What we do with our Strength
I. The Book of Acts tells of the young church as it takes up the work and ministry of Jesus. There are two main actors in this book. First, there are the disciples and those who come to faith in Jesus through their ministry and witness. Second, there is the Holy Spirit which drives and often directs the events that lead people to faith. This is the case with our story of the Disciple Simon and the Roman Centurion Cornelius.
The story opens by introducing us to Cornelius, a centurion, a devout god-fearer. The god-fearers in ancient times were non-Jews who nevertheless came to believe and to worship Israel’s God. Cornelius had not taken the steps of full conversion. Still, he was recognized as a believer and as a person of integrity and generosity toward Israel. While I do not know how common it was for a non-Jew to become a god-fearer, such people were viewed by the Bible as affirmation of the greatness and truth of Israel’s God.
Cornelius is in a Roman garrison town, Caesarea. About 3:00 in the afternoon, he is praying when he has a vision in which an angel appears to him. The angel directs him to send his men to find a certain Simon who is staying in a particular house. This journey will be about 36 miles: one day on horseback; two days on foot.
At the same time, Simon Peter is in Joppa. Apparently, he has been fasting; he is hungry. While food is being prepared, he goes up onto the roof to pray. There he also has a vision. In his vision, Simon sees a sheet being lowered from heaven containing all kinds of animals. A voice from God calls out to him, “Simon, you’re hungry. Kill and eat.” To which Simon replies, “Certainly not, Lord! I have never eaten anything ritually unclean or defiled.” The Lord then responds, “Do not consider anything unclean that God has declared clean.”
The subject of this vision is clearly clean and unclean foods. Because he was on the edge of a Gentile area, Simon might have thought this was God’s way of telling him that it was OK to eat what others ate. But, there is more to this. In the ancient world, extending hospitality to travelers was considered very important. All cultures recognized this. To eat with someone, accepting their hospitality and sharing their table meant accepting them as equals. As a guest in someone’s home, it meant accepting them as honorable hosts. Thus, the conflict: When your religion warns you that many foods and homes are ritually unclean and to be avoided, this kind of hospitality was a real problem for Jews like Simon Peter.
Before these two threads come together, we need to notice that the unfolding events are being driven by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit spoke to Cornelius; the Spirit spoke to Simon Peter. The Spirit is clearly preparing them for this meeting. More than this, the Spirit is leading the church to deal with one of the core issues of the Christian faith. Jesus had told the disciples at His ascension:
"Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things”(Luke 24:46-48 NRSV).
[PROBL:] The problem the Spirit is working to resolve is this: How can the disciples of Jesus go into all nations as witnesses to Christ if they believe that all other nations are unclean and to be avoided at all costs?
Well, it is time for the Spirit to bring these two story threads together. Cornelius’ men arrive at the house where Simon is resting and they ask for him. As they arrive at the gate, the Holy Spirit tells Simon that he should go with them. When he meets them, everything they tell him about Cornelius confirms what the Spirit has been telling him.
So, the next day, Simon goes with the men to Cornelius. As they arrive in Caesarea, they find that Cornelius has gathered his friends and his family to be present. Clearly, Cornelius considers this an important moment – one which he has been anticipating without any reservations.
Simon was confronted with an old problem that comes to every strong community. Faith in Christ has given him strength of character and a strong community which shares a life-giving conviction about God’s presence among them. Would he use his strength as a Christian to circle the wagons, closing out the world, convinced that his life and his world did not need those outside? Or would he use this strength to open the doors so that he might share that very strength with others outside?
This same problem is addressed to us, too. Like Simon, we have a community of faith and an experience of God that is a great source of strength for us. It has taught us how to travel through this world with grace and courage. It has given us the tools to succeed in business and in our social life.
The temptation for us, as it was for Simon, is to use everything that makes us strong to turn inward:
· to close the doors around ourselves and declare that we have enough.
· to look around at the people who worship with us here and declare that only these are our people, our concern.
· to use our strength to close ourselves off and to guard ourselves against the unclean and the unwashed outside who might dilute our strength.
Often, such boundaries serve us well; they are just part of the reality of everyday life. Unfortunately, boundaries also serve as excuses for our failure to speak the invitation to faith. The direct call of Christ is to reach across the boundaries to welcome in the name of Christ those outside.
I believe that this church must be: A Beacon for Christ, set on this hill: Living Christ, Teaching Christ, Offering Christ. To stand as that beacon, me must be the vibrant Body of Christ at the center of this city, in our larger community and in the world.
This means that we are no longer about the business of dividing the world:
· Right people from the wrong people;
· People like us from the people who are different;
· People who vote the way we do from people who will vote against us.
We are in the business of welcoming people at the Table of Christ
· Too many people in this world understand the church of Jesus by what we against. It is time to show the world that we have not gathered because of what we are against. We have gathered because of the One who calls us to follow.
On the day he ascended into heaven, Jesus commissioned the disciples to be his witnesses to all the nations on earth. This now is our commission as disciples of Jesus. It was the Holy Spirit that solved the question that immediately arose: Which is more important: to keep ourselves away from people and things that might defile us OR to go wherever to witness to the love of Christ Jesus? The Holy Spirit answered that question with a resounding: “Go!” There remains no room for doubt.