Dreaming with Peter – May 19, 2019

Dreaming with Peter

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Acts 11: 1-18

May 19, 2019

Main Idea: – God’s welcome is wider than ours.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

In this season of Easter we are spending time with people from the early church, in those heady days when the experience of the Risen Christ was a new and wondrous reality and the Holy Spirit was powerfully at work transforming a small and grief stricken group into a committed community of believers who share the Good News of God’s love to all of the known world.  This morning we will visit with Peter, Cornelius, and the community of believers in Jerusalem.  We will be reminded that God’s welcome is wider than we can imagine.

Our text for this morning begins with a complaint about Peter’s action, so rather than hear only the second hand account, let’s hear the story which is found in chapter 10 of the book of Acts. 

Once there was a man named Cornelius who lived in the region of Caesarea.  He was a Roman centurion of the Italian Cohort and he was a devout man who worshipped God, as did all his household.  He gave alms generously to the poor and prayed constantly to God. 

One afternoon around 3:00 he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming to him and saying, “Cornelius”.  He stared at the angel in terror and said “What is it Lord?”  The angel answered “Your prayers and your alms have ascended to God.  Now send some men to the city of Joppa to find a man named Simon who is called Peter.  He is staying at the home of Simon the tanner whose house is by the seaside.”  When the angel of God had left, Cornelius called for two of his slaves and a devout soldier from his troops.  After telling them what he had been told by the angel, he sent them to Joppa.

About noon on the next day, [the text is very clear about the timing of this story] as Cornelius’ messengers were approaching the city, the Apostle Peter went up on the roof of Simon the tanner’s house to pray.   While he was up there, he became hungry and while his food was being prepared for him, he fell into a trance.  What Peter saw is depicted on the front of our bulletin. The heavens opened and something like a large sheet was lowered down by its four corners.   In the sheet were all kinds of four-footed creatures, and reptiles, and birds of the air.   Peter heard a voice say to him, “Get up Peter; kill and eat.”  But Peter said ‘No way, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’  [ God told Peter to do something and Peter refused!]  The voice spoke to him again saying “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”   This happened three times and then the sheet with all of the animals was taken up into heaven.

Peter was quite perplexed by this vision and as he sat pondering it, the men sent by Cornelius appeared at the gate to the house.  While Peter was still thinking about the vision he had seen, the Holy Spirit spoke to him, saying, ‘ Look, three men are at the gate of the house looking for you.  Now get up, go down and go with them because I have sent them to you.”  So Peter went down to the men. Now to have a Roman soldier and two Roman slaves standing on your doorstep would cause quite a stir for a Jewish household but Peter followed the directions of the Holy Spirit.  He said to them,  ‘I am the man you are looking for, why are you here?’   They answered ‘ We were sent by Cornelius, a centurion, who is an upright and God-fearing man and well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation.  He was directed by a holy angel to send for you and to ask you to come to his home so that he might hear what you have to say.’

The next day Peter left with them along with some other believers from Joppa.  When they arrived in Caesarea the following day, Cornelius had gathered his friends and family and all were waiting in anticipation of Peter’s arrival.  When Peter entered the yard of the house, Cornelius fell down at his feet and worshipped him.  But Peter helped him up, saying ‘Stand up, I am just a man.’  Peter looked around and saw the many people who had gathered.  He said “You know that it is not lawful for me to associate with a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.  So when you asked me to come, I did. But now may I ask why you sent for me?”

Cornelius answered him, sharing all that the angel of God had said to him about how his prayers and alms had been received by God and about sending for Peter in Joppa.   “I sent for you and you were kind enough to come.  Now all of us are gathered to hear what the Lord has commanded you to say to us.”

Peter looked around at all of them, remembering the vision given him by God, and began to speak.  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who love the Lord and does what is right is acceptable to God.  God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power and Jesus went about doing good and healing all who came to him because God was with him.  We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem; his teaching, his death on a cross, and his resurrection. He commanded us to preach to the people of the Good News of God and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as the judge of the living and the dead.”

While Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.  They began speaking in tongues and praising God. Those who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Romans.   Peter said to them “Can anyone withhold the waters of baptism from these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  And so he baptized them all in the name of Jesus Christ.   And Cornelius invited him and his company to stay with them for several days.

And that brings us to today’s text. 

The apostles and believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had accepted the word of God.  And when Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was strongly criticized.  “Why in the world did you go to the home of a Gentile and eat with them?”  They didn’t care that he preached to Cornelius and his household.  They didn’t care that he baptized them.  They were angry that he ate with them.  They were angry that he treated them as equals and recognized their value.

Peter’s actions were so outside of proper behavior that the Jerusalem congregation could not value the miracle that had occurred.  They only saw Peter’s transgression of holy Law.   Peter did not try to refute them or defend his actions.  Instead he told the story of what happened; step by step.  He told them about his vision from God and the voice of God saying “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  He told them about the Spirit directing him to go with the Romans and to not “make a distinction between them and himself”.  He told them about Cornelius’ vision and about the gift of the Holy Spirit being poured out on Cornelius’ gathering.   He said to them “If God gave to them the same gift he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”  “Who are we, that we might hinder God?”  When they heard this they were silenced.   They rightfully put to rest their criticisms and praised God saying “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

“Who are we that we might hinder God?”  We would never do that, would we?  Obviously the leaders in Jerusalem had their priorities misplaced.  They were more focused on upholding the particulars of their tradition than on the expansion of the Gospel. Peter responded to their concerns by sharing his experience (not defending his action with justifications).  He refocused their attention on the big picture rather than answering their small concerns.  Dietary laws were not important when the Holy Spirit is being poured out on many.  God was doing a new thing and the people of God had to adjust!  

“Who are we that we might hinder God?”  Today our world is changing at a pace that few can comprehend.  At the same time that technology allows us to know minutia about people on the other side of the globe, the divisions between “us” and “them” have grown and hardened to the point where we can’t see “them” as having anything in common with “us”.  Nationalism is on the rise around the world.  On social media, we live in insulated bubbles where anyone who disagrees with us is demonized.  We understand the impulse to question Peter. “Why did you eat with them?”

But God’s welcome is wider than ours.   God says “What God has made clean, you must not call profane. Those whom God has welcomed, you must not exclude.” 

Our communities are changing. Chittenden County is much more diverse than it was when I was child, with people from all of the globe choosing to make their home here.  Sometimes we may be confused by or nervous about people who seem different from us.  We may be hesitant to connect with them.  But when we make that effort we realize how much we have in common and how much we can learn from each other.

First Baptist is changing, has been changing for some time.  Like many churches we have become fewer in number.  We are a downtown church where few of us live downtown. We are a multi-cultural community still discerning what that means in our day to day ministries together.  These realities make it imperative that we widen our imaginations and our welcome.  We are called to listen to those who come through those doors and to go out beyond the doors to listen to those outside!  We are called to see, that in God’s eyes, there is no us and them.  There is only all of us together. 

Peter’s dream and his embrace of Cornelius and his household point us to a future where God is inviting more and more to the wonderful banquet of God’s love.  Let us not hinder God.  Let us be handing out the invitations!

Let us pray,

Amazing God, we thank you for your sustaining presence which guides us and calls us to ever widening welcome.  Help us to always be open to the leading of your Spirit.  May we serve you by sharing the Good News of your love to all people.  Amen.