The Way - Week 2: Stepping Through The Door



Two thousand years ago, a gathering of people in a middle-eastern city began a movement that would circle the globe and leave its mark on individuals and cultures on every continent. This movement would eventually become known as The Church.

The early members of this movement were first called “Followers of the Way”—a direct reflection of their desire to follow “in the way” of Christ.  

Over the next several weeks, we'll be journeying through passages from the book of Acts in the New Testament as we learn some valuable lessons from the early Church.  

Whether you consider yourself a church person or not, you are invited to join us on this journey as we find out what mattered to those early followers, and why what mattered to them, still matters to us today. 

Today we're going to dig into a fascinating story from Acts chapters 10 and 11, and we're going to learn about just how big the Gospel of Jesus Christ really is---sound good?

Before we get into the sermon today, though. I need to get some stuff off my chest.  I want to share with you a not-so-comprehensive list of the people who really grind my gears.  

You have those kinds of people in your life, right?  Or do you encounter them in different places that you frequent?  We all do.  Here are some of mine.  

1.  The person who shows up at Starbucks with the order for their entire office.  

2.  The person who speeds up when you are about to pass them on the freeway. 

3.  That guy who has no concept of personal space or modesty and then crowds me when I'm trying to get my stuff together at the gym.  

4.  The person who calls the store to ask about products when I drove to the store to ask about products.  

Like I said, it's not a comprehensive list.  Were some of these on your list, too?  Did some of you recognize yourself on my list?  Ha!  

But what if... what if the things that ground our gears were serious and the differences we had with the people who ground our gears were deep?  What if our feelings about these people were painful? 

The person who supports issues/causes and organizations that target people like you. 

The co-worker who stabbed you in the back.  

That friend or relative whose political views give you angina. 

A trusted person who abused you. 

The religious leader who let you down. 

Or it could be a group of people--people who are completely "other" to you because of fear, or past experiences... or simply because you've been taught there's something wrong with them for some reason.  

So... are we good with God showing grace to them? 

Here's what I want us to focus on today--our one big idea: 

THE WAY LEADS US TO A BIGGER GOSPEL THAT TRULY IS FOR EVERYONE

Let's read Acts 11:1-18

1 The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

4 Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. 6 I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. 7 Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’

8 “I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’

9 “The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ 10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.

11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’

15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with[a] water, but you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”

18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

Let's go back a bit so we can understand a bit more about this story, particularly the people about whom Peter is speaking. 

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 to the Judean provinces.

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.

Meanwhile, Peter sees a vision of his own when he lies down for a nap on the roof of the house where he's staying.  He sees 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 his vision, 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."

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.

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.

Peter had a long walk to think about all of this, but in the end, he chose to act as Jesus acted--the way that Peter had seen him act on numerous occasions.  When he was invited to dinner, Jesus showed up no matter who it was. 

So when Peter got to Cornelius' house after that thirty-mile walk, he went through the door. 

What I've learned over the years is that our prejudices, our preconceived notions, and fears about the "other" are grounded in two basic things:  

1. What we are taught:  As a child, C.S. Lewis once told his father, "I have a prejudice against the French." To which his father replied, "Why?"  Lewis thought a moment and then said, "If I knew why, it wouldn't be a prejudice."

Lewis grew up knowing that there were a lot of people he cared about who didn't like the French, and so he wanted to be like them.  

2.  Our inability to tell the truth about ourselves: 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."

Try as we might to imagine ourselves as above exclusion, above intolerance, above prejudice... we struggle with it when we don't tell the truth to ourselves about ourselves.  

By contrast, here's what Jesus taught and lived:  NO ONE is to be treated as somehow beyond the reach of God’s saving grace.  AND it’s not up to us WHO GOD’S SAVING GRACE saves.  

Good thing for us---the Gospel is bigger than our own imaginations.  It's big enough for everyone, including us. 

We often find ourselves in the kinds of liminal moments that Peter was in right at the moment 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.

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