Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
September 27, 2015
Today, we’re in the middle of a large section in Acts that deals with the conversion of Gentiles. If you remember, last week we looked at God’s Spirit working through visions to bring together Cornelius, a Roman centurion and Peter, an Apostle. This week, we’re looking at the encounter between the two; next week, we’ll explore the fallout that occurs. In Acts as in life, it seems most every good deed results in some kind of trauma for the faithful!
Last week, I emphasized how this is a chapter about conversions. Not only is Cornelius and his family converted, but so is Peter. As I said then, conversion is not necessarily a once in a lifetime event. Yes, Peter had already accepted Christ as the Messiah, but his acceptance was limited. Peter is now converted to a larger view of Christ, a Messiah who came, to borrow a phrase from the Orthodox Communion liturgy, “for the life of the world.” What about us? What about you? Do we need another conversion? Does God need to open our eyes to what he’s doing in this world?
Let’s think for a moment about what conversion means. In our Americanized version of the gospel, you often hear someone speak of “gettin’ saved,” as if it’s a very private and personal experience between God and the individual and has little ramification for others. I suggest this is seldom the case. Conversion is an act of God. It’s not something we do. It’s not something we “get” as if we’re shopping at a department store. It is offered to us by a gracious God and we respond by repenting, changing our ways, and accepting God’s offer. The act of conversion involves God drawing us closer to him, not only for our salvation, but to also involve us in God’s mission within the world. When we’re converted, we’re given a call, a job, something to do with furthering the kingdom. Conversion is never just about us!
Today’s message is based on the text where we read about Peter traveling to and then preaching in Cornelius’ home. This is a significant passage, for it is the first time Peter goes out of his way to preach the gospel to a Gentile. He’s never even been in a Gentile’s home. We get a sense he’s not overly excited at the prospect, but God has summoned him. He goes and he preaches and God’s Spirit moves. Cornelius and household accept Christ and then are filled with the Holy Spirit, which makes Peter realize they need to be baptized. Listen to God’s word… READ ACTS 10:34-48.
It has been an incredible week as we have watched Pope Francis visit America. Francis took his papal name from Francis of Assisi, a man who lived humbly but had and continues to have great influence eight centuries later. The Pope lives up to his namesake. We have seen photos of Francis with the President and Congress and those with great wealth and immense power. Yet, he also makes time to reach out to children, the disabled, and the poor and continually reminds us to live up to the ideals that have made our nation great.
A couple places in today’s text reminds me of Francis’ visit. First, is when Peter is introduced to Cornelius and the Roman officer bows in respect and Peter lifts him up, reminding him that he’s only mortal. We’re all mortal. The power we hold doesn’t come from us but from God who, as Peter begins his sermon in verse 34, “shows no partiality.” This wasn’t a new concept, by the way. In the Old Testament, in reference to the poor, we learn that God shows no partiality, but here it is interrupted by Peter to extend to the Gentiles.
“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it,” the 24th Psalm proclaims. After his vision, Peter now understands a bit more about what God is up to with the church, as it spreads across the world.
As I emphasized last week, the tenth chapter of the book of Acts is a pivotal point in Luke’s story of the New Testament Church. In this chapter we witness the gospel breaking out from its exclusively Jewish domain and spreading to the Gentiles. It’s hard for us to image such an earth shattering change. Centuries of racial prejudice amongst the Jews are swept away with Peter’s conversion. The Jews stuck with their own people; they didn’t associate with Gentiles; in fact they didn’t associate with anyone who wasn’t pure-blooded. But the new covenant offered through Jesus Christ breaks such limitations. Peter now realizes this new covenant means God is pushing the boundaries outward.
God has used the visions of Peter and Cornelius to bring Jew and Gentile together. We learn in verse 28, Peter had never been inside of a Gentile’s home, and he wouldn’t have been inside this one had God not pounded this revelation into his head three times!
Let me go back to that remarkable comment that Peter makes at the beginning of his sermon: “God shows no partiality.” This isn’t something he wouldn’t have said earlier in his life. Remember the hard time the disciples gave Jesus when he had a conversation with the Samaritan woman, who wasn’t even a full-blooded Gentile. What a change for a person who had never associated with someone outside of his own ethnic group… Peter experiences, first hand, that Jesus wasn’t kidding, he wasn’t speaking metaphorically, when he told the disciples to spread the message and make disciples to the ends of the earth.
I am sure most of us have had experiences where we have learned to accept others who may look or act differently than us, but are deep down just like us. I remember such an encounter when I was in the 9th grade. This was the year racial tension peaked in Wilmington. I was in the Order of the Arrow, a Boy Scout fraternity for “honored campers.” Those of us who had become a part of this group, having been elected by our troop and then passing an ordeal, were set apart. There was a district wide camping trip at Cowpens Landing along the Northeast Cape Fear for those of us in the Order of the Arrow—or OA as it was called. It was a cold winter weekend. David, another guy in my troop who was also in OA, and I decided we’d each bring a tent so we could have plenty of room. But another member of the OA, Charles, who was two years older than me, didn’t have a tent. One of the adult leaders came to me and asked if he could stay in mine. Charles was black. At first, I was taken back, but then we were supposed to be brothers and honored campers and I said, “Of course.” That night, as we crawled into our sleeping bags trying to get warm, we talked. I realized, he’s not that much different from me. I later became friends with Wayne, his brother, who was my age. In a few weeks when my graduating class has a reunion, I’ll see Wayne and will ask about his brother.
Peter’s sermon is rather simple. He begins with a quick overview of the events that had happened in Palestine. He tells about John’s baptism, Jesus’ anointing with the Holy Spirit and some of the good deeds to which Peter was a witness… Then he tells them about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Peter makes a strong comparison here between human action, “hanging Jesus on a tree,” and God’s action, “raising Jesus on the third day.” The human action was shameful; God’s action was honorable… “For God so loved the world,” as John’s gospel tells us…
Furthermore, Peter goes to great length to impress upon Cornelius and family that Jesus wasn’t raised as some ghostly spirit, for he ate and drank with those who witnessed the miracle of Easter.
Serving as bookends in this sermon (although Peter does not use this terms as bookends weren’t needed in an era without bound books) is the appeal to accept Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior. In verse 36, Peter reminds Cornelius and his gathered guests about God sending a message to the people of Israel that forgiveness is available through Jesus Christ who is also Lord of all… Peace, the Hebrew concept of Shalom, or what we might call wholeness, is available from Christ. But Jesus Christ is not only a Savior, offering us forgiveness; he is also to be our Lord, the one whom we follow.
The other bookend is found in verses 42 and 43. Here we’re told that Jesus Christ will be our judge, a responsibility of a Lord. But not only is He Lord, he’s also the one through whom forgiveness comes. Put the two together and you have Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior. Our forgiveness depends upon him, and our salvation depends upon him and him alone.
The Holy Spirit bursting in on Cornelius’ household follows this wonderful news from Peter and they’re filled with the Spirit. This event serves as proof to Peter and his Jewish companions that God is working not only among the Jews but also among the Gentiles. Normally, in Acts, being filled with the Holy Spirit is something that happens after baptism, but not here. Peter takes this as a sign that the wind of God’s Spirit is blowing in a new direction and baptizes this Roman soldier and his household. Of course, this act, as we’ll see next week, gets Peter into a bit of hot water and he’s called to answer before the Council in Jerusalem. But Peter isn’t working for the Council. Like the Blues Brothers, he is on a mission from God!
What can we learn from this story? When God is on a mission, God will use surprising people to bring about a change! I am sure when Cornelius was sent to Palestine, as part of the conquering army, he had no idea a simple fisherman from Galilee would change his and his family’s life. Just as I am sure that Peter, when he dropped his nets to follow Jesus, had no idea he’d one day be hobnobbing with a high-ranking Roman soldier. When we allow God into our lives, God can use us in fantastic ways beyond our imagination to bring about a positive change to the world.
Where might God be calling you to make a difference as a part of Christ’s body in the world? You know, that’s part of our job, our purpose as disciples and as the church. In two weeks, we’ll have a ministry fair here at Skidaway Island. This will be a time in which we will encourage everyone to become involved in one aspect of our church’s mission and ministry. Become involved with what we do in worship, our Christian education programs including Youth and Preschool, helping to maintain our facilities, our mission and benevolence efforts, our communication, fellowship and discipleship teams. This is also a time where, if you have been involved in one area and would like to change, you can do that. Over the next two weeks, spend some time in prayer and meditation, asking God where you might make a difference in our congregation, in our community, and in the world. Amen.
 Beverley Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 169. See Deuteronomy 10:17.
 F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts: NICNT (Eerdmans, 1996 reprint), 224.
 John 4:27
 Gaventa, 172.
 William Willimon, Acts: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (1986, Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010), 99.
 Line from Elwood in the 1980 movie, “The Blues Brothers.”