Sunday, May 6, 2018

Seeking God and Finding Jesus (a sermon on Acts 10)

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 said, “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!”

I suspect many followers of Jesus will be able to tell stories like that. But there are times when the guidance from God is even more spectacular. We read of one of those times last week, in the story of Philip and the man from Ethiopia in Acts 8. We had another one today, with the story of Cornelius in Acts 10. In our first reading we heard only the last few verses of this chapter, so I’m going to start by telling you the whole story. And I want to say right from the start that this is a story of twoconversions, not just one. On the one hand, a Roman centurion called Cornelius - already a believer in the God of Israel - is converted by the power of the Holy Spirit and becomes a Jesus-follower. But on the other hand, Peter and his fellow-apostles - who up until now have concentrated 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.

Let’s set the scene. Peter and the other apostles have preached the Good News of Jesus in Jerusalem and Judaea and as far as the borders of Israel. They’ve even been adventurous enough to go to the Samaritans! Everywhere they’ve gone, people have heard them with joy and turned their lives over to Jesus. Little communities of ‘Followers of the Way’ are springing up all over Israel - people who believe Jesus is the Messiah who has come to set Israel free.

But up ‘til now the message has only gone to Jewish people, or people like the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch who have some kind of connection with Israel. And the early disciples probably see that as a natural thing; after all, Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the one God was going to use to set Israel free. The idea that Gentileswould be included in that plan might never have occurred to them.

However, as I mentioned last week, some Gentiles had become veryinterested in Israel. Throughout the ancient world at this time there were a number of people who’d become disenchanted with the traditional gods of Greece and Rome. They were attracted by the monotheism of Israel and the high ethical standards of the Ten Commandments. Some of them had begun to attend synagogues and practice the three duties of godly Jews - prayer, fasting, giving to the poor. They hadn’t taken the step of becoming full Jews by circumcision, but they hadcome to believe in the one creator God and were trying to obey his commandments.

Cornelius, the Roman centurion who lived in the town of Caesarea, was probably one of these ‘God-fearers’. And we read in Acts 10 that one day he was praying at three o’clock in the afternoon when an angel appeared to him: “Send for a man called Simon Peter; he’s staying in Joppa at the house of Simon the Tanner”. So Cornelius sent messengers to fetch Peter. That’s the end of scene one.
Scene twoopens the next day in Joppa. Peter is 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. He sees a great sheet let down from heaven, full of all kinds of animals, including ones like pigs and other animals that 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” (vv.13-15). This happens three times, and Peter is confused; is God telling him to break the Jewish food laws?

As he’s still thinking about this the messengers from Cornelius arrive, and as they pass on their message he begins to think hard. Can it be true? Is Godcalling him to go to the house of a Gentile? Jews wouldn’t do this, because of the danger of eating unclean food, but Peter begins to get the 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. Cornelius has gathered his friends and relatives there to hear what Peter has to say. He tells Peter the story of his vision, and now Peter begins to understand what God’s 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” (34-35). He then begins to preach the good news to this Gentile crowd. 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 God raised him from the dead and the disciples are all witnesses of this. He tells them that Jesus is now ‘Lord of all’, and one day 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. 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’ve 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 what it meant to be a follower of the Way.

This story in Acts 10 had an enormous impact. Of course, it had an impact on Cornelius and his family and friends - they had finally found in Jesus what they’d 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 controversy 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 our mission as followers of Jesus? Three things:

First, God is at work.Nothing in this story happened by human initiative; God guided Cornelius to call for Peter, and God guided Peter to go to Cornelius. God is taking the initiative, leading people to faith in Jesus and leading his followers 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? It must have been a shattering experience for him to realise he no longer believed in them, when he’d heard their stories from childhood. But somehow, he came to realise 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 him. So Cornelius began to put his faith in this God and tried to practice his commandments. And now God was leading him even further, to faith in Jesus who is Emmanuel, ‘God with us’.

This same kind of thing is happening today. All around us there are people who are discovering that the false gods we worship in our modern society – money and possessions, success, youth, beauty, power, popularity, and so on - are not delivering the lasting happiness and fulfilment 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.

He’s talking about the failure of false gods- and even though this can be a frightening and disorienting experience for people, it’s also a sign that God is beginning to lead them to himself. When people begin 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 the Holy Spirit is working in their lives. And the same Spirit is just as able to lead us ordinary Christians to these people as he was in the days of Acts. Our job is to listen to the guidance of the Spirit and let him lead us to these people. That’s the adventure of Christian mission!

So this story is telling us that God is at work, leading people to Jesus and leading his followers to those people. And this leads us to the second thing the story tells us: Jesus is the issue.Our mission is notjust to persuade people to ‘believe in God’. Cornelius alreadybelieved in God. He had already turned away from the idols of Rome and put his faith in the God Israel believed in, and he was already doing his best to live a godly life. But from God’s point of view, something was still missing.

Peter believed this strongly, and so in his sermon to Cornelius and his family he emphasises the central place of Jesus. It’s through Jesus’ death and resurrection that we’ve been reconciled to God. Jesus, he says, is Lord of all - the one through whom God’s healing and liberation come to people - the one who one day will judge the living and the dead. Peter is not saying that Cornelius’ faith in one God is wrong; far from it! He’s saying it’s 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 who 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”. 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 himand follow him. Our mission today is to help people come to faith in Jesusand learn to follow him.

We’ve seen that God is at work, and Jesus is the issue. 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, and 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.

This is what our mission is about today as well. It’s not just to get people to believe in God, and it’s not just to give them historical information about Jesus either. Rather, the Holy Spirit wants to help people connect with Jesus 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. Some people 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 haven’tyet found their way to a living faith in Christ. 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 God is at work, Jesus is the issue, and the Holy Spirit ‘seals the deal’. Let me close with one final comment.

The Church – and that means you and me, and all who call themselves followers of Jesus - must help Cornelius.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 here’s the thing: We must not miss the fact that, humanly speaking, Cornelius was Peter’s enemy. He was a soldier of the occupying army, the invaders of Israel, the ones who were oppressing Peter and his countrymen. So even though Cornelius had shown unmistakable signs of genuine interest in the God of Israel, there would be a huge psychological barrier in Peter’s heart when it came to sharing the Good News with him. The Good News told Cornelius his sins could be forgiven. Do you think Peter wantedCornelius’ sins to be forgiven? Do you think Peter wantedto have to share the Lord’s Supper with this enemy soldier? I doubt it.

I wonder where you draw the line? Who are the people you’re reluctant to share the gospel with, because you assume they won’t be interested, or because you have a problem with their race or socio-economic group, or sexual orientation, or the way they dress, or the politics they believe in, or the sort of music they blare out at everyone else? “I want the luxury of continuing to be mad at their group, thank you very much; I don’t wantto share the gospel with them”.
Which barrier in your own heart is God calling you to cross – like he called Peter to cross the barrier of going to the house of the enemy, the Gentile, the oppressor? We’re called to share the good news of Jesus with everyone, by our words and our actions. If you’re honest, what are the current limits of ‘everyone’ for you? And what’s the Holy Spirit saying to you about that?

The Book of Acts is all about evangelism – but it’s not about the kind of reductionistic evangelism in which individual people give their hearts to Jesus and then carry on much as before, with Jesus as one of their accessories. That’s not what God’s doing. God is spreading the Kingdom one heart at a time, as people are captivated by the way of Jesus and learn to live it together. Different people – young and old, rich and poor, men and women and everything in between. Jews and Gentiles, Africans and Europeans, Asians and North Americans. Left and right. Liberal and conservative. Jesus is inviting them all into his new community, the community of disciples. Together this community is learning to pray: ‘Lord, help us to learn to see life as you see it and live life as you taught it’.

The Holy Spirit is leading people into this community. He’s led us into it. Now he wants to use us to reach others. The others will probably not look like us, but that shouldn’t surprise us. That’s how God works. And you and I, like Peter, are called to be part of that work.

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