Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 5, 2024

Acts 10:44-48 Commentary

Sermon Introduction/Set-Up

Consider: what are the activities, practices, traditions, theological convictions, sacred cows that make your congregation unique?  What gives your church its sense of identity?

Now, before beginning the sermon, consider making an “announcement.” Effective immediately, the church will no longer be doing any of those things. No Sunday worship. No programming. No prayer. No creeds or confessions. No sacraments. Really mess with folks and tell them you are changing the church name…or the time of the worship service or the style of music.  Tip those sacred cows!

Pause then reassure people you are kidding. But ask them to remember what it felt like to hear that “announcement”: disorienting, sad, angry. Did they want to tackle you out of the pulpit? These aren’t just events on a calendar.  For most of us they are a sense of identity. They are the way we know we are Christian and, perhaps, without those things, it’s hard to know how we’re supposed to follow God in this world.

Comments, Observations and Questions:

When the Elders in Jerusalem heard what Peter did by eating in the household of uncircumcised men and then BAPTIZING them!! They might have been tempted to tackle their leader out of a pulpit too.

They might also have said, “You betrayed your identity as a Jew. You did not remain set-apart. You broke our food laws. Without that, we don’t know how to be followers of God in the world. And you baptized Gentiles without first properly teaching them to be observant Jews. You baptized them without first circumcising them? But that is what makes us who we are. It gives us our identity as a people!

What happens in the story of Cornelius has deep reverberations throughout the life of the church. That’s why, after a rapid fire 9 chapters of ascension, Pentecost, establishing the church, healing, teaching, watching the Gospel spread to Samaria and the Ethiopian eunuch. Hearing Stephen’s testimony before he is killed as the church’s first martyr. Observing Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road.  After 9 rapid-fire chapters, it takes Luke a whole chapter and a half to tell one story about one guy and his household becoming Christian.  In total, Luke ends up telling this story 3 different times in the book of Acts.  Because it is just that weird … and disorienting, sad and angry-making.

Those reading and living these first century accounts might well have wondered: “If Gentiles don’t have to become Jewish in order to become Christian, then what about all those things I’ve done my whole life that help me know God’s presence? What about all the ways I have worshipped, that my faith has grown and developed over the years? Are you saying that none of that matters anymore? Because, I’ll tell you, it matters a whole lot to me! I do those things so that I can know who I am. Without those things, I don’t know how to be a follower of God in the world.”

The believers in Jerusalem listen to Peter’s story. About the sheet lowered from heaven and the mish-mash of kosher and non-kosher animals. The voice from heaven commanding Peter: “Kill and eat.” And Peter’s insistence that he is Jewish and that is just not how he rolls. But then he hears: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” And he hears this three times. ‘Cuz it takes awhile for truth to sink in. Kind of like how Luke tells this story three times. . .

So Peter goes to Cornelius’ house – “and these 6 guys went with me.” And he hears how God has been leading Cornelius’ too. So that, when the Holy Spirit comes upon those uncircumcised Gentiles, Peter concludes in this Sunday’s text: “So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the LORD Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”

The rest of the book of Acts AND most of the epistles center on the church trying to figure out how this is going to work. Jews and Gentiles together. When the church concludes, “So then, even to Gentiles, God has granted repentance that leads to life,” there is a Greek word used that has no English equivalent. It is the word “hara.” It’s a word intended to communicate anxiety, impatience or coming to an uncertain conclusion. It is the verbal equivalent of shrugging your shoulders and lifting upturned hands, like “We’re not exactly sure where to go from here but we’re pretty sure that the Gentiles have repentance, new life and faith in Jesus Christ. And we know that it is the kindness of God, the gracious gift of God that accomplishes faith so we guess we’d better go with it.

Repentance. New life. Faith in Jesus Christ. It is discipleship. All of those other things that we like and appreciate and value as part of our Christian lives? We like and appreciate and value them because we’ve seen that they contribute to our growing and developing faith. They are gifts along the way.  But they aren’t salvation.

Salvation is God’s gracious gift of faith in Jesus Christ. And within this rule, God’s redemption may reach farther than what makes us comfortable. There is room for variety and variation in the outworking of this salvation and discipleship. Many of the customs, practices and traditions that have been so integral to our faith development may not be absolutes.

So I might say that the Reformed faith is significant to me. That it provides structures and insights and ways of being in this world that seem to be in harmony with who God is and how the Kingdom of God seems to be coming into the world. I can say that this is a great way to be a Christian. What I can’t say is that this is the only way to be a Christian. What I want to say is that you don’t have to look like me in order to look like Jesus.  And that will likely take both of us a lifetime to figure out.

Will Willimon’s conclusion on today’s Scripture text is that “Faith, when it comes down to it, is often our breathless attempt to keep up with the redemptive activity of God, to keep asking ourselves, ‘What is God doing, where on earth is God going now?’”


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