 37 wrote about Jesus that 'those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive on the third day...'
Even this is not the end of the story, just the end of a Chapter. Three more are needed. The next is the preaching of the gospel to the whole world, 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify... We are presently in this Chapter of the book of salvation when the good news of Jesus will be preached and some people will respond in penitence and faith. This needs humility, a realization that we are not good enough for God. This needs a desire to make a U-turn in our lives. Turning from everything that is wrong to turn and follow Jesus. Knowing that he has died in our place on that cross and asking for his forgiveness and power to live.
It is God the Holy Spirit who enables people to make this transition. He convicts people of sin, gives them the will to turn to God and gives the power to live for God. Every Christian has God the Holy Spirit living within them. When the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentile believers in Cornelius' house this resulted in them speaking in tongues and praising God, verse 46.
Speaking in tongues is a gift from God and isn't given to every Christian, although every Christian has at least one gift of the Holy Spirit. I think that tongues were given to these first Gentile believers to show that they were 'as Christian' as the Jewish believers who spoke in tongues at Pentecost. This shows that there are no second class Christians. We are all equal in God's sight, but we are all different. That is how God made us and how he gifts us.
There are two Chapters left in the book. Talking about Jesus in the second part of verse 42 Peter continues, that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.
Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead, as we say in the Creed. Many people may think of this as something that is unlikely to happen in their lifetime, but the events of September 11th remind us that we cannot be complacent and our lives could be taken with little or no warning. Everyone is destined to die once and then to face judgement, Hebrews 9:27. On what basis will people be judged ? On their relationship to Jesus. We have already seen that no-one but Jesus is good enough for God, so the only other way to fellowship with God, now and in eternity, is by being a follower of Jesus. This is the final Chapter in our book of salvation. Those who have not accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour will be excluded from God's presence. Those who have accepted Jesus can look forward to being with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit forever with perfect resurrection bodies and no more sin, tears, suffering, death, or mourning. When that day comes we will no longer need the bread and wine to remind us of Jesus because we will be in his presence.
We have been working through four themes that are found in the whole of Acts. The Christian faith : is free from the law; is for everyone; is historically based; and is spread by proclamation in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is still active today, working in Christians to make them more like Jesus and bringing people to faith in Jesus. Maybe there is someone here today who is aware that God is calling them to turn to him. Some of the things I have been saying this morning may have struck you for the first time and you are thinking, 'Yes, I want to change from the life I live now and become a follower of Jesus. Turning from my sins, asking for the forgiveness that he obtained for me on the cross, and living a new life helped by his Spirit.'
Others may have done this before, but maybe you have lost that first love and commitment and you feel that you need to rededicate your life to Jesus. If anyone falls into either of these categories I am going to invite you to say this prayer, line by line after me in the silence of your heart. God will hear you and will come into your life and give you a new life, both now and in eternity.
Lord Jesus Christ,
I am sorry that I have fallen short of what you want me to be.
I turn from everything I know to be wrong to follow you.
Thank you for taking the punishment that I deserve on the cross.
I claim the forgiveness that you gained for me there
and ask that you will come into my life
and help me be a true follower of you for all of my days.
If anyone has prayed this prayer it would be most helpful if you could tell me as I shake your hand at the door, after the service.