Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
October 4, 2015
We’re continuing to work through the first half of the book of Acts today, looking at the aftermath of Peter and Cornelius’ encounter in Caesarea. Peter is called before the Council in Jerusalem to answer for his actions. This is a passage with a lot of hope, not in what the institutional church is doing, but with what God is doing. The church in its infancy has already developed the bureaucracy to impede progress. Some things never change. We see this today with local church leaders and in denominations. But our hope is not in the bureaucracy or the institution, but in God who is able to work around it to bring about his purposes. Part of what I’m reading today is a repeat of what you heard in the last chapter, so I am going to read today from The Message translation. Hopefully, you’ll hear it in a fresh way. Read Acts 11:1-18.
Shortly after Christmas 2005, I took a group of men and college students to New Orleans to help with the clean-up from Hurricane Katrina. We took the train out of Battle Creek to Chicago and then boarded the City of New Orleans, the train made famous in Steve Goodman’s song that became a hit for Arlo Guthrie. It’s the overnight run from the Windy City to the Gulf Coast. It’s dark as we pull out of Chicago and the next morning, I’m up early. We’re in Greenwood, Mississippi, where they change crews and service the engine. Since we have a fifteen minute stop, I take a walk along the platform by the station. There I meet an older African-American named Bo. We get to talking and I learn he has a joint that serves barbecue, just across the street from the station. He gives me his business card and suggests I try it on the way back. It sounds good…
On the return trip, I call him about ten miles or so out of Greenwood and order a bunch of plates of ribs. When the train stops, I run over to pick up the order. Stepping into the joint, I’m a bit taken back as I’m the only white guy. There are probably a dozen men in the place, a couple playing pool and the rest eating and drinking. One guy looks up from his beer and asks, “You’re going to Chicago, why the “Stiller’s hat?” Bo then calls me back into the kitchen where he’s packing a box of plates. I pay him and run back to train. As we pull out of the station, we enjoy some good eatin’. Although I tend to prefer Eastern North Carolina style barbecue, those ribs are some of the best I’ve ever gnawed.
For those of us from the South (or who now live in the South) and appreciate real barbecue, Peter’s vision is good news! We can now pig-out! But it’s more than that! Peter’s vision opens the way for Gentiles, like most of us, to pour into the church.
God enjoys surprising us by doing new things, which shouldn’t shock us. After all, our God is the God of creation. Just marvel at the beauty that’s around us. But God doesn’t limit himself to creating, for through Jesus Christ, God recreates. God is doing something new as he works toward the reconciliation of the world in Jesus Christ. However, new things are never easy. “We ain’t done it that way before,” is too often heard. In my e-newsletter, which will come out tomorrow, there is an article I’d like you to read from a church consultant on the 9 essential requirements for church revitalization. You know what the number one item is? It’s the rejection of the status quo. In other words, “We never done it that way” is banned from their vocabulary.
The Apostles and those in the Church Council back in Jerusalem think they have it all figured out. “The gospel is for us, for people like us, good Jews.” They weren’t really interested in spreading the good news beyond the children of Abraham. But God surprises Peter, then the council, as they discover that God’s grace doesn’t exclusively belong to them. All humanity will make up the new heaven and earth for which we long. Of course, this means we have to give up our past ideals and accept all the people whom God makes righteous. Notice, I didn’t say all the righteous, for that would be a mighty small group. Instead, God calls those made righteous through Jesus Christ. They’ll fill the streets of the New Jerusalem and the pews here on earth if we can just put aside prejudices and pettiness, accept Jesus as Lord, and not hinder the work of God.
Our reading from Acts begins with Peter being called before the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. As I’ve pointed out in Acts, few good deeds go unpunished! Peter has shared the gospel with Cornelius and baptized him and his family and friends and now he’s being called on the carpet. Those back in Jerusalem who are responsible for the purity of the church are upset. They can’t believe what they are hearing. Peter, one their own, is hanging out with Gentiles; he’s even baptized some of them. “Peter,” they ask him, “why are you galloping around and eating with the uncircumcised?” The tone of the question in verse 3 has obviously implications: “Peter, you shouldn’t be doing this.”
Peter explains by telling of his vision which we first read about in Chapter 10. There was a lowering of the sheet from heaven with all kinds of animals that were considered unclean. Peter, who was famished, was told to take and kill and eat whatever he’d like. He could have some oysters, some pork rind, some smoked Boston butts… But Peter held to the old dietary laws and, as we read two weeks ago, responds, “No, nothing profane has ever crossed these lips.” Maybe Peter, who had denied Christ three times the night before his death, thinks this is a test. But the vision repeats itself three times, the same number as his denials, making him understand that something new is happening as it is pounded into his head that “what God has made clean must not be called profane.”
This is a freeing experience. It means that I could gnaw the ribs that evening on the northbound City of New Orleans, getting barbecue sauce on my fingers and in my beard, as I enjoyed those tasty ribs with a conscience a lot cleaner than my shirt was when I was done.
However, this vision and the aftermath, the welcoming of Gentiles into the church, wasn’t seen as a freeing experience 2,000 years ago. The status quo, with which they were comfortable, is being challenged! Neither Peter nor the Council want this change. They’re happy with plain diets of roast mutton, fish and beef… And they sure don’t want to sit down with those dirty Gentiles and share a meal! They want to stay out of places like Bo’s Bar and Grill. But this is the whole point with what God is doing here. God is changing customs and culture. Yes, a whole world of food is open to them, but also the kingdom is now open to others.
It’s significant that this event happens in Caesarea, a fairly new city built by Herod the Great to serve as a port for his corner of the Roman kingdom. It was a city occupied mostly by Romans and named for their Emperor, whom they worshipped as a god. The city was built like a Roman city, with pagan temples and a coliseum. Herod, who was part Jewish, had to appease both the Romans and the Jews in order to keep his position. He was a master politician! Talk about pork barrel politics: he had the Jewish temple rebuilt in Jerusalem for the Jews and this city built for the conquerors, the Romans.
As I am trying to impress, this passage has less to do with dietary rules than with opening the Gospel to all people, even those formerly considered “unclean.” This is all God’s doing for as Peter preaches in Caesarea and people are filled with the Spirit. Peter can’t fill them with the Spirit, that’s God’s action and this becomes the clincher. God is doing something new and Peter and the Council has to accept it.
Have you heard the saying, “Be careful if you invite Jesus into your home because he brings his friends with him.” The Council realizes that if they are going to participate in this New Creation which Jesus is bringing about, they are going to have to get used to not having control over who receives an invitation to the party.
This whole section, which begins back in Chapter 10, God is the one at work, behind the scenes, as he has been throughout the book we know as “Acts of the Apostles.” As I’ve said all along, it should have been named the Acts of God through the Apostles. For all that is happening is the result, not of the Apostles planning and action, but of God directing and setting the stage.
Jack Haberer, a Presbyterian pastor now in Naples, Florida and one of the former leaders of the Presbyterian Coalition, used this passage in his book, GodViews. Jack calls Caesarea the Ellis Island for Gentile Christians. It’s because of the event at Caesarea that the Apostles accept that the gospel is for all people, like those of us with European backgrounds along with Asians, Africans, Native Americans and Aborigine people. For most of the human race, Caesarea is our point of inclusion into God’s story. And now it’s our turn, to be a part of God’s embrace of the globe in a way that will reflect the face of God as seen in Jesus Christ to the world.
As we come to this table this morning, remember the table includes believers from the around the globe, including Indian and South Asian, from where our bread this morning comes. But ponder this question. Who is not represented at this table? For they, too, need to be invited. How can you be a part of this grand adventure, inviting others to the table? Come next week, and in our Ministry Fair, sign up for your part in doing God’s work and sharing God’s love to the world. Amen.
 See: http://www.malphursgroup.com/9-vital-components-of-church-revitalization/
 Revelation 7:9.
 See John 18:15-27
 Robert L. Hohleflder, “Caesarea,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 1, page 799.
 Jack Haberer, GodViews: The Convictions that Drive Us and Divide Us (Louisville: Geneva, 2001), 3.