A Church For All People

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 11:1-18

When God sent Peter to share the gospel with the Roman soldier Cornelius, he taught him a basic lesson: God does not show favoritism. We’re still trying to absorb all the implications of that revolutionary truth.

Peter began and explained everything to them precisely as it had happened: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles, and birds of the air. Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’

“I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’

“The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.

“Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?”

When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”

Acts 11:4-18, NIV

One of the commonest human prejudices is dislike of strangers. Anyone who is different, foreign, “not our kind,” is likely to experience a lack of acceptance -or worse – from some people. Sometimes this attitude is relatively mild, manifesting itself in a reluctance to be friendly or outgoing. Sometimes it is ugly and evil, as in the rise of groups like “skin-heads” or the neo-Nazi movement with its violence directed against minorities, foreigners and others. But whether mild or intense, this prejudice, like all others, has its origin in human sinfulness. It is a symptom of the bent toward evil in the hearts of fallen human beings. Prejudice is a result of human selfishness and pride. And it’s as old as the fall of the original pair into sin. The ancient Greeks had a word for this prejudice; they called it xenophobia, which means “the hatred and fear of strangers.” They not only labeled it; they also exemplified it themselves. The Greek word for anyone born outside the circle of Greek language and culture (a non-Greek, in other words) was barbarian. They coined this word because the languages that other people spoke sounded to civilized Greek ears like the noises of animals (“bar-bar-bar”). So the Greek verb meaning to speak a foreign language is barbaridzo, from which comes the word barbarian. I suppose these sophisticated Greeks didn’t stop to consider that other peoples might look on them with the same sort of contempt.

CONTROVERSY IN THE CHURCH

Sadly, the Christian church has not always been free from similar attitudes toward foreigners, outsiders, or anyone who is different. Christians have had to struggle from the very beginning to overcome sinful prejudice against strangers, and to learn to welcome them with respect as equals. Openness and inclusiveness came especially hard to the first Christians because they were all Jewish. For centuries the Jews had been taught that they were unique. They had learned the hard way, through painful experience of divine punishment, that they were to keep themselves separate from the pagan nations that surrounded them. The great challenge of the Old Testament was for the people of Israel to remain pure from contamination by the idolatry and immorality of their neighbors. But now that was all abruptly changed. God’s purpose for Israel as a separate ethnic people was to be transformed with the coming of Christ. Now the next stage in God’s plan of salvation could begin to unfold, as his blessing was extended outward to all the nations of the world. His Old Testament people’s ethnic distinctiveness would now give way to the multi-national, multi-racial, multi-cultural community of the New Testament church. What a hard thing that was for Jewish believers to learn and accept! To deny their distinctiveness as a people, to give up their unique place as God’s chosen tribe, to forego their privileges, to reinterpret their ancestors’ teaching – those changes did not come easy.

Peter himself is a good illustration of this. How he struggled to grasp and accept the new teaching! Three times over God sent him a vision of a sheet filled with all sorts of animals, which God told him to go and eat (Acts 10:9-17). The thought of eating any meat that was ritually unclean would have been revolting to Peter. But God was using this example to teach Peter about the value of all people. Just as Peter had never eaten any non-kosher food, so he had never entered the home of a non-Jew. To him, gentiles were just as unclean as pork or shellfish. It took a direct revelation from the Lord to get Peter to go to the house of the Roman soldier Cornelius, a devout man who was earnestly seeking to know the true God.

Finally convinced that he was supposed to go speak to Cornelius, Peter traveled to Caesarea, where Cornelius lived. He preached the gospel to this gentile household, and he witnessed their wonderful conversion. God showed in an unmistakable way what his intentions were regarding the open acceptance of gentiles in the church. He poured out the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius and his household as they put their faith in Christ, so that there was a kind of replay of the original day of Pentecost. No one could possibly mistake the message. Gentiles now had an equal standing with Jews in the church. There would be no “second class citizens” among the Christians based on race, class or status. But just as Peter had to struggle to accept this truth himself, he had to struggle even more to get others in the church to affirm the principle of inclusiveness.

Eventually news of what had happened at Cornelius’s house in Caesarea got back to Jerusalem. An emotional controversy broke out in the church there. Peter’s conduct came under criticism back in Jerusalem, as Luke reports,

The apostles and the believers all through Judea heard that people who were not Jews had also received God’s word. Peter went up to Jerusalem. There the Jewish believers found fault with him. They said, “You went into the house of those who aren’t Jews. You ate with them.”

Acts 11:1-3, NIrV

Notice the specific criticism leveled against Peter. It wasn’t just that Peter had preached to a Gentile and his family, but that he had visited them in their home and shared a meal with them. In doing this Peter had broken a deep-seated cultural taboo. He had opened the religious community to outsiders. Peter’s critics objected to his social contact with gentiles, an act which implied their full acceptance in Christ as part of God’s new covenant people.

THE CIRCUMCISION PARTY

So who were these Jewish-Christian critics who complained about Peter’s behavior? Luke calls them “the circumcised believers” (v. 2). This is the first appearance of the conservative party which opposed Peter here and later the apostle Paul also throughout his ministry. They were Christians in that they accepted Jesus as their Messiah. But they insisted on all Christians also keeping the entire Jewish Law in all its requirements, including all of the ritual and dietary ones. On a practical level this meant that any Gentile who converted to Christianity must also convert fully to Judaism. Circumcision was the first and most obvious step in that process, hence the use of this term to identify the reactionary, “circumcision” party. As long as Gentiles did not submit to all the requirements of the Law, beginning with circumcision, these people believed that they should be considered as still unclean.

What was really at stake in this controversy was nothing less than the gospel itself. The real issue was whether one had to do something more than accept Christ in order to become a Christian. Was faith in Jesus alone enough to save, or did it have to be faith in Jesus plus something else – plus circumcision or some other religious act? To put it another way, if Peter’s critics had won, there would have been no Christian church. Christianity would have become simply another faction or party within Judaism. And where would that have left us? Not only would the church be destroyed by this kind of legalism, but salvation itself would have been lost. To require some human act of compliance is to substitute religious works for simple faith in Christ as the means of being made right with God. If Peter had given in to his critics at this point, Martin Luther said, we would have “received again the law instead of the gospel, Moses instead of Christ.” God offers his love unconditionally, to be received by putting our trust in his Son Jesus. His salvation is a gracious gift which we accept by faith alone, apart from any rituals or good works. It is for anyone and everyone, no matter what their background or race. You don’t have to belong to a special group to qualify for God’s love. You don’t have to change your ethnic identify. All are welcome to come to God through faith in Jesus Christ.

PETER’S ARGUMENT

That is the lesson of Cornelius’s conversion, and Peter worked hard at persuading his critics of this truth. His argument, as Luke reports it in Acts 11, is careful and reasoned. Peter began by simply describing to the church what had happened at Joppa, a nearby town. He told them about the vision God had repeatedly sent him of clean and unclean animals together in a sheet. The vision prepared Peter to re-examine his own prejudices, and reminded him that God is the ultimate judge of who or what is acceptable (v. 9). God first showed Peter symbolically that the Gentiles were acceptable to him as they were. Then he sent Peter to them with the gospel (v. 12). And finally God blessed those new Gentile believers by the gift of the Holy Spirit (v. 15). The conversion of Cornelius’s household, complete with the same signs as the original Pentecost, was intended to demonstrate beyond all doubt that anyone could be born again through simple faith in Christ, whether they were circumcised or not. So Peter concluded, “Who was I to think that I could oppose God?” (v. 17). Those were the facts, and for the time being they convinced the other believers in Jerusalem (v. 18, but see also Acts 15).

LESSONS FOR US

Before we leave this story let’s note some lessons for our own lives. I’ve already mentioned the most important lesson of all: that God doesn’t require anyone to fit into certain ethnic categories or to attain to some kind of performance standards before they can qualify for inclusion in Jesus Christ and his church. There are, though, some basic requirements for becoming a Christian. One is hearing the Word (cf. v. 14). People must hear the message of salvation: that Jesus died and rose again and that forgiveness of sins and eternal life can only be received through trusting in him. Cornelius was a devout man who fasted and prayed and was constant in his piety, but he still needed to hear the gospel in order to be saved. Moreover, those who do hear the message must believe it and embrace it, turning from sin and their old way of life to Christ. When the believers in Jerusalem heard from Peter how the Holy Spirit had come to Cornelius and his household, they praised God for granting the Gentiles “repentance unto life” (v. 18). Repentance and faith are necessary in order to receive eternal life. But no other barriers exist. Only those: turning from sin and death to faith and trust in Christ.

Another basic lesson of this story is our need for genuine openness toward other people, especially people of different races or social groups. The Christian church is the one place where we must not indulge our sinful tendency to entertain prejudice against people who are different from us. Prejudice is a fundamental denial of the gospel of Jesus Christ. God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34). God makes no distinctions between people based on race or sex or status. God does not discriminate. What a person does for a living (or whether they even have a job), who someone’s parents were, or where they came from, what color their skin is, what language they speak – none of those things matters to God. So how can they matter to us? All that matters is the new birth by the Spirit through the Word of Christ.

The fact is, unless the gospel is for everyone, it can be for no one. It’s universal. It can’t be true one place and not another, or for one group and not all. Two plus two can’t equal four in America and five in China; nor can Jesus Christ be Lord in some places but not in others. Christianity can’t be true for me and not for you too. And if the gospel is for everyone, then the church must be as well. The community of Jesus’ followers is not a club for people of similar background and social status. No, it is a new humanity, created by God to be the place where all the sorry history of human hatred and discrimination is reversed and replaced by love and reconciliation.

Is yours a church for all people? If it isn’t, what’s wrong?