Monday, July 28, 2008

This week's sermon: Peter Testifies to God's Universal Plan

Acts 11:1-21.
Luke starts out by telling us that the brothers and the apostles heard that the Gentiles had received the word of God. They knew that Peter had told them about Jesus and that they had received the message. Now, if you are like me, you would expect the Jewish believers to respond in one of two ways. Either they rejoice at those who have received the message of salvation, or they reject the notion that Gentiles can be saved. But what we are going to discover in examining the text this morning is that the believers at that time chose door number three.

They heard that the Gentiles had received Christ, and all they can think about is that Peter ate with uncircumcised men. Peter had shared the gift of eternal life, salvation, and living in God’s abundant life now with Gentiles; and instead of throwing a party or holding a theological study to see if that was possible, they are concerned that Peter had eaten with Gentiles. Often times our first reaction to dramatic events reveals our inner person: our priorities, our true feelings and opinions. Their reaction tells me that they are far more concerned with keeping laws that Jesus said brought only death than with bringing life to those who are lost.

We do the same thing sometimes. We can label a place or associating with a certain group of people as undesirable, or even sinful. But the truth is that Jesus traveled around eating with tax-collectors and sinners, and sometimes even staying in their houses. And when he was challenged, he told the religious leaders that it is the sick who need a doctor, not the healthy.

Peter tells them the story, and so we read about the vision of Cornelius and Peter’s trance again. That repetition means that in reading these accounts, we have heard about Cornelius’s vision four times, but we have only heard Peter’s vision recounted twice. Incredibly, it seems that the important fact of the story is not that Peter received a revelation from God about Gentiles, but that God was working in the life of a Gentile before he gave Peter that revelation. God was working in the life of Cornelius, and Cornelius was desiring salvation before Peter had his vision. And the entire point of the story seems to be not that the Jewish believers needed their minds changed, which they did, but that God wants to work in the lives of people from every nation, tribe and tongue to give them salvation. Peter tells the believers here that very thing, he says the angel told Cornelius to send for Peter to hear the message of salvation. God’s purpose in this event was to bring Cornelius to salvation. Changing Peter’s mindset was just part of accomplishing his plan.

And the same is true in this confrontation between the believers and Peter. They are challenging his eating with Gentiles. Their minds need to be changed, but that is not the end-goal. The end goal is reaching more and more people with the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. God sent his Spirit on the Gentiles gathered in Cornelius’s house as a sign to Peter and his companions, yes; but it was also his direct, personal embrace of the new believers. It was God reaching down and drawing them so close to himself that His Spirit simply overflowed.

Once the Spirit descended, Peter tells the believers that he remembered what Jesus had taught them about being baptized with the Holy Spirit. He remembered the day of Pentecost and he recognizes that God’s purpose in this situation has very little to do with him, and everything to do with ushering in new saints. When God makes his purpose so plain, Peter tells them, how can we oppose Him?

After Peter explains and the believers accept that God is calling Gentiles into the fold, they still aren’t rushing out to tell all of their Gentile friends about Jesus. The majority remain cautiously accepting. But little by little, people begin to branch out as they see God at work. As a result of that branching out, God accomplished his goals and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

Last week we talked about the barriers we have to sharing the gospel with all kinds of people. Maybe the Lord spoke to your heart about walls you have allowed to build between yourself and others who need to hear the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ. I want to continue to encourage you to pray for him to tear down those walls. I also challenge you to begin to pray for God to open doors for you to share the gospel. Too often we think, “I’m not equipped,” or “I just can’t get over…” or “I don’t know anyone who needs to hear.” We make excuses because we forget that it isn’t “Me at work” or “You at work.” It is “God at work.”

You and I are just tools. God is the one with the plan. He is the one who directs the hammer to the right nail. The hammer doesn’t have to sit back and examine every nail it sees to try to figure out if this is the right nail. The hammer sits in the hand of the Master Carpenter and when the Master Carpenter directs it toward a nail, it simply follows through. If you feel ill-equipped, call on God to give you the words to speak to share the good news. If you feel like there are things in your own life that need addressing, take them to God and trust that he will take care of them. And while he is taking care of mending your life if he thinks you are strong enough as a hammer to drive in a nail, don’t dodge it. If you feel like you don’t know anyone who needs to hear the gospel, pray for God to open your eyes. There are hurting people that we encounter everyday. Pray for open eyes, better vision so that you can see the opportunities that God is giving you to spread the word.

People need to know that there is a God who loves them enough that he would give up everything just to know them. People need to know that there is a cure for the deadly disease of sin. People need to know that no matter who they are or what their lives have been like, God is still looking to bring them his salvation and give them new life in Christ. That is why it is the Good News.

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