The Signs and Wonders of Easter Part 4: Cleansed and Welcomed!
The Signs and Wonders of Easter Part 4: Cleansed and Welcomed!
Text: Acts 11:1-18
5 Easter, C
Many of the signs and wonders of Easter were done through the lives and work of the apostles. Today’s sign and wonder was done in front of an apostle. The story that unfolds in Acts 10 and 11 is an “aha” moment for Peter and the first century church. Luke tells the story of Cornelius three times in these chapters. It is a 3-fold sign to Peter that his wondrous love in Jesus Christ is for every human being. This is the Easter message that opened the eyes of Christians and the doors of congregations to people of every color, culture, and background. In Jesus we are ALL cleansed and welcomed!
1Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, 3“You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” Believe it or not, there are some people in our world that are unwelcoming toward those who are different from themselves. But different doesn’t always mean worse. God set apart His people Israel, not because they were better, but because through them He would keep his promise to Adam and Noah, and Abraham, the promise of the coming Christ. Their special worship laws and their dietary restrictions did not make the Israelites a better people, just those belonging to God so that through them all others might be called back to God along with them. However, over time the distinction came to be seen less and less as a mean of glorifying God and more and more about upholding the Israelites. And so it became ingrained in the mind of many Jews that Gentiles were not just different, but unclean. Lesser. People to be avoided.
And so it was that when the rumor reached Jerusalem that Gentiles were being allowed in the Church, without becoming proselytized Jews first, well, this ruffled no end of ritualistically clean pin-feathers. The circumcision party basically said that all are welcomed, IF they cleaned themselves up first. Notice that in their criticism they completely gloss over the fact that the Gentiles Peter supposedly transgressed with were already saved. Saved or not saved doesn’t matter to some. Just whether or not you are doing all the right things. Who decides who will be saved? Who determines who is welcome and who is not? Who writes the entrance exam for Christianity?
Peter, who was a first-hand witness of the signs and wonders in question has a few thoughts on the matter: 4But Peter began and explained it to them in order: 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. This great sheet held by the four corners is the picture of the Jewish prayer shawl. With its four tasseled corners. The sign of their Messianic promise and their special status as a people set apart. And here God does something unthinkable with it!
6Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. 7And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ Peter understands the objections. He was just like them before this all happened. The very thought of eating such a meal was enough to make Peter sick. Peter was definitely being pushed out of his comfort zone. Enough so that He was willing to argue with God about the finer points of the very Law that God Himself instituted!
9But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ 10This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. 11And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. 12And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; 14he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’
What God has made clean do not call common. How much of our trouble in dealing with one another in this world could be averted if we thought of those others in such a way. The unchurched, regardless of their culture, are not seen by God as common. They are those to whom His compassion is to be shown. They are the very ones Christ came to save from sin and those to whom He has promised everlasting life in the resurrection of Jesus. No matter how antagonistic they may be we must never fall victim to the old way of thinking that demands we can welcome them only when they are first like us. Instead we must remind ourselves that we are to welcome them precisely because we were once just like them. We need to be ready to share the message by which they will be saved, just as we have been. And we need to be ready to speak that message to them where they are, in a way they can understand, for as long as they need to hear it!
A twenty minute sermon or an hour visit would not be enough to bring Cornelius and his family into the household of the Lord. Peter was led to go to Cornelius, enter his house (according to Jewish law this, too, was forbidden), and stay with him. He actually stayed in the home of a Gentile. It was uncommon to say the least. But it was also a remarkable sign and wonder of the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing the Easter promise to those who would be called and cleansed by God!
15As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” Repentance is the very same gift given to the Jews on Pentecost, yet here it is for the Gentiles too! It is God who grants people, regardless of their background, the gift of repentance that leads to life! It is God who literally turns lives around. In other words, God withheld neither the gift of grace nor the Holy Spirit from the Gentiles, just because they were Gentile. It is God who cleanses and God who calls.
May we therefore join Peter and the apostolic church in being receptive to God’s Word, amazed at His love for all people, and praising God for the response of sinners everywhere to the Good News of the Gospel. The fact that you and I are here today is proof that this sign and wonder of Easter is still at work in His Holy Church.