A couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus tell a parable about how he is present in the hungry, the thirsty, the sick and the imprisoned. When we help the least of these, we do it to Jesus. Because one of the ways God’s shows up is in people.
Today’s story is another story about how God shows up in people. We read and heard just a portion of it today.
Sometimes we in the church divide people between “us” and “them.” But this story is about God breaking down that wall between us and them.
It begins with a man named Cornelius who was a leader in the Roman military. It says that he and his family were devout and God-fearing. He gave generously to those in need and he prayed regularly.
But Cornelius was not Jewish. He was what was called a Gentile. He was attracted to Judaism. He probably went to the synagogue and practiced principles of the Jewish faith to varying degrees. But he was not a full convert. And that is important in this event.
One day Cornelius has a vision. In the vision God tells him to send for a man named Simon Peter. This is the same Peter who was an apostle and leader in the early church. Cornelius is told where Peter can be found. Cornelius sends a few of his men to fine Peter and ask him to come.
While that is happening Peter, who is in another town and place, goes up on the rooftop to pray. Many homes at that time and still today were flat-roofed and would be part of the house. As Peter is praying he receives a vision from the Lord. In this vision a large sheet descends and it is filled with animals. The animals Peter sees are considered unclean and not lawful for Jews to eat.
A voice tells Peter to kill one of the animals and eat it. Peter objects that he has never eaten anything that is unclean. He has always done what God has wanted him to do. And then the voice says, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
This happens three times. Then the Lord tells Peter that some men are coming and looking for him and that he is to go with them because the Lord has sent them. Sure enough the men sent by Cornelius arrive downstairs, tell Peter why they have come, and Peter agrees to go with them.
Keep in mind that everything that is going on is being orchestrated by God. He is the one sending visions and speaking very directly to people.
Peter invites the men to stay the night and the next day they go back to Cornelius’ house. Cornelius has gathered his relatives and his close friends. Cornelius is wondering, why is God bringing this leader to him? When Peter arrives Cornelius falls down before him. Peter, as if annoyed, tells him to stand for Peter is only a man.
And then Peter says, “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.”
Let me stop and provide a little background here:
In the days of the Bible there were two kinds of people. There were Jews, who were the people of God, with the law and statutes and worship of God. Then there were Gentiles, non-Jews. Peter is Jewish. Cornelius is a Gentile.
Jews believed everyone outside of them were beyond the mercy of God. A really strict Jew would have no contact with a non-Jew. There were deep seeded prejudices, dislikes, and even hatreds between Jew and Gentile. The closest thing to it in our world might be how black people were seen and treated for centuries in this nation. There was total separation. A white person would never eat with, socialize with, or maybe even talk with a black person.
Gentiles were lesser breeds. God could not be found in them.
Jewish laws were clear that Jews were to remain “clean” or “pure” for the Lord. That didn’t refer to hygiene but were religious terms and referred to ritual purity. Among those laws were what kinds of food Jews could eat and what they could not.
It was a big deal for Peter to even enter Cornelius’ house let alone sit at a table and share a meal with him.
But in that vision of the sheet and the animals God was speaking to Peter.
Peter let’s everyone know that culturally he should not be there. He says it is unlawful for a Jew to be with Gentiles like this. He asks why they have brought him and Cornelius tells him of his own vision.
Then Peter says, “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.” Peter’s heart is changing and he is sensing the presence of God.
When Peter says that God “does not show favoritism,” the phrase literally means “is no acceptor of faces” meaning God doesn’t look what’s on the face. God doesn’t go by outward appearances. I do this all the time. I make snap judgments about people by their faces. If they don’t look right in my eyes then I pass them over. God is not like that. He is looking deeper, at our heart and what is on the inside. And he sees the truth.
Peter is not saying everyone is good with God and it doesn’t matter what you believe or who you are. He is talking within the realm of faith. He is merely saying that acceptance by God is not a matter of race or culture. People of every nation – meaning even non-Jews – are acceptable to God when they fear him and do what is right.
Peter then talks about Jesus to all the Gentiles standing there. He talks about who Jesus was, what Jesus did, and what Jesus said. Cornelius and his circle were aware of God, and they were even religious. But they had yet to know the direct relationship with God that only comes through Jesus Christ. You can have a sense of God but if you don’t know Jesus…
As Cornelius and this gentile-gathering listen to Peter the Holy Spirit falls upon them. Peter sees it and baptizes them in the name of Jesus. God is in these Gentiles. Jesus isn’t just for some. He is for all.
Well, here’s the rest of the story and this is found in Acts 11. Word gets out that this happened, and that Gentiles were accepting the word of God. And when Peter gets back to headquarters they bring up the fact that he went into the house of non-Jews and ate with them. “Peter, what could you possibly be thinking?” Remember, the prejudice ran deep.
Peter tells them the whole story. They listen. And when he finishes they too are changed. They praise God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.” Who is in and who is out, who is “us” and who is “them” is totally different now.
Jesus really began breaking down the walls between who is clean and unclean. He was a devout Jew and the same cultural prejudices were alive in his day. It is why that Samaritan woman he meets at the well is shocked that Jesus would talk to her. That was a no-no.
It is why Jewish religious leaders were appalled that Jesus would sit at a table and share food with prostitutes and tax collectors and others who they were pretty sure there was no way God could accept.
As you read the gospel accounts notice when Jesus touches someone and who he touches. He makes physical contact with those that Jewish ritual regulations barred from being acceptable to God. Yet, God came in Jesus and said, “think again.” Jesus showed God’s love is much broader, much deeper, than people imagined. I mean, he has died for us.
The Salvation Army is one of the great Christian movements in history. William Booth was the founder of the Salvation Army. He broke new ground for the church by going out to the poor, the alcoholics, others who society had labeled as undesirable. Booth was severely criticized by leaders of the church. Very sincere and devout people said he was wrong to do what he was doing. One prominent evangelical leader who was himself a proponent of the rights of the poor said the Salvation Army was clearly the Antichrist. Yet the Salvation Army has been a mighty tool in reaching millions with the good news of Jesus’ love.
I used to go down to the Rescue Mission in Salt Lake City to preach at the services there. People living on the streets, who had fought addictions, mental illness, and been victimized by a world that writes them off. It would be so easy to walk in that room and see the people and figure they were a million miles away from Jesus. And yet Jesus was in some of those very people.
No matter how proud you are of your open-mindedness or how accepting you think you are – we all have people who in our minds are “unclean” and “unacceptable.”
God might want to change our perspective. He might not always do it as dramatically as he did with Peter. But God might break in and have us see someone in a different light.
It doesn’t mean we just sign off on the latest trends in an ever-changing culture. We aren’t just blown with the wind to some new idea that has nothing to do with how God has revealed himself in Scripture. This story in Acts is about God coming to any people who want to surrender their way for God’s way.
In this story God was present in visions that we gave to two men. God was present in the conversations even when those conversations were somewhat uncomfortable. And God was present in the people, particularly the outsider.
We figure God is present in our church buildings, in our Bibles, and when we share Communion. God is in our homes and our hearts through the Holy Spirit. He is present in our times of prayer and reflection.
But God can also be in people. Especially people. And be careful when God shows up in the person you thought was on the outside.
“Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.
That can be difficult to hear for those who have been socialized to always think in terms of “us vs. them.” That God loves and accepts “them” as well as “us” is part of the good news in Jesus. I think God is more generous and accepting that we often are.
Peter discovered that God was in more people than he thought. And when it was clear that the Holy Spirit was in the people of Cornelius’ household who were thought to be outsiders it shook up the whole church.
All the first Christians were Jews. The Jewish tradition and outlook kept them from believing that God could possibly be moving in and for Gentiles. But God broke in to let them know he was for the whole world. And even though Peter had been with Jesus, it took time for him to overcome his prejudices.
Beware of limiting who is of Christ by nation, race, gender, sexual orientation, social status or how much money they have or don’t have. Be careful about the person you don’t think you should be associating with. The God you worship and claim you know might be in them.
God loves the whole world and wants to reach the whole world with his love. He needed to change both Cornelius and Peter, and other leaders at that time, before his mission could go forward. He may need us to change before he can work his mission through us for someone.
Through the Spirit God created a new people. It is called his church.
One of the powerful things about the church is that it is to be a place where whoever has faith is part of the family – regardless of who they are or where they come from. And it is a place of oneness. It is why Paul writes in Galatians,
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul also wrote in Ephesians, that now in Christ Jesus those who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace. He has broken down the dividing wall of hostility. For through him we all have access in one Spirit to the Father.
So we are no longer strangers but all of us are citizens and members of the household of God. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of this house. In him we are joined together. We are built together spiritually into a place where God can live.
That’s what Paul says, a church is a dwelling place for God. You know why we don’t build temples like others? Because God’s people are God’s temple. (It’s a lot cheaper, too.) And the ones who formerly were kept out of the temple – like Cornelius - are now are part of the temple.
We are a holy temple. We are holy because God dwells here in his people.
The litmus test isn’t your nationality, your race, your political party, your length of years in a church, or how much you know. The litmus test is faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.
And if we are a place where God can live then the presence of God is here. He is in the person on your right and the person on your left. He is in the people with whom you will come to this table this morning to share the bread and the cup.
God is present in all people who have faith.