Sermon Acts 11 1-18 Pentecost
Dear Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
CFL football exhibition games started this week. The other day in the car I listened to part of the game on the radio where the Ticats beat the Argos. I don’t see as many games as I used to.
There was a time when Robin and I watched regularly. We’d stay up late on Friday or Saturday nights to watch the BC Lions when Robin’s cousin played for BC. In those days Robin and I could tell you the names of all the Quarterbacks, Head Coaches, and most of the high profile players on all 8 teams in the CFL. We were really into it.
Usually, at some time in the fourth quarter of every game, the commentators would look back at some highlights of the game. In particular, they showed what they thought was the turning point of the game. It could be a missed field goal, a recovered fumble that was taken in for a touchdown, or a goal line stand that prevented the other team from scoring. The turning point of the game was the play where one team took control of the game and never looked back.
Reading through the book of Acts, we can identify a turning point in the life of the church. If the game really heats up in Acts 2 when the Spirit comes on the apostles, then a turning point is Acts 10, when Peter goes to Cornelius’ house. Up to this point, the message was kept “in the family” – so to speak. Even when Philip baptized the Ethiopian in charge of the treasury of Queen Candace, the civil servant from Ethiopia was welcomed into the church as a person who worshipped God at the temple.
In Acts 10, you see, Peter crosses the line. He stays in the house of a gentile – a Roman centurion, no less. After going and eating and preaching to Gentiles, it is rather predictable that some members of the church are going to ask questions about Peter’s actions.
It is called Christian discipline. Peter had crossed the line. Now the faithful believers were going to evaluate what he had done and respond with discernment.
This line between Jews and the rest of the world was firmly established by the laws of purity. It is rooted in the law given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Because God lived right among his people, dwelling in the Most Holy part of the temple in Jerusalem, the Holy City, the Lord’s people were expected to keep themselves pure and holy.
Especially since the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, any contact with Gentiles threatened their purity and cleanliness. Such contamination put the whole nation of God’s people at risk. They were dreadfully afraid of being sent out of the Promised Land again in a repetition of the Babylonian captivity. Having gone there once, they were not eager to repeat it.
To prevent being sent out of the Promised Land and out of God’s presence, the Jews went to great lengths to maintain the sanctity of their land and to keep themselves pure and clean before God. It is small wonder then, that Peter faces criticism and is forced to explain why he was fraternizing with the enemy.
We’ve noticed that the relationship between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians is a big concern in many of the books in the NT. Here in Acts 11, the question is addressed by the church in Jerusalem: are impure, unclean Gentiles invited to join God’s chosen people?
Through Peter’s testimony, it becomes clear that this question is raised and answered by God himself, through the work of the Holy Spirit. We know the events of the story relatively well. It is regularly told in Sunday School programs and the details are given three times as you read through chapters 10 and 11.
Three times the voice from heaven told Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” And Luke tells it to his readers three times: first as it happens, a second time when Peter is talking with Cornelius, and a third time when Peter explains the whole visit in Jerusalem. When a phrase is repeated like that, it is supposed to get your attention.
How do they could they be sure that Peter was following directions from God? We see God at work several times in this chapter and a half.
Peter demonstrates that he is open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. He spends time praying during his stay in Joppa. He has the vision while he is already talking to God.
Then immediately when the vision is over – just as he says “Amen,” right then, the messengers from Caesarea stopped at the house. The events seem carefully orchestrated – it’s more than a coincidence.
More importantly, the Spirit tells Peter to go with them. While he is still on the roof, the Spirit of God tells him the number of messengers and the reason for their visit before Peter goes down. The Spirit’s word is confirmed when Peter goes down and is invited to go with them.
When he speaks with them, Peter hears how an angel appeared to Cornelius. The angel told Cornelius to send for Peter, so Peter can bring “a message though which you and all your household will be saved.”
The Spirit does more. When Peter comes and preaches, the members of Cornelius’ household are convinced. They believe the message and put their faith in Jesus. They believe the message of salvation.
Finally, the Spirit comes on these new believers in power. To the amazement of Peter’s companions, the Spirit comes on these Gentles just as he came on them at the beginning. The Spirit is sent by God the Father and Jesus to strengthen and equip believers. Peter and his companions recognize this as the Spirit’s blessing and confirmation of these new disciples.
As he re-tells the story in Jerusalem, Peter remembers how Jesus told the disciples that “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus says these exact words shortly before he ascends into heaven. Luke records the event in Acts 1.
It is an echo of what John the Baptizer said about Jesus in Luke chapter 3. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, John pointed Jesus out to his followers by saying, “I baptize with water. . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
While waiting for the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the disciples are gathered in one place on Pentecost. They stayed together in Jerusalem to wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them with power – power to bring the gospel of life through Jesus Christ. And the Holy Spirit did come. With the sound of a great wind, the breath of God entered them, re-creating them, and tongues of fire danced above their heads.
Now in Caesarea, in the house of a Roman centurion, the Holy Spirit breathes life into Gentile believers. They too are given the ability to speak in Jesus’ name. They too are filled with the breath of God and made alive.
If God gives the same gift to the Gentiles as he gave the Jewish disciples, then it is clear that this is the work of God: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is making disciples of all nations.
We bump into some of the same barriers. It is much easier and more comfortable to visit and worship together with people who are very similar to ourselves. It’s a challenge to step out of our comfort zone.
That’s one of the important things that happens when we send teams to Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, the southern United States, Calgary, or Chino, California. It forces us to cross lines and boundaries that make us uncomfortable.
Going outside of our own community, we are prepared for things to be a little uncomfortable. We expect people to be different – we are primed and ready for it. So when we see people who live very differently that we do, or smell people who smell differently, or speak with people who speak differently, it doesn’t surprise us. We expect it – it intrigues us. It’s part of the novelty of the experience. We are interested in crossing the usual boundaries and excited to share the experience when we return.
We need to have something of the same sense of adventure and preparation for God to give us unique opportunities when we are in our own community, when we are on the sidelines of our soccer field or trimming the edges of our lawns. We need to be prepared to show grace and kindness to people who are different, to be prepared to cross the boundaries, and share the love of God for all people.
In the power of the Holy Spirit we are able to speak of God’s love, even in places where we aren’t comfortable. By the prompting of the Holy Spirit we are able to speak of God’s grace and love, crossing boundaries, reaching over barriers, and rejoicing that God’s Spirit precedes us and breaths life into people of every nation, language, tribe and race.
“As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”
See, this is the good news that we see and celebrate in God’s word and strive to imitate in our life of discipleship. As I said earlier, Peter’s visit with Cornelius is a turning point in the book of Acts.
Looking ahead, we notice that the second half of Acts 11 records how Barnabas is sent to investigate when the good news is preached to Gentiles up in Antioch. Watching and recognizing the grace of God at work, Barnabas reaches the same conclusion. The preaching and discipleship of Gentiles into the church of Christ is the Lord’s doing. Shortly after that, Barnabas and Paul are sent off on their first missionary journey to bring the gospel to cities around Asia Minor, preaching to Jews and Gentiles alike the gospel of life through Jesus Christ.
As a result, we too have been invited to join the church of Christ. Having been welcomed by God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit, we are called to extend the same grace to others and depend on the leading and work of the same Holy Spirit.