Sunday, May 5, 2019

Sent With Joy: Telling Our Story

Grace and peace to you from Almighty God - our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

We ended Matthew last week with the words of the Great Commission - with Jesus sending the disciples out to go and make disciples. To baptize. And to teach. With a promise - that he would be with them always. Matthew ends leaning into the future.  

Today and next week we move into the book of Acts. Now Acts is the next chapter in the story. Acts is about that future. About the work of the disciples. The mission of the church to share the good news of Jesus. In faith. And in doubt. Both, inevitable parts of a life of discipleship.

Our reading this morning is from Acts, chapter 10. It’s the story of the conversion of Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman Guard. But, really, it’s the story of the conversion of Peter. In five scenes.

Scene 1. There was a man in Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion in the Italian Company. He and his whole household were pious, Gentile God-worshippers. He gave generously to those in need among the Jewish people and prayed to God constantly. One day at nearly three o’clock in the afternoon, he clearly saw an angel from God in a vision. The angel came to him and said, “Cornelius!”

Startled, he stared at the angel and replied, “What is it, Lord?”

The angel said, “Your prayers and your compassionate acts are like a memorial offering to God. Send messengers to Joppa at once and summon a certain Simon, the one known as Peter. He is a guest of Simon the tanner, whose house is near the seacoast.” When the angel who was speaking to him had gone, Cornelius summoned two of his household servants along with a pious soldier from his personal staff. He explained everything to them, then sent them to Joppa. Acts 10:1-8 (CEB)

Our story opens in Caesarea, a prosperous port that served as the Roman capital of Judea. Our focus is on an officer in the Roman guard, named Cornelius. A good Roman name. He is a centurion. In our day that would be equivalent of a colonel. He is no low level character. Instead, he is known for his generosity, for putting his money where his mouth is, and, particularly, for his devotion. Cornelius is a God-worshipper. A Gentile God-worshipper. For Cornelius to become a follower of Christ, it would mean converting to Judaism. Circumcision. And, in his case, a likely loss of position and social status. 

As our story opens, Cornelius has a vision. At the height of day, an angel appears to him and directs his attention to Peter, who is no short distance way, but is staying in Joppa, an area that is primarily Jewish. The angel instructs him to send for Peter, even adding directions to the house where Peter is staying. Cornelius, this field officer who is used to giving commands, follows the angel’s commands, sending his servants along with one of his trusted soldiers to go and get Peter. 

Scene 2. At noon on the following day, as their journey brought them close to the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted to eat. While others were preparing the meal, he had a visionary experience. He saw heaven opened up and something like a large linen sheet being lowered to the earth by its four corners. Inside the sheet were all kinds of four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds. A voice told him, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!”

Peter exclaimed, “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The voice spoke a second time, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This happened three times, then the object was suddenly pulled back into heaven. Acts 10:9-16 (CEB)

The delegation of three set out for Joppa. It’s a distance of about 4 miles. As they arrive, Peter is at prayer. Perhaps he’d been fasting, because during prayer, he becomes hungry. While he waits for food to be prepared, he has a vision. An odd vision. It it, he sees an object descending from an open heaven. Now, in scripture, heavens open for important revelations. Do you remember Jesus’ baptism, when the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit came upon him in the form of a dove? This object in Peter’s vision, which appears to be a linen sheet, has on it various animals of the earth. Then, there is a voice from heaven, telling Peter to “Kill and eat.” 

But, Peter is a good Jew. He follows all of the required food laws. So, Peter objects. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean,” he says. Then, the voice speaks a second time. “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This same dialogue happens three more times in the vision. And then, suddenly, the linen sheet is pulled back into heaven.

Scene 3.  Peter was bewildered about the meaning of the vision. Just then, the messengers sent by Cornelius discovered the whereabouts of Simon’s house and arrived at the gate. Calling out, they inquired whether the Simon known as Peter was a guest there.

While Peter was brooding over the vision, the Spirit interrupted him, “Look! Three people are looking for you. Go downstairs. Don’t ask questions; just go with them because I have sent them.”

So Peter went downstairs and told them, “I’m the one you are looking for. Why have you come?”

They replied, “We’ve come on behalf of Cornelius, a centurion and righteous man, a God-worshipper who is well-respected by all Jewish people. A holy angel directed him to summon you to his house and to hear what you have to say.” Peter invited them into the house as his guests. Acts 10:17-23a (CEB) 

As Peter is upstairs puzzling over this fascinating vision, there is a knock at the door. The Spirit tells Peter to go downstairs and meet this delegation. And to not ask any questions. So Peter does. He meets them and hears their report of a second vision - that given to Cornelius. Then, he offers them lodging. Because hospitality is not simply about being polite. To show true hospitality is to offer a social bond. In the case of Peter and these Gentiles, inviting them into the place where he is staying as his guests, is a big deal. It is a big, anti-cultural deal. And it foreshadows our next scene. 

Scene 4. The next day he got up and went with them, together with some of the believers from Joppa. They arrived in Caesarea the following day. Anticipating their arrival, Cornelius had gathered his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in order to honor him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Get up! Like you, I’m just a human.” As they continued to talk, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them, “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean. For this reason, when you sent for me, I came without objection. I want to know, then, why you sent for me.”

Cornelius answered, “Four days ago at this same time, three o’clock in the afternoon, I was praying at home. Suddenly a man in radiant clothing stood before me. He said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayers, and your compassionate acts are like a memorial offering to him. Therefore, send someone to Joppa and summon Simon, who is known as Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, located near the seacoast.’ I sent for you right away, and you were kind enough to come. Now, here we are, gathered in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has directed you to say.” Acts 10:23b-29 (CEB)

So, the next day, Peter and the delegation get up to go to Cornelius. Notice that Peter does not go by himself, but he takes with him some of the believers from Joppa. This is not simply a personal mission, but a mission of the church. Cornelius, in Caesarea, has timed their arrival. To prepare, he has gathered together his entire household, as well as, some close friends. Then, Peter and the delegation arrive. And, as Peter, the Jew, crosses over the threshold into this Gentile’s house - something that would be completely unacceptable in Jewish custom. An act that would make Peter unclean and, afterward, would require that he go through cleanliness rituals. As Peter enters his home, Cornelius - this important military official - falls at Peter’s feet and worships him.

But, this isn’t about Peter. This is about the mission on which he’s been sent. Jesus’ mission. The church’s mission. Peter tells Cornelius to get up. He reminds Cornelius that he is human, just as Peter is human. Then, Peter asks Cornelius why he there

Scene 5. Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all! You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached. You know about Jesus of Nazareth, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and endowed with power. Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone oppressed by the devil because God was with him. We are witnesses of everything he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen, not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on everyone who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. They heard them speaking in other languages and praising God. Peter asked, “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?” He directed that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited Peter to stay for several days. Acts 10:30-48 (CEB)

Invited by Peter, Cornelius shares his vision. We might expect that, in turn, Peter would share his. But, he doesn’t. Instead, Peter shares Jesus. He shares the good news in words, using a cultural model of Jesus that helps Cornelius understand.  Peter adapts his Christian message to the circumstance. Peter meets Cornelius where he is.

And, then, even before Peter has finished his brief sermon, the Holy Spirit swoops in. And falls on everyone - Jew and Gentile alike. The Jews that Peter has brought with him are astonished at this. Peter now fully gets it. He understands the vision. And, for him, there is only one conclusion: these people are to be baptized. Our scene, and our story, ends with an invitation for Peter to stay. And, in accepting this invitation, Peter is accepting a social bond. Affirming that Cornelius and his entire household are full members of the body of Christ. 

I’ve been thinking alot over the past several weeks about the story of this church. How the founders of this congregation sought to form a church here. In Oldham County. An area that, by then, had doubled in size since the mid-1970’s thanks, in part, to the construction of Interstate 71. But, also - let's be honest - thanks in part to white flight out of Louisville in response to school desegregation. 

How, in a time and place,where cultural norms might have frowned upon an openness to anyone of any race, sexual orientation, or any other difference that might put someone at the fringes of our world, this church was boldly formed as a Reconciling in Christ congregation, breaking boundaries that separate people. Celebrating differences. And proclaiming that unity here in this place is found in Christ.

Or how, this congregation, once again, broke boundaries in welcoming our elders to gather, to share their experiences and their wisdom - wisdom that comes from many years of living. Affirming their value in a world that values youth over age.

Or how, again, this congregation broke boundaries in this place - the wealthiest county in Kentucky, where one would not expect people to be hungry. But a place with a hidden population of people who are food insecure. And how this community would lean into the future by opening a food pantry - something inconvenient and time consuming. Yet, something that has become a beacon in this community, bringing people on opposite sides of the economic ladder together. A place where dignity and God’s love flourishes. 

Or how, last year in a time when anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric was at some of the highest levels we have seen in decades, this community publicly responded by co-sponsoring the Girmay family through Kentucky Refugee Ministries, along with Third Lutheran. This family who, after nearly 10 years in camp, is successfully building a new life for themselves and whose presence blesses us here today.

What amazing boundaries this congregation has crossed in its 26 years! What more there is to do! We, like Peter and the early church, are sent out into the world. To proclaim the Good News in our words. To share our story - the story of Grace & Glory - and how our story connects with God’s story and with the mission of Jesus Christ. And with the Holy Spirit, already at work, ahead of us, awakening curiosity, preparing hearts and minds, and sending other Corneliuses to us or we to them, giving us the words to help them connect their story with God’s story. And, in the process, like Peter, experiencing our own conversion.

This is the Good News of Jesus Christ. Crossing boundaries. Open to all people. May we continue to follow the work of the Spirit here in this place. Amen. Alleluia!

Preached May 5, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Third Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 10, Matthew 9:36-37

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