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[Read Acts 10-11.]

Acts 10 is a tale of two cities. More so its an account of two men, Cornelius and Peter, who were divided not only by distance but culture. Under any other circumstances, the paths of these two would not have crossed in any significant way. But God is active in crossing the boundaries and barriers that kept them apart ...

Caesarea - Cornelius is military. He’s been deployed to Palestine. He has status and rank. He is among the auxiliary troops that provided stability in Palestine. Cornelius is far from home. He’s from Italy. He is a stranger in a strange land. He stands out. He’s clean shaven with cropped hair. He dresses different. He eats different food. But he is also a religious man. It’s not just show. He is devout and godly – (maybe even godlier than some of the chosen ones in this land.) He respects God. He leads his household in honoring God. He keeps a routine of prayer. He gives money to the poor. But even though he’s a godly man he’s still an outsider in Palestine.

And then one day during his regular routine of prayer, God responds to the prayers of a Gentile ... an un-baptized, uncircumcised, unclean Gentile.

Joppa – If anyone is an insider, it’s Peter. He is one of the leaders in Jerusalem. He is one of the Twelve. He is one of the “three” with James and John who accompanied Jesus to the mountain of transfiguration. The apostle Peter is hungry. He’s resting on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house waiting for supper and he falls into a trance. God knows Peter is hungry, so he spreads a picnic blanket for Peter and decides to serve up some barbeque. The catch is Peter has to catch it and kill it. But more than that. There’s game being served up that is clearly un-Scriptural. Pork, shrimp, crab may taste good grilled with sauce – but it’s a Jewish no-no. And even though God is being quite gracious with the picnic, Peter stands on tradition. Peter protests noting that he’s never even soiled his lips with the taste of unbiblical food. It’s unclean and Peter refuses to eat this gentile food! In fact Peter refuses it three times – (he’s good at triple denial.) But before God leaves with the picnic blanket and the wild game he leaves Peter with a lesson: “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.”

Just then three Gentiles show up at the door. If Peter thought his vision might have been a fainting spell, the Spirit makes it clear that Peter should welcome these Gentiles and go where they want him to go. So Peter offers hospitality to these strangers -- these Gentiles.

Meanwhile back in Caesarea, Cornelius has gathered his family, his relatives, his business associates. Really the sort of people you wouldn’t find in the typical Jerusalem synagogue. There must have been an odd sort of tension when Peter, the Hebrew religious leader, entered the house of Cornelius, the unclean foreigner. This bunch is so odd, they don’t do things the right way. Poor Cornelius doesn’t know whether to shake Peter’s hand or bow down and worship him. And Peter feels sort of awkward when Cornelius does bow down. Jew and Gentile and the first meeting couldn’t have been any more awkward.
But Peter decides to break the tension. After all, he learned a lesson from God just the other day: “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.” And so Peter breaks the tension ... Read 10:28-29.

It was starting to become clear that God had set up a blind date of sorts. He told Cornelius to send for Peter, but wouldn’t tell him what Peter knows. He told Peter to go Cornelius’ house, but wouldn’t tell him why. There’s God setting it all up so that these people from different nations have to depend on each other. Even Peter the insider has to ask questions to get the full story. When Cornelius tells Peter that he has been acting on behalf of God, Peter gets more insight into what God is doing ... Read 10:34-43.

Before Peter can finish his gospel sermon, God breaks in. The Holy Spirit moves among these Gentiles in the same way it did in Jerusalem. Yes, even in this house of unclean, uncircumcised, Gentiles the Holy Spirit showers approval. And no one is more surprised than Peter and company. They just stand there bewildered and ask “So what do you think – should we baptize them?” They do. And then they really break with custom and tradition by staying a few nights as the guests of Cornelius.

This is good news, but it’s also offensive. Things don’t seem to happen in the proper order. Things don’t happen with decorum and decency. Social and religious customs are just tossed out the window. There’s no concern for purity. There’s no concern for the ways of the past. I am sure there were a lot of really good reasons that God’s people typically didn’t socialize or associate with the unclean people from other nations. After all, how can you teach people the laws if you abandon them yourself?

Well, Peter faces this line of questioning when he gets home. Everyone has heard the news that the Gentiles have received the gospel. But Peter hasn’t been back in Jerusalem for any time at all when some of the concerned brethren approach him. They’re upset. “Peter!” they say, “You entered the home of Gentiles and even ate with them!”
So what’s Peter going to say? It’s true. He did that. And that’s a no-no. It’s just not done. So Peter tells them the story from the beginning ... Read 11:5-17.

Who are any of us to stand in God’s way? The good news of this story is that God is offering eternal life to people who aren’t just like us. That’s good news, but it’s also sort of offensive. Rick Atchley tells the story of a woman who was looking at photos of African Christians on a church bulletin board. They were photos sent by missionaries. The woman spoke to the folks around her and said, “I really wish they wouldn’t baptize so many of those dark-skinned people. I don’t like the thought of all them in heaven.” When this woman heard that heaven was a gated community she got the wrong idea. And that’s what God did in the first century and what he still does today. He really doesn’t have much respect for the boundaries and distinctions that we consider so important. As Peter said, “God doesn’t show favoritism.” No, he doesn’t. God is more concerned that a person respects him and does what is right. And God isn’t offended by that person’s family, or race, or financial status, or even what that person may have done in his/her past. In the future that God has in mind, there will be peace and he will not only save our souls, he will save our relationships with one another.

The good news of this story is that God is out there offering eternal life before we even decide to act. That’s good news, but it’s also sort of offensive. It’s offensive because God doesn’t ask us for permission. This is humbling – and it ought to be humbling because if the apostle Peter had to catch up to God’s activity, who are we to think we are in the position to bring anything to anyone? [Story about missionary to San Francisco]

The good news of this story is that God is saving and redeeming people that we might not think about. That’s good news, but it’s also sort of offensive. We might be like the believers in Jerusalem and get concerned about other things. But there’s more good news for us if we’re willing to hear it. The good news is that God is also at work saving and redeeming us, just as he did with Peter. He taught Peter not to call unclean anything that God makes clean. And the concerned believers in Jerusalem, when they heard Peter’s story accepted it too. They didn’t consider Cornelius and his clan to be “the Gentile members.” They accepted them as brothers and sisters. They stopped objecting and started praising God.

Who’s converted in this story? It’s not just Cornelius and his kin. Peter is also converted. The believers in Jerusalem are also converted. Because Christ is Lord over all people he is reconciling us to himself and to one another.

When God’s power is at work among us, we may be surprised at what God will do. It may even make us concerned at times, but who are we to stand in God’s way. If we can accept what God is doing then we may find we are out of objections and we will simply praise God.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 19 August 2007

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