Big Church Week Four: "The Threshold"
This week I am continuing my sermon series on the book of Acts, entitled "Big Church"---a series based on the idea that the Church is a movement, not an institution. As we continue to affirm each week: Jesus didn't create a mission for the Church, Jesus created a church for his mission.
The passage of Scripture that I'll be preaching from this week is Acts 10. Yup. The whole chapter. I tried to break it down a bit, but in the end I decided to just preach from the whole chapter. I'm not going to reprint the entire chapter here in the blog, though.
Click here to read the whole chapter, which I highly recommend that you do right this instant.
So this whole story starts off with a vision---Cornelius, the centurion has one of an angel who tells him to go send for Peter, the Apostle, and then the story jumps to Peter who has a vision of a sheet full of non-kosher animals that he is commanded to "kill and eat."
A word about visions might be in order. In the book of Acts the role of visions is to clarify God's redemptive plan with regard to specific places and people. This is a fascinating story that holds so much meaning for those of us who have inherited the legacy of these Gentiles who were included in God's plan to save the world. So this moment is an important one and so it's not surprising that it is accompanied by not one, but two visions.
When we meet Cornelius we learn some things very quickly. First, he is a centurion, which ordinarily might mean that he is the leader of one hundred soldiers, but in this case Cornelius was also the leader of a cohort---a senior staff officer in the legion that was assigned the Judean provinces.
What sort of man became a centurion? Cornelius would have been literate and would have had some political connections. He would have been a man of great size and strength, and imbued with dexterity and the ability to use all manner of weapons with great skill. He would have been a man adept at keeping discipline and appearances high within the ranks of his soldiers.
Cornelius was also a leader within the Italian Cohort, a group that was stationed at Caesarea Maritima, which was one of the most Roman port cities in the region. This city was the headquarters of the governor of Judea and if you had to have an assignment in this region, this was where you wanted it. So, Cornelius was a man on the rise in the Roman army.
He is also the first person with Roman authority that is named in Acts---and he is not at all what we would expect.
The text tells us that Cornelius was a "God-fearer," who supported the local synagogue and gave alms to the poor. It is unclear if he was actually engaged in the prescribed rite of initiation into Judaism (circumcision), and also highly unlikely. He seems to be interested in Jewish faith and practice, however, and seems very well thought of by the Jewish people.
He is, in fact, at prayer when he receives a vision to send emissaries to Peter, who is in Joppa some thirty miles to the south.
Peter is in Joppa--as we mentioned---and he begins praying around lunchtime when he's hungry. Maybe he was praying and meditating and he could smell lunch being made somewhere and he saw the linen sheet on the roof of the house blowing in the wind---and then suddenly none of those things was exactly what they seemed...
Peter sees a vision of a sheet full of animals---many of which are non-kosher and forbidden by Jewish law for him to eat. A voice tells him, "Kill and eat." In verse 14 Peter emphatically responds, "By no means... No way... Absolutely NOT!" The word in Greek is medamos which is only used here in the entire New Testament. Peter has a gut reaction to what he sees and refuses to partake in the most vociferous way possible. This vision occurs three times, and then the Lord speaks...
In verse 20 the word of the Lord declares to Peter that there will be some men showing up at his door and when they do he is to go with them "without hesitation." The literal translation is that he is to go with them "without making a distinction or differentiation."
At that moment there is a knock on the door and there are indeed some men there to fetch Peter to Cornelius. Despite the direct command that is still ringing in his ears from God himself, Peter is a bit uneasy about everything. He asks them, "Why are you here?" They tell him about the vision that their commander had and that they were ordered to return to Caesarea Maritima with Peter in tow.
Imagine how Peter would have felt at this moment before you start hating on him for second-guessing God. Roman soldiers just showed up at his door. The neighbors are freaking out. Simon the Tanner, who put Peter up at his house is freaking out. Peter is freaking out. But he invites them inside and does, in fact, leave with them the next day.
For the thirty mile trip to Caesarea, Peter probably thought a great deal about what he was going to do when he arrived.
You see, in the Jewish mindset, Gentiles were thought to be polluted people with polluted houses. Their houses were polluted because of the food they ate within them, the sexual immorality that almost assuredly occurred in their bedrooms and something else that was also rumored to happen in Gentile homes: abortions. Some ancient Jews believed that Gentiles forced women to have abortions and then hid the bodies of the babies under the floorboards of the home.
Gentiles had a fairly low view of Jews, which I am sure Peter was also aware of as he pondered all of this. To Gentiles, Jews were condemned as lazy and stuck up due to their Sabbath and purity laws. They were said to rob pagan temples, and conducted strange blood-letting rites on Gentile children.
So all of this was obviously grounded in reason---but then again, most prejudice never is.
As a child, C.S. Lewis once told his father, "I have a prejudice against the French." To which is father replied, "Why?" Lewis thought a moment and then said, "If I knew why, it wouldn't be a prejudice."
One of my favorite lines from the Austin Powers movie Goldmember is when Austin Powers father (played by the estimable Michael Caine) says, "There are two kinds of people I can't stand. People who aren't tolerant of other people's cultures... and the Dutch."
But here's the thing---and this is where it all can make more sense. In the Jewish mindset, the people you sat down and ate with were considered family. So stepping into the house of someone who represented so much that was wrong in your worldview was a huge deal.
Hence, Peter's conflict as he walked those thirty miles.
You see, this was a liminal moment. A moment before a moment that really matters. It is also the kind of moment that Peter had seen before when he was following Jesus.
9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13)Matthew is remembered as a disciple, and then an apostle, but before all of that he was a tax collector. And worse yet, he was a tax collector in the fishing village where Peter, James and John plied their trade. Matthew would have been on the pier when the fisherman returned with their catches each day, ready to count the fish and assess the taxes demanded by the Roman governments.
So he was popular with the fisherman. That was a joke. He was undoubtedly hated by the fisherman, and probably hated by every other Jew who encountered him because he was a traitor to his own people. The only friends he had were other tax collectors and sinners---the kinds of people that good Jews would not ever dare to eat with, to call "family."
Peter saw Jesus not only call Matthew as a disciple, but also sit down to eat with him. And when the Pharisees showed up to criticize Jesus for hanging out with degenerates, he replied that it was the sick who needed a doctor, and that his mission was not to call the righteous, but the very sinners these righteous people wanted nothing to do with.
I wonder if Peter saw Matthew's face at that moment when Jesus spoke those words---those saving, beautiful words in his presence. I can imagine, and maybe so can you what Matthew's face might have looked like when he realized that God loved him, and had called him. As Peter trudged toward Caesarea I wonder if that face came to mind.
Here's what I know. And this is the Big Awesome Truth that we glean from this story: The ground is level at the foot of the Cross.
There is no religio-ethnic or cultural boundaries---no conditions that must be met to qualify for God's salvation and blessings. No human being is to be treated as somehow beyond the reach of a sacred God's saving and sanctifying work.
Peter hovers at the door in that liminal moment when he stands before Cornelius, who doesn't understand anything at all about Jesus and who He is---only that there is something in his soul that cries out for something more---a life lived more abundantly...
And he hovers there hearing the words of Jesus echoing in his ears... "Follow me." Jesus didn't tell Matthew and all the other tax collectors and sinners, "Change, and then follow me." He said, "Follow me..." and then what he left unsaid, but Peter knew... "... and you'll be changed." "Follow me... and you'll be changed."
We often find ourselves in these kinds of liminal moments right when we least expect it. And in these liminal moments we are given the opportunity to make a decision to either step over the threshold or stay right where we are.
Years ago, when I was working a night shift as a chaplain in a hospital, I was called to bring a Bible to a patient. When I arrived with the Bible I discovered that the patient had AIDS and was highly susceptible to infection. In order to see him I was going to have to completely cover myself in a gown, mask, gloves and even slip-ons for my shoes. It took me several minutes to put on all of the gear. It felt like wearing a HASMET suit, to be honest and by the time I was walking into the room, I was freaked out.
In a muffled voice I told the weak and dying man on the bed that I was the chaplain and I had his Bible. His eyes brightened a bit when I handed it to him. I muttered something about having to make some rounds and began backing out of the room as quickly as I could. When I looked into the eyes of this dying man and saw his pain, I felt my stomach flip. God help me, I ran out of that room--so afraid, so programmed that I couldn't stop myself.
This man reached out in his need, crying out to God... He didn't need a Bible nearly as much as he needed someone to sit with him, to truly go over the threshold and be with him in his moment of need. If I had to do it all over again, I would have stepped all the way through the door. It was a liminal moment that could have changed us both forever.
Listen to me... If you feel as though you are the one standing on the other side of that door, separated from God, shunned by others, broken and beyond grace...
Remember that Jesus stepped through so many doors to sit down with all sorts of people who no one else wanted to be near, and who were believed to be beyond redemption.
No one is beyond God's grace.
The ground is level at the foot of the Cross.
Finally, I want to speak to those of us who feel like we are standing in one of those liminal moments...
Who are the people on the other side of the door for you?
Is it someone of a different race? Someone who doesn't hold your religious or political views? Someone that supposedly hates you because of who you are?
Here's what I want you to hear...
Step through the door.
Remember that Jesus calls us to follow... so follow Him. He's already there in that room you know you should step through.
The ground is level at the foot of the Cross.