8 January 2017 at Tainan International Community Church in English
TEXTS: Acts 10:34-43 & Isaiah 42:1-9 and Psalm 29
TITLE Anyone is Acceptable to God
A lot of events in the life of Jesus are celebrated in churches each year. Two Sundays ago many churches celebrated his birth. Last week some events soon after his birth. If we were just following the story of Jesus according to the church calendar, today would be the Sunday on which we’d jump from the baby to the young man and celebrate his baptism. If you were expecting that, then, “surprise”. The scripture we read from Acts 10 this afternoon mentions Jesus’ baptism, but that’’s not the focus of what we’re going to look at.
In a way, expecting one thing and finding another, is just the story of life. Among us here today there are probably many people who started a study program in college or graduate school that has led us somewhere that we had not expected. Our parents may likely have had to adjust their expectations for us, their sons and daughters, to match how we have turned out in life.
Often we get surprised by what life throws at us. Sometimes it’s not life that’s doing the throwing, but GOD who is doing directing us in one way or another.
I: Surprises for Cornelius and Peter
The story from Acts that we read this afternoon had a lot of characters in it, the most important of whom were Cornelius, a Roman military officer, and Peter, who seemed to be the leader of the disciples whom Jesus left behind. The story takes the entire chapter, from verse 1 to verse 48. It’s full of surprises from beginning to end. We only read 10 verses in the middle, which is where OUR surprise will be found. But first let’s consider the surprises that come before ours.
- A Vision (Cornelius) vv. 3-7
Cornelius was a devout man who prayed and did religious duties, and like all of us devout people, expected the blessings of heaven in return. It was very controlled, and is the way of much religion at all times and in all places. People say to God, “I’ll scratch your back, and you’ll scratch mine.” But he got a surprise, a vision and an angel voice. Most of us would rather not have such an interruption in our ways of going about life.
- A dream (Peter) vv.9-16
Peter was hungry and went upstairs waiting to be called down to a meal. Roofs are warm places. He fell asleep and dreamed about food. But not the kind of food he’d ever consumed. He learned that he could go forth and “eat it all”.
- A summons and Command 10:18-20
Peter had likely expected to be in one place, by the sea, for a while, to have a nice holiday at the beach. But in the middle of it, he was called, he was sent.
- A discovery 10:25-33
Whatever Peter may have expected to find in his conversation with Cornelius and the people he met there, he didn’t get it. Instead, he learned that any person is acceptable to God.
The last verse of our Old Testament reading this afternoon, Isaiah 42:9 includes God, through the prophet, saying, “New things I now declare”
II: The New Comes Wrapped in the Old, or the Old Comes in a new Wrapper
New things aren’t always “new”, they’re sometimes just old things that have been re-packaged. Maybe you’ve had this experience. You go to the supermarket to buy more of something that you’ve run out of. You look for the familiar package of the brand you’ve always used, expecting it to be the same as before, and it looks different. The name of the manufacturer is the same, the name of the product is the same, but the package has changed, and there, in big letters on it, is the word, “NEW”. You buy it and take it home, expecting (maybe even fearing) that it will be different in some way, and find the same old product you’ve always used and trusted. The only thing “NEW” about it is the box or can that it came in.
When Peter was at Simon’s house in Joppa, the “wrapper” old, but the contents were new.
The Bible story we read found Peter at Joppa, by the sea. He was not at home, but in someone else’s house. After becoming a disciple of Jesus, Peter was always meeting new people. After Jesus’ ascension, Peter was going out and meeting them on his own. So being with “Simon the Tanner” in a town by the sea was no big deal. Just the fact that this home belonged to someone named “Simon” meant that the owner was one of Peter’s own people.
To have an angel speak to him in a dream, also not a new thing to Peter. But wrapped in this familiar package, Peter was introduced to something new. Simon’s house was, apparently, a place where the family’s meals were composed of things that were permitted for eating. Peter had no trouble swallowing anything that was served to him. But in his dream, he was told that he could eat anything, even forbidden things. In fact, God had made these things clean. The “wrapper” (a word in a dream or by an angel) was old, the contents (what he was told) was new.
When Peter went to Cornelius’ house, he found something old wrapped in something new.
Then because he was commanded by the Holy Spirit, he went to the home of a man who was doubly his enemy. This man was not one of Peter’s own people, he was an Italian! Further, he was a military commander of the Roman empire, which was oppressing Peter’s people. Yet within this man’s home, Peter found the kind of faith in God that he had only expected to come from his own people. The “contents” (faith in God) were old, but the “wrapper” (the home of an enemy) was new.
That’s the way it is in a life of faith. God, who is and has been over, under and around us at all times, shakes our world; throws new stuff at us, and builds us up.
III: Anyone is acceptable to God
This may come as a surprise to you (it has often surprised me)”you are NOT God!!” Whenever I realize that in my own life, that I’m not God, I’m both surprised AND grateful. You are NOT God. Not to your family, not to your hometown, not to your people, not to your classmates, and not even to yourself. THANK GOD that you’re not.
Every one of us has a set of boundaries constructed out of all kinds of influences, which guides who we will or will not accept. Last year someone tested this on the Taipei mass transit system. The trains are often crowded and finding a seat is like finding a treasure. But one foreign guy paid attention and noticed that riders on the trains usually left the seat next to him empty until it was the LAST open seat in the car before anyone would take it. Apparently they decided that, unless there was no other choice, sitting next to a foreign person was unacceptable to them.
Alexander Maclaren was an enthusiastic British Christian writer 200 years ago. He insisted that all Christians should be involved in direct evangelistic work. BUT, he said, we have to be careful of the people wespend time with, because being with sinful people would weaken our testimony. Isn’t that strange? Sinful people are EXACTLY the ones who need Christian friends!If we can’t associate with sinful people, we can’t be in the same room with each other, and will even have trouble being alone most of the time.
Anyone is acceptable to God. The exact phrase that we read this afternoon is part of a sentence spoken by Peter, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Two requirements, only two. 1) fear God; and 2) do what is right. According to St. Peter, that’s all. He said nothing about race, nothing about nationality ,nothing about ethnicity, nothing about social class, nothing about gender, nothing about sexuality, nothing about a particular kind of church, nothing about a set of habits, nothing about diet, nothing about health, nothing about a prior history of sinfulness, nothing about which department one belongs to at the university, and nothing about whether or not someone believes even a single word in the bible!
Think back to that verse we read from Isaiah earlier this afternoon, in which God, through the prophet, said, “New things I now declare.” What Peter was saying in that house of Cornelius was not new then, and it’s certainly not new now. Peter had merely forgotten that God accepts anyone. In that house, he remembered. We are often, like Peter, forgetters.
There’s a town in America that is full of churches and full of good Christian people. 60 or 70 years ago it was considered normal in that town to ask someone you met for the first time about which church they attended. There is one church which some people were suspicious about. A friend there who is now in his 90s said that when he was young, whenever the name of his church came up in a conversation, he heard the comment that it was the place where “they’ll take anybody.”
Tainan is also a town of many churches, some of which use Taiwanese, others Mandarin, and others which may be multilingual. In our little group here we call ourselves “international”, and we are. We call ourselves “community”, and we are. So let’s also intentionally be the church of which others say, “they’ll take anybody,” because in that way, we’ll be the church which, though not God, is “like” God, and anyone will find themselves accepted here.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN
Accepting and welcoming God, thank you for your love for us. By your Spirit, transform each of us, and transform our church, to be as accepting as you are. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN