When was the last time you were in a situation where you had to explain yourself? It does happen occasionally, doesn’t it?
“Honest, officer, I didn’t see that speed limit sign!”
“I know we don’t have the money, sweetheart, but the dress looked so good on me and I had my credit card.”
“Uh, dad, I uh, I uh missed my curfew because I uh had a flat tire. Yeah, that’s it, that’s it, I had a flat tire.”
“Well, you see boss, it was like this…”
From time to time just about all of us have some explaining to do, whether it’s to a spouse, a parent, a superior, or to God. But don’t worry, it puts you in pretty good company. After all, it even happened to Simon Peter.
Most of you know it was Luke, the author of the third gospel, who also wrote what we call The Acts of the Apostles. Many of you are also aware that Luke was a Gentile; a Gentile in a largely Jewish world. And, he spent a lot of his adult life running around with a guy named Paul, who used to be known as Saul. Paul was a Jew, about as Jewish as they come. So Luke understood the dynamics that existed between Jews and Gentiles. He knew it was rarely an easy co-existence; that sometimes deeply-rooted animosities would break out because of the hatred that, if not outright obvious, seethed just below the surface.
The story Luke wrote, and we read few moments ago, is obviously important to him. God is doing a new thing, and nothing illustrates it more effectively than this story. So Luke tells it and then tells it again when Peter explains it to the church’s leadership in Jerusalem. You will recall that he does the same thing with the story of Saul’s conversion to Christ. If it’s important to Luke, he repeats it for emphasis. And that is what he does here.
I once worked with a man who loved to tell jokes. Often he would preface a joke with this comment: “If you’ve heard this before, please don’t interrupt me. I want to hear it again.” That’s Luke, when it comes to a story he really wants to emphasize.
The story is about Simon Peter. Peter has a dream in which he learns that all things God has made are good, that nothing of God’s creation can be considered unclean. It is a whole new way of thinking for Simon, for he is a devout Jew. Up to this point, Simon is of the opinion that God looks with particular favor upon the Jewish people, that other people and other races are inferior to the called and chosen people of God. In this vision, nothing more than a dream really, his entire perspective begins to change. It is a complete and utter reversal. Or, to use today’s terminology, a total paradigm shift.
Certain people have always had a tendency to think that God is on their side. And if God is on your side, those who are not like you are not looked upon by God with the same favor as you. It makes your feelings toward those people more justified. To learn, then, that there is to be no distinction between people, especially when it comes to salvation – but also when it comes to table fellowship – is a hard, if not virtually impossible, lesson to learn. From his earliest days, Peter has been taught that his people, the Jewish people, were chosen especially by God. They have special privileges, and because of those privileges they have special responsibilities. That’s the way God intended it, and that’s the way it shall be, forever and ever, amen.
And then, all of a sudden, things change. Drastically. Completely. In fact, things are totally turned around.
A man named Cornelius, who lives in Caesarea, is a centurion, a military man in charge of what is called the Italian cohort. That means he is pretty important and has a lot of people under his command. Yes, and Cornelius is a Gentile. Luke tells us he is devout and fears God. That means he believes in the God of the Jews, but has not become himself a Jew. At just about the time Simon Peter has his dream, so does Cornelius. Peter is told in his dream to look up Cornelius, and Cornelius is told in his dream to send his emissaries to Simon Peter. When they get together, Peter tells him about Jesus, and before the day is over Cornelius and all his friends are baptized. The Christian movement is now on its way in breaking beyond the boundaries of Judaism.
Give Simon Peter credit for this much: this is a huge leap for him. A complete 180. All his life it has been deeply imbedded in his religious psyche – in his very bones – that the Jews were God’s special people. And now, in something as simple yet as dramatic as a dream, he learns that it ain’t necessarily so. Not only that, but through the guidance of God’s Spirit, Simon is called upon to act on this new idea immediately. He is led to the home of Cornelius, and before the day is done he baptizes everybody in the house. In the Gentile house.
But not before Peter goes to great pains to explain himself to Cornelius. He has not come to Caesarea because he necessarily wants to be there. This is what Peter first says to them. ” You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.” In other words, this isn ‘t just a religious conviction. It is the Jewish law of the land where Peter lives and moves and has his being. It is as inbred in him as being Southern is a part of who most of us are.
Just the other day I told some folk, “I was Southern born and I was Southern bred, and when I die I’ll be Southern dead.” That’s just who and what I am. Well, who and what Peter is, is a Jew. It has been deeply ingrained in Simon Peter from the get-go that he is a Jew, that his people are Jews, and everybody else is a Gentile… and “Gentile” is not necessarily, to a Jew, a nice name. Jews don’t have anything to do with Gentiles. “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.”
But in the next breath, Simon says these words: “But… (Let’s give it a little emphasis, shall we?) But God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
That’s a huge step for our fisherman friend. Just to walk in the door of the home of a Gentile is big, but he’s going to discover that this is just the beginning. Simon is not completely converted just yet, however. “When I was sent for,” he says, “I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?”
Do you get the disconnection, the distance? It’s there, isn’t it? He’s holding these people at arm’s length. He hasn’t exactly sat down with them and accepted their offer of an iced tea. He’s standing at the door, ready to make a quick exit on a moment’s notice. “Okay, I’m here. Now what do you want? If I’m going to have to explain myself, you have some explaining to do as well. What’s going on?”
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Cornelius tells Peter his story of how he has faithfully served God. He is a man of constant prayer, a generous man who gives alms to the poor in God’s name. He and God have a personal relationship, and now God wants to really bring it home; show Cornelius how he, God, has chosen to bring salvation to all people. He wants to use Cornelius as the bridge by which this personal and eternal relationship is offered to all people. And as he does with Simon Peter, God appears to Cornelius in a dream.
In his vision, Cornelius is told to send for Simon Peter, who is staying in the town called Joppa. Just about the time the messengers, sent by Cornelius, are arriving in Joppa, Simon has this dream where a huge sheet comes down from heaven. “In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. ” Every last one of them unclean and definitely not on the kosher list for devout Jews. He is told to kill and eat, and when he objects he is told, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Hmm. Do you think this is a coincidence, or do you think that maybe God has something to do with this? I can tell you what Luke thinks… and Peter and Cornelius. By comparing notes, they find they truly have something in common. Or perhaps we should say they have Someone in common. Not only does Peter baptize all of them, but he ends up staying with them for several days.
But all the while, can’t you just imagine Peter saying to himself, “Boy, when the folks back home hear about this! Don’t you know I’m going to have some explaining to do!” He knows there are going to be those in Jerusalem who, when they get wind of all this, are not going to be pleased. They will ask some hard questions. It’s their job to hold people accountable, even Peter the apostle, the friend of Jesus. There’s no royalty in the ranks, except for King Jesus. Simon Peter may be the Rock, and Jesus might have said he was going to build his church on that Rock, but business is business, and this definitely is business. When you go and start messing with some of the most sacred beliefs and ideas their people have ever had, you definitely have got some explaining to do. That’s what Peter knows, and he’s right.
First thing, when he gets back to Jerusalem, before he even gets a chance to say “howdy,” they jump on him like a hungry dog on a bone. They have already gotten word of what Peter has done. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” They don’t simply refer to them as Gentiles, they remind Peter why they’re Gentiles. It is not the most flattering of descriptions… “uncircumcised men.” So Peter tells them his story, about his vision and then his subsequent visit to Cornelius and his household. We’ve heard it before, but they haven’t. And besides, Luke wants to hear it again.
It would have been easy – not to mention understandable – if Peter had lost his patience at this point. “Come on, fellas, you know we can’t keep this story about Jesus to ourselves. There’s a whole world out there dying and going to hell. We need to let everybody in on our message, not just folks who are like us. Get with the program!”
But he doesn’t do that. He very patiently goes over his story, step-by-step, explaining carefully what happened and why, and how. It was important for his colleagues to understand, and Peter knows that old ways die hard. He knows that when you’re trying to give old, worn-out beliefs a decent burial, it’s best to take your time and go slow.
But wait a minute. This is Peter we’re talking about here. Simon Peter. You remember him, don’t you? He’s the one who fought Jesus practically every step of the way, especially when Jesus started talking about suffering and persecution and death. Talk about new ideas! According to John’s gospel, Peter is the one who cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant when they came to arrest Jesus. He’s the one who was always opening his big mouth, saying things when he didn’t know what to say but saying it anyway. That Peter. Peter is patient? That’s not the Peter we know.
Jesus has this way, however, of changing peoples’ hearts, and the impetuous, impatient Son of Jonah is no different. He knows that what he is telling the church leaders in Jerusalem is important, so he goes really slow, explaining verse-by-verse why he did what he did and how he did it. And the world has never since been the same.
They believe what he has to say. But Luke is quite clear on this. They don’t believe Simon Peter because of his eloquence or oratorical skills. The Spirit of God is at work here, weaving his will in the hearts of these who for so long have believed one thing and one thing only. Behold, God is doing a new thing.
“Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” You can hear the buzz in the room, sense the excitement. Imagine that! God has now taken his salvation to the other people! They act like this is a brand new thing, one of God’s latest ideas. But not so. When God first called Abraham from his homeland and told him he would make Abraham the father of a new nation, God made it clear that it was his intention to bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3). This is what God intended all along! It’s just that God knows how to pick and choose his moments to do his thing.
Wherever you find God, you find God doing a new thing. It is true: Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But God never stands still. God is always doing a new thing, looking for fresh ideas in sharing his love and presence in our world. And God is always looking for people who are willing to journey with him into new and uncharted waters of the faith.
It just may be that God has a new thing in store for you, that God is wanting to do a new thing in our church. Are you ready? It may take a vision such as Peter had. Okay. Be ready for it. Be present to the Spirit of God, and you might just find God talking to you.
That brings us back to this Gentile named Cornelius. Luke makes it clear that God chose Cornelius not because he is a pious person who prays a lot and is generous with his gifts to the poor. God knows that because Cornelius prays a lot and is generous to the poor, he will be open and receptive to what God wants him to do.
How open are you to the movement of God’s Spirit in your life? The answer you give to that question just may be the next step – the next big step in your journey of faith in God.
Lord, find us open to your Spirit and willing to change when you ask us to do it. Plant in our hearts the desire to serve you, no matter the cost. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
— Copyright 2004, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.