Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 19, 2019
Acts 11:1-18 Commentary
In this season of Easter, the Lectionary has directed our attention away from the Old Testament readings that are usually the first reading. Instead we have been following the book of Acts, which traces the new thing God did as a result of the Resurrection of Christ. That new thing was the spread of the Gospel from the center of the Jewish faith in Jerusalem and Judea into Samaria and out to the ends of the earth.
Up to this story of Cornelius, the spread of the Gospel has been limited to Jewish people, with the exception of the Ethiopian eunuch (who was, nevertheless, a convert to Judaism and, thus, presumably, circumcised), although Philip and Peter and John did venture into Samaritan villages. Here in Acts 11 (which is a retelling of the original event in Acts 10), we have the first bona fide non Jewish people join the church. The Gospel has leaped over the biggest border in Jewish life, which is why the Jewish leaders back in the mother church of Jerusalem jumped all over Peter. His border crossing was a violation of borders God himself had established for his people.
This text is intensely relevant for us in two ways. First, it answers the question, how does the church grow in a non-Christian environment. Second, it answers the question, how should the church handle the influx of people from the outside.
At first reading, I thought that first question was the more important. After all, Dr. Luke is telling his readers how it came about that the little band of disciples in Jerusalem became a world-wide fellowship of faith. Now I see that the real issue here is the perennial tension in the church between “us and them,” between our old rules and those new people. I’ll spend more time on that second issue, but there is much to learn about church growth in this text.
Any church leader has to be concerned about growing the church today, because it is, in fact, declining all over Western civilization. Most of the churches whose pastors will read this piece are losing members, and some are in danger of dying. So we attend seminars, read books, talk to friends, search the internet in hopes that someone can tell us how to grow our churches in a society that is becoming post-Christian, which may be a harder mission field than the pre-Christian world in which Acts was written.
Reading the book of Acts, we might conclude that the church grew rapidly because of the bold and uncompromising preaching that focused on the crucified and risen Christ (Acts 2), or because of the amazing miracles done by the apostles (Acts 3 and 9), or because of the fearless witnessing of Christians who were scattered into the world by persecution (Acts 8), or because of the good deeds and aid to the poor practiced by ordinary Christians (Acts 2 and 4 and 9), or because the fellowship and worship of the church was dynamic and magnetic (Acts 2 and 4). And all of that would be true. Those are the means by which the church grew.
But what made the church grow was God, using those means. We can work hard at re-creating those means in our day, but the church won’t grow, unless God is at work in and through those means. Innovative preaching, need based outreach programs, clever ad campaigns, new worship styles, fresh interpretations of the Gospel, reorganization of the church’s structure—none of the things will make the church grow, unless God moves.
That fact leaps off the pages of this particular story, but we’ve already seen it in the earlier stories—the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, the conversion of 3000 at Pentecost, the ministry of Philip, the conversion of Saul, and more. Apart from the Holy Spirit and the mighty works of God, the Gospel would have gone nowhere.
Now here, we read about dreams and visions, about angels and human messengers, about the Holy Spirit sovereignly and unexpectedly falling on Cornelius and his family, and about God granting even to the Gentiles repentance unto life. It was God who changed Peter’s mind. It was God who moved Cornelius to invite Peter to preach. It was God who sent the Spirit. It was God who converted this Gentile and his household. The fingerprints of God are all over this story, and the rest of Acts. That’s how churches grow. Whatever role humans play, it is God who gives the growth.
Of course, reading the story in Acts, we might conclude that God won’t give the growth if we don’t, for example, preach the Gospel as boldly and faithfully as Peter did, or if the church doesn’t display the kind of joy and generosity in its fellowship and worship, or if we don’t dare to venture out into the world witnessing to those we meet along the way. That is an important corrective to those who might say that church growth is totally out of our control. But the base line truth is that the church has always grown when God acts in a mighty way through his Word and Spirit.
But that raises the second question. What does the church do when God brings into the church folks who aren’t like us? How do we incorporate them into the Body of Christ? What kinds of demands do we make on these new Christians? Or to put it differently, what sorts of demands does God place on us when he makes the church grow with folks who aren’t like us?
That is what Acts 11:1-18 is all about. Dr. Luke has already recorded the story about the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10. Why does he have it repeated? Because the conversion of Cornelius and how Peter dealt with it raised a huge question that troubled the church throughout the apostolic age and to our day. We hear that question in the challenge with which the leaders of the Jerusalem church met Peter. “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
It wasn’t that Peter was involved with Cornelius’ conversion or that he baptized him. Jesus had told the early disciples that they were to do exactly that. The issue was the ongoing contact with uncircumcised people, with people who were unclean according to God’s law. Those had been the rules for centuries now. Peter knew that as well as these other leaders did; indeed, he had argued with the heavenly voice that told him to kill and eat unclean animals. That simply wasn’t the “done thing,” because that’s what God had clearly said. How far can you bend the rules, especially God given rules, to make new believers comfortable, so that they are fully part of the Body?
It’s a hard question. The leaders of the Jerusalem church took a hard line. No table fellowship with Gentiles, even Christian ones, until and unless they are circumcised and obey all the laws God gave us. Some modern day church leaders take a soft line. We have to accept everyone exactly as they are, regardless of the sins they carry into the church with them. All of the rules God has given to us must be ignored in order to enfold these new folks into the Body. Those are the choices—all law or all grace, tradition or tolerance.
Peter took neither fork in the road. He took a higher road. Refusing to argue theology, he simply told what God had done. Some might say that he relied on his experience rather than his traditional training, but that’s not how he presents his case. Yes, it was his experience, but it was God in his experience that convinced him and, subsequently, convinced his critics.
I was praying and I had a vision of a sheet filled with unclean animals descending from heaven. With the vision came a voice from heaven. The voice said, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” I replied that I always kept kosher. “Nothing impure and unclean has ever entered my mouth.” The voice spoke again. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” What a shock! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! Would God change the rules? Could God speak in such a way? To convince me, the Voice spoke two more times with the same message.
At that very moment 3 men (note the reoccurrence of the number three) arrived at my door, asking if I would come to Caesarea with them to preach to their boss, a centurion named Cornelius. I hesitated, because, of course, as a centurion he would be an uncircumcised Gentile, and thus unclean. I knew that I couldn’t fellowship with someone like that. God forbade us Jews from fraternizing with Gentiles lest we become unclean through our contact with them. But as I was thinking that, the Holy Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them.
So, I went along with these 6 witnesses (note the number three multiplied) and we entered the man’s house. He immediately told us how an angel had told him to get me to come and preach to him the message of salvation. How could I turn down an opportunity like that, even though he was a Gentile?
And, lo and behold, as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them, as he had come on us at the beginning of everything. I remembered Jesus saying about being baptized with the Holy Spirit. And it became clear to me that “God had given them the same gift he gave us,” the gift of the Spirit, the gift of tongues, the gift of salvation. And if God did that, “who was I to think that I could oppose God.”
Hear that? It was God, God, God. Not just one word from God, but several. Not just to one person, but to two at least. Not a mystical private experience, but a public experience witnessed by a number of people. Not an unshaped intuition, but a direct revelation of God’s words. Not natural developments in the church or society, but a God driven change in “the way we’ve always done things here.” God and God alone moved the other leaders to recognize that a new day had come, an extension of Easter day, a new kingdom in which Jews and Gentiles were now fully equal members of the Body of Christ.
That message was accepted by the former critics, but it was a long time before the whole church got it. Notice that even in their agreement with Peter, they still have some lingering… prejudice. “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.” A lifetime of looking down on the Gentiles caused them to say “even the Gentiles,” even them, those people. Try as they might, convinced as they were, they had a hard time letting go of the old “us versus them” dynamic.
So do we, and this is where your sermon should touch down in today’s church. Where do we hold new believers at an arm’s distance, even as we rejoice in their conversion and baptism? When they are members of another race or ethnic group? When they are clearly part of a lower or higher social class, the shabbily dressed red neck or the Mercedes driving couple in designer clothes? When they are two women holding hands as they enter the sanctuary? When he is wearing a MAGA cap as he enters church or there is an Obama sticker on their car? When he tells us that he was just released from prison where he was part of the prison church that our church sponsors?
Will we allow the slightly or very different person to join our church? How much genuine acceptance will we give? And on what terms? If the difference are simply cultural, our answer must be Peter’s. How can we oppose God who has given them the same gift as he gave us? If the differences are spiritual or moral, it gets harder. If God has granted them repentance unto life, how much repentance must we insist on? Does a convicted child molester get to watch over the children in our nursery? Does a former Buddhist continue to pray to Buddha in addition to Christ? Can a practicing polygamist bring all three of his wives into the same pew?
Your sermon can challenge people to think outside our boxes, because God does sometimes move the borders, as he did here in Acts 11. But we must also be careful to make sure that it is God moving the borders. We must be as sure as Peter was. That requires not just voices and visions, but also public testimony with witnesses and the judgment of the Body of Christ, and corroborating Scripture (“I remembered what Jesus said… about being baptized with the Spirit”). We must take great care to discern the Spirit’s leading and remember what Jesus said about the law and the prophets in the Sermon on the Mount. (He came not to take them away, but to fulfill them.)
There is no easy and tidy way to resolve this age old issue, but at the very least, this story tells us that we must, absolutely must, welcome and enfold all new believers, eating and drinking with them as Peter did. And, as the second Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) did, we must lay on them only the most minimal of our old rules. It’s a hard thing, but the Lord Jesus Christ demands no less. Even he ate and drank with tax collectors, prostitutes, and all kinds of unclean people, as he made his way to the cross to die for sinners.
In the early days of my ministry, my Dutch immigrant denomination was just awakening to our responsibility to make disciples not just at the ends of the earth, but also in the neighborhood. We didn’t know where to begin, so we begin casting about in varying schools of missiology. One of the most popular was the Church Growth Movement that emphasized the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP).
The HUP observed that church growth most often and most dramatically happened when the church reached out to people like themselves. “Birds of a feather flock together.” The Gospel flows best down lines of established relationships, when it doesn’t have to cross so many social, economic, and political borders. That’s what the teachers in the Church Growth Movement has observed in the mission fields.
But many argued with the HUP, because it seemed counter to the rich diversity of the church in the book of Revelation. It seemed to be discriminatory, contrary to our text for today. What would have happened to the Great Commission if Peter and Paul and their cohorts hadn’t crossed borders of every kind? No, it’s not easy, but is success measured by numerical growth or by spiritual faithfulness? That something to have your congregation think about as you apply this text to contemporary church life.
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