Acts 11: 1-18
Lord God, may my words be acceptable in your sight and fruitful for those who hear. Amen.
The book of Acts chapters 10 and 11 are an Important point in the growth of the embryonic church, the body of Christ. In these chapters we see described a time of transition; a fork in the road; where one false step can set you upon the wrong path; If a ship sailing from Liverpool to New York is one half of a degree out in its course when it sets out and doesn’t correct its course will land in the Dominican Republic 1600 miles away from New York. The most dangerous and difficult times of any undertaking are the beginning and the end phases. So today’s reading describes an event in the beginning phase of the church; the beginning of the journey. A time when the church grows from one thing to something else entirely.
Up to this point the church of the Christ has been growing from the belief and acceptance of those of the Jewish faith prepared to listen to and believe the good news. Peter always stands first in the list of the disciples; he was one of the inner circle of three with James and John the sons of thunder. Throughout the ministry of our Lord Jesus he is portrayed as impulsive. Peter is now the recognised leader of the church. No place to be impulsive and thanks to the Holy Spirits guidance and teachings we see Peter blossoming in his new role. In chapter 10 we read of how Peter saw a vision while praying where he was commanded to kill and eat unclean animals. This vision led him to the realisation that the world had changed. This was the new world of The Christ’s saving grace. God has always intended that all men should be welcomed into His love. The Hebrews are His chosen people they were the seedbed for his harvest. They prepared the ground for the Messiah and the good seed to be scattered. Now is the time for the harvest to begin.
In the reading today we see Peter returning to Jerusalem from Caesarea where he visited Cornelius the Roman Centurion and witnessed the Holy Spirit alighting upon people who were not Jews. Now it doesn’t say this anywhere in the bible but it’s not too much of a stretch to wonder if this Cornelius is the Centurion from Luke 7 who sent to ask Jesus to cure his servant. There were in all about 66 centurions in the tenth Legion at that time but that legion of 6400 men were spread out all over the region in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Arabia as well as Judea. We know from the historical records that there was only one cohort, approximately 500 men with six centurions in Judea and Syria at that time, so the chances are that this was indeed the same centurion. So Peter has been sent by the Holy Spirit to Cornelius who has been inspired by the Holy Spirit to invite Peter to Caesarea where he preaches the Gospel, the good news of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection to the Roman Centurion and his guests and Peter is amazed when the Holy Spirit descends upon these non-Jews.
But the vision, which was given to Peter upon the rooftop in Joppa, has prepared Peter for this eventuality and Peter accepts what he sees without question and baptises them as Christians. This is a big thing for Peter to do. We know that he has been a devout Jew all his life. Remember his protest in the vision on the rooftop when the sheet with all the animals is lowered with all the beasts of the earth on and he is told ‘kill and eat’. He protests that nothing unclean has ever entered his mouth. Now here he is accepting heathens into the church of the Christ without hesitation without doubt. What a transformation. 1200 years of the law of Moses, which Peter has obeyed all his life. Jews could not eat with heathens, they could not go into a heathen’s house and if they were to touch a heathen they had to go into prayer and isolation for a period of time until they were no longer unclean. Now Peter is eating with these heathens going into their house and baptising them with water.
He must have known what a stir this would cause in the church and we can see this in verses one and two of today’s reading. The ‘circumcision party’ take Peter to task as soon as he walks in the door. Who are the circumcision party? These are the Christian Jews who are insisting that only circumcised men can enter into the church. They would become the Judaizers section of the church who the apostle Paul contended with as we can see from his letters. So this is a pivotal moment in the growth of the church and Peter has to get this right.
If he argues he risks factions forming. If he relents he risks stagnation and eventual decline. The church is growing and everything would probably have looked good to Peter and the human thing to do would be not to take risks, to consolidate, to tread carefully. But Peter doesn’t do any of that. He has had his orders and after all he has seen and heard and experienced in the recent past we should not be surprised that he follows them to the letter and without hesitation. But we should pay careful attention to the way in which he deals with these protests. It must be important because it’s been recorded. Now I don’t want you to think I’m saying that it must be important simply because it’s in the bible. No it’s important because it’s been recorded. This was a time when writing things down had to be planned before you started writing; you had to work out what you were going to write and what you were going to include and what you were going to leave out. Everything was written in longhand and the paper was expensive, so space was at a premium. There were no word processors; you have to imagine that you want to record everything that has happened in the church in the last few months but you only have two sheets of paper to do it on.
If they wrote it down it was important, it mattered. We see from the reading that Peter took great pains to explain everything that had happened. The original Greek uses the word precisely. Peter took them through the story step by step, leaving nothing out. There’s a lesson for us all there. This is why we are called to exercise patience and show love to all. Because our message is a difficult one. It is a hard message and if we become combative or confrontational when we tell it we will fail; we will repel rather than attract. We should learn from Peter how to get our message across. Calmly and precisely with attention to detail. This requires us to study the message as well as we can because if you don’t know the details you can’t communicate them to others. Now I believe that this is a very important lesson for us as a church as well as individuals. But there is another lesson to be considered here. How quickly we forget. Those circumcision Jews had presumably studied scripture and scripture is full of the promise that God will call all people unto Himself, but here they were confronting Peter for consorting with the uncircumcised, pagans in their eyes; polluted beyond redemption by their sacrifices to idols. However, if these believers have spent time studying scripture then they should not be surprised that the redeeming blessing of the once for all perfect sacrifice of our Lord Jesus is for all humanity. The message is there from Genesis 12:3 where The Lord tells Abraham “For I will bless those who bless you and curse him who curses you, in you will all families and kindred of the earth be blessed”. to Isaiah 49:6 where the Holy Spirit tells the Hebrews. “I will also give you a light unto the nations, that my salvation may extend to the ends of the earth”.
Now Peter could have simply pointed out to these dissenters where they were wrong but he didn’t do that. Why not? Because he has been told three times by the Christ to care for His sheep, to love His sheep. Peter has earned his place in Heaven because he carried out this commission from our Lord Jesus not just to the sheep that he liked but also to the sheep who very probably got on his nerves as these ‘circumcision Jews’ probably did. Peter took his time, he covered all the bases and presented his case with patience and thoroughness. By doing so he avoided factions and kept the church on course while it was still in its infancy. This is a battle and a task that the church faces every day somewhere in the world. Our Lord Jesus has given us the commission to love one another as He has loved us but how many of us follow that to the letter? I know I don’t manage it very often if at all. Our Lord Jesus loves us, all of us, without hesitation or restraint, and we must never lose sight of the fact that He ministered to the sick and came to save the sinner, not just the pharisees or the rabbis. Our Lord Jesus ministered to those we would probably think of as our enemies. We must never forget that this is the fallen world. The world that belongs to the enemy. The prince of this world is the enemy of us all. He wants to see us take that half a degree turn from the true direction because he wants us to miss our target. Be sober be vigilant because the enemy is prowling around like a hungry lion seeking someone to devour and he is always hungry. We are called to love our enemy; because what reward should we expect for loving our families and friends?
James 2:19 “you believe that God is one; you do well. So do the demons believe and shudder”. So how do we show this love to our enemies and our opponents. We do well to learn from Peter in today’s reading. He prays regularly in order to achieve an open channel of communication with our Lord through the Holy Spirit; when a message is given he acts upon it straight away without doubt or fear or reservation; when he is confronted he stays calm and sticks to the plan, because he has done his homework, he has studied as best he can, which is the way we all have to do it, and he puts his case simply without fuss or fanfare. He doesn’t get flustered or angry at being confronted and the reading states quite clearly that the circumcision party contended with him, so it was probably not that friendly a meeting. Peter remembered what the mission is. To preach the gospel. Not to recruit as many people as we can but to preach the Gospel, honestly and to the best of our abilities. It is not our task to convince anyone. Those who hear the Gospel will respond or they won’t; that is the responsibility of the Holy Spirit. Our responsibility is to preach the Gospel in the way we try to live our life and the way we reach out to people whenever the opportunity arises and we think we can manage to do it well enough for that moment. Our task is to preach the Gospel sensibly and effectively. Not by standing on street corners screeching bible verses at passers-by but by looking out for and recognising when opportunity knocks and being ready. Remember it’s not about us. It’s not about how many we convert. It’s not about how well others think we do it. It’s about leaving room in the process for the Holy Spirit. We tell the story as best we can and we leave the rest to the Holy Spirit. Remember we are simply the tap. The living water that comes out of that tap is our Lord Jesus and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; if we do it right; if we do it with love in our heart. Love for God and love for those prepared to listen. Even the ones we don’t particularly like very much.