"I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men (and women) from every nation .."
It was an astonishing statement for Peter to make. All his life he had assumed that there was an unbridgeable chasm between Jew and Gentile (non Jew). All his life he had assumed that Gentiles could be touched by God, but could never be part of the people of God. All his life he had assumed that he could be contaminated by Gentiles, that he should not really associate with Gentiles and certainly not eat with Gentiles.
And now he had had a vision, which was then vindicated by the visit of the messengers from this Gentile, a man called Cornelius.
We must not underestimate the significance of the events of Acts 10. The church of God was put on a completely new direction. Up to this point, the first Christian missionaries - who were Jews - only preached to Jews. Now they preached to everyone. The gospel goes global; the gospel goes international.
The debate sounds slightly strange to our ears - but that is because we are children of this passage. We've been brought up in a 'politically correct' world. We've been brought up knowing that "In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, male nor female" (Galatians 3:28)
But it is still taking us an awfully long time to work out the implications of Peter's statement: all human beings are of equal value to God and all human beings have an equal need for God. When it comes to the thing that really matters - our relationship with God - we are all the same.
And Western civil society today has taken on board this assumption - but it has done it in a strange way. It has accepted the Christian teaching that everyone is of equal value, but it has rejected God. And as a result society tells us to treat everyone equally, but it does not tell us why we should do so - or how we should do so.
And as a result we end up with political correctness.
It is not that the things that political correctness say are necessarily wrong, although it can confuse who a person is (that which is given) with what a person does (a chosen lifestyle). What we find difficult is the way that everything is turned into a code or a policy. Political correctness assumes that we will treat everyone equally simply because we are told to do so.
The problem is that political correctness does not take into account
1. The reason that we are equal
2. The fact that we are messed up - prejudice is deep within us
Ortberg writes, "Our fallenness makes us want to be a part of not just any group, but an exclusive group. By definition, every society includes people who connect, who belong to one another. Yet in every society there are people who are left out, who don't get chosen, whose invitations to dance get turned down, who get ignored and cold-shouldered and voted off the island. We exclude others because of pride or fear or ignorance or the desire to feel superior".
That was true for Peter. It took an awful lot for him to overcome his prejudice.
- Divine vision – repeated three times
- Coming of the Holy Spirit in a very tangible way
It is significant that Peter did not get begin to understand that he had to treat everyone equally because someone told him to do so. He got to that point because he met with the God who treats all people as equal.
And he had to continue to learn that lesson. Paul in Galatians writes how he has to rebuke Peter because Peter was refusing to eat with Gentiles (15 years or so after the experience in Acts 10)
Political correctness is basically morality turned into a policy. It tells us to treat everyone as equal.
The Christian faith is different. The Christian faith gives us a reason why we should treat everyone as equal, and begins to enable us to do so.
The problem with political correctness is that it does not leave room for mess ups or mistakes. It is hard and unforgiving. It assumes that everyone should be decent, and all we need to do is to be told to be kind and compassionate and inclusive, and punished if we are not.
Many Christians are political correctness people: we think that morality, goodness can be taught and legislated for. We complain that the problem with society is that they don't teach Christianity in the schools - they don't teach people to show respect.
That is what religion is all about: telling people to be good.
But Peter comes with a message that is very different
Peter does not tell Cornelius to be good.
The message he brings is a message of peace (v37)
It is this message that brings peace between people and God, peace between people and people and peace to the individual person.
It is a peace that is based on the person of Jesus
Notice how Peter focuses in on Jesus
- He talks of Jesus, Lord of all (v36): Lord of Jew and Gentile. Lord of African and American and Asian and European. Lord of man and Lord of woman. Lord of old and Lord of young. What is it that unites us? There is one Lord, one final authority
- He talks of Jesus not as the one who went around teaching morality, but as the one anointed by God to show mercy: he does good, he heals and he releases (vv37-38)
- He talks of Jesus who was killed but who was raised from the dead (v40). It is interesting that he points out that the risen Jesus was not seen by everyone, but by specific witnesses. In other words, we are no different from Cornelius. He had to trust that Peter was speaking the truth about the resurrection, and we have to trust that Peter is speaking the truth about the resurrection.
- He talks of Jesus, the judge of all (v42): living and dead
And notice that the emphasis is not on the judgement, but on the fact that it is this Jesus who is to be the judge. Our final judge is not the government, the law, not the church or our family, not even ourselves and our conscience. The one before whom each one of us will stand is this Jesus.
That's the bit that the moralist part of us likes: we can point the finger at another person and say, "You're prejudiced - you will be judged". And then we realise that four fingers are pointing back at us.
And the key, the climax of Peter's sermon: "All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name".
This Jesus offers forgiveness to all.
Forgiveness is the ultimate leveller. It is the glue that holds the people of God together. What is it that unites you and me? What is it that unites us here with a congregation worshipping in China? It is very simple. We are all messed up, and we have all turned to Jesus because we know we need to be forgiven.
It is as Peter talks of forgiveness that the Spirit comes
Maybe, as Cornelius heard the message of sins forgiven – he knew that this was the element that had been missing. He had lived a devout and good life, but deep down he knew that he did not come up to scratch
Or maybe God simply came. It was His way of showing that Cornelius had received forgiveness and was a child of God. Even before the sermon is finished the Holy Spirit is at work. They speak in tongues – which is what happened to the disciples on the first day of Pentecost. They praise God.
My deep desire is that as a church we will preach Jesus.
We will preach Jesus the one who is Lord of all, who shows mercy, who is alive, who is judge and who offers forgiveness.
I am not in the business of teaching morality. If you want a church which tells people to be good, then this is not the place for you. Yes, we preach that there is a judgement (most of us know that we are messed up), but we preach that HE is the judge and that HE offers forgiveness. All we need to do is to receive.
I'd like to finish with a story which Gordon MacDonald tells. ("The Centerpiece of the Gospel, "Preaching Today", Tape No. 137.)
"In the late 1800s, Charles Berry, an English preacher, became the pastor of the great Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. One day Berry described how earlier he had come to Jesus Christ.
There had been a time in Berry's early ministry when he preached a very thin gospel--really no gospel at all. As did the Corinthians, he looked upon Jesus as merely a noble teacher but not as a divine redeemer.
Late one night during his first pastorate, as he sat in his cozy study, there came a knock. He opened the door and found a typical Lancashire girl with a shawl over her head and clogs on her feet.
"Are you a minister?" she asked. Getting an affirmative answer, she went on breathlessly. "You must come with me quickly. I want you to get my mother in."
Thinking it was a case of some drunken mother out in the streets, Berry said, "You must go and get a policeman."
"No," said the girl, "My mother is dying, and you must come and get her into heaven."
Berry got dressed and followed her for a mile and a half through lonely streets in the night. He knelt at the woman's side, and he began telling her how good and kind Jesus was and how he'd come to show us how to live.
Then the desperate woman cut him off. "Mister," she cried, "that's no use for the likes of me. I'm a sinner. I've lived my life. Can't you tell me of someone who can have mercy upon me and save my poor soul?"
"I stood there in the presence of a dying woman," said Berry, "and I realized I had nothing to tell her. In the midst of sin and death, I had no message. In order to bring something to that dying woman, I leaped back to my mother's knee, to my cradle faith, and I told her the story of the Cross and of a Christ who is able to save to the uttermost." The tears began to run down the woman's cheeks.
"Now you're getting it," she said. "Now you're helping me."
Berry concluded the story by saying, "I got her in, and blessed be God, I got in myself."