10 May 2015
St Mary’s Hadlow
Acts 10:44 – 48, John 15:9-17
May I speak this morning in the name of God +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let me be the first to wish you a very happy Pentecost.
It’s OK – I haven’t entirely lost my marbles or picked up the wrong sermon. Pentecost or Whit Sunday falls on the 24th May and that is the day that we remember God sending the Holy Spirit as a rushing wind and tongues of fire to fall on the first believers gathered in Jerusalem. Christopher is preaching to you on the 24th so I shan’t steal his thunder about the events of that Pentecost.
So, you may ask, what on earth am I going on about Pentecost for?
Well, let’s cast our minds back to the reading we had from the Acts of the Apostles – we were told that whilst Peter was preaching the Holy Spirit was poured out on a group of Gentiles who started speaking in tongues and who were then baptised. This event is often referred to as the Pentecost of the Gentiles and marks a significant moment in the growth and development of the early church.
The story of the Pentecost of the Gentiles is related to us at the end of Chapter 10 of the book of Acts – verses 44 to 48. If you have access to one of the pew bibles it may be worth having a look at it now.
Now one of the slightly frustrating things about the way we use the bible in worship is that the readings are often in short chunks and out of context. For example today’s reading started at verse 44 with the words: “While Peter was still speaking these words” but we have no idea what words he was speaking, to whom or why. What I would like to do this morning is to look at this story in a little more depth and, in order to do that, we actually need to look at the whole story contained in chapter 10. It’s alright I am not going to do the whole chapter line by line but I want us to have a good oversight of what is happening here.
But first I need to dispel two commonplace myths which are vital to understanding what is going on. The first myth, which I know is still current because it was said to me recently, is that the Jewish people rejected Jesus and his message. Of course it is true that certain sects within Judaism such as the Sadducees and, to a lesser extent, the Pharisees were opposed to him and played a significant part in his arrest and execution but it is also true that Jesus himself and all his early followers – the disciples and the early church in Jerusalem – were most definitely Jewish. The disciples did not follow Jesus because they saw him as either starting a new religion or as rejecting Judaism, but rather because they saw him as fulfilling the promises of the Jewish scriptures.
The earliest followers of Jesus were therefore a sect within Judaism. Hold onto that thought for a moment – these were faithful Jews following the fulfilment of Jewish prophecy.
The second myth to dispel is that it was St Paul alone who took the faith of Jesus beyond the Jewish world into the world of the Gentiles. Paul certainly refers to himself as the apostle to the Gentiles in some of his letters, but that came later than the events we are hearing about today. Today we are being shown very clearly that it was the Jewish Simon Peter, the rock on whom Jesus built the church, who was led by God to recognise that the things he had seen Jesus accomplish, and the work he had seen the Holy Spirit do amongst the church in Jerusalem, were not reserved for the Jewish people and, most importantly, that one did not need to be or to become an observant Jew to be a follower of Jesus.
So, bearing those thoughts in mind, let’s have a look at Chapter 10 of Acts, which leads up to the Pentecost of the Gentiles.
In verse 1 we are introduced to Cornelius. He lives in Caesarea, which you can probably guess is a Roman town, and he is actually a Centurion in the Italian Regiment. He is an occupying soldier in this occupied land. However, unlike many Romans, he does not worship the Pantheon of Roman or Greek gods. We are told that he was a God-fearing man who prayed to God regularly.
The ancient world was not divided neatly into monotheistic Jews and polytheistic pagan Gentiles. Real life is always more complicated than binary categories. There was a whole other category of Gentiles who accepted the one God of Judaism, who prayed to him and worshipped him, but who did not convert fully to Judaism. You can imagine that there might be all sorts of cultural and linguistic reasons why it might be difficult for a Roman Centurion to become fully Jewish whilst still accepting the central teachings of Judaism.
So that was the category into which this man Cornelius fell – a God-fearing Roman soldier.
And one day, we are told at three in the afternoon although I recognise the risk of straying into Monty Python territory there, Cornelius had a vision of an Angel. The Angel told him that his prayers and gifts to the poor had come up as a memorial offering before God. This statement itself may be an interesting glimpse into the worship life of heaven – this man’s prayers and care for the poor together brought him to the attention of God. Worth remembering that what we put into the box for the Bridge Trust will come before God together with our prayers.
The Angel told Cornelius that he was to send messengers to Joppa, another coastal town about 40 miles south of Caesarea, and there look for Simon Peter in the house of Simon the Tanner.
So Cornelius obeyed the vision and sent two servants and another devout soldier, another God-fearer, south down the road to find Peter and bring him back to Caesarea.
In verse 9 it is the next day and the focus switches to Peter himself who is in Joppa. We are told that Peter went up onto the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house to pray and there he, too, was granted a vision. In this vision he is told three times that he is allowed to eat every type of animal.
As we know Peter is a devout Jew and always followed the law of Moses which forbade the eating of many animals and Peter is shocked at this vision. In v. 14 he exclaims: “Surely not, Lord!…I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
And the heavenly voice replies: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
And we can understand why Peter was shocked because much of the law of Moses is founded upon the division between the clean and unclean. That does not just apply to food but also, of course, to people – from the ritually pure High Priest who can enter the Holy of Holies, to the other priests, to different ranks of Jewish men, Jewish women, God-fearing Gentiles, pagans, the dead and so forth.
So this vision of Peter on the roof and a new understanding that nothing that God has made is impure is an important stepping stone for him. If no food is impure because God has made it then how much easier to accept that no person is impure because God has made them too.
Whilst Peter is still pondering the import of this revelation the men from Caesarea arrive and give their message and the Spirit tells Peter to go with them.
The next day Peter and some of his fellow Jewish Christians arrive at Cornelius’ house and find a large number of people there. In v. 28 he says:
“You are very well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean”.
In the space of only 24 hours Peter has been on a huge journey – not only from Joppa to Caesarea but his whole view of creation and humanity has widened. By being granted a vision Peter’s whole vision has been changed – and that journey has not finished yet.
In v. 34 Peter then begins to talk to the group and his opening words speak of the huge change he has just experienced:
“I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”
In many ways this is Peter’s “Road to Damascus” moment – modern parallels are always inexact but this could be Nigel Farage embracing the joys of multiculturalism and dancing on a float in the Notting Hill Carnival.
Peter continues by telling this group of God-fearing gentiles the good news of Jesus – about Jesus’ baptism by the Holy Spirit, about his miracles, about his death and resurrection and he concludes by saying that everyone who believes in Jesus will receive forgiveness of sins through his name. And this is the point at which our reading today began – v. 44 – the same Holy Spirit who had descended on the Jewish believers in Jerusalem now descends on the Gentile believers and they start to speak in tongues and praise God. And the Jewish believers who had accompanied Peter to Caesarea, but who had not shared his vision, were astonished that even the Gentiles were being blessed by the Holy Spirit but Peter said:
“Can anyone stop these people from being baptised with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”
Can anyone stop these people from being baptised? This should remind us of something we heard last week. Remember the Ethiopian in the carriage:
“Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptised.”
The Ethiopian came to faith through the written word of God made clear by Philip and his response was baptism and joy. Cornelius and his household came to faith through Peter’s preaching and the Holy Spirit and their response was to praise God and be baptised. Word, Sacrament and Spirit together leading to conversion and to joy.
Peter had been with Jesus through his entire ministry and yet, even after the first Pentecost when it would have been possible to think that Peter’s pilgrimage was complete God continued to work in Peter, to widen his vision, to demonstrate that God’s love is unbounded and that the limits of his church are without limit.
Most of us here have journeyed with God for many years and we may think that we have seen it all, that we know it all and, most especially that we know what the church does and where it ends. But perhaps, like Peter, God wants to continue to convert us, to widen our vision, to show us that nothing God has made in impure and perhaps to go to places and to engage in ministry that may feel scary or out of bounds.
And why do we do that? Because, above all, God commands us to love one another.