Scripture Reading: Acts 10:1-17, 34-35
What did we talk about last week?
Last week we talked about the final instructions Jesus gave his disciples. He told them to “Go. Baptize. Teach.”
That is, go to all the nations and make disciples. Baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And teach what Jesus had taught them.
As a result of the first disciple following these instructions, we are here in this church. If they had not followed those simple instructions, the church would not exist today. We are proof disciples followed what he said. We are here today as a result.
Was it always an easy journey? Absolutely not. There was a lot of debate in the early church about who could become followers of The Way, that is, disciples of Jesus Christ. The first Christians.
There were questions about whether they were going to allow non-Jews to join them. And if they were, what rules were going to be required for them to undertake. Would the men need to be circumcised? What about cleanliness laws?
There was much to be figured out, and it was debated regularly. In fact, there was even some infighting as the first disciples argued over which rules had to be followed.
And one of those rules was around food. Could someone join the church if they ate unclean foods? Could someone in the church eat unclean foods? It was a tough time in the early church as they tried so hard to follow Jesus’ teachings and reconcile those teachings with what they knew from the scriptures around the law and rules for cleanliness and faithfulness.
Those laws are considered for us today in our reading from the book of Acts and in our understanding from last week with Jesus’ final instructions to go, baptize and teach, which still rings in our ears and in our hearts.
We pick up in the book of Acts this morning hearing about a Roman leader in Caesarea. Cornelius is a Roman centurion, a soldier, a leader in the Roman army. But he was also a devout man of God. A man who feared God and prayed constantly.
In a vision he is told to go look for Peter, and so he sends some of his men to go find him.
In the meantime, Peter is Joppa praying and he too sees a vision. Peter, while he’s praying, gets hungry. And if he’s like me, once I get hungry, it’s pretty much all I can think of, whether praying or not.
In this vision, Peter sees a sheet full of animals being lowered down and offered to him. On this sheet were all kinds of different meats. I’ve heard it called a “meat sheet”. It sounds like a pretty good picnic blanket to me!
But what was on it? There were different birds, reptiles, and animals all there. These were animals that, according to the law, Jews are not permitted to eat. And then Peter hears, “Get up, kill and eat.”
Peter refuses, he says, “These foods are unclean, these are not allowed, so I cannot eat them.”
And God responds to him, “What I have made clean you must not turn away.”
We’re told this happens three times. Peter, the one who denied knowing Jesus three times, tries to refuse the food God is offering him three times. Peter seems to like to do things in threes. He’s even asked by Jesus if he loves him three times at the end of the Gospel of John. He must be a slow learner.
After the third time Peter is told he must not refuse what God has made clean, the meat sheet is lifted up and away.
As the sheet is lifted away, the men Cornelius sent show up.
It’s so easy to get hung up on rules.
We look at someone and say, they can’t be part of us because they don’t look right, they don’t do the right things, they don’t live the right lifestyle, they don’t live in the right house, or drive the right car, or have the right job, or eat the right food, or have the right family, or… or… or…
The list can go on and on and on.
I’ve seen churches purposely put up barriers to people coming into their building. It drives me nuts! They knew they were doing it, they knew they were turning people away, but they still did it. They message they sent was “You aren’t part of us, we don’t want you.” These churches, located in areas where people struggle in life daily, consciously made the decision to exclude everyone except their own membership.
Rules can take over the role of the Gospel in our lives and in our churches.
Rules can limit the work we do in God’s name. Jesus said, “Go. Baptize. Teach.” He didn’t say, “Stay. Judge. Conform.”
When the people sent by Cornelius showed up after the vision of the meat sheet, Peter soon understood.
I wonder if the words of Jesus passed through his mind at that point. In Matthew 15 people came to Jesus and challenged him on how his disciples were following cleanliness laws when they ate. Apparently they weren’t properly washing their hands before they ate. And Jesus said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:10-11)
Jesus is saying we do not defile God by what we eat. We defile God with what comes out of us in our words and our actions.
Jesus follows this up by saying, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” (Matthew 15:17-20)
Evil intentions come from within ourselves. Blocks to reaching out in God’s love come from within ourselves. Rules which exclude people from experiencing God’s love come from within ourselves.
That’s not right.
If Peter had not understood what the vision of the meat sheet meant, he would have turned away Cornelius’ men and turned away the opportunity to share about Jesus Christ to a new family in a new city. All because they were foreigners, people who didn’t follow the right rules.
We skipped over Peter’s struggle to understand the message. He was quite puzzled by it, but then he hears that these men were waiting for him at the gate, asking for him by name.
Peter then went with them to see Cornelius. When the Peter met Cornelius he said this, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?” (Acts 10:28-29)
Cornelius shares his vision of the angel telling him to go and find Peter. Then Peter gets it. Peter realizes God is at work here, even in this foreign land, full of people who don’t know the proper rules, people who eat unclean food, people who are thought to be unworthy of being with God.
Peter realizes the full intention of “Go. Baptize. Teach.” He understands what Jesus meant when he said, “Go and make disciples of all the nations.” And here is his chance to do this work. He has been summoned to a foreign land by a gentile to teach about what Jesus has taught him and to make new disciples in an entire city.
If Peter had chosen to follow the rules instead of the call of God in his life, this would never have happened. Cornelius would have never been taught about Jesus Christ and a whole nation would have never come to know God’s love.
Peter, in this new revelation of what it means to “Go. Baptize. Teach.” begins to speak to the crowd. 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.”
God is for everyone. Jesus died for everyone. He didn’t die for the followers of the rules. He didn’t die for the select few who live in a certain place. Jesus came, lived, taught, healed, died and rose again for everyone who accepts the invitation to enter into relationship with God through him. No matter where you live or how you live.
He came so we could know God’s love and how God wants us to live and he wants us to share this Good News with the world around us.
The whole world. ALL the people. EVERYWHERE!!
Rules aren’t meant to be broken. Rules are set to create a sense of control. Rules are made to create a certain amount of peace and safety.
But there are no rules when it comes to being excluded from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Are you a living, breathing human being? God loves you. Jesus died for your sins and he rose again to show victory over them and even death itself.
Go. Baptize. Teach.
Jesus told us this.
Peter showed us it surpasses our own expectations, our own limitations, our own hesitations.
Peter shows us, God can call us into places we’ve never expected to be, and in being there, we can share the Good News of Jesus Christ for all the world to know.
The world is hungry out there for all kinds of things.
But only God can satisfy the deepest hungers in our souls. Only God can fill that empty space in our lives that we have been unable to fill anywhere else.
Jesus invites us into a relationship with God. God who knows our weakness and our sins and loves us regardless.
And Jesus shows us it’s not about us and our rules, it’s about God and the work he is doing in the hearts of millions of people in the world today. Right now. Even here.
May God lead us, may God show us what is preventing us to fulfill his call to “Go. Baptize. Teach.”
May God call us into new relationship with him and the people around us today and forevermore.