Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sermon for May 13th: Acts 10

Seeking God and Finding Jesus

C.S. Lewis tells a story of how one day he had a persistent feeling that he ought to go and get his hair cut, even though it was not very long since the last time he had done so. Eventually he gave in and walked down to his local barber. When he entered, the barber looked at him with surprise and delight and said to him “You know, I was especially praying that you would come in today; there’s something really important I was hoping to talk to you about!”

Sooner or later in our journey with Jesus, many of us will be able to tell stories like this. But there are times when the guidance from God is even more spectacular, and such is the case in the tenth chapter of Acts. In our first reading today we heard only the last few verses of this chapter, which probably wasn’t too helpful in giving you the whole drift of the story, so I’m going to start this morning by telling you the whole story. And I want to say right from the start that this is a story of two conversions, not just one. On the one hand, a Roman centurion called Cornelius, who is already a believer in the God of Israel, is converted by the power of the Holy Spirit and becomes a Christian. But on the other hand, Peter and his fellow-apostles, who up until now have concentrated almost entirely on Jewish people in their work of spreading the Gospel, are beginning to be converted to the idea that God wants them to reach beyond the borders of Israel to the Gentiles as well - in other words, to people like you and me.

So let’s set the scene for this story. We are in the tenth chapter of Acts, which is the book that tells the story of the work of the Church after Jesus has been raised from the dead and has ascended into heaven. Peter and the other apostles have preached the Good News of Jesus in Jerusalem, throughout the country of Judaea and to the borders of Israel. They have even been adventurous enough to go to the Samaritans! Everywhere they have gone, people have heard them with joy and turned their lives over to Jesus. Little communities of ‘Followers of the Way’, as they were called, are springing up all over Israel - people who believe that Jesus is the Messiah who has come to set Israel free.

Up until now, however, the message has only gone to Jewish people, or to people like the Samaritans who have some kind of connection with Israel. And the early Christians probably see that as a natural thing; after all, Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the one God was going to use to save Israel and restore her to God’s plan. The idea that Gentiles - people who were not Israelites - would be included in that plan might never have occurred to them.

However, even though Israel as a whole was not interested in the Gentiles, the fact is that some Gentiles had become very interested in Israel. Throughout the ancient world at this time there were many people who had become disenchanted with the traditional religions and gods of Greece and Rome. These people were attracted by the simple monotheism of Israel and also by the high ethical standards set out in the Ten Commandments. A number of them had begun to attend synagogues and practice the three duties of godly Jews - prayer, fasting and giving to the poor. They had not taken the step of becoming full Jews by circumcision, but they had moved a long way toward Judaism, believing in one God and trying to obey his commandments.

Cornelius, the Roman centurion who lived in the town of Caesarea, was probably one of these ‘God-fearers’, as they were called. And we read in Acts 10 that one day when he was praying at three o’clock in the afternoon, which was one of the official ‘hours for prayer’ in Judaism, an angel appeared to him and told him to send for a man called Simon Peter, who was staying in Joppa at the house of Simon the Tanner. So Cornelius sent some messengers to fetch Peter. That’s the end of scene one.

Scene two opens the next day in Joppa. Peter is indeed staying at Simon’s house, and towards noon he’s gone up to the roof to have some prayer while he’s waiting for the mid-day meal. Suddenly he has a vision. In the vision he sees a great sheet let down from heaven, full of all kinds of animals, including ones like pigs and other animals that the Jews considered unclean and were not allowed to eat. A voice from heaven says “Get up, Peter; kill and eat”. But he recoils from the idea: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean”. The voice replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane”. This happens three times, and Peter is confused; is God telling him to break the Jewish food laws and start eating unclean food?

As he’s still thinking about this, the messengers from Cornelius arrive, and as they pass on their message, Peter begins to understand. Could it be that God is calling him to go to the house of a Gentile? Jews would not do this, you see, because of the danger of eating unclean food, but Peter begins to get an idea that God is leading him somewhere new. So off he goes with the messengers. That’s the end of Scene Two.

The next day they get to Caesarea, and when they arrive at Cornelius’ house Scene Three begins. They find that the centurion has gathered all his friends and relatives there to hear what Peter has to say. Cornelius tells Peter the story of his vision of the angel, and now Peter finally begins to understand what God is up to. He says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him”. He then begins to preach the message to this Gentile crowd - a brand new experience for him! He gives them a thumbnail sketch of Jesus’ life and ministry, how he went about teaching, preaching, doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil. He tells of how Jesus was crucified, but of how God raised him from the dead and how the disciples are all witnesses of this, because they met him alive again. He tells them that Jesus the carpenter from Nazareth is now ‘Lord of all’, and that one day he will be the judge of the living and the dead. And he tells them that everyone who puts their trust in Jesus receives forgiveness of their sins.

And now the amazing thing happens. Even as Peter is speaking, suddenly the Holy Spirit falls on the people who are listening to him! Peter isn’t even able to finish his sermon, because the congregation starts speaking in tongues and praising God! The disciples who have come with Peter are amazed that this kind of thing is happening to Gentiles - exactly the same as they themselves had experienced on the day of Pentecost! So Peter shrugs his shoulders and says, “They’ve received the Holy Spirit just as we did - I guess we’d better baptize them!” And when the baptisms are over he stays with Cornelius for a few days, no doubt to give him more instruction about Christian faith and life.

This story in Acts 10 had an enormous impact, in two directions. Of course it had an impact on Cornelius and his family and friends - they had finally found in Jesus what they had been looking for all this time. But it also had an impact on the early Christians. You see, not everyone was happy with this idea of taking the Gospel to the Gentiles, and for the next four chapters in Acts an enormous discussion rages on this very subject! But eventually those who are in favour of the Gentile mission win out, and the way is paved for the Christian message to spread around the world.

But what about us today? What is this story telling us about the mission of the Christian Church? Three things:

First, the story is telling us that God is in charge. Nothing in this story happened by human initiative; God guided Cornelius to call for Peter, and God guided Peter to go to Cornelius. In other words, God is taking the initiative, leading people to faith in Jesus and leading his Church to those people to help them in their journey.

In fact, God had been guiding Cornelius for a long time. What was it that caused Cornelius to lose faith in the ancient gods of Rome like Mars, Diana, Neptune and so on? It must have been a shattering experience for him to realise that he no longer believed in these gods, whose stories he had been told from childhood. But somehow he came to realise that these false gods were unable to meet his deepest needs, and he began to look elsewhere for help. Somehow – we don’t know how - he found out about the God of Israel, and was attracted to this belief in one God, the Maker of heaven and earth, and also to the high moral standards this God required of his followers. So Cornelius began to put his faith in this God, and to try to practice his commandments. And now God was leading him even further along, to faith in Jesus who is Emmanuel, ‘God with us’.

And this same kind of thing is happening today; God is leading people home to himself. All around us there are people who are discovering that the false gods we worship in our modern society – things like money and possessions, success, youth, beauty, power, popularity, and so on - are not delivering the lasting happiness and fulfilment that they promise. Some years ago a British newspaper columnist named Bernard Levin wrote these words:
Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire - together with such non-material blessings as a happy family - and yet lead lives of quiet, and sometimes noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them, and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well-balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of aches.

What Levin is talking about is the failure of false gods, and even though this can be a frightening and disorienting experience for people, it is also a definite sign that God is beginning to lead them to himself. And when people begin openly asking questions like “Why isn’t my success making me happy?” or “Why can’t I be the kind of parent I want to be?” or “What’s going to happen to me when I die?” - then we know for sure that the Holy Spirit is working in their lives. And the same Holy Spirit is just as able to lead his Church to these people as he was in the days of the Book of Acts. Our business as Christians is to listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and let him lead us to the people in whose lives he has been working. That’s the adventure of Christian mission!

So this story is telling us that God is in charge, leading people to Jesus and leading his Church to those people. And this leads us to the second thing the story tells us: Jesus is the issue. It’s quite clear in this passage that the mission of the Church is not just to persuade people to believe in God. Cornelius already believed very strongly in God. He had already turned away from the idols of Rome and believed in the Creator of heaven and earth, and he had done his best to live a godly life. But from God’s point of view, something was still missing.

Peter believed this very strongly, and so in his sermon to Cornelius and his family he emphasises the central place of Jesus in God’s plan to heal the world. Jesus is the one whose death and resurrection have reconciled us to God and made forgiveness possible. Jesus, he says, is Lord of all, the one through whom God’s healing and liberation come to people, and the one who will one day judge the living and the dead. Peter is not saying that Cornelius’ faith in one God is wrong; far from it! He’s saying that it is incomplete; if Cornelius wants to experience the full salvation that is God’s will for him, he needs to put his faith in the one God has sent as Messiah and Lord - Jesus.

A friend of mine was teaching a ‘Christian Basics’ course once when a woman made this comment to him: “I don’t like it when you talk about ‘Jesus’. ‘God’ is safe; I can make that word mean anything I want, but ‘Jesus’ is far too close and specific”. And that’s exactly the point. In Jesus, God has come close and become specific. At a certain point in history God came to live among us in Jesus, and at the end of his life he sent out his followers to all people - many of whom already believed in God - to tell them to trust in him and follow him. The mission of the Church today is not just to get people to believe in God, but to help them put their faith in Jesus and follow him. Jesus is still the key to knowing God.

So we’ve seen that in the mission of the Church, God is in charge and Jesus is the issue, because he is the key to knowing God. The third thing we see here is that the Holy Spirit ‘seals the deal’. When Cornelius and his family hear the message of Jesus, God does something supernatural in them; the Holy Spirit comes to live in them and fills them with new joy, so that they begin to praise God and worship him in a new and living way. Jesus is no longer past history; the Holy Spirit has come to live in them and makes Jesus real to them.

And this is what the mission of the Church is about today as well. It isn’t just to get people to believe in God, as we have seen, and neither is it just to give them historical information about Jesus. Rather, the Holy Spirit wants to make Jesus a living reality to people today. He wants to help people connect with God in a personal and experiential way.

In the story of Cornelius this personal connection was entirely at God’s initiative. Sometimes you hear stories about that today, too; people will say, “Jesus has always been real and close to me; I never remember a time when I didn’t know him”. But there are also many people who have not yet found their way to a real and living faith in Christ, and we have to help those people find what they’re looking for as they learn to follow Jesus.

So in this story we learn that in the mission of the Church God is in charge, Jesus is the issue, and the Holy Spirit ‘seals the deal’. Nicely Trinitarian, isn’t it! Let me close with two more brief comments.

First, the Church must help Cornelius! I’m absolutely convinced that we live in an age of great spiritual hunger. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). These are the words of our Master. Do we believe them? If we do, how can we fail to help people connect with the One who can satisfy their spiritual hunger?

But secondly, perhaps you are Cornelius! Perhaps someone here this morning has heard the story of Cornelius and says, “Yes! That’s me! I believe in God and I’m trying to be a good person, but I’ve never seen before that Jesus is the key to knowing God, and I’ve never experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit! That’s what I want!” If that’s you, then you can take a very simple step of faith this morning. Jesus is present with you right now, even though you can’t see or feel him. Simply turn to him in your heart, put your faith in him, ask him to help you know him and follow him and to send his Holy Spirit to bring you closer to him. I know that he will answer your prayer.

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