There are moments in life that we will always remember. There are personal moments, and there are those moments when history breaks into our lives.
For example, who remembers where they were or what they were doing when they heard about the planes flying into the Twin Towers on Sept 11, 2001? I know I do. If you’re a bit older, you probably remember what you were doing when you heard that John F. Kennedy got shot. Or going back even more, where you were when you heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Or when the stock market crashed in 1929. Or when WWI was declared over. Or when General Lee surrendered to General Grant—I’ll bet none of you remember that from your lifetime! On and on and on, we can easily point out those huge historical moments that we (and the people before us) can tell kids and grandkids and great-grandkids about, because we lived through them.
Peter’s speech in our second reading from Acts was one of those moments where history broke into people’s lives. History was being made.
Why, you may ask. What was so special about this? I’m so glad you asked!
To see what’s actually going on, we need context. We only get to see a small part of the story in our reading today. We only get to see Peter’s speech to Cornelius and Cornelius’ household. But if you’re reading this passage right now, out of context, you’re probably like—who is Cornelius? Why is Peter giving this speech? What the heck is going on??
So in order to see how history was made that day, we have to go back and look at what happened in the story before Peter’s speech, and even what happened afterwards, to really get the full story. Make sense?
So first, what happened before. If want to look at it yourselves, you’re welcome to pick up the Bibles in your pew racks and follow along. Our story begins in the Book of Acts, chapter 10, at the first verse. We won’t read it all word-for-word, but we will talk about the story. Get ready to hear about history being made!
Our story starts with Cornelius, who is a Gentile. Anyone know what that means…? It means that he wasn’t Jewish. Back then, this was a big deal. Jews were God’s chosen people, who followed the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, or as we call them now, the Old Testament. People who weren’t Jewish, the Gentiles, did not interact much with the Jews, and vice versa.
When people started following Jesus, who was Jewish, most (if not all) of the people were Jews themselves. So up until this point, all the people who had been baptized as followers of Jesus were Jews.
So in comes this Gentile, Cornelius. He believes in the God of the Scriptures and gives to the poor and prays frequently, but he isn’t Jewish, nor does he know about Jesus.
Suddenly, an angel, or messenger, from God shows up. The angel tells Cornelius to send for a guy named Peter, and have him come to Cornelius’ house.
Meanwhile, Peter-- who was one of Jesus’ original disciples-- is praying on the roof and has a vision while in prayer. He sees animals that are prohibited from being eaten by Jewish law-- they are considered unclean. A voice tells him to eat the animals, but he says no way. The voice tells him “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Peter is trying to figure out what this vision means when the guys sent by Cornelius come to get Peter. The Holy Spirit tells Peter to go with the men, because they were sent by God. The men tell him that they are going to take him to Cornelius. So Peter goes with them.
OK, everyone got what’s going on? I’m gonna let you in on something big in the story. I mentioned it briefly before, but it comes into play in a big way. Jews and Gentiles were not friends. They didn’t interact. In fact, Jewish law prohibited Jews from interacting with Gentiles or going to their houses.
So the fact that Peter went with the men after hearing that Cornelius, a Gentile, was asking him to come, was a HUGE deal. He could have said no. But he knew that God had sent the men and had given him the vision during prayer, so he knew God was behind it. So he decided to follow the Spirit’s leadings despite the fact that it was against the rules.
Back to the story. Cornelius has gathered everyone in his house, with all his relatives and close friends together so that they would be there when Peter came. And Peter comes, and they welcome him. And Peter says to them (verse 28 if you’re following along):
“You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection.”
Wait, what??? That vision about the animals, and the Holy Spirit urging Peter to go with the men taking him to Cornelius, taught Peter that God was doing something new, something that went against the current rules. He could have ignored it, ignored God. But he chose instead to follow God’s leading, to see what new thing God was doing.
Then Peter tells those who are assembled in Cornelius’ house about Jesus—that’s the part of the story we read earlier in our worship service. He tells them how he now knows that “God shows no partiality,” how Jesus was baptized and then healed people and taught them about God. He tells them how Jesus died on the cross and rose again three days later. He tells them that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
And then something amazing happens. These Gentiles, these people who were off-limits and considered unclean by the Jews, experienced God in a powerful way. The Holy Spirit falls on those who heard Peter’s speech and they praise God and speak in tongues. And Peter says, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So they all were baptized as new followers of Jesus Christ.
Now, we can already say that history was made! For the first time EVER, Gentiles received the Holy Spirit and were baptized as Jesus followers. God was doing something new and amazing. But that wasn’t the only history that was made. There’s more.
Here’s the thing. When God does something new, something that flies in the face of tradition and rules, people don’t usually handle it well. I mean, how many times have we seen something new happen and went “But that’s not how we do it!” or “We’ve never done it that way before!” You know what I’m talking about!
So, predictably, the leaders of the believers in Jerusalem were none too happy that Peter had gone against the rules. He had visited Gentiles. He had preached to them. He had baptized them! He had broken a million rules, and they were ready to punish him.
But then Peter told them about his vision from God. He told them how the Holy Spirit told him to go with the men Cornelius had sent. He told them how Cornelius had seen God’s angel. He told them how he taught the Gentiles there about Jesus, and how the Holy Spirit came upon them just as the Spirit had come upon the Jewish believers. And he ends with (11:17): “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” In other words, “God gave them the same gift of the Holy Spirit that God gave us--- I decided to let God do what God was going to do, rather than stand in the way.”
And then there is silence. I can’t even imagine what went through those leaders’ minds in that minute. But then, after that silence, they praised God and said “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
So here’s the deal. Here is how history was made that day. Not only were Gentiles becoming believers in Jesus and being baptized— which is awesome!—something just as big happened.
The leaders overturned their previous rules. That’s a HUGE deal.
They were able to see that God was up to something new, something very different than before. Rather than saying “No way, we don’t do it that way,” they did what Peter did—they got on board with what God was doing.
They either had to get on board, or get out of the way. Because even if they had said no, and punished Peter for what he had done, God wasn’t going to stop doing this new thing. God would have continued to make believers out of Gentiles and those who the Jews didn’t like. Eventually, they would have had to get on board with the new things God was doing-- or get out of the way.
God is doing new things now, today. Want an example? I’m standing in front of you, preaching. A former Roman Catholic female, me, is preaching to you, the people gathered at Zion Lutheran Church— a congregation who, before me, had never called a female pastor before. 50 years ago, I would not be in front of you right now. 50 years ago, I would not have been allowed to be a pastor, because I’m a woman. But in 1970, a huge chunk of the Lutheran Church listened to the new thing God was doing, got on board, and ordained their first female pastor.
Just like our story about Cornelius and Peter and the Gentiles and the Jewish-believing leaders, God is showing us new ways to tell people about Jesus. We may not have official rules about who we can talk to like the Jews did back then, but we definitely have unwritten and unofficial rules about who we let ourselves interact with—and we have definite ideas about what we should be doing and how we should do things.
We are being invited by God to be involved in these amazing and new things that the Holy Spirit is doing—new things that fly in the face of tradition and rules, both written and unwritten. And, like Peter and those leaders in Jerusalem, we are given a choice.
Our choice isn’t, should we do these new things God wants us to do… because God will do them anyway. Even if we try to stop them, and stand in the way of God, God is persistent. God will make things happen, even if we put down obstacles or try to slow things down. God will eventually prevail, even if it takes time.
Our choice is whether to get on board with the new things God is doing, or to get out of the way. If you choose to get out of the way of God—that’s your choice-- but then you will miss out on the wonderful things God is doing.
But if you get on board with God, even though new and different things can be scary and unpredictable, I promise you that God will do awesome things in your life that you never knew could happen. Our God is a God of surprises, making history, causing change.
I’m going to ask some questions to end this sermon. And I’d like you to really think about these questions in the next few weeks. And when we have our Annual Meeting January 29th at noon (I hope you’re planning on attending, by the way!) I’m going to ask these questions again. And I’d love it if some of you would be willing to share some of your responses to these questions.
So here are the questions I’d like you to think about. If you want to be able to look at them again before the 29th, we’ll have my sermon posted on the Zion website early this coming week. Ready?
What new things is God doing in your life…at Zion….in our community... in our world? And how can we be a part of them? How can we get on board, like Peter and the Jerusalem leaders, and make history with God??
How can YOU be a part of what God is doing? Amen?