A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 02 May 2010 by the Rev. Judy Chan. The scripture readings that day were Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35.
Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be here on the 5th Sunday of the Easter season. And it gives me double pleasure knowing that on RTHK this morning starting at 11:05., Kowloon Union Church will also be on the air. Now you don’t see any of the RTHK crew here today because this time the church pre-recorded the service in the studio – and I’d like to thank Maggie, Roy and Abraham for presenting a beautiful program. You can listen to it online on the archives of RTHK-Radio 4 and the church will have a CD copy you can borrow if you’d like to listen later. But for right now, you have to listen to me.
Today’s Scripture reading from Acts, Chapter 11 is a strange story. Actually this story of Peter and Cornelius starts in Acts Chapter 10 and the lectionary passage we just heard is a retelling of this astounding chain of events.
You have a Roman soldier – Cornelius, an officer and a gentleman. He’s called a centurion which means he was in charge of maybe 100 men. He was also a Gentile, not a Jew and he’s about to change the future of the Christian church. The Bible says Cornelius was a devout man, a God-fearer, which was the name Jews gave to Gentile believers who hadn’t fully converted to Judaism. One afternoon at 3 o’clock, he has a vision. There’s an angel telling him, “Cornelius, your prayers have been answered! Send some men to Joppa to find a man named Peter and bring him here. He’s staying at Simon the Tanner’s house and he’s got the message you’ve been waiting for.” So Cornelius did exactly as he was ordered.
Now Joppa is modern day Jaffa in Israel, and it’s about 30 miles south of where Cornelius was in Caesarea so it took some time to get there. It was about noon the next day in Joppa when Peter was waiting for lunch at Simon the Tanner’s home. He goes up to the rooftop to pray. He was starting to get hungry, and then he falls into a kind of trance. The heaven opens up and there’s a big sheet coming down like a giant tablecloth. And on this tablecloth are all kinds of animals and birds and reptiles. And the voice from heaven says, “Peter, get our your knife and fork, time to eat!”
Peter is horrified. No matter how hungry he is, he could never eat these creatures – they were all forbidden food for Jews. They were 4 footed creatures and wild birds and animals that the Jews had been commanded not to eat since the time of Moses. This was all spelled out in no uncertain terms in Scripture in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The thought of eating these must have made Peter want to vomit. So he says, “No way, God! I have never broken those ‘kosher’ laws, and I am not about to start now.”
But the voice insists: “Don’t tell me what’s clean or not clean, what’s acceptable or not acceptable.” As the Message Bible paraphrases this verse: “If God says it’s OK, it’s OK!” And then it happened two more times, the sheet coming down from heaven and the command to eat, until finally the whole picnic was taken up to heaven and gone.
While Peter’s trying to figure out what just happened, lo and behold, here come Cornelius’ men knocking at the gate. Then things just start snowballing after that –
· He goes with them to Cornelius’ house;
· Cornelius tells him he is ready to listen to God’s message;
· Peter preaches the Gospel to Cornelius and his household;
· The Holy Spirit falls on them;
· and these Gentiles start speaking in tongues and praising God just like at Pentecost.
Peter and his friends are shocked. They knew that Jesus had come to save the whole world. But like this? All the followers of Jesus up to this point were Jews. If outsiders wanted to join the church, of course they’d have to become Jews first and then they could be baptized as Christians. Everybody plays by the rules, no shortcuts, no jumping the queue.
But Peter finally gets it. God was saying: My salvation is for everyone - everyone – so don’t stand in my way. And Peter didn’t – he baptized Cornelius and his household that day and then they had a party that went on for a week.
Now there’s a story with a happy ending, isn’t it? Well almost except when you get to Chapter 11, you realize why Peter is telling this story again. It turns that some of the Jewish Christians in Judea had heard what went on, and they aren’t happy. Peter did what??? He went into a Gentile house and ate with them??? They are scandalized and they summon Peter up to Jerusalem for a grilling. So Peter tells them the whole story again, blow by blow and he tells it so well, the only conclusion they can draw at the end is exactly what Peter discovered: If God says it’s OK, it’s OK!
This really is a remarkable story, some commentators saying the most important story for the church in whole book of Acts. And why? Because the whole future of Christianity at this point hinges on how the Gospel is going to spread, how the church is going to grow. Is the Messiah just for the Jews or is He for everyone? The first Christians were convinced the Jews were first in line to get the blessing, and somehow God would take care of the rest of humanity. Their task was to bring salvation to their Jewish brothers and sisters before it was too late, and that was a huge job already considering all the different factions in Judaism in the 1st century A.D.
Can you imagine then what it must have felt like to realize that God had much bigger plans than they thought? That they had a much bigger job than they thought? It must have been terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time. Divine messages are usually like that. It’s a heavenly push to think outside the box. No, forget the box- it’s not even square, it’s round, it’s triangular, it’s star shaped, it’s like nothing you’ve ever thought of before. In science it’s called a paradigm shift, when you have to re-think the whole framework of how you believed things operate. For sure, Acts 11 is the crucial paradigm shift for the New Testament church – and we wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t happened.
Now the church has gone through many more ‘paradigm shifts’ throughout its history, when God has shown us the error of our ways, when God graciously allowed us to repent and be forgiven. And in fact, it hasn’t been that long ago when the church was preaching :
· That Blacks and whites couldn’t worship together.
· That Catholics and Protestants couldn’t worship together.
· That women couldn’t preside at the Communion table.
· That theology was the exclusive domain of scholars and clergy.
· That missionaries could only come from the West.
· That God could only be male.
· That Christians were the only people going to heaven.
Now that last one might make some of you uncomfortable, but I put it in anyway because it’s a growing edge for me.
Anyway when you look back at all the times the church had to ‘change its mind’, you see what they all have in common? There was a dividing line, an intentional separation between them and us. Yes, just like Peter and the early Christians, the church is always drawing lines because we want to be sure who’s on which side and that we’re on the right side. If there is anything that today’s story in Acts teaches us, it’s that we need to stop drawing so many lines. Jesus Christ came to show us there are no lines, there are no insiders or outsiders as far as God’s concerned. We’re all children of God, we all sin and we all need to let go and let the Holy Spirit fill us with joy and power from above.
Now some of you may be thinking – if only God would make things so clear to us today – give us a vision from heaven, send an angel with a message, have the Holy Spirit do something so dramatic we’d know beyond a shadow of doubt, this is what God wants! Just tell us plain and simple, and we’d do it, right?
Well, maybe not, if church history is any indication. In the books of Acts, what finally convinced Peter and the Jewish Christians was seeing the Gentile believers receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, just like they had. Would that be enough for us in the church today? Obviously not, because Christians today are even divided over the gifts of the Holy Spirit – whether gifts like speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy are valid for the church in our time. It’s become another line that I don’t believe God ever wanted us to draw.
I got an important insight about the Holy Spirit from a Catholic priest, Fr Roman Carter. Some of you may know him. He is retired in Spain now but for many years he worked with Catholic charismatic groups here in Hong Kong. We are very good friends. I once asked him if there was any conflict in the Catholic Church over those who speak in tongues and those who don’t and he said, “No, they just let us do our thing, and we go and do it.” I was surprised. “How come this is not problem because this issue really divides many Christians in the Protestant Church.” And he smiled and said, “Remember what St Paul says in I Corinthians 13 – that the greatest gift of all is LOVE.”
Love – that’s what Jesus commanded us to do, plain and simple – love one another. He spoke these words to his disciples as He was preparing to go the Cross. A new commandment I give to you. Love one another, as I have loved you. The disciples had been taught since childhood to love God and their neighbour, but now Jesus adds a revolutionary dimension. Love one another, AS I HAVE LOVED YOU. What would that look like?
Let me tell you one more story. It takes place not far from Joppa and Caesaerea and Jerusalem. It happened during WWII on a Greek Island called Zakynthos. During that time Hitler and the Nazi regime had targeted the Jewish people in Europe. They rounded them up and sent them to concentration camps where 6 million Jews died during the Holocaust. Throughout Greece, the Jews were also hunted down and sent to camps, most never to return. But something different happened on Zakynthos where 275 Jews lived.
In 1944, the Mayor Loukas Carrer, a Christian, was told at gunpoint to hand over the list of all the Jews living on the island. The list was presented to the Germans by the Greek Bishop Chrysostomos. The list had only two names on it: the Mayor and Bishop. The bishop bravely told the Germans: “Here are your names. If you want to deport the Jews of Zakynthos, you must also take me, and I will share their fate.”
In the interim, all the Jews on the island were safely hidden in the mountainous villages. Everyone on the island knew what was happening, but not one person revealed where the Jews were. A boat was never sent to the village to deport the Jews and all 275 survived the Holocaust. In 1953 a devastating earthquake hit the island and aid came from around the world. The first boat to arrive with aid for the victims was from Israel with a message that read: “The Jews of Zakynthos have never forgotten their Mayor or their beloved Bishop and what they did for us.”
Today, in the sacrament of Holy Communion, we also remember One who offered up his life that we might live – a Jew named Jesus of Nazareth. Every time we gather to eat His bread and drink His cup, we too send a message to the world: We shall not forget, we shall not forget our beloved Savior and His command to Love one another as He has loved us. No insiders, no outsiders, no lines, only God’s extravagant welcome for you, for me, for everyone until He comes again. Amen.