18 February 2018
Acts 10: 34 Ė43
Peter was like Jesus , A Jew. He had been brought up with all the Jewish teachings about what made them distinct and separate - his culture. A lot of things are done in the name of culture as though they are divinely ordained. And that was exactly what had happened to Jewish culture. the Jewish people had endured the invasions of their land and culture by the Greeks and the Romans and the Babylonians over the 400 years before Acts was written. To protect themselves and their identity the Jews had an attitude toward Gentiles- foreigners. The Old Testament, commands which included circumcision, keeping the Sabbath and the Kosher food regulations had been given special emphasis along with other prohibitions including restrictions about dining companions. . these laws turned into emblems of Jewish superiority, privilege and exclusivism. and these were stamped with the tradition of scriptural interpretation. As Godís own laws. Church communities now can learn a lot from this .
Peter was on shaky ground in the first instance by being near Ceasarea, a place where the Jews were in the minority and where they rubbed shoulder with Gentiles.
As Gentiles became drawn toward the message of those who followed Jesus what was going to happen to the priority of Jewish attitudes? Luke tells the story that Cornelius was divinely prompted to send for Peter . We are carefully told that Cornelius despite being an uncircumcised Gentile and what is more an officer in the Roman army of occupation had good qualities. He is a God fearer, devout and just and he gave alms and prayed, [these are significant acts for Jewish piety] So we have an exceptional person and this judgement is concurred with by the divine vision.
But Corneliusí good qualities would not have been able to over come the obstacles to Jewish acceptance- after all it was Godís laws which were at stake. And it becomes clear that Cornelius is not an exception to the law but about to be a precedent.
Peter is prepared for the encounter by a vision of all the foods, animals which his mother would have told him never to have eaten and being told to eat Ė what God has made is clean came three times to Peter . So when he got asked to visit cornelius. Peter set off with witnesses to travel to ceaserea.
Cornelius had gathered his whanau and close friends and Cornelius who knew that Jews could not enter his house met Peter outside . But Peter then stepped inside, over the threshold and in doing so stepped out of Jewish cultural prejudice and into the new beginings of Jesus. I guess that virtually everyone here has had to do that as followers of Christ, as people who care, at some time. When things you have been taught that were not acceptable and with a sense that that is Godís ruling, especially in the areas of relationships . And you have welcomed family and friends because there is something more important than your dearly held principles about external customs and cultural habits. You discover that this is in the way of the relationship you have with them and you make a choice between rejecting those pople on grounds of priority of culture and custom or to step out and befriend and actively love .
Peter, Like Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch stepped out.
Traces of his Jewish prejudice still remain ď you, yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. From the vision of the animals Peter had used a principle of the Law . To offend in one part of the Law is to offend in the whole.and turned it round Removing one part Ėof the Law - the food barriers brought into question the entire system which maintained Jewish distinctives and separated them from Gentiles. It is not surprising that this story occupies a large part of Acts. This is the same basic problem the church has with gender and sexual orientation issues today. Back then it was whether the church would grow, be inclusive to non Jews and if non Jews had to adopt the practices of the Jews, become Jews? Those who wanted everyone to stick to the old rules founght hard but the life of the churchís mission depended on letting go.
The early church was engaged deeply in this question? These laws were from God. How could actions which seemed to alter Godís own word be justified?
How did Luke deal with this question?
He basically said the Spirit interprets scripture, not the traditions and regulations of humans. There is a return to Godís original plan. The Jews had misinterpreted and gone beyond Godís original intention. The long expected Messiah, the anointed one is firmly identified as Jesus of Nazareth and all the radical changes of the final age spoken by the prophet Joel are happening and the Torah itself might be subject to revision as the gentiles are incorporated into the people of God and the Jewish people carry out their task of being light to the gentiles.
Peter preaches a risky sermon in todayís readingĖ he spent the next few months explaining his actions to hearing of the church councils. ď I am now just coming to see that God truly shows no partiality. That Jesus is Lord of all.. the anointed one the risen Messiah and all that that implied.. And forgivenness of sins are there for all peoples.
As he was speaking the holy Spirit fell upon them and that includes Peter and his witnesses. This was drastic change, turning round of minds and hearts and they see each other in a new light. Being forgiven they can let go of the old ways of thinking which separated. Peace between them they see each other as friends rather than antagonists.. There is something else here. The early church had got into a little formula of baptising then the holy spirit was given. Here we find that the Spirit is free to act, Peter could not withhold baptism from this family and their friends.
The church grew by inclusion.
Its still a risky sermon for us, Peter sees that God is not partial to Christians or Jews or Buddhists or Hindus or atheists or agnostics, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.. Here the early church gives up any claim to purity and self-righteousness. In its beginnings, the church becomes radically open to Godís power to call out faithful disciples in every nation and culture, with or without the help of the church. Any claims to harmonize western or any other culture with the Christian gospel, as if the two necessarily go hand in hand, are discredited by Peterís daring sermon: ď truly understand that God shows no partiality. This event marks Peterís conversion to the freedom of the resurrected Christ to work beyond the boundaries of religious institutions and human expectations.
Cornelius marks a huge turning point in the life of the church. He is one of the first gentile outsiders who finds his way in. Until Cornelius, the church is a small circle of insiders. They are church people, Jews like Jesus himself. Raised on the Bible. They know the commandments. They are the faithful. But they havenít yet discovered just what amazing new thing God is doing in their life together. It all changes when Cornelius arrives on the scene. Cornelius doesnít belong. But he finds himself drawn to the God of the synagogue and church. He is the first seeker to seek out the Christian community. And his arrival on Peterís doorstep marks not only his conversion, but also Peterís conversion, to Christ. Before Cornelius, Peter assumes that the church is a closed shop, for people who think and look and act like he does. In Cornelius, Peter and the first Christians discover to their amazement that God is creating a church that is a multi-coloured, multi- textured, multi-theologied people.
Like the early church, so in our church, it is the congregations that speak to and make room for Cornelius, and others like him, that live. Making room for Cornelius means hosting very different people and traditions and ways at Christís welcome table, the church grows by inclusion of people. and in turn is itself changed.
As we look at present in the session about what and why we are doing in having the community centre as one of our major ways of mission to this community , we as a congregation and as individuals need to be aware of our own personal and community and cultural interests which might blind us to Godís truth and might get in the way of being the bearers of the good news of Godís peace through Jesus for all peoples.
Any mission, sending we have into our own community must proceed from an understanding rooted in scripture not just in warm fuzzies or what feels good. Or what worked in the past.. Our traditional attitudes and convictions must be constantly reevaluated against the things we learn about other people.
What we do matters . When we meet a new immigrant down the street how do we view them and what do they see about themselves from our reaction?
Someone who rejects them and their ways? Or a person who accepts them as they are on their turf who reflects to them that they are valuable people, just as they are in the sight of Christ.
The one who hung on a tree rose to new life, the life of the spirit which formed the church, even this church and moves among us today, right now.
Dare we be open to the breath of that love flowing through our life Dare we forgive and act as those who know we are accepted by Christ. To be baptised or realise that we are baptised and brought into new life that does not need to build barriers to maintain our identity for that is held securely in the love of God?
For Christ calls to each of us to follow him, over the threshold to new places and leave anything which hinders. It is a choice we make and what we do matters for us and for others. And for the peace of the world.
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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