Bible Reading Ephesians 2:4-5,13,15b-19
The bulletin says Acts, but it is actually in Ephesians 2 that Paul describes the theological basis for why we Gentiles are included with Jewish Christians. He writes:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved... But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ...His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,
Message The Gentiles are Accepted Acts 11:1-19 (20-30)
(See Acts 7:54-10) Persecution broke out against the church. You’d think it would be a time of difficulty and decline. But they did not equate the struggles of life with the defeat of their faith. Christ followers scattered - but wherever they went they proclaimed the victorious grace of God over sin and death through his Son Jesus Christ.
Peter went on tour to visit these new disciples, healing people as he went. Someone in Joppa heard he was in Lydda (lid-dah), which wasn’t too far away, and sent for him to come and heal Tabitha (or Dorcas, depending on the language). Peter did. He stayed there with Simon the tanner. Even this would raise our eyebrows of the Jewish Christians. All
those animals, that blood -- Jewish law would forbid being around such a home.
While there in Joppa, two people receive visions. Peter himself had a vision that foods that were religiously forbidden all his life, God was now declaring okay. It was a hard lesson to change his who world view. God had to show him three times because he kept protesting. It would have been easy to dismiss this vision as the powerful influence of the Greco-Roman culture challenging his lifelong Jewish training rather than a vision of truth.
I think I told you the story about the man Edwin, whose fancy car instructed him by voice. He was amused when the little woman, that’s what he called the computer’s soft female voice, gently remind him to fasten his seat belt. He was also amused when she nudged him about his low level of fuel. He even nodded and thanked her. But looking at the gauge, he figured he still had another 50 miles, so he kept driving. But every few minutes, the little woman gave him another gentle nudge about refueling. And even though he knew it was the same recording, it no longer sounded like a sweet nudge but an irritating nag. Edwin eventually got so exasperated by it that he pulled over, found the appropriate wires under the dash and yanked out the little woman’s vocal cords. That’ll teach her he thought with a self-satisfied smile on his face. Until a couple miles later the car stopped running on fumes and coasted to a stop. And in Edwin’s imagination, he could hear from under the dash, the silent laughter of the little woman.
Edwin learned the hard way that the little voice that is inside of us, although ignored and often disconnected, often tells us exactly what we need to hear and obey... Lucky for us Gentiles, Peter listened.
Meanwhile, earlier, 30 miles away in Caesarea (sez ah reeah), there was a devout, praying, generous charitable giving, God-fearing Italian regiment centurion Gentile named Cornelius. He had a vision of an angel telling him to send men to Joppa to fetch Peter who was staying at Simon the tanner’s house. Lucky for us, he did. For he too, could have thought he was simply getting caught up in the sensational news about Jesus. We don’t know what all they knew, but Peter’s words to them indicate that they were at least aware of God’s message of peace through Jesus.
Dennis Miller said when they were trying to teach their very young son responsibility, they required him to phone home when he arrived at his friend's house a few blocks away. As he grew more confident in his ability to get there safely, he tended to forget to call. The first time he forgot, Miller called to be sure he arrived, and told him the next time it happened, he would have to come home.
A few days later, the telephone again lay silent. Dad did not want to punish him and ruin his great time for such an understandable mistake. He went to the telephone and prayed for wisdom. As he dialed, the Lord seemed to tell him, "Treat him like I treat you." After he heard the phone ring once, he hung up and waited. A few seconds later the phone rang. It was my son. "I'm here, Dad!" "What took you so long to call?" he asked. "We started playing and I forgot, but Dad, I heard the phone ring once, and then I remembered. "I'm glad you remembered, he said, "Have fun."
Too often, we fear God as one who is eagerly waiting to punish and exclude us from life when we fail to keep in perfect step with his desires. I wonder how often he rings in, hoping we will phone home and avoid the consequences of our own choices. (Pause) Choices that are often pushed upon us by the popular point of view.
George Will wrote that umpires are carved from granite and stuffed with microchips…. they are professional dispensers of justice. Once, umpire Babe Pinelli called Babe Ruth out on strikes. Ruth argued with the weight of popular opinion -- “There are 40,000 people here who know that last pitch was a ball, tomato head.” Pinelli replied not with the weight of what was popular or relative to the moment, but with absolute truth -- “Maybe so, but mine is the only opinion that counts”.
Lucky for us, there were two men in today’s text who were able to look beyond their traditional training, what would be the popular expectations of their culture, and were able to hone their listening into the only opinion that mattered. They listened to God's call and were quick to obey.
Cornelius sent the men and they arrived just as Peter was finishing his vision, and Peter took that as a sign to go with them, which he did. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together all his relatives and close friends. Cornelius came and greeted him with high respect, Peter entered the home and found a large gathering of people. He said,
“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection.” (Acts 10:28-29)
Then he asked why he was fetched, and Cornelius explained his vision and said they have all gathered to hear what he had to say. Peter replied,
“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God… announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all…” (Acts 10:34b-36)
and he began to recount the news of Jesus Christ beginning with John the Baptist and ending with his resurrection appearances and noted that
“all the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43)
While he was telling them this the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. Peter and his companions were astonished - and Peter said,
“Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”
So they were baptized, and Peter stayed with them a few days.
See Acts 11 Word about these contaminating Gentiles entering the church spread quite quickly. The news reached Jerusalem before Peter did. When Peter did arrive, he was heavily criticized for entering the home of someone uncircumcised and eating with them. This was not a new issue. It had been fiercely debated for centuries. Do we preserve the purity of our faith by closing ourselves off from other people, faiths and cultures? Or do we, by being a light to the nations, throw wide the doors and invite all creation to return to the worship of its one true Creator? In post exilic days and in the days of Jesus, the former thought (of walling themselves off from others) took precedence, and this is why the circumcised Christians were criticizing Peter.
A Chicago bank once asked for a letter of recommendation on a young Bostonian being considered for executive employment. The Boston investment house could not say enough about the young man. His father, they wrote, was a Cabot; his mother a Lowell. Further back was a happy blend of Saltonstalls, Peabodys, and other of Boston's finest families. Coming from all these old money bluebloods, they recommended him without hesitation. The Chicago bank sent a note back saying the given information was inadequate. They were considering the young man for work, not for breeding purposes."
Faithfulness to national and religious heritage, and good works were no longer the way to purity and salvation, but God paves the way for us through his amazing, transforming grace -- offered through a believing relationship in Jesus Christ. This was now the way to a new life in the Spirit. No longer are we to seek the salvation of only people who are just like us, who have the same tastes, the same culture, the same political party, or the same opinions of what and who are similar to ourselves.
Meanwhile, God alone looks at the heart. At best, all we can do is draw hypothetical conclusions based on externals, and we can never draw enough information to develop a confidently accurate picture to be the absolute umpire. The circumcised made all kinds of assumptions about the non-circumcised. But they did not know their heart’s desires, and because they sought to isolate themselves from them - they could not even draw accurate conclusions on their external behaviors.
Therefore, Peter recounted the story I just summarized from the previous chapter and concluded,
“So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)
It is nice to think, in a world where people are encouraged to stick to their guns no matter what, and never change their mind about anything, to hear a story where people are more than willing to grow in a radically different direction under Christ’s transforming hand. Perhaps it is because they remember so well that we are all products of grace over our own sins. I suspect it was hardly a unanimous decision of heart and attitude when Luke records what ultimately moved the church’s direction toward us Gentiles…
“When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18 (emphasis added)
The persecution that began with Stephen was still scattering the church and its message far and wide -- initially among the Jews -- but people from Cyprus (an island in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and Cyrene (from modern Libya on the north side of Africa came to Antioch (about 300 miles north of Jerusalem, and preached not just to the Jews, but to the Greeks (the Gentiles) and told the them good news of Jesus.
The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:21)
Antioch was the 3rd largest city behind Rome and Alexandra. It was a city focused on pleasure which they pursued night and day. Antioch became a byword for luxurious immorality; led by its worship of Daphne which included sacred prostitution. “The morals of Daphne” was a well-known phrase signifying “loose living”. But a new chapter in the city was beginning. These traveling Christians showed them that the full life of joy and salvation that they so vainly strove to find in hedonism (the worship of pleasure), they could realistically find in the true power, hope, and help, in the true spiritual joy and salvation through the Son of God, Jesus Christ,
who had only recently (for them) become a man, suffered, died, and conquered the grave in Palestine.
Some brave Christians ignored what would be the naturally expected criticism -- that they welcome and eat with sinners. They gave them the exact message they needed and were waiting for, and Antioch was to become the metropolis of Gentile Christianity, and it was here, in this awful moral setting, that our faith made great strides in moving from a local to a world religion.
Again, the news of this reached Jerusalem, and so they sent Barnabas (the Encourager) to Antioch to check it out and he saw what God’s grace had done and he
“encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” (Acts 11:23b)
Then Barnabas went and found Saul and returned with him and they spent a year teaching great numbers of people. And it was here that disciples were first called Christians. (spit when you say the word -- it was meant as a derogatory label -- “those Christ people”, just as the Protestant name was initially a negative descriptor of “protesters against faith”, and those Methodists - a nickname used to mock their methodical approach to faith…
On a prophetic prediction of a severe famine, the disciples of Antioch - as were able - took up the first UMCOR offering (well it doesn’t say UMCOR), but they sent their gift to provide help for disciples living in Judea who would be suffering the effects of the famine.
So see this: the primarily Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas the gracious encourager to the Gentiles. In turn, the cosmopolitan church in Antioch, made up of some Jews, but mostly Gentiles, Greeks, barbarians, and etc. returned an offering to help with the famine.
The early Christians set aside differences that would never be overlooked in their culture and connected and cared in Christ beyond local, beyond nation, beyond race, beyond all differences, offering resources, time, energy, and effort to help others in their time of need. May we do the same.
Let’s pray. Lord, as the Spirit filled the Gentiles so long ago proving they were also accepted by you, let us also be filled and live in step with the Spirit guidance, demonstrating your grace and love and holy character and desire to be in relationship with us… Amen.
Closing Hymn # 537 Filled with the Spirit’s Power
Closing Blessing Now serve your God with patience and passion. Be deliberate in enacting your faith. Be steadfast in celebrating the Spirit’s power. And may peace be your way in the world. Amen.
* Note: all Bible texts are from the NIV