6 May 2018
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 20th 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.
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.
In order to understand what is going on here a little better let’s have a quick canter through Chapter 10 of Acts, which leads up to the Pentecost of the Gentiles. Do feel free to refer to your pew bibles.
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 Food Bank 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.
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 was a devout Jew and always followed the law of Moses which forbade the eating of many animals and Peter was 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.
[I am delighted that today we are also having a baptism – Terri who married here last December and her son Oliver. Terri will also be confirmed here on Thursday. When we very first met to discuss Terri and Steve’s wedding little did we think that Terri would now be going through baptism and confirmation but God really does call us and move us on, deeper into his loving heart, and as the stories of both the Ethiopian and today’s story illustrates, that inward moving on is often accompanied by the outward sign of baptism.]
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.