Unclean No More (Self Denial 3)

This week’s theme for Prayer and Self-Denial focuses on an army of new believers that God is calling to himself, and the need for us to be open minded in the way that God can use and change us, as we move forward in his plan.

Today’s Scripture relates to the expanding Kingdom of God in Acts 10

Acts 10

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment.  He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.  One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”  Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter.  He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”  When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants.  He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.

Here is a Roman soldier, a Gentile, having a direct encounter with God when the Jews felt they had the monopoly on hearing from their God.

Let’s continue

9 About noon the following day …, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance.  He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.  It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds.  Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”  “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there. While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”  The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.

And if we read on, we know that Peter accompanied the men to Cornelius’ house and the household became Christians and were baptised.

Here is the context: Jews did not associate with Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews) and most definitely not with the hated Roman overlords.  In fact, their Levitical laws prohibited them from associating in any way with Gentiles.  Even in the Temple, the outer court was for Gentiles and if they went further in, the penalty was death.

Anything that was not kosher (abiding by the strict laws of the Torah) was unclean and there were rituals required to become clean again if you were tainted by uncleanliness.

So first of all, we have God speaking to people he should not have been speaking to, and secondly, we have God telling Peter to do something which was against the Torah.

What are we to make of this?

1.       God has no favourites.

God does not have favourites; however, we can be just like the Jews and think that he does love us more than anyone else. If we think that, I wonder what we do with John 3:16

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

There was no difference between Cornelius and Peter.  Both heard God speak when they were praying. Both were Godfearing men. Both were righteous.

God had prepared Cornelius to receive Jesus. Cornelius had been drawn to the Jewish religion, had adopted their hours of prayer, reverenced their God, and cultivated habitual devotion[1]

The theologian MacLaren reminds us that “the all-important truth in this is that the prayers and alms (coming from a devout heart) of a man who has never heard of Jesus Christ were acceptable to God.”[2]

We put the favourites label on people or classes of people or races of people, but God doesn’t.

1 Corinthians 12:13

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free, and we were all given one Spirit to drink.

2.       Trusting in God

We often take this story from the point of view of Peter, but equally important is the view from Cornelius.

Peter did not understand what God was asking him. He could not believe that God would ask him to break the strict rules of Judaism in relation to unclean food and unclean people.

The Jews considered Gentiles to be ‘dogs’, and no orthodox Jew would enter the house of a Gentile, speak to Gentile or eat with a Gentile.[3]

But equally Cornelius, a Roman centurion (in charge of 100 men, sort of a modern Army Captain) was asked by God to make contact with and receive instruction from a Jewish man who was just a lodger in a tanning yard by the seaside and who clearly wasn’t a man of position or wealth.

Peter was being asked by God to do the unthinkable.  So was Cornelius.

But both recognised that God was bigger than bias, bigger than kosher/non-kosher, bigger that prejudice, bigger than culture.

Romans 3:29

Is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too,

God says in Hebrews 11:6 that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. There are no classifications of people who are excluded.

3.       A new normal

And arising out of this encounter and obedience from both Peter and Cornelius, a new normal for followers of Jesus eventuated.

Imagine the horror of Peter’s Jewish neighbours in seeing him invite Romans into his home and then accompany them to the home of Cornelius and to hear that he actually ate with them.

Yet it is because of this intervention of God that Christianity grew out of being only a sect of Judaism, only for Jews, to a worldwide religion for all people.

Colossians 1:27

To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

I am trying to think of a modern parallel. Perhaps it is Islam where there are strict rules about infidels.  Perhaps it is the Biblical law about not eating meat sacrificed to gods, yet all sheep meat that we eat here is halal killed (that is prayed and offered to Allah as it is being killed) and every fish and chip shop run by Chinese has the happy cat above the counter.

But there is one very local issue reported this week in the paper. The new priest at the Basilica is not using the organ and choir and using PowerPoints and a guitar. And the religious ones are in an uproar.  I wonder if the issue is one of whether this contemporary style of worship will bring in those who don’t fit the acceptable standard? After all, the Haven, a place of last refuge for those on the fringes of society is right next door.

God says that he is bigger than all our religious squabbles.  God says that our rules and regulations which keep us separate is not his design.  Just as God expanded the hearts and minds of the Jewish Christ followers to include Gentile Christ followers, we have to too.

 

Galatians 3:28

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Is it easy to include people not like us? Definitely not. Ingrained prejudice is a massive thing to overcome

Theologian Ajith Fernando commenting on Acts 10 reports that the evangelical church has such a bad record in the areas of prejudice and condoning race, caste and class distinctions that Muslims are offering an alternative to the prejudice of Christians and that faith is growing with converts from Christianity among peoples who were once treated as interior by other Christians””.[4]

What an indictment!

What can we do about our prejudice? What can we do to overcome our entrenched ideas of who is in and who is out?

The answer is to submit to God and listen to him, just as Cornelius and Peter did.  And then when we hear, to do what God has said, regardless of whether that is something that runs against the grain of our upbringing or religious custom.

The reality of our faith is that it is no longer an Eurocentric religion (if it ever was):

 

By 2000, there were 360 million Christians in Africa. By 2025, conservative estimates see that number rising to 633 million.

 Those same estimates put the number of Christians in Latin America in 2025 at 640 million and in Asia at 460 million.

By the middle of this century, there will be three billion Christians in the world -- one and a half times the number of Muslims.

But at that point, only one-fifth of the worlds Christians will be non-Hispanic whites. The typical Christian will be a woman living in a Nigerian village or in a Brazilian shantytown.[5]

Howe does that demographic change in our faith fit with our prejudice and cultural myopia?

Not only is society in NZ changing to multi-ethnic but so is our faith community.

“Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

I hope we don’t need a visit from an angel or a vision from God with censorious words from God to get on board with what God is doing in the world.

 



[1]Alexander MacLaren The Acts of the Apostles 297

[2] MacLaren 299

[3] John Stott The Message of Acts 185

[4] Ajith Fernando The NIV Application Commentary: Acts 327

[5] Charles Colson http://www1.cbn.com/how-christianity-growing-around-world