Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 16, 2017
Acts 10:34-43 Commentary
I sometimes wonder if Peter almost choked on the words: “I now know that God does not show favoritism…” In fact, with one biblical scholar, I sometimes wonder how he ever justified this to himself, much less Jerusalem’s church, as he does later.
After all, Jews like Peter had always recognized that God might show occasional love to a few Gentiles. However, Jews also always maintained that God’s favoritism dictated that those outsiders had to act like Jews in order to qualify for God’s mercy.
Now, however, Peter stands up and admits to some of those Gentiles, “God does not show favoritism.” Later he’ll even tell his fellow Jewish Christians, “God gave [the Gentiles] the same gift as he gave us.” Clearly God has convinced Peter that God doesn’t play favorites or show partiality.
Yet Peter’s message of God’s favor toward the Gentiles could not have been an easy one for even his Christian Jewish contemporaries to hear. It’s not, after all, as though had Peter said God favors Candiens fans as much as Maple Leaf fans. No, it’s more like he says God loves murderers, rapists and child abusers as much as God loves nice people like us.
Perhaps, however, this wide embrace should not have surprised Peter, the early church or us. God’s Spirit is, after all, on the move throughout the first part of the book of Acts. Acts shows how God nudges God’s people through Joppa, and past the converted Samaritans and Ethiopian. God even introduces us to the Jewish persecutor of Christians, Saul, whom God has turned into God’s missionary, Paul.
Now, however, God shoves one of God’s Israelite sons up against a Gentile, a Roman soldier named Cornelius. This man is completely involved in an oppressive political system. In fact, he makes his living off Rome’s sometimes-brutal military occupation of Peter’s country.
However, Acts 10:2, after all, describes his family and him as “devout and God-fearing.” It also reports that this Roman soldier “gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” So Cornelius is, like the Magi who worshiped the newborn Jesus, a racial, religious and vocational outsider. However, unlike those men from the east, God has already drawn him to the edge of the God-fearing community. In fact, this Roman soldier shows that he’s already willing to have God and people teach and guide him.
However, it’s also clear that Cornelius doesn’t choose to become part of Christ’s church by being baptized. He doesn’t make some heroic decision to buck the odds and follow Jesus Christ. No, Luke portrays this Roman soldier as more of a passive actor in a cosmic drama that Someone Else directs.
Many of Acts 10’s preachers and teachers, like Cornelius also have great responsibility and authority. We usually tell our children, students or people we supervise what to do. However, even the most powerful Christians also take our commands for faith and life from the Lord.
In a similar way, God, through an angel, prompts mighty Cornelius to send for a man named Peter. Yet while Peter accepts his “invitation,” (after all, who can turn down a Roman soldier’s “request”?), he’s clearly no more in charge than the Gentile is.
After all, just as Cornelius had a strange vision, Peter has a dream that also confuses him. As he’s praying, someone lowers a big sheet that’s full of all sorts of animals. A voice then commands him to kill and eat what’s in the sheet, including food no faithful Jew ever ate.
The strict dietary laws Peter was following prevented the assimilation and destruction of Jews as Jews. Those laws proscribed faithfulness in the midst of immense pressure to abandon the faith and just become a good Roman citizen.
However, 21st century Christians who make countless little spiritual compromises can hardly understand Peter’s reluctance to break such laws. How, after all, could it hurt him just to take a bite of pork? So I don’t think we can even imagine how hard it was for Peter to go with Cornelius’ messengers.
Sure, the Spirit’s message and the Roman soldier’s story of the angel’s visit emphasizes God’s directing role. Yet Peter’s synagogue had raised him to both keep kosher and avoid Gentiles precisely like this soldier to whom he’s going.
God, however, drags this leader of the Jewish Christian church, to the home of a Gentile. God also empowers Peter to recognize that his mysterious trip to Cornelius’ home has something to do with that strange dream about pure and impure food.
After all, God is gradually revealing to Peter a full and, to Jews, frightening implication of Jesus’ resurrection that his Church celebrates today: God does not show favoritism! In response, Peter breaks at least one hallowed law. He enters the Gentile Cornelius’ home.
Yet once God breaks down that wall, we see God take a sledgehammer to a whole series of old walls. When, after all, Peter enters his home, the Roman soldier falls at his feet to worship him. While this rightly embarrasses Peter, it shows that the mighty Gentile soldier is not too powerful to kneel before a Jewish former fisherman. What’s more, eventually Peter stays with his Gentile hosts for a few days. So he also probably ate things that were unkosher.
Earlier Acts tells us that God converts, in one sense, both Saul and Ananias. Saul, after all, was a relentless persecutor of Christians whom God gave the gift of Christian faith. Ananias, however, also needed God’s transformation from one who avoided Saul to one who ministered to Paul.
Perhaps, then, both Peter and Cornelius need God to change them if God’s mission is to go forward. So who needs God’s conversion in our world today? Those who aren’t Christians certainly need God to convert them to the faith. However, we profess that we also need daily conversion away from our sinful ways and toward Christ likeness.
When converted Cornelius tells his remarkable story, converted Peter can draw only one conclusion. He finally realizes how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts people from every nation who fear the Lord and do what’s right.
God had, after all, as Peter says, sent Jesus to Israel where Jesus went around “doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil.” However, those captives of Satan included all sorts of Jews and outsiders and outcasts.
Eventually, Peter recalls, Satan’s allies succeeded in convincing the Romans, for whom Cornelius works, to crucify Jesus. God, however, Peter announces, raised this Jesus back to life and sent him back throughout Palestine.
Eventually this same Jesus, whom Peter now recognizes is Lord not just of the Jews, but also the Gentiles, ascended back to the heavenly realm. However, he didn’t do so before sending his followers to witness “to the ends of the earth.” Now one of those followers must feel as though he’s not just standing at the very end of the earth, but perhaps even on another planet. Peter is, after all, standing in a Gentile’s home, admitting that God does not show favoritism.
The Spirit shatters any lingering doubts Peter may have right before his eyes. As if to confirm that God is moving this process, the Holy Spirit somehow descends on everyone who has just heard Peter speak. Just, in fact, as Luke earlier reported the Spirit earlier descended on Jesus.
How, then, can Peter refuse to baptize these outsiders whom God has drawn into God’s family or their hospitality? The Spirit, after all, already lives in them. The Spirit has blown where it pleases. Peter and Christ’s church can only respond in faithful obedience.
After all, the Christian faith is far more than a decision that people make. Christian faith far more than something we offer to God. It’s a glad response, a joyful reception of God’s gracious offer of himself to us. Faith is quite simply a gift from God that we can’t make, but can only gladly receive. So God equips all those the Spirit moves to respond in faith. Both Jews and Gentiles, both virtuous pagans like Cornelius and religiously zealous persecutors like Saul, faithfully receive God’s grace.
This presents Acts 10’s preachers an opportunity to explore where the Spirit may be nudging modern individuals and churches. Some people may seem hopelessly beyond the reach of God’s amazing grace. Perhaps they’ve deeply embedded themselves in a religious system that completely rejects Christianity. Or they’ve been part of the church but consciously decided to reject it.
Of course God calls both Jews and Gentiles to receive God’s grace with their faith. However, people’s rejection of God doesn’t derail God’s longing that they faithfully respond to God’s work. As long as they live, God longs to send God’s Spirit on those outsiders, just as God sent the Holy Spirit on the Cornelius. So Easter Sunday may be a good time for preachers and teachers who serve the risen Savior to challenge our hearers to pray for those who don’t yet join us in serving him.
Those who preach and teach Acts 10 may also want to look for ways to invite churches to corporately show that God shows no favoritism. Certainly greater prayerful and financial support of those who serve as missionaries can be part of that. Encouraging people to both talk about God’s love for them in the risen Christ and show them that love is part, as well, of the Easter mission.
In his book, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, David M. Kennedy writes about how during WWII Americans and Japanese hated and vilified each other based on racial stereotypes and thus fought a “war without mercy.” The Japanese thought Americans were “decadent” and “self-indulgent.” Americans had no stomach for war, the Japanese believed, and would, after Pearl Harbor, “immediately sue for peace” to Japan’s great advantage.
Besides, the Japanese thought of themselves as racially pure and of one will. Americans, by contrast, were in the eyes of Japanese “a contemptibly polyglot and divided people . . . riven by ethnic and racial conflict, labor violence, and political strife, incapable of self-sacrifice or submission to the public weal.” All because Americans were infected with the “detestable Western virus of individualism.”
Americans, for their part, thought the Japanese were “servile automatons devoid of individual identity.” Meanwhile, “wartime cartoons and posters routinely pictured the Japanese as murderous savages, immature children, wild beasts, or bucktoothed, bespectacled lunatics.”
Kennedy observes that national pride issuing in stereotypes of the “other” and war-making on this basis is an ancient phenomenon seen, for example, among ancient Greeks, who thought of themselves as cultured aristocrats and thought of everybody else as mere “barbarians.”
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