Acts 10:34, 35 NLT - Then Peter replied, “I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right.
Acts 10 is a pivotal passage in the life and history of the church. For most scholars, it represents a watershed moment, a time that marks the Gospel growing beyond the boundaries of being a Jewish faith to become a message to all the world. In other words, the encounter here is Acts 10 was critical for Christianity to grow beyond its Jewish cradle.
And so, we come to this passage, gentiles all, with a deep sense of gratitude already for what has happened, because we know, were it not for Acts 10, we would not know the saving grace of Jesus. But beyond this, Acts 10 is an exercise in the courage to follow where the Spirit is leading.
I know, we’ve talked before of what it takes to bring the message of Jesus back to your homes. At home, folks know our character not our celebrity. They know the real story not the curated virtual ones posted on the Insta or the Facebook. I know, we’ve talked before of what it takes to bring the message of Jesus out to those we like the least. But if God saved us while we were enemies, it is a little wonder that He would be sending us to the Ninevahs and Samarias in our lives. We all have a little of the spirit of Ezekiel in us - a prophet who would rather be silent but who is called to speak. Often God uses reluctant prophets and preachers but if the message gets there, then Hallelujah happens! Then what do we expect would be required to bring the message to the world? Acts 10 helps to frame that for us. If we want to share a message with worldwide extent, we need to process through the courage of an Acts 10 experience.
At every stage of the life of the church, courage was required to follow where the Spirit leads. Innovations come to those who aren’t faint in heart but who are willing to do what has never been done simply because they are convinced this is where God is leading. It took courage for Peter to go where no other Jewish believer had gone before and I am hoping today that as we look at this episode in his experience, we can draw courage for the innovations that the Spirit still leads His Church to engage in today.
I know your alarms are already blaring. Our whole organization and maybe religion itself is a conservative enterprise. Talk of innovation and change doesn’t fit well within the inspiration paradigm. Our church and almost every other church will always be challenged by change because we serve a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Tell me preacher, where in that formula is the innovation of which you speak? How can there be change in a God who is the same through the eternal past, present and future? We rely on God’s unfailing love that never changes - steadfast in its poetic beauty. So, there is no way that we are buying into a process-oriented picture of God that develops as situations and circumstances unfold.
Well, I’m glad you raised that objection because nothing that I say today should translate into a God who changes and who updates to suit the current fashions and fancies of the world. God is eternal. We live in the medium of time and space. But God isn’t confined by the boundaries of time and space. God doesn’t change because nothing catches God by surprise. He sees the end from beginning. When we pray, we are not informing God of anything that He doesn’t already know. God doesn’t have to do continuing education credits to maintain His divine credentials. God was, is, and will always be God - infinite in mercy, in love, in grace, in justice.
So, that’s not even a question. The issue is if God is eternal, is the Church eternal as well? Is there any space for growth or does the church come fully formed and perfect in reflecting Jesus? Now, I know that’s not a real question because we all experience the creaturely and transitory nature of the Church. The issue is complex but related to our theology of that divine-human connection that leads us to either over or undersell things of a religious nature. In the minds of many, only the Old-Time religion is good enough for them. Yet we don’t seem to realize that what is Old-Time for some, is innovative for others. Even the Amish were pioneers once.
But I understand some of the motivation: our clinging to the truths of tradition are a protest against forces that would discard so much of what is sacred. Too many are steeped in an iconoclastic streak that lacks a sense of history and certainly is deficient in an attitude that has no awe for the mysteries of life, passed down from generation to generation. God is eternal, but we are creatures of time. Try as we may, things change. In fact, the only way to keep things exactly the way it was is to kill it, embalm it. Transform dynamic movement into rigid crystalline.
So, here’s the real question that we struggle with through this message today, What do we do when our emerging convictions challenge our established customs? I think very few churches have the maturity or organizational awareness to understand the beliefs and practices that limit our obedience to Jesus’ commission. All you have to do is to look at the Biblical record. In Matthew 28:18-20, backed up by Acts 1:8, didn’t Jesus command and prophecy that His church would go into all nations? Yet it took the persecution of Acts 8 to get the disciples even semi interested into moving the message forward into Samaria. Paul talks about the compromise that saw all 12 apostles focusing their efforts on Circumcised Believers while committing the Gospel to the Gentiles to Paul (Galatians 2:9-10). Jesus says, Go into all the World and teach all nations but we say, if you want to teach all nations, send someone else.
I see it all the time. Company vans driving down the highway with the How’s My Driving sticker attached. In bold letters is a number for you to call in case you see one of these company vehicles behaving erratic. But reporting isn’t the only thing that keeps these vehicles in check. Many are monitored electronically by a fleet management system. Some companies will program the company GPS for deliveries in major cities to only make right turns as this saves gas and time. And most will have a governor installed somewhere on board that limits the maximum speed so that no matter how heavy the driver’s foot is, the vehicle never goes beyond a certain speed.
When I review what Jesus commissioned and what we do as a church, I ask myself - what is it that governs us? What is it that limits our obedience to the divine mandate? I believe that we are limited in becoming a movement with a worldwide message to the extent that we lack the courage to confront peripheral practices that have come to define our Christian experience. When tradition governs our search for truth, our impact for Jesus is severely limited. Only after the Spirit identifies and disables the governors in our Christian experience will we begin to preach, teach, heal and witness as Jesus commissioned and promised we would.
What do we do when our emerging convictions challenge our establish customs? Look at what God does to identify Peter’s issue and ask, What will God have to do to work in my issue? To bring the Gentiles in, God selected an exemplary Gentile to be the first candidate for membership into the Church. This isn’t to say that only exemplary Gentiles would be allowed in but it is to say that a heavy burden falls on whoever is first. You see, God is trying to save Gentiles but God has governed himself in that God will be using a Jewish church to save a Gentile community. God does this knowing fully well Jewish prejudices. Yet look at the condescending tenderness of God: God looked for the very best Gentile to present to the church board as a candidate for membership to the Church. God knew that to get past the church gates, this Gentile would have to be as close to a Jew as is humanly possible. Did you catch the description of Cornelius in verse 1-3? Cornelius had the right job to be a candidate - again for the good of the church. He already had a devotional life and was already involved in ministry. In fact, Cornelius was a God-fearer which means he already did everything that Jews did with the exception that he wasn’t circumcised. He had such a rich prayer life that God knew Him by name and Cornelius knew how to reverentially obey God. Really, Cornelius was being prepared by God for a long time to be a pioneer because if he couldn’t get in, then what chance would I stand of being invited into the church. All these positive attributes we find in Cornelius were being shaped into him by a God who would use this exemplary Gentile to make room for everyday gentiles into the church. But God knew that the church had to invite him in and at this point in time, they could only do exemplary - they weren’t ready for everyday as yet.
Now this is a challenge to the reformer in me. First, it lets me know that if I am going to be the first, I have a responsibility to be extraordinary because people’s experience with me will shape their experience with others who come behind me. Pioneers aren’t perfect, but flaws in pioneers are oftentimes the excuses people latch unto as validation for their rejection of the message. Then, it helps me to mirror God’s patience with His church in preparing them for the grueling process of change. God prepared them well for the process - and gently guided them “into all truth” knowing that indeed, people aren’t ready for everything all at once. So in being the change, we must exercise patience with others. God sent the word from Jesus about their mission and when God saw they were still stuck in Jerusalem, a little persecution got them off their settled spots. Mixed into that, God had Philip baptize a Eunuch who didn’t even stick around to join the church; but neither did Philip stick around to mentor him. And then, in the fullness of time, God brought about an encounter between Cornelius - the exemplary Gentile - and Peter - the exemplary apostle. God prepared the way towards the change, allowing the church to grow towards becoming a worldwide movement.
But the Spirit wasn’t done yet. The Spirit used all avenues to communicating truth to Peter as a representative of the Church. Look at the passage again. Notice how God communicates with Cornelius. The Spirit comes and tells him what he must do. Cornelius needs to send for Peter to come to Cornelius. It is an unambiguous message. Nothing here is left to interpretation. This hardly even makes for a sermon. But it has deep theological import because we have to wonder if God can speak directly to Cornelius, why doesn’t God just share the truth of the Gospel right there and then? I’m sure angels would love to tell the wonders of Jesus’ love for humanity. How difficult would it be? Now that we have your attention Cornelius, this is what I want you to believe. Tell him what Jesus did. Tell him who Jesus is. Tell him about the beauties of grace. But that’s not how God works. God chooses broken humans to share the wonders of the gospel because the gospel isn’t just about telling truth: it’s about testifying to the truth. God has ordained that those who’ve been transformed by the truth should speak up and say something about the truth. Let the redeemed of the Lord, say so. Whether we believe it or not, God is still good but humanity will be saved when other humans share by word of mouth what God has done for us. God values your personal testimony so much that given the choice between schooling a new convert, God sends us to them to personally affirm the power of the Gospel in our lives.
But it isn’t just Cornelius and Peter. God did that to Paul and Ananias in Acts 9:10-12. God did what He does in preparing souls but then gives them a vision of people, transformed by Grace coming to receive them into the family of faith. Ahhh, so this is why God chooses people to reach other people - because the people will be part of the family now and they need to feel embraced by their brothers and sisters. It’s not a suggestion from God, apparently because God tells the convert before God tells the church. Both Paul and Cornelius were given the clear revelation first of a specific Christian coming to lead them deeper into a saving relationship with God. God does what I cannot do: God books work for you without even consulting with you. And only after confirming with the candidate does God consult with the Church. I wonder who has already seen a vision of you coming? Who has the Lord prepared for the message you shall bear? Which doors have been opened? What invitation will follow today’s prayers that will usher in a deeper relationship with God?
For all their similarities though, Paul and Cornelius’ conversions were different. God talked to Ananias about baptizing Paul differently from how God talked with Peter about baptizing Cornelius. If you read too fast, you’ll miss it. But did you notice that God had one straight forward conversation with Ananias but God opened three channels to talk with Peter? (Compare Acts 9:10-16 to Acts 10:9-20). God used Peter’s hunger (Acts 10:9-13), God used a parabolic vision (Acts 10:10-16), and then God had to tell Peter, Just Go and Don’t ask any questions (Acts 10:19-20) before Peter went with the three men. To get this message through to Peter, God employed a multi-sensory experience to get Peter’s attention. God used Peter’s hunger and repulsion to get the message across in a parabolic vision.
Now, this is what is incredulous to me - that God would speak plainly to a Candidate but speak in parables to His Church. Why would this be challenging? Because we know how Jesus answered the disciples’ question about Jesus’ philosophy for using parables. Matthew 13:10-13 tells us that Jesus does this to steward the mysteries of the kingdom away from prying eyes that are curious but lack the courage to obey.
Well, the fact that God didn’t speak in Parables to Saul or to Cornelius tells me that God could trust the candidates with the message. God spoke plainly to Ananias though which leads to a more difficult conclusion - that the Church is much more accepting of the familiar murderer than the exemplary stranger. Think about it, there were no council meetings on whether or not Saul should be accepted into fellowship EVEN THOUGH HE ARRESTED AND PARTICIPATED IN THE MURDER OF CHRISTIANS. But to admit a Gentile, that’s a council level type threat to the existence of the faith. It’s inconsistencies like these that limit the extent of the church’s impact in its community. But thank God that God patently prepares His church through all possible channels to choose to act courageously.
What do we do when our emerging convictions challenge our establish customs? No matter the level of courage, we are our brother’s keeper and so courage should always be accompanied by accountability. What does this mean? When you feel God leading you into uncharted waters, pushing the message into frontier country, bring a few folks with you. Let me do an exercise here from the Scriptures. Raise your hands if you knew that the three men that Cornelius sent slept at the same house that Peter stayed at? I am going to assume that at least one of them was Gentile but I don’t even have to worry too much about that assumption. The way they report Cornelius’ vision to Peter makes them sound Gentile (Acts 10:22) but that’s not the point - the point is, Peter invited them in to spend the night (Acts 10:23) and only departed for Caesarea the next day. What this tells me is that it wasn’t a big deal to have them at Peter’s house - the issue was having Peter going to their house (Acts 10:28).
Peter knew that he was doing something that the Church would question his theology and motivation. But Peter felt led by the Spirit against his own better judgement. Peter knew better than most that there’s little controversy with who we take to the church - we get into troubled waters when we start talking about where God is leading us to take the church. But God chose Peter for a mission that wasn’t even in his realm of ministry. This is how I know that the Spirit is working and I challenge you as a church to study this - why would God chose Peter to inaugurate something that probably only Paul was equipped to carry forward?
"The Saviour’s words of reproof to the men of Nazareth applied, in the case of Paul, not only to the unbelieving Jews, but to his own brethren in the faith. Had the leaders in the church fully surrendered their feeling of bitterness toward the apostle, and accepted him as one specially called of God to bear the gospel to the Gentiles, the Lord would have spared him to them. God had not ordained that Paul’s labors should so soon end, but He did not work a miracle to counteract the train of circumstances to which the course of the leaders in the church at Jerusalem had given rise. The same spirit is still leading to the same results. A neglect to appreciate and improve the provisions of divine grace has deprived the church of many a blessing. How often would the Lord have prolonged the work of some faithful minister, had his labors been appreciated! But if the church permits the enemy of souls to pervert the understanding, so that they misrepresent and misinterpret the words and acts of the servant of Christ; if they allow themselves to stand in his way and hinder his usefulness, the Lord sometimes removes from them the blessing which He gave." Acts of the Apostle, pg 417-418
I know what tradition tells us about the work that the various apostles did, but from the Biblical record, only Paul and maybe Old Man John are recorded as leaving the confines of home-base and venturing out into Gentile territory. And if the church was already having difficulty with Paul preaching to Jewish believers (Acts 9:26-27), what hope would we have of the church seeing God mightily using Paul to preach to Gentiles? But God used the influence of one of the most respected conservative leaders within the church to pave the way for pioneers like Paul because Peter knew how the church thought and knew that to successfully move the church forward required courage accompanied by accountability.
Peter knew that if I go here, if I do this the brethren are going to have questions (Acts 11:1-2) and so I need to borrow a few other eyes to bear witness to what I said and did (Acts 11:12) but more importantly to what God did and is doing (Acts 10:13-16). Peter knew his place in the church’s leadership; but Peter knew that a decision this big would raise questions that only accountability partners could answer. And so, Acts 10:23, … “on the next day Peter went away with them, and some brethren from Joppa accompanied him.”
“In the earlier years of the gospel work among the Gentiles some of the leading brethren at Jerusalem, clinging to former prejudices and habits of thought, had not co-operated heartily with Paul and his associates. In their anxiety to preserve a few meaningless forms and ceremonies, they had lost sight of the blessing that would come to them and to the cause they loved, through an effort to unite in one all parts of the Lord’s work. Although desirous of safeguarding the best interests of the Christian church, they had failed to keep step with the advancing providences of God, and in their human wisdom attempted to throw about workers many unnecessary restrictions. Thus there arose a group of men who were unacquainted personally with the changing circumstances and peculiar needs met by laborers in distant fields, yet who insisted that they had the authority to direct their brethren in these fields to follow certain specified methods of labor. They felt as if the work of preaching the gospel should be carried forward in harmony with their opinions.” - The Acts of the Apostles, 400
To reach the world requires the Church, moved by the Spirit to apply the vision of pioneering infused with a sensitivity to the Spirit’s work in preparing a world of a harvest coupled an accountability grounded in the Word of God. It wasn’t that God had changed His mind on the Gentiles; rather the Church had finally caught up to what God had been preparing from the very foundations of the world. What do we do when our emerging convictions challenge our establish customs? We thread carefully courageous mindful that we not inhibit what God endorses. To reach the world demands that we not govern Scripture with our narrow readings of God’s purposes but that courageously we follow the Spirit as we shepherd the Church to reflect God’s heart to a dying world.