Sermon for Lent I: What to Make of This?
What to Make of This?
Lent I; February 21, 2021
Peter wondered what to make of the vision (v. 7); we may wonder too. You should hear the rest of the story in order to think about what to make of it. In the part we read to you, Cornelius had a vision which led him to send to Joppa for Peter. And Peter had a vision which would make him ready to go to Cornelius. Although Peter’s vision seemed to be about food – that no longer should he call any food unclean – he quickly realized that it wasn’t about food; it was about people.
Observant Jews of the first century did not go into the homes of Gentiles and certainly did not eat with them. God had given them rules about how to behave and what to eat, rules that identified them as separate, as the people of God. And they were careful not to do anything that might infringe on those rules. You and I may have rules for ourselves about what we eat for health reasons, and perhaps you are keeping a Lent discipline that involves food. Imagine, for example, that you are following the Catholic practice of not eating meat on Fridays during Lent. In order to make sure you don’t accidentally break your rule, you won’t even go into a restaurant that serves meat. I’m not recommending this; I’m trying to help you understand the attitude. You go beyond what the rule requires in order to make it easier to keep the rule. As we used to say in WW: “If you don’t have it, you can’t eat it.” So you don’t go into a place where you might accidentally break your rule. So Jews of the time didn’t go into the homes of Gentiles.
Peter realized that the vision wasn’t about food, but was about people, and so when the men came to take him to Cornelius, he went. And he took some others with him. They went into Cornelius’ home and asked him, “Why did you send for me?” Cornelius told Peter about his vision, and so Peter began to speak. “Now I get it: God does not prefer some people over others. God will welcome all who fear God and do what is right. Now let me tell you about Jesus. Jesus went about doing good, healing people, freeing those oppressed by the devil. The authorities put him to death on a cross, but God raised him on the third day. Then he ate and drank with many of us and commanded us to tell others that Jesus is the one God has appointed to judge the living and the dead. Everyone who believes in him will have their sins forgiven.”
Peter may have intended to say more, but just then God interrupted him. The Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and all the friends and family that he had gathered in his home; they all began to speak in tongues and to praise God, just as Peter and the others did on Pentecost. So Peter said to his companions, “Well; God has certainly welcomed them. We may as well baptize them.” And so they did; Cornelius, all his household, and many friends were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And Peter stayed at his house for several days.
Now, you and I can hardly imagine what a shock this was. Jesus was a Jew and he said repeatedly that had not come to change anything about the Jewish law. All the first followers of Jesus were Jews and they carefully observed all the rules. After one vision Peter’s entire attitude is changed. And when God shows Peter clearly that God gives the Holy Spirit even to those considered unqualified, Peter becomes an advocate for welcoming into the family of Jesus people they would not even have eaten with a week earlier. From outcast to sibling in Christ in one week: that’s a shock.
It doesn’t seem so shocking to you and me, because most of us are Gentiles by ancestry. And at least in this Church, we’re not much given to rules anyway. The easiest thing for me to do would be to point the finger at other groups. There are groups of Christians who still think that God has rules about who belongs and who doesn’t; Peter’s vision wasn’t about people, but about food. No food is unclean, but people who aren’t baptized according to the proper formula, or LGBTQIA+ people, or women, or some other group that isn’t “us” are still unclean.
But since we like to think of ourselves as enlightened, we’re not going to exclude anybody, I need to ask us what we are to make of this story.
Have you ever heard yourself say of some person or some group, “Well, they’re not really Christians”? What leads you to say that? I am at least tempted to think that of people who seem to put more trust in their assault weapons than they do in Jesus, people who belong to white nationalist movements, people who aren’t, well, “woke.” Peter’s vision suggests to me that I can say that they are wrong, that they are misguided, that they have misunderstood reality; but I cannot say they do not belong to the people of God. Only God gets to say that; you and I don’t. Anyone who professes Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is my sibling in Christ, even if I would rather not eat and drink with them.
No, I’m not suggesting anything of that nature about Cornelius; please don’t misunderstand. Cornelius is a good guy, for a Roman; he prays, he seeks God, he is generous to people. His only fault is that he’s a Gentile. And so I think folks who really need to take this to heart are those who exclude people because of race or language or national origin. Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t think that’s our problem as a congregation, so I’m searching for an application for us. And so the first thing I make of this story is that we too need to ask the question, “Whom would we like to exclude?” and then be honest with our answer and our need to repent.
Another thing I am inclined to make of this story is that accepting one another doesn’t mean that no one has anything to learn. Peter didn’t start his speech by saying, “Well, I see God has accepted you, so you’re fine just as you are. I have nothing to say to you.” No; he taught Cornelius and his family and friends about Jesus. Why did Cornelius ask Peter to stay on for a few days? To play cards? Maybe they did play a few hands, but the main reason he asked him to stay, no doubt, was to tell them more about Jesus. Peter had spent three years with Jesus; he had plenty of stories to tell. And Cornelius had a lot to learn.
I have been so pleased to hear many of you keeping the Year of the Bible talk about the things you are encountering by doing this reading. You are reading stories you had never heard before (the story of Judah and Tamar is not going to show up in a Sunday School book) and you are discovering the sweep of the story as things relate to one another. Even more exciting are the insights that I hear at our Wednesday evening discussions; those who participate in such learning are like Cornelius: eager to know more.
A final comment is that I don’t think it was an accident that God chose Peter to be the vehicle of this revelation about Jews and Gentiles. Peter was the leader of them all; Peter was the one Jesus called “the Rock;” Peter could be something of a blockhead. God turned Peter around, which (as you’ll see when you read chapter 11 on Tuesday) began to turn the Church around. Peter didn’t have to work hard to figure this out; Peter didn’t have to make it happen. Peter simply needed to be ready to respond to the work of God.
That’s the attitude I hope that you and I have about our life in Jesus. When a new possibility is before us, I hope that we don’t say, “Well, that’s not our thing.” I hope that we don’t say, “God doesn’t like those people; I knew that since Sunday School.” I hope that we consider that God may be doing something and inviting us to be part of it, inviting us even to be leaders of it. For the most part, I think we have done well during the last eleven months, responding to the challenges and to the new possibilities before us. But there may be places where we have said, “I’m not going there” and moments we have neglected the possibility to do something new, even something as radical as having fellowship in Jesus with a Gentile.
Figuratively speaking, of course. Until Dr. Fauci tells us that we’ve reached herd immunity, we’re still not going into each other’s homes, still not eating and drinking together. How much I miss it! Even in the present circumstances, though, there are moments when we may hear the voice from Heaven say, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” What will we make of it?
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master