Acts 10; Romans 12:3-8 (from The Message)
We’ve been in the book of Acts for two weeks now, and the stories are incredible. If you’ve never read or listened to the book of Acts, I greatly encourage you to do so. It comes right after the Gospels, which are the stories of Jesus, and tells all the stories that we have about how the early church was formed after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. So two weeks ago we read about the disciples still hiding in an upper room, not quite sure what to do with the risen Jesus who has appeared to them several times but is clearly not going to give them an instruction manual for forming the church, when the Holy Spirit comes upon them and all the people who were in Jerusalem at the time, hear the disciples speaking in their own languages.
And it’s not just that a miracle is happening, although that’s surely the case. What’s amazing is that the miracle leads to people uniting in God’s love. People from every place in the world— people who speak all different languages— are united in hearing the good news of Jesus Christ, not divided. Community is formed.
Putting love first brings people together.
Then last week we heard the story of Philip— in fact the only story we have about Philip— and how he is called out onto the wilderness road and comes across someone who just by being himself, as an Ethiopian eunuch, defies every law Philip is supposed to be abiding by as a faithful Jewish man. And yet the two of them read the book of Isaiah together, from the Bible, and they are both changed from the inside out and Philip not only accepts the Ethiopian man as a man of faith, he baptizes him into the community of faith. The Holy Spirit rests upon them, and neither of them is ever the same.
Putting love first breaks down walls.
And now this week we have a story that begins with Cornelius, a centurion, a Roman General, a man who by his very status represents the very government that killed Jesus; the same government that is oppressing the Jews, and yet the story opens up by telling us that Cornelius is a god-fearing man, a man who lives into his faith by giving generously to anyone in need and praying constantly. To the early Jewish listeners of this story, that would seem like an oxymoron. The idea of a Roman General being generous, kind, and faithful just would not compute. But that’s just the beginning. For as it turns out, Cornelius gets visited by an angel. Think of the people you may have heard of in the Bible who have gotten visited by an angel. You might think of Mary, the mother of Jesus. You might think of Abraham, the patriarch of the whole Jewish faith. You might even remember Zechariah, father of John the Baptist or Joseph, who marries Mary. But in this story, it’s Cornelius who is visited by an angel, and that angel has one direction for him— to send for Peter.
And while all this is happening, Peter is praying on the roof of the place where he is staying. And he too is having a vision, except his vision is about food. And I feel like it must be just for humor’s sake that the writer of Luke tells us that Peter is hungry when he goes up on the roof to pray; that Peter is staying at the home of Simon the tanner— someone who tans animal hides; and that then Peter has a vision about food. You’d think maybe he’d have a vision of the next juicy hamburger he’s going to eat. Except in Peter’s vision, he sees all of the things he has been forbidden to eat his whole life. Shellfish, pork, reptiles, birds... all of the things that he has never eaten in his life because for a Jewish man in the 1st Century, to earth any of those things was to be considered unclean, to be outside of God’s favor. So when he hears a voice say, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!” Peter replies with the most faithful response he can muster, which is to say, “Absolutely not! You can’t touch this Lord!” And in that moment Peter’s defensiveness, even his self-righteousness at having done it the right way all these years peaks through as he says to God, “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” Which is another way of saying, “Lord, we’ve never done it that way before!”
And that’s when the doorbell rings.
I bet you can see where this is going, can’t you? Putting love first changes everything and challenges everything. God is telling Peter to set aside the cultural do’s and don’ts and open yourself up to what love can do. Set aside what you think is possible. Set aside your own ego of what you think should happen, God says, because I’m about to do a new thing.
Our first church goal that we’ve been talking about in worship for the past two weeks is for all of us to have a common understanding that when we come together, we do so to follow Jesus; and our second church goal, that we’re spending this week and next week on, is the grace around the first goal— that we come together understanding that there are many ways to follow Jesus, there are many ways to church.
Let me put it this way. Peter thought there was a very specific way to be a follower of Jesus, and that way included becoming Jewish, since Jesus was Jewish and Peter was Jewish. Peter assumed everyone would need to come to faith in the same way he did. Will Willimon, when writing about the book of Acts points out the irony that while some Christians today worry and argue about whether the Jews will be saved by God since they don’t believe in Jesus as the Messiah, for the first followers of Jesus, that was not the question. They knew that Jews were saved because of God’s promise to Abraham. What they worried and argued about was whether the Gentiles— the non-Jews like us— could ever be saved. What Peter comes to understand through the Holy Spirit working in his life and in Cornelius’ life, is that God shows no partiality— that there are actually many ways to follow Jesus.
Some might think that following Jesus is limiting, but what it does is free us up to do what’s really important and to allow for people to follow Jesus in the way they can do it best. To recognize that there are many ways to church together, means that we don’t all have to look like a 1st Century Jewish carpenter— which is quite a relief for this woman preacher! When Peter shows up at Cornelius’ door, he is somehow, by the grace of God, able to let go of all of the “shoulds,” and all of the “can’ts” that must’ve occurred to him, and he graciously accepts Cornelius as the faithful man that he is.
What I’m trying to say, is while we all come together to follow Jesus, we won’t all end up looking alike. And this is the main difference between actually following Jesus with our lives rather than being cultural church goers. We don’t want to create barriers that don’t exist. When someone comes to the Community Meal each month, following Jesus by eating with others, we celebrate. When someone comes to the Still Point prayer service on Wednesday night and considers that the place they can best worship Christ, how amazing that God is working in their life in that way. When a stressed out parent drops their kids at Parent’s Night Out for a few hours of silence, or a youth comes to youth group, or one of you comes here on Sunday morning because you’re tired of the world and somewhere in the midst of any of those things, God is able to speak to you and to give you rest and to encourage you in your faith, than we consider that a gift.
And you know the best part? We’re not in control. We may never know who we are getting to be church for; we may never know when someone’s heart is transformed by the Holy Spirit or when ours will be. Because God is always on the move and is always at work in our lives.
I don’t know if you noticed or not, but it’s hard to tell who converted whom in our story this morning. Everyone who is there is transformed. God keeps working on our hearts and our lives; it is not a one time experience. And this is a good reminder to us, as people who follow Jesus, that our story has always been a story of change. When we pray; when we love; when we are open to being vulnerable and trusting fully in God’s grace instead of our own ideas and our desire to control what happens, then the Holy Spirit changes us and those around us.
We are like parts of a body— as Romans puts it. Our goal is to work together and to be the body of Christ in this world by following Jesus. But we can’t all be the same body part or we’ll never get anywhere. We need to be who God has made us to be— all different parts, all different varieties, and yet functioning together, putting love first. In this way we can come together to follow Jesus and know that there are many ways to be church in the world.
Before you leave this morning, or in the week ahead, ask people you know who follow Jesus how they do that— what motivates them, what it looks like for them to use their God-given gifts to share God’s love. And then share how you intentionally follow Jesus in your everyday life. Take time to marvel at this beautiful body that God has created here on earth.