8th Sunday after Pentecost (Prop 10 – C)
Acts 10:9–29, 34–48
July 10, 2016
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Epistle reading, which was read a few minutes ago.
One of the required classes when I attended the seminary was Introduction to Missions. If a student was going to be a missionary, there were more specific classes, but for us men who were staying stateside, there wasn’t much required of us. To a certain degree that was alright with me, but it was also a disadvantage because our nation has become one big mission field. There are natural born Americans and immigrants from every corner of the world who need to hear about Jesus.
One of the concepts that we learned is called homogeneity. This is a fancy word that simply means that people are most comfortable with people who are like them, and this is true in the church as well. Congregations tend to attract new people into their membership who are like them, who share their general outlook and likes and dislikes. Homogeneity is not something feel guilty about, it’s just a reality in a human society.
At the same time, when you read the Book of Acts it’s clear that while individual churches may have the same types of people in them, the Church as a whole is not homogeneous. What the Holy Spirit wants us to understand is that the love of Jesus makes us God’s dear children, and that makes us brothers and sisters with all others who know Jesus and follow Him. Unity in Christ is a gift from God and it transcends racial, ethnic, and cultural distinctions.
This was something that the was not easy for the first Christians to learn, including even the disciples. The first Christians were primarily Jewish, and they had been taught from the very beginning of their history to be completely separate from non-Jews. This wasn’t just a tradition; the Lord had required this of them as part of His covenant. It wasn’t racism, rather it was intended to protect God’s people from pagan influences. The command that they remain separate was one of the ways the Lord reminded them that, as His covenant people, they were to be a people set apart, different from other nations. They were His chosen people.
As time went on, partly due to the history of Israel, the Jewish interpretation of this command became far more rigid. The command of God was corrupted so that the purpose of it became ethnic pride. It was so corrupted that the Jews believed that any contact with non-Jews defiled them and required a ritual washing before they could worship the Lord.
It was into this setting and Jewish mind-set that God sent His Son to become the Savior of all mankind. One of the things to remember was that Jesus kept the laws of God perfectly; He never once violated anything God commanded. He said at one point, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17) Jesus said He had been sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, but the lost sheep of Israel were not His only concern. On numerous occasions, when non-Jews sought His help in persistent faith, He didn’t turn them away. So a Roman centurion, a grief-stricken woman, demon-possessed men, the Samaritan woman at the well, and others, all received blessings and forgiveness from Him.
When His ministry was completed, and the covenant promise was fulfilled through His death and resurrection, and salvation was fully secured, Jesus’ command was: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). This was an entirely new concept for the first followers of Jesus, and it required some getting used to. The Jews had always accepted the occasional Gentile who came to them seeking to know God, but this was always at the initiative of the individual Gentile. Now, according to Jesus, they were to take the initiative and reach out actively to invite and accept and include Gentiles in the fellowship of believers.
Jesus reinforced this new concept through a number of dramatic experiences, including numerous places in the Book of Acts. Acts 8 tells us that Philip went to Samaria and enjoyed success in a Gospel ministry among these non-Jews. Then, when he was in the desert he met a Jewish Ethiopian official who was reading the book of Isaiah and who came to faith and was baptized when Philip explained how Jesus had died and risen again in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
But these were still isolated occurrences, and people are slow to learn, so God used a vision to help Peter see that the Gospel was not just for the Jews but for all people. Luke writes that in Peter’s vision he “saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’ And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’” This happened three times and by the time Cornelius’s messengers arrived, Peter was starting to understand what God was saying. Later as Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit’s coming to Cornelius and his Roman friends as they heard the Good News he became convinced that God’s love and grace were for all people. Peter would later share his experience with the other disciples, and while there were stumbling blocks, the Church actively reached out to the non-Jews.
And we praise God that He did open salvation to non-Jews, because that’s most of us! If the Church had been allowed to remain just a Jewish sect, our ancestors probably would never have been reached with the saving message of Christ, and that means we might never have heard it. If Christianity had remained open only to Jews, we’d be damned! So we rejoice today that we and Christians everywhere, are part of God’s family through Jesus, regardless of our background.
Now, this is all well and good to say that we are all part of the same Church, but putting the principle into practice is still sometimes a problem. It’s hard to give up prejudices and just as the Holy Spirit had to overcome the attitude of Jewish superiority, He has to overcome our sinful attitudes as well. It’s true that birds of a feather flock together and a congregation will generally attract people who are like them but the thrust of the Good News of Jesus is not just for us and people like us. It is not exclusive, but all-inclusive.
Here in America God truly has brought “the nations” to us. We’re hardly a homogeneous society, and are becoming more and more diverse. When Los Angeles hosted the Olympics in 1984, there were 171 different native languages present and the Olympic Committee was able to find people living in the L.A. area who could welcome each of them in their own language. I know we’re not in L.A. or even Denison, but there’s diversity here. It is our challenge as a local congregation to reach out to any and all—to welcome them to life in Christ.
But diversity is not just racial, it can come in a hundred different varieties. I know all of you, and I know that for the most part that we’re generally loving and welcoming. But I also know that both you and I have certain biases that we bring with us to church. Do we welcome those who maybe don’t dress up quite as much for church as we think they should? Do we welcome those with a bunch of tattoos as warmly as we do our longtime members? Do we make our children and youth feel accepted or are we annoyed with them? Do we embrace those who surprise us by coming to church or do we reject them as “sinners”? Do we focus on people’s past rather than looking to their present? Ultimately, it comes down to what we heard Old Testament and Gospel texts, do we “love our neighbors as ourselves”? I know I just asked a bunch of questions, but these are questions we need to ask ourselves. Because how we answer those questions reveals how willing we are to step outside our comfort zones and welcome people to our church. If we’re cold towards those who need to hear about Christ because they look and act differently, we could lose an opportunity to share with them the Good News and rejoice with them when they come to faith. The Church, and this congregation, aren’t just for some people, but for all people.
It’s for you because it is here that I get to share with you that you’re forgiven! Your sins are washed away in the blood of Jesus. Your sinful biases and attitudes are nailed with Jesus to the cross and you are raised to a new life through His resurrection. God’s House is such a wonderful place to be because regardless of what we’ve done, who we’ve hurt, or how we’ve lived, God is here ready to show us mercy. Ready to forgive us and to restore us to the family. You’re never beyond God’s mercy! On the cross Jesus brought you right up to Him where He will never let you go, because you are His chosen people and His promises are for you.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen