“Bruce Rigdon, a Presbyterian pastor in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, tells a remarkable story about how the presence of the risen Christ breaks down and through all human-made barriers. This remarkable story happened at the largest wedding he ever experienced in his church. It was a full house one beautiful Saturday night – a full house of people devoted to this young couple – a full house of diverse people of different cultures and faiths. Included in this wedding ceremony was the celebration of the Lord’s supper. This pastor describes it this way. ‘After their exchange of promises, I moved to the communion table and reminded all who had gathered that Christ, present in this time of joy and celebration, had in his gift of bread and wine made all our tables holy. Then I proceeded, as is our custom, to invite all who had been baptized and who loved the Lord, to come forward to celebrate . . .'”
“To this pastor’s great surprise when he looked up from the table and looked out at the congregation, he saw virtually everyone regardless of who they were or what their faith tradition – everyone in that congregation was coming forward. What was he to do? Say, ‘Stop! Only the baptized are invited to the table!’ How totally absurd, he thought. What a travesty that would be to our Lord. And he welcomed all to the table.
“After the wedding a Jewish couple came up to him and explained that they were children of Holocaust families and that even though they had lived by a rule never to enter a Christian church, their love for the bride had brought them there that night. The gentleman said, ‘When you invited people to the table and everyone around us began to move, we couldn’t remain seated. We know, Pastor, it’s Jesus’ table, not ours. But we were drawn . . . by some kind of love, so please, we hope we haven’t offended you or your community. But we were received at the table tonight and were deeply moved.’
“Shortly after this confession, another couple came up to him, identifying themselves as Moustafa and Munir, originally from Lebanon. They said, ‘So you know what our life has been like. . . You know about the pain and bloodshed . . . We are, of course, Muslim.’ Then they told how their children rose to go to the communion table, and they were drawn inexplicably to follow them. ‘We know we shouldn’t have been there,’ they said, ‘but somehow, for us tonight, the war has ended.'”
(“Fanfare for Easter Morning” by Susan Warrener Smith, April 23, 2000, http://www.indianolapres.org/Sermon3.htm)
Surely this is the kind of experience that led our denomination long ago to declare the Table open to all who wanted to come. We pride ourselves on saying that we do not put a fence around the Lord’s Table. But for the Presbyterian pastor in this story, this was a breakthrough! And it is a vivid reminder of radical good news that God shows no partiality.
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In our text for today, Peter had a similar and even more dramatic breakthrough. It’s a story of two visions. One vision came to Peter while he was in a trance. In the other vision an angel came openly to a Roman military man named Cornelius.
The story begins in the first verse of chapter 10 with Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Apparently this Roman was a sincere God-seeker even though he was not a Jew. We know nothing of his religious background and must assume that he either had no official religious preference or that he followed the Roman gods. But he was obviously interested in the stories about Jesus and he was generous with alms. About three o’clock in the afternoon, he suddenly saw an angel standing before him in dazzling white. The angel called him by name and told him that God had heard his prayers and noted his alms. This is interesting proof that God hears the prayers of people who are not Christian and not even Jewish. Then the angel instructed Cornelius to send men to Joppa to find Peter who was staying with a tanner whose house was by the seaside at Joppa.
We should note that this vision has no ambiguity about it and it occurred in the full light of day. Cornelius has no trouble understanding the meaning. He simply has to do what the angel instructs. Cornelius promptly responded by sending three men to find Peter.
The second vision occurs while the men are on their way to Joppa. Peter went up on the roof to pray and becomes hungry. While the food was being prepared, he fell into a trance. In this state of semi-consciousness, he saw a vision of the heavens opening and something like a large sheet coming down. In it were all kinds of animals that were considered unclean by the ancient practices of the Jewish people. Then he heard a voice saying, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat” (10:13). Peter immediately responds, “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean” (10:14). Then the voice said, “What God has cleansed, you must not call unclean” (10:15).
In an interesting bit of irony, Cornelius immediately knew what his vision meant and promptly obeyed. But Peter, even though the vision was repeated three times for emphasis, only slowly came to understand what God was saying to him. Verse 17 says, “Now while Peter was very perplexed in himself what the vision which he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood before the gate.” The spirit instructed Peter to go with them, and he obeyed following them back to Caesarea.
Upon arrival at Cornelius’ house, Peter found the house full of relatives and guests who also feared God and were eager to hear God’s word from Peter. Peter began by setting the occasion in a proper context. He explained to these Gentiles that he wasn’t supposed to be there. He said, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.”
Peter was acknowledging his old prejudices. It was as if Peter were to have said, “You know, I have trouble telling any of you people apart from one another. And I realize that your kind of people are generally lazy and just want a government check. Your people all have lots of babies so you can get more money from welfare without having to work. I shouldn’t be crossing the picket lines to talk to you scabs. I am fully aware that God does not approve of your life style and that you are an abomination to God. But hey, here I am. Aren’t you impressed?”
But in the process Peter realizes the correlation between this experience and his food vision. He rightly concludes, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Peter is slowly realizing that he had been sent to this particular household for a reason.
Up to that time, the Good News of Jesus Christ had been preached only to the Jews. But Peter confessed that he now understood that this was no longer the case, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” With this incredible statement, Peter has finally reached his breakthrough.
The Greek word used originally to express the idea that God show no partiality has a lot to do with the recognition of faces – that God does not accept anyone on just the appearance of his face. Some have transliterated it, “God is not an accepter-of-a-face.” Others have said, “God is no face-receiver.” It doesn’t matter if the face is black, white, or brown. It doesn’t matter if one is Gentile or Jew, and the realization stuns him.
We can hardly imagine the shock that Peter must have felt. Every day, Peter prayed the prayer from the Talmud which said, “Oh God, I thank thee that I am not a Gentile, that I am not a slave, that I am not a woman.” Peter had been steeped and trained in an exclusivist religion that thrived on making clear distinctions between those acceptable to God and those who were the outcasts. This statement of Peter’s marks a dramatic and amazing shift. Now the Gospel can be proclaimed to the Gentiles.
The second part of Peter’s statement is equally amazing. He admits, “In every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” This is another of many passages of Scripture that frustrate many Christians today because it flies in the face of what we like to call the “plan of salvation.” Another such story is the parable of Jesus in Matthew 25:31 about separating the sheep and the goats. Jesus describes a scene in heaven with the angels gathered around. All the nations shall be gathered and Jesus will proclaim that some will inherit the kingdom and others will be accursed and be cast into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. The only plan of salvation considered is that some of them have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick and visited those in prison. Jesus says nothing about accepting Christ through faith alone.
Here Peter proclaims the measure of acceptability to God as fearing God and doing what is acceptable to God. Such verses should give us some humility when we are asked questions about who goes to heaven and who does not.
But Peter goes on to tell them about Jesus Christ. With some excitement, he proclaims a brief synopsis of the story of the Jesus, being careful to say that Jesus is Lord of all. While Peter was still preaching, the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles and they began speaking in tongues. All of the Jews were amazed at this proof that the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit. Peter concludes that there is no reason to prevent the Gentiles from being baptized.
What is striking about today’s text is the way in which Peter himself comes to believe in God’s impartiality and universality. It is a theme which is picked up by many other passages in the New Testament. Hear these similar verses:
Romans 2:11, “For there is no partiality with God.”
Galatians 2:6, “But from those who were reputed to be important (whatever they were, it makes no difference to me; God doesn’t show partiality to man)—they, I say, who were respected imparted nothing to me.”
Ephesians 6:9, “You masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with him.”
Colossians 3:25, “He who does wrong will receive again for the wrong that he has done, and there is no partiality.”
1 Peter 1:17, “If you call on him as Father, who without respect of persons judges according to each man’s work, pass the time of your living as foreigners here in reverent fear.”
I believe Christians must still struggle to understand the full meaning of this Scripture. Have you ever had a breakthrough like Peter did? Are you due one?
Here’s a mother whose daughter is dating a black man. The daughter calls and says, “We might come for a visit.” The mother replies, “That’s Okay. We’ll just meet you somewhere.” But she confesses that she is getting better about the issue. She may not have arrived, but she is experiencing a breakthrough. A lot of us have come a long way in race relations, but we still need a breakthrough.
W. A. Criswell, long time pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, died this week. I always found myself disagreeing with almost everything he said because he was a fundamentalist, and I am not. But he was my nephew’s hero. This week he sent me a tribute to Dr. Criswell in which he reminded me of the great sermon Criswell preached in the sixties entitled, “Open Door.” Criswell proclaimed that their church would be open to blacks and whites, and he was courageous to do so. It was a breakthrough, and I respect him for that.
Maybe we need a breakthrough in our attitude about gays and lesbians. Maybe we need a breakthrough in our attitude about Muslims. They are not all terrorists. Maybe we need a breakthrough in our attitude about Baptists or Church of Christ people. Maybe we need a breakthrough in our attitude about Democrats or Republicans.
One church posted this message on their sign, “By God’s grace, we strive to be inclusive in word and deed because we share in the unconditional love of Christ.” Churches seem make a choice whether they will be inclusive or exclusive. Perhaps you know some churches of both persuasions.
Personally, I am glad that we have made the choice to be inclusive. In fact, I am upset that the United Methodists have adopted a wonderful new advertisement slogan that says, “Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds.” Isn’t that wonderful? I’m upset because they got it before we did. I wish it was our slogan because I believe that to be the kind of church we want to be.
How would you like to belong to a church that was the opposite – “Closed Doors, Closed Hearts, Closed Minds?” I believe we have had a breakthrough from that style of religion to one of openness. That kind of openness comes from taking seriously the message that God shows no partiality.
If we really understood the inclusive ways of God, we might find dramatic changes in our behavior. One pastor said it this way, “Instead of being so quick to judge and condemn others, both inside and outside the church, we would be even quicker to forgive, understand, and care for one another.
Instead of choosing issues, dividing into opposing camps and waging war against one another, we would seek the wisdom of the scriptures, welcome the insight of the Holy Spirit, and trust that Christ has enough love to go around.
Instead of coming with our own agendas, we would come together with the agenda of Jesus Christ.
Instead of talking about others, we would talk with them.
Instead of assuming that we know ‘what Jesus would do,’ we would get to know Jesus.
Instead of imitating the culture of hatred, envy, violence, exclusion, and judgmentalism that is running rampant in the world around us, we would imitate our gracious and loving God.
Instead of seeking our own power, own our recognition, our own way, we would seek the way of Christ through humility, service, and mercy.
“Then, and only then, will we be ready to go forth and serve in Christ’s name.
Then, and only then, will the power of the Holy Spirit fill us to overflowing.
Then, and only then, will God’s great love and grace be seen in our lives.”
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2002, Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.