Thursday, 17 April 2008

Acts 10: "Do not call unclean that which God has made clean"

Below is the latest talk I've been asked to give from the book of Acts. It concerns the conversion of Cornelius, the first Gentile convert, in Acts 10. As usual, I'd love to receive any thoughts or feedback readers might have:

In his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi wrote of how, during his time as a university student in London, he became interested in Christianity. He read through the Gospels, became fascinated by the person of Jesus and saw in him the answer to the caste system in India – the institutionalised system whereby a person’s treatment depends on the class into which they were born; a system that troubled Gandhi deeply. One Sunday morning, he decided to attend a service at a nearby church and to talk to the minister about becoming a Christian. But when Gandhi arrived, the usher on the door told him that he couldn't give him a seat, that he ought to go somewhere else and worship with his own kind. Gandhi left and never went back. Later he wrote, ‘If Christians have caste differences also, I might as well remain a Hindu.’ The sad truth is that a different attitude from that usher could have affected the whole of India and its history.

In Britain today, 80% of Christians live in the 20% most wealthy areas. In their book, Total Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis write that ‘class consciousness runs deep in British evangelicalism. Social class is British evangelicalism’s equivalent of racism in American evangelicalism.’ Tim Chester goes on to write, ‘I hope that this is mostly subconscious. [But] many of the divisions within evangelicalism are as much about social class as theological differences. In one direction, people are seen as vulgar; in the other direction, people are seen as snobbish.’

Why have I told you these things? Well, primarily it’s because they go fundamentally against what the Church, the people of God, is called to be. Because at its best, and at its deepest level, from earliest times the Church has learned that there are to be no barriers within it. It has learned that there is to be nothing to stop a person from hearing about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I emphasise 'learned' because that is precisely what the early church had to do. The early Church we’ve been reading about in the book of Acts was on a steep learning curve. We've seen something of that in previous weeks. Now in Chapter 10, the lesson the Church had to learn was that God’s gospel embraces those outside of Jewish ethnicity. It was an important lesson for the Church to learn – had it not, then we might not be here today, as a primarily non-Jewish group, meeting in Jesus’ name.

Chapter 10 is put together like a good movie. It starts by introducing us to two characters, as extraordinary things happen to them in their ordinary lives. Then at the end those two characters come together; there is an emotional meeting, a speech is made and history is changed. My points this evening are about what God does in and through these two men as, firstly, God prepares the way; and then, secondly, God breaks down the barrier.

Firstly, then, let’s notice how God prepares the way (verses 1-23).

The first character we meet is Cornelius. He’s described in verses 1-8. Verse 1 tells us that Cornelius is a centurion, an important Roman soldier. He was serving in Caesarea, the centre for the Roman government in Judea. Cornelius represents Roman occupation and authority, in their headquarters.

But we also read in verse 2 that Cornelius is a God-fearer. This means that he’d accepted that the Jewish God, the God of the Old Testament, was the one true God. He’d accepted the ethical standards of the Jews. We do not that he’d not become a full convert to Judaism, as we read later that he’s uncircumcised. This was a common position to be in. For understandable and for squeamish reasons, even worshippers sympathetic to the Jewish faith rarely fully embraced it and got circumcised. So, Cornelius would have been regarded by the Jews as a pagan, but he’s a sympathetic pagan.

Well, Cornelius has a vision (verses 3-6). It was very clear – there was no room for confusion: send for Peter. Yet, it must also have been somewhat bewildering. The angel says that Cornelius’ prayers have been answered. As the chapter unfolds, we’ll see that Cornelius’ prayers must have been that God would reveal to him how he could have been saved. Yet now the angel tells Cornelius to send for Simon Peter, someone he had probably never heard of. He was going to be asking a Jewish fisherman to meet him, a Roman centurion. Yet Cornelius does as he is told. In a response which reinforces what we are told about his faith in God, Cornelius arranges for Peter to be sent for. But I bet as the two servants and the soldier went off, Cornelius was left scratching his head.

The focus shifts to Peter in verses 9-21. He’s more familiar to us: one of Jesus' closest disciples, now he’s the leader of the early Church. He’s staying in Joppa, thirty miles from Caesarea. And Peter sees a vision as well. Peter’s vision was more mysterious than Cornelius’ clear instructions. Let’s read verses 11-14:

He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat."

"Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean."

Peter’s hungry. You know that feeling when you smell delicious aromas wafting in from the kitchen. In his hungry state, he falls into a trace. And, in the trance, as a range of different animals come down on the sheet, Peter hears a voice telling him to have them for dinner. Yet Peter’s response is vehement. ‘Surely not, Lord,’ he says – although this is a polite way of expressing it. What shocked Peter is the type of animals that were in the vision. He was a Jew. He lived by Jewish law. And so you ate what the people of Israel at the time of Moses had been told by God were clean animals. You can read about this in Leviticus 11. Animals that have split hooves and those that chew the cud are clean. Everything else is unclean. As it says in Leviticus 11:8, “You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.” Now Peter is told to eat all sorts of animals – both those he’s considered clean and those that are unclean. And so he’s shocked. Peter would have observed these food laws for the whole of his life. He wasn’t about to ditch this commitment to these laws now.

But the voice persists. In fact the whole thing happens twice more. And the refrain is this: “do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” You can imagine Peter trying to get his head around all this. I love verse 17: ‘While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision...’ What an understatement! Too right he was wondering! If Cornelius had been left scratching his head, Peter must have been tearing his hair out. It must have felt like everything he had been brought up with had just changed.

Now, you may say, what’s all the fuss about? It's only a different diet. So Peter can eat more than he thought. Well, surely that’s good news! It’s like Weight Watchers in reverse!

But for Peter, and for any devout Jew, food laws dominated the whole of your social life. The whole reason that God had given Moses the food laws centuries beforehand was to mark the Jewish nation out as distinct. Diet was an important way of doing so. For any Jew, their aim was to remain clean. That’s why, as well as avoiding unclean meat themselves, we read that the convention of the time was that Jews did not socialise with Gentiles, non-Jews. There was actually no law in the Old Testament saying a Jew couldn't spend time with a Gentile; rather, they deliberately avoided them for fear of becoming unclean. And so, in practice, by the 1st Century, Jews and Gentiles lived in two completely different social worlds.

So Peter is now being told that an important basis for division between Jews and Gentiles – the food laws – no longer applies. As verse 15 puts it, “Do not call impure [or better, unclean] anything that God has made clean.” And here’s the point: “Peter – you regard Gentiles as religiously unclean because of what they eat. You are no longer to think of these foods in that way – and so you are no longer to think of the Gentiles in that way either.”

Scripture elsewhere makes this idea even clearer. Ephesians 2:14-15 speak of how Christ ‘himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in the flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.’ In other words, with the coming of Jesus in the world, and with the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, all the qualitative differences of the Old Testament between Jew and Gentile are obliterated. Diet laws, circumcision and animal sacrifice were all ultimately Old Testament pictures that pointed forward to Jesus. They showed that Jews and Gentiles alike needed the cross. And now Christ has come, these ceremonial differences between Jew and Gentile are rendered obsolete.

So Peter has been told that the basis for the practical division between Jews and Gentiles, the food laws, are not to concern him. No wonder he was shocked. But here’s the beauty of the timing. At the very point that Peter is beginning to work through the implications of his vision, the three men arrive from Cornelius, a Gentile. And what’s Peter’s reaction? Well, he immediately agrees to see Cornelius and to be his guest. That wouldn't have happened before because of Peter’s cultural baggage and his understanding of the Old Testament. But now that’s changed. Already Peter is aware of the implications of his vision.

So, the scene is set: we have two men who are probably rather bemused but obedient to the visions they have had. They are two men on opposite sides of the religious divide, but God has spoken to them both. God, in his good plan, has prepared the way for a mighty work he is to do. God is about to break down the divide that separates them.

And that brings us to our second heading: God breaks down the barrier (verses 24-43).

So, Cornelius and Peter meet. It must have been quite a scene. We read in verse 24 that Cornelius had gathered quite a party together. When Peter arrived there would have been quite an atmosphere. And what a highly-charged meeting it was! Look at verse 25: ‘As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence.’ The word in Greek for ‘reverence’ means ‘worship’. He was bowing down to Peter as God's messenger. And I guess that this provided the opportunity for Peter, if he wanted, to reinforce the barriers that had up to that point existed in his mind. He could have exploited the situation and refused contact with the Gentile Cornelius. But he doesn't. He picks up Cornelius off the floor and says 'I am only a man myself'.

In verses 28-29, Peter says why he has come. He recognises that such meeting between Jew and Gentile is highly unusual – as we’ve seen, it’s not actually against the law, but a cultural taboo. But because of the vision he has had, Peter has had his mind changed about who is in and who is out. That is why he has come. Cornelius then tells his side of his story and then finishes in a moving way. Look at the second half of verse 33: ‘Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.’ The stage is set for the final speech to camera.

Peter’s speech – which we read in verses 34-43 – makes explicit what is already implicit by his very presence in the house of a Gentile. The speech sums up the scene that Peter and Cornelius find themselves in. It climaxes in Peter calling the Gentile Cornelius into God’s family through Christ. We don’t have time to look at it in detail but just notice two key aspects.

First, the universal aspect. Verse 34 kicks off with this theme: ‘I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism.’ But look also at verse 43: ‘Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’ The message that Peter is preaching is that the invitation of God is for everybody, and not just for those who initially received it. In other words, it’s not just for the people of Israel, but for people of every nation. The barriers of who can receive God and who can't are down.

Second, notice Peter’s focus on Jesus. Peter doesn’t say, ‘God loves everyone – isn’t that lovely?!’ Rather, as Peter speaks about the invitation of God for all sorts of folks to be part of his people, Peter centres on the person and work of Jesus. This is what the core of the speech is about. Look down at verses 36-42 and you’ll see that they are shot through with Jesus: who he is and what God has done through him. Jesus is the subject of almost every clause – ‘he did this’, ‘he did that’. And so the promise of forgiveness of sins to everyone in verse 43 is for those who ‘believe in him’, those who ‘will receive it in his name’. The barriers of who can belong to God are down, says Peter, because of Jesus. His death on the cross and resurrection from the dead is sufficient for anyone that will trust in him. Anyone – including Cornelius and his family – who, as the final verses of the chapter tell us, trust Jesus and are brought into God’s people.

A wonderful chapter, then – but what are the applications to us?

Above all, we need to see that the cross is what defines a person as being part of God's people. As we’ve read through this story, you might have had a sense of déjà vu – the story is somewhat similar to that we read about in Chapter 8, when God demonstrated that the Samaritans are included on the same basis as the Jews. But – remember – whilst they had become ethnically and religiously impure, the Samaritans were still descendents of Abraham. Ethnically they were still very similar to the Jews. Where Chapter 10 takes things a step further is to show that the promises of being part of God’s nation does not hinge on whether a person is a descendent of Abraham, but whether they have been made acceptable to God through the cross. What Peter was learning is that the cross – and the cross alone – is the basis upon whether a person is acceptable to God. That’s good news for the vast majority of us here – as probably the vast majority of us are Gentiles. We’re not physical descendants of Abraham – yet the cross welcomes us into God’s people forever.

I have three more practical applications.

Firstly, we need to be very aware of conscious and subconscious favouritism. The history of the Church is sadly full of examples of discrimination and favouritism. The story I opened with about Gandhi is just one case in point. As I alluded to, I wonder if this discrimination today across the Church in Britain is class-based. And the right response to this is not to criticise and to moan, but to look at our own hearts and to make the change in our lives. This chapter has pulled me up. And even CUs – which exist to tell God’s good news to others – can be places where people are categorised, excluded, judged by external appearances and written off by others who are different. What Acts 10 shows is that if we are following the missionary God, then we need to have our hearts changed as he includes the people we tend to exclude. Are there significant blind spots that need to be removed? What sort of person could you just not bare to see walk through the door of a CU meeting? Which people do we avoid evangelising? If you can think of a particular type of person, ask now that God would change your heart as he changed Peter’s.

Secondly, let’s share God’s heart in welcoming people as they are. Cornelius was accepted as he was. He didn’t have to change his diet, he didn’t have to get circumcised. He was accepted just as he was, through the cross of Jesus. We must not render unclean that which God has made clean. Let’s reflect that truth in the way that we greet people that we don’t know – at central CU meetings, at evangelistic meetings, at mission events, in international week. The loneliest place in the world is where you are somewhere on your own with people bustling around you, and you are not sure whether you belong. Let’s welcome people that are like us and people that are nothing like us. Consciously talk to people you don’t know. If you find this hard, then think about the cross of the Lord Jesus and what that says to us. Through our actions, let’s show every single person that we meet that people like them are welcome amongst God’s people.

Thirdly, expect to be challenged about where and how we can share God's love. Peter and Cornelius both received visions which took them to places they had not been before: one bowed down to a fisherman; the other entered a Gentile house. And as the truth that God accepts all in Christ, you may be called to some surprising places to share God’s love. I pray that there might be some here that share the gospel with prostitutes and down-and-outs; others that will commit themselves to being in local churches on rough estates. I pray that even as students God will move you to live and speak for him in places you can’t currently imagine, as you respond to God’s call as both Cornelius and Peter did.

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