Can you think of a situation or a group of people you wouldn’t want to associate with? Perhaps it would be with people involved in illegal activities such as drug dealers. Perhaps it would be with homeless people in one of their settlements in a city. Maybe it would be with the locals at a rather seedy biker bar. Maybe some would be uncomfortable being with the very rich and high society. Or maybe it would be at a rally of an opposing college whose football team you really don’t like. We often don’t like associating with people because they are just not like us. We just don’t feel comfortable.
Acts 10:1-8 give the background for what is about to happen. Cornelius was a leader in the Roman army, but he was also a “god-fearer.” That means he was a devout believer in the God of the Old Testament. However, he was also a Gentile, a person outside the chosen people of Israel. Now God tells him to call for Peter and so he sends 3 men to bring Peter to him. Let’s continue the story in Acts 10:9-43.
I. Let’s first look at Peter’s startling vision.
At noon, the usual time for prayer, Peter went up to the roof of his house for a time of prayer. As Peter is praying, he sees a sheet come down from heaven filled with all kinds of animals both clean and unclean. He then hears a voice that commands him to “Rise, kill and eat.” Peter, being the good devout Jewish person he is, is appalled and refuses: “Surely not, Lord!” There are pigs, rabbits, snakes, lizards, and all other kinds of meat that God had expressly forbidden Jews to eat. But then the voice from heaven said, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened 3 times to impress this message upon Peter and then the vision abruptly ends. Peter is left wondering what in the world this vision meant! Is he really supposed to eat unclean things now? Have the laws of the Old Testament regarding food been changed? He likely had so many questions in his mind.
Through the subsequent events described in verses 19-26, God reveals to Peter what he had just seen. In verses 19-20, the Spirit of God speaks to Peter as he is thinking about what he had just seen. There are some men coming to see Peter and he is to go down, meet them and go with them. And then to drive it home, the Spirit told Peter, “Do not hesitate, for I have sent them.” As Peter talks with the men, things begin to become a bit clearer. These people were Gentiles, people who were considered unclean. The Pharisees would not eat bread touched by a Gentile. The Jews believed that the dust on a road stirred up by Gentile could defile a Jew. Righteous Jews refused to enter homes of Gentiles; they were “Unclean!” A bath was needed after a trip to the market because a Gentile might have defiled the place by his presence. But God had just told him that it was fine for Peter to go with these Gentiles.
In fact, Peter goes one step further and invites them to stay the night at Simon’s house as his guest. Now having Gentiles stay in a Jewish home was not forbidden. Yet a devout Jew would certainly frown at showing such hospitality. Peter does it anyway and the barrier came down a little bit more. The next morning, Peter goes with them to go to Cornelius’ house. When they arrive at Caesarea, they find that Cornelius had already invited all his friends and relatives over; the house is filled with these “unclean” Gentiles! They are all eagerly waiting to hear what this man Peter has to say. Peter shows no hesitation and enters the house of this Gentile.
And as he begins to talk with them, the whole vision comes into focus for him. Peter now realizes that his vision was not just a lesson on clean and unclean foods but that God was saying that he should not label any person as being “clean” or “unclean.” No one is to be rejected simply by reason of their ethnic origin. In fact, later Peter says that God accepts men from every nation. What is the basis of this acceptance? God accepts all “who fear the Lord and do what is right.” Now this requirement seems rather watered down to us from a New Testament perspective. But Peter goes on to explain in more detail in the following verses what this means.
This comes through very clearly in the rest of Peter’s sermon in verses 39-43. Here Peter preaches the very basics of the gospel. He tells them about the life and miracles of Jesus as he defeated the power of Satan. He talks about Jesus’ death and resurrection which they had witnessed. He then tells them that the risen Lord is now truly the Lord of all and also the judge of all. In verse 43, Peter concludes his message as he summarizes the lesson he has just learned. “This is what the prophets of the Old Testament all said about Jesus.” What had they said? Everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ name. This is the goal God had been working toward through all of history.
What is it that makes a person acceptable to God? It is not being a Jew or Gentile; it’s not being black, Hispanic or white, rich or poor. The basis of being a part of God’s people, the thing that unites them is this: They have all repented of their sins, and Christ in His death and resurrection has forgiven them and brought them to eternal life. That is the only way to salvation regardless of who you are. Among the pupils of the great mathematician Euclid was Ptolemy Sotar, who afterward became king of Egypt around 300 BC. The Egyptian prince was provoked that one of his royal stature should be required to work so hard in the study of mathematics and finally in desperation cried, “Cannot the study of mathematics be made easier for me?” Euclid looked at his pupil and then said simply: “There is no royal road to learning.”
Rich and poor, “righteous” man and sinner, all must travel the same road to salvation. Peter learned that all people can be made clean; all people have the opportunity to be saved but only if they believe in Christ. We, who are believers in Jesus Christ, have been saved by God’s grace alone. That is all that God looks at. Christ’s death and our faith in that is what make us acceptable in God’s sight.
Here as well in Faith Church, we have a wide diversity of people from different backgrounds. Let’s praise God for that diversity and the beautiful ways that it enriches our lives. But more than that, we praise and thank God for that which binds us together: our faith in and our love for our Lord Jesus Christ. But we still have some things to learn from these verses as well.
There are so many who are so unlike us. There are people who are walking the streets who are dirty and smelling of alcohol and sweat. There are many people who don’t value what you value in morality, ethics or politics. There are people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. There are many people who are, to quote one sermon I read recently, “unsettled sexually.” Some struggle with sexual identity or are openly homosexual. These people are so different from us that we feel uncomfortable with them around, but we must have an attitude that is different toward them that Christians often have.
The intolerant attitudes around us are very prevalent. About 18 years ago, our small town of Nolensville had its first election for mayor and my wife was being coached by one of the locals on who she should vote for. She was told that she should vote for “so and so” because “we don’t want any more foreigners or other people coming in and changing things,” not realizing that my wife was in fact one of those “foreigners.” In other words, “We want people here who are just like us.” That attitude is not just found in small towns. It is found in cities, neighborhoods and sadly many churches all over, perhaps even within our own congregation here.
Moreover, being able to have fellowship with others who are different from us is a rich and wonderful treasure from God. To be able to worship with black, brown and white together is something that some Christians can only dream of. To be able to learn from each other, to learn of each other’s cultures and backgrounds is something that I believe God wants and smiles upon.
God’s word gives us a challenge today! God’s Word first challenges us to go into the highways and byways, into the allies and offices and neighborhoods, and go to the hurting and sorrowful, the dirty and those different from ourselves. Invite them to come and hear of the One person who erases all the external differences and looks at a repentant heart as the most important thing about a person. What is wrong with a person can be forgiven by God. We, of all people, should know that.
A second challenge this morning is to be a witness or model of the kind of open diversity that God desires in his kingdom. Let’s continue to strive to be a racially and culturally diverse church. It’s easy to be all the same. It takes God’s grace and power to blend people together who are so different that otherwise they wouldn’t be together at all. God is calling many kinds of people into His kingdom. He determines who is going to be in His kingdom, not us. What is up to us is to include and reach out to all people around us. If we are willing to take a risk, as Peter did, and reach out to others who are different from us, God may do some amazing things. What will you do to show God’s love to someone who is different from you?