Monday, July 21, 2008

This week's sermon: Breaking Down Barriers

Acts 10.

In this chapter, Luke takes his time and gives us incredible detail about what was taking place. He starts by introducing us to Cornelius who is a Roman soldier from Italy, and the equivalent to a captain in authority. Cornelius is a gentile, but he is already familiar with the God of the Hebrews, and in fact has been worshiping that God and has been friendly to the Jewish people. He has not converted to Judaism, but remains a Gentile. He was praying at the third hour, one of the appointed times of prayer in the Jewish faith, and he had a vision of an angel who tells him to look for Peter and listen to the gospel message. Meanwhile, Peter is about to receive a revelation from God about breaking the cleanliness barrier.

Jews were God’s people, and they considered Gentiles to be unclean in their living, and therefore associating with them made a Jewish person unclean. That is why God gave Peter a vision of clean and unclean animals and declared them all clean. In Judaism at that time, it was common practice for Jews to interact in the business and secular world, but not in private and personal matters. Jews, for example, would not have eaten with a Gentile. They would not have gone into a Gentile house, or invited a Gentile into their own houses. Gentiles were free to come to Synagogue to learn about YHWH, and hear the torah, but unless they fully converted they were not accepted as members in Jewish social circles. So, what follows is amazing, and clearly the work of God.

As an officer, Cornelius would not have been able to leave his post without his superior’s permission. So he sent household members, also Gentiles, but devout, and a subordinate soldier in his unit. Peter traveled with these men who came on behalf of Cornelius. They arrived in Caesarea, just four days after Cornelius had his vision, and the day after Peter had his vision.

It is amazing how quickly this all took place. God had everything timed out perfectly. Just like with the Ethiopian eunuch, the Holy Spirit was moving and speaking to each person at just the right time. Cornelius had his vision, sent his men. As they were approaching Joppa, Peter had his vision. As the men came to the house, the Holy Spirit spoke to Peter and told him to go downstairs and greet them, and go with them.

As the Holy Spirit moved, each person was obedient to follow through. This combination of the move of the Spirit and obedience allowed this crucial meeting to take place. If any person had decided not to obey, there would have been a missed opportunity, and we wouldn’t have this incredible story.

When Peter arrives, Cornelius is overcome. He falls on his face in front of Peter, but Peter corrects his misplaced reverence, telling him that he himself was just a man. Peter lays out a reminder of how unusual it is for a Jew to enter the house of a Gentile, and asks again why Cornelius has sent for him. Cornelius tells him about his vision, recounting all the details of the day, how he fasted, how he was praying. And Cornelius does this in front of an audience of his close friends and family. He called them together in anticipation of Peter coming, even though he had no guarantee that Peter would even show up, he was stepping out in faith trusting that God would deliver on His word.

Peter finally allows all of the events to sink in. He sees the whole picture of God at work bringing Gentiles into his family. And Peter openly tells them that for the first time he is realizing that God is not a respecter of persons, He doesn’t play favorites, He is not just the God of the Jews, He is the God of all the nations. Peter tells them the basics of the gospel message. They already know, as any good Centurion serving in Palestine would, about this Jesus who came bringing a message of peace. Peter doesn’t talk much about the details of his death and resurrection, assigning blame is not the point of this message. He simply says “they” killed him, and God raised him from the dead. Peter tells Cornelius that he is among the witnesses who saw Jesus after his resurrection, and about the mission that all his witnesses have to testify that Jesus is the appointed Judge, and through his name, all who believe receive forgiveness of sins. And something interesting happens next.

Peter is not even to the invitation part of the message—he hasn’t gotten to the altar call—and the peoples’ hearts are so touched, and their faith so real that the Holy Spirit confirms their faith for them. God continues to show forth sign after sign that this is the time to break out of the exclusive God only loves the Children of Israel mindset, and begin following Jesus command in earnest to preach the gospel to every nation. Before Peter is done, those who are listening receive the Holy Spirit in a manifest way. They speak in tongues and praise God. It does not say that they all spoke in tongues, and certainly not every person who received the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts speaks in tongues, but in this case an obvious sign of God’s acceptance and anointing of these Gentile believers is necessary to clinch their place in the early church.

Peter and the six men who came with him as his companions are amazed that God had poured out his Holy Spirit on the Gentiles. Peter, who must have been expecting some kind of protest, says “who can keep them from being water baptized?” And with their baptism, these Gentiles become the first to be fully accepted as true followers of Christ.

I am not sure there is a good parallel today for the strict division at that time between Jews and Gentiles. But I know there are barriers today that keep people from sharing the gospel with others. Maybe they are racial barriers—people thinking that only someone of the same race or ethnic background could share the gospel with certain people. Maybe they are social barriers—people afraid that accepting others of different social strata may be harmful to the church. Maybe they are moral barriers—people believing that some sins and consequently some sinners are worse than others and maybe even thinking that some on the fringe are unreachable. Whatever the barriers we face in reaching out for Christ, let me assure you this morning that God wants to remove them all.

In Ephesians 2:13-18 (NIV), the apostle Paul boils down the truth of this story in Acts when he tells us:

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

God wants to tear down all the dividing walls, and bring people from every tribe, every walk of life, every background into his family and make us all one in Christ Jesus. Because of Jesus cleansing sacrifice, it doesn’t matter if someone has earthly status; in Christ we all have the heavenly status of sons and heirs. If there is a barrier keeping you from associating with and being a witness to someone of the power and the love of Christ, begin to pray today for God to break down that barrier. You don’t have to break it down, he will do it for you, but you have to be willing to allow him access. It is only when those barriers are down that we are able to obey Christ’s command to Love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. It is only by allowing God to tear down those walls that we can be obedient to the great commission to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all nations.”

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