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While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
CCI: The life changing taste of grace will surprise us when we permit God’s grace to infect us.
Intro: We have reached the 6th Sunday of Easter! Next week is Pentecost! And so we greet one another this morning with, “He is Risen!”
Hey, have any of you ever walked into the last minutes of movie and tried to figure out what was going on? Imagine walking into “The Empire Strikes Back” just as Luke Skywalker is testing out his new hand after Han has been frozen in carbonite. Would you be able to recreate the story? Of course not.
This morning, our selected scripture reading is like coming in at the end of the movie. All we get is the end of the story. But the story is amazing.
Judaism in the first century was a religion of identity. The way you lived, the food you ate, the clothes you wore, even the way you cut your hair was governed by the rules of your religion. Your identity in the nation was secured by keeping the rules of prayer and food and worship and rest and action.
At the heart of Jewish identity was the conviction that the children of Israel were God’s chosen people. That belief defined everything about them. Because they were God’s people they were to remain separate from the nations around them. The books of the Law, Genesis – Deuteronomy called that separateness being Holy. They would not marry outside their group. They would wear their beards in a certain way and in a true show of discipline, they refused to eat any food that was not clean in their eyes. They could only eat creatures that fit certain categories. Fish had to have scales, mammals had to have a certain kind of hoof and digest their food in a certain way, birds could not be scavengers, insects had to be of a single type and the list went on and on. From childhood, kids would learn that some things were just yucky and you did not eat them, even if your friends did!
Jews kept themselves clean as a way of being holy. But keeping themselves clean was not just about food or dirt. Even more importantly, they did not associate people who were dirty, people who at the wrong food, people who came from other lands. Some people were in, and some were out, and if you were in, you avoided those who were out. You, as a child of Israel were holy, no one outside your nation was holy. And God demanded holiness.
Jesus had begun to pull back to curtain on the pointlessness of this kind of holiness when he mingled with Samaritans and brought healing to Gentile people. Jesus touched lepers and reminded the Leaders that dirt on the outside of the cup was not important, if the inside was clean.
After the resurrection, Jesus gave his disciples a commission, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel!” All the world. The disciples understood that Jews were scattered throughout the empire, so they understood Jesus to be telling them to the message to Jews no matter where they lived. And so, for a couple years, that is what they did, the carried the message as they went.
But one day, as Peter was staying in a seaside village, he had a vision. It was getting near lunch time and he was spending some time in private on the roof of the house. As he waited for lunch, he dozed off and suddenly was confronted by a very vivid dream. As he rested, the sky was torn in two and huge sheet descended from the clouds. As it got closer he saw that the sheet was filled with snakes and pigs and lobsters and catfish, and camels, and insects and eagles and lions. He stared at the sheet, feeling more and more uncomfortable with every passing second. Then he heard the voice of God say, “Go over to the sheet, kill what you see and eat it.”
Peter’s response was exactly what any Jew would say, “Never Lord, I have never and I will never eat anything like this!”
And God said, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
And the vision ended. But that was not the end, he had the same dream 3 times over a few minutes. When a vision is seen three times, the repetition is identified to underscore the importance of the vision.
When he was finally fully awake, he was trying to figure out what the vision was all about. All at once, there as a knock on the door and when the door was open, they found a group of Gentiles at the door and they were looking for Peter. Peter came to the door, and the Gentiles told them they had been sent by a Roman Centurion who also had a vision. And in his vision, he had been told to go to the seaside village and bring Peter back.
As soon as Peter heard their request, he began to understand his vision. And so, despite what he believed about Gentiles and God, Peter and his Jewish companions agreed to go and tell these Gentiles what God placed upon their hearts. Perhaps they would become Jews and decide to follow Jesus.
Well, it was a two day journey, but Cornelius, the Centurion, was waiting for him. But it was not only Cornelius who was waiting, it was filled with his family and close friends. Peter told him he was glad to be here, but it was not easy. He told Cornelius the story of his vision and then he began to preach. He told those gathered that God does not show favoritism, but any can come. He told them about Jesus who had healed and had loved and had been killed and had been raised from death.
And then we get to the end of the story and while Peter is continuing to preach (translate droning on), the Spirit of God interrupted his sermon. Suddenly those gathered tasted Grace! The spirit of God was poured out upon all present and they demonstrated the Spirit’s work by praising God in languages they had never learned! The reaction of the Jews present is recorded for us: The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. How could Gentiles have found a way to God? They were uncircumcised! And yet God demonstrated that they were somehow accepted just as freely as the disciples had been accepted! The taste of Grace was transforming everyone there!
This is a wonderful story, but there is something else here, something that you may have missed. In this story, God reached out beyond the children of Israel and accepted Gentiles. God had looked at the sheet of unclean animals (and people) and had shaken it out until it was empty! Up to this point, all the believers in Jesus were Jews or converts to Judaism, but now the door to Grace was opened and that opening, means I and you, if you are a Gentile are able to be believers in Jesus! The door is now open, we can taste grace!
But here is the tough part of this story. Though God had opened the door, the leaders in the church tried to close it! Peter had to defend his actions before the board. A few years later, even Peter tried to closing the door on the Gentiles and Paul had to call had to call him on the carpet!
So it should not be surprising that we also try to close the door to grace that God has opened. Sometimes we close the door based on another’s gender or race or handicap. Sometimes we decide the door to Grace is closed because of addiction or age or lifestyle. As a young person, I was quick to close the door Catholics, or liberals. But Jesus keeps shaking out our sheets and opening the door to grace. The question we must face is are we willing to pass through the door of Grace? Are we willing to be reconciled to those we have placed on the sheet of unclean?
Ed Gilbreath African American church leader tells this story about the difficulty of racial reconciliation:
It was my third year with the ministry. I got a call from a prominent white Christian leader, asking me to go to lunch with him. As we’re sitting down to eat, all of a sudden this guy starts crying.… He explained that God had blessed him—his children were healthy, he was known throughout the country. But, he said, “I’ve had a hard time sleeping throughout the night.” And I was thinking to myself, Why is he telling me this? I’m not a therapist.
“I just came back from an annual conference on the other side of the country,” the man told me. “A bunch of us got together to discuss reconciliation and cross-cultural ministry. Usually, when black leaders come into the meeting, we make them feel right at home and let them be part of the decision-making process. But to be honest with you, the decisions are made before your leaders ever get there. I’m used to hearing the jokes and the use of the N-word. But this time, when the jokes were going on and people were saying things, it didn’t sound right to me.”
“How can I get over this?” the leader asked me, sobbing. “How can we be friends?”
I was silent for a moment, then asked him, “Do you like football?” He seemed a little puzzled, but said yes. “I do, too,” I told him. “I used to coach high school and college ball, and I have a lot of friends who play pro. I love a good game, and I love to cook out. So here’s what we do: I need to get to know you, and you need to get to know me. Why don’t you come over to my house?” I was the only black in my suburban neighborhood at the time. I said: “Bring your wife and meet my wife, and we’ll just sit and talk and get to know each other. I’ll barbecue some steaks, and let’s start there.”
He was taken aback. He said, “You want me to come to your house?”
“Yes,” I said. “If you want me to sit here and clear your conscience for all the crap you did, I can’t do that. Friendship is not cheap. It takes time and commitment.” I gave him my home phone number and told him to give me a call.
He concluded: I never heard from him again.
It is hard work to pass through the open door of Grace, it means rethinking many of the prejudices and distinctions based on race, or religious background, or another’s political views no matter how liberal or conservative. We cannot even make distinctions based on the sin we see in the lives of others. God is reaching out to all of humanity. We can call none impure, none are disqualified.
Even the Jews who were shocked that the Gentiles had received the Spirit were faced with a dilemma, what do we do now? Peter answered this question by asking a question of his own: “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”
App: As we approach the table today, let us recognize that we are coming as the body of Christ with the Body of Christ. We come with believers who are liberal Episcopalians, and fundamental Baptist, we come with Asians and Hispanics, we come with drug addicts and convicts, we come with democrats and republicans and socialists, we come to the table of the Lord with the wealthy and impoverished, the suburbanite and slum dweller, we come with gay and straight sisters and brothers, we come with lonely sisters and popular brothers. But as we come to the table of the Lord, we come, not because we are good, rather we come because Jesus has invited us.
This message shook the foundation of the early church, “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” This message that shakes out the sheets of our distinctions, still has the power to shake our foundations as well. And this message is grounded in the New Commandment Christ gave to his disciples the night he was arrested: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
What is God shaking out of your sheets? And when the knock comes to your door, how will you respond?