19 May 2019 Angels, Popes and Soldiers Martin Baker
Acts 10:1-17, 34-35
1 In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3 One afternoon at about three o'clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius." 4 He stared at him in terror and said, "What is it, Lord?" He answered, "Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6 he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside." 7 When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8 and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa. 9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat." 14 But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean." 15The voice said to him again, a second time, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. 17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon's house and were standing by the gate. 34 Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
Think for a moment about someone who inspires you.
Think about someone, who, day’s, week’s maybe years ago, said something, did something, which made a lot of difference at the time.
Maybe a teacher from school, a good boss, a speaker at an Easter camp or a youth group leader. A friend who you were studying with perhaps, or a neighbour.
And most of these people were not famous, or rich or powerful , but because they said something, did something, acted in a particular kind of way, that even now looking back, you know had some influence on your life.
Occasionally we come across these figures in our bible reading. Not so much the famous well known figures, John, Paul, James , but people who come often from quite, obscure, quite unlikely backgrounds. People whose words or actions also become central in the Gospel story.
These are the kind of stories that speak to us of the early church. Its growth was not first of all about the work of single individuals, there weren’t paid ministers, or evangelists with huge crusades in the way we would understand that. They didn’t have elaborate sound systems, or big choirs or bands or lights. The spread of the Gospel was all about the actions of ordinary people, men but also women, some rich, some poor, some may even have been slaves. A few people who may have looked more or less like us, but also plenty of people who were from North Africa, the Middle East the Mediterranean.
They were all too aware of their own inadequacies, but they were all very aware of their reliance on what they called the Holy Spirt, very aware that they had all been sent by Jesus who, as we read last week, said all authority on heaven and earth has been given to me. They realised that they were not alone in this task of mission.
Some of these people had worshipped various God’s of Rome and Greece; some had been Jews all their lives. These ordinary people were the very people who brought the Good News of Jesus to others. Families. Communities. And of course, most of these people we never read about. Or like today, a name comes to our attention for just a moment and then disappears.
Our reading today is about an Italian called Cornelius. He is an obscure figure, and yet he occupies this central place in the whole story of the earliest Christian church. In fact this story about the encounter between Peter and Cornelius is the longest single story into the book of Acts.
Cornelius was a centurion. That probably means he was a non-commissioned officer. Someone who had worked his way up through the ranks. He was probably never going to get into a high position. And he was in charge of probably a hundred soldiers or so. He was from Italy and likely a volunteer, not a conscript. Some sort of career soldier stationed in Judea with his family.
We are also told that he was a God fearing man, prayed, gave money to the poor. There is some historical information contained in all of this which gives us more insight into the earliest church. The language used is almost technical. In our reading a ‘God fearing man’ was most likely a man who has rejected the worship of the multiple gods of Greece and Rome and has a belief in the one God that the Jews spoke about. He hasn’t converted in Judaism, he is not a Jew but is likely to be on the edge of the life of the synagogue and has adopted some of the practices and teachings and laws that governed Judaism of the time. Many scholars believe that it was among this group that Christianity spread so quickly.
Today’s reading is pivotal. It is about a discovery that the power of the Gospel is so much greater that our racial or cultural or religious biases or stereotypes. And that might sound like old news to us, but was then an extraordinary revelation.
Peter, this devout early Jewish Christian went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat." 14 But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean."
The dream is not about food, it is preparing Peter for a meeting with Cornelius. The dream is about how the Gospel of Jesus crosses over, how it transcends even the strongest and deepest boundaries of difference.
Peter was struggling when he encountered Cornelius. There are issues deeply rooted in the human experience. And we find them in this struggle within our scriptures. People isolate themselves from others. People find their identity within a group, and fear that they will lose that identity if they do not guard their separateness. People find it difficult to relate to or associate with those who are different from themselves.
A sort of example. I and maybe others too, have a picture of white missionaries bringing the Bible along with all the cultural baggage of the country they have come from with them. The arrogance that says that God was somehow absent from the culture before a white missionary turned up. Photos and pictures and plaques in churches commemorating the work of these Scottish or English or even American missionaries.
A few years ago I visited some of the churches in Papua New Guinea. Many of the missionaries who came to Papua Guinea were Samoan. No images of old white suit wearing men and their wives in suitably modest dresses in the back of their churches. Just the names of some faithful Samoans who risked so much to sail from Samoa to Papua New Guinea. Most of whom never returned to their homeland but, now buried next to the churches they worked to establish.
Cornelius a god fearing man interested in the Jewish faith told by an angel to make contact with this Peter. Peter, remember, was one of Jesus closest friends and eventually became Bishop of Rome which made him the first Pope. So an encounter here between obscured Italian mid ranking soldier and the future first Pope.
Peter at the end of our story today declares "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. And a few verses later we hear that Peter travels to Cornelius’s home. Speaks to a crowd gathered there and declares again the universal message of God’s love and forgiveness. All those gathered were baptised.
We hear a story like this when issues of identity have been elevated to an almost mathematical science.
We have whole isles in the supermarket devoted to various dietary and vitamin requirements. Defining ourselves more and more by the food we eat or don’t eat. We have a fashion industry whose commercial success is based on constantly defining and redefining who is in and who is out. The statistics department tells us that when it comes to those forms that ask for your ethnicity more people than ever, are going down the long list of possibilities and simply writing in the other box, New Zealander .
Israel Falou has his list of those he tells are in an out - In a post he says the following are going to hell: Drunks. Homosexuals. Adulterers. Liars. Fornicators. Thieves. Atheists. Idolaters. And I think whose left? Taken out of context, the list says to the world that Christianity is a religion of condemnation. That it is self-righteous and exclusive. A group of people ready to name everyone but themselves as coming under God’s judgement.
In Peter’s new conviction about God's care for all, and his new conviction about how he should relate to those he had previously shunned, he continued to stress what God has done and is doing.
Peter and those first Christians discover that our only hope is to be open to the Spirit and to seek ever new understanding of the God who "shows no partiality.”
We are now so conscious of hate crimes and hate speech, white supremacy, all those ideologies that seek to divide and separate.
You have never spoken to anyone like that before. You have never met someone that looked like that. You do not know anyone else that comes from that place. None of your friends look like that person. No one you know has that background.
We have our prejudices. Stereotypes, biases fears of those who are different.
And the discovery that this ‘other ‘ person can bring you, the good news.
Someone brings the good news to you. They do something say something act in some way.
With our history,y our culture, our backgrounds, our secrets, our fears.
That person crosses the room travels the distance comes over the border.
And brings you the Good news.
And at that moment you remember what Peter says.
I truly understand that God shows no partiality
I truly understand that we are all God’s favourites
Two things this morning.
One is to pray this week that God will guide us to understand more our own biases, our own prejudices, and our own deeply held views of who is and who is not worthy. Our own vision and behaviours which limit our view of the Good News. We need to repent. Like Cornelius, along with Peter, we need to pray for a conversion of our hearts and minds.
And the other is cause to celebrate. A discovery, that we can make a difference. Whatever our background. Not by our own power or authority, but through the work of God’s spirit, our words, our actions, make a difference. There is a calling on each of our lives. This power that is so much greater than our sense of inadequacy. A grace and love that is so powerful that it transforms our understanding of ourselves and other. A love and grace so much more abundant and generous than what we can imagine.
Would you like to share in our purpose and mission? We believe that good relationships, open discussion and a genuine desire to seek God’s calling allows us to grow as people and a community together.