Saturday 13 July 2013

Unclean (Acts 10)

Unclean food

God gives Peter a vision about food. The time is twelve o’clock - the hottest time of the day - and Peter is up on the roof praying to God. Verse 9 tells us, “he became hungry and wanted something to eat.” It just so happened that it was the time his host was barbecuing lunch on the grill downstairs. Peter could smell the roasting of the meats and hear the sizzling of the steaks. It was at that moment, verse 10 tells us, that Peter fell into a trance.

God gives Peter a vision of huge buffet spread. “All kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds” being lowered down from heaven on a huge white sheet. A voice says to him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

If Peter were Chinese, he would have immediately obeyed. “Yes, Lord!” he would have said. We Chinese, eat anything that moves except an automobile; anything that flies except an airplane. This vision - of eating the various kinds of four-footed animals, reptiles and birds - would not have been a problem for us Chinese.

But it was a big problem for Peter. “Surely not, Lord,” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

That word “unclean” implies a category of food that was not allowed - that was forbidden - according to tradition. Peter was not Chinese but Jewish and according to the Old Testament laws, Jews were not allowed to eat certain foods like reptiles and pork. Leviticus Chapter 11 gives a list of clean and unclean animals. They couldn’t eat camels, rock badgers, pigs, any fish that does not have fins and scales or any insects like grasshoppers. These animals were categorised as “unclean” creatures. As “unclean” foods.

So when Peter says to God, “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean,” what he means is, “I’ve never broken the rules. Not once. I have been keeping all the rules since I was a kid.”

Notice God’s response. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” God was not telling Peter to break the rules. God was telling Peter that he had changed the rules. These animals which were previously unclean have now been made clean.

What does this mean for us? As we shall see in today’s passage, it means more than the fact that Peter can now order sweet and sour pork and charsiu pao at Charlie Chan. It means that God wants to make us clean. It means God has done something to take away our uncleanness and our sin.

The three points I want us to see in today’s passage are:

1. More than food (looking at Peter)
2. More than good (looking at Cornelius)
3. Lord of all (looking at Jesus)

1. More than food

The first thing to see is that this vision is about more than food.

While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.

While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
Acts 10:17-20

After receiving three visions from God, Peter receives three men from God. “Do not hesitate to go with them,” says the the Spirit, “for I have sent them.”

“Why have you come?” Peter curiously asks these strangers who have turned up at his door.

The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.”
Acts 10:22

These men are representatives of a powerful man, a military man but most strikingly, a non-Jewish man. The reason they are there is to invite Peter to come with them to Cornelius’ house and that was a big deal because, you see, visiting a non-Jewish home and hanging out with a non-Jewish man was against Jewish law. Peter knew that and Cornelius knew that. Look down to verse 28.

“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”
Acts 10:28

Both Peter and Cornelius knew that it was a big deal for a Jewish person to enter a non-Jewish home. It was against the law. It was taboo. But Peter had finally made the connection between the vision of the food and the visit to Cornelius’ home. He says, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”

That is why Peter invites the three men into his home to be his guests (verse 23). And that is why Peter goes with them to Caesarea and enters the home of non-Jewish man (verse 24). God had shown Peter that the boundaries of the clean and unclean have been removed - not just for food but for people.

Any missionary will tell you that a very practical challenge living in a new country is the food. When you go to a new country, you might find the food there too spicy, too rich, too bland, too weird, too much, too little. I remember Judy’s Facebook posts of her trip to India last year where she put up photos of the different people she met in the deprived areas of India as well as the food. Every meal was curry, curry, curry! It was challenging but eating the food was part of receiving hospitality and enjoying the fellowship of her friends in India. When Jesus sent out the seventy-two disciples in Luke Chapter 10, he said to them, “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you.” (Luke 10:8) In other words, “Don’t get picky about the kind of hospitality you receive.” That can be hard for a Western missionary in Malaysia invited to a feast of durians. But let me just say, that despite jokes about Chinese people adept at eating anything and everything, we can be quite picky as well. All our meetings begin with food but then again a lot of meetings tend to be just about the food. “Come to our Chinese New Year gathering.” Why? “Because we’ve got so much delicious food!” And if the food isn’t up to scratch, or if there isn’t enough roast duck to go around, we might not come again!

The lesson that Peter learned, which perhaps, we too, need to learn here in the Chinese Church is that it is about more than just the food. God was teaching Peter not to call any person impure or unclean. That meant that God wanted Peter to welcome these non-Jews - these Gentiles - into his home and to enter theirs. More importantly, that meant the God wanted Peter to tell them the gospel.

Are we being selective in the people we choose to tell the gospel; the people we choose to invite to hear the gospel preached? If I asked that question of you, of the leaders here in the church, of the parents and teachers in Sunday School, I might get a range of answers. But just look around here in the Chinese Church. That’s your answer. Who do you hang out with? Who did you have lunch with?

If the only place you ever go for lunch is Hong Kong Fusion; if the only friends you hang out with are those who look like you and sound like you - and I’m not just talking about friends who are Chinese, but friends who are of the same age, who watch the same movies, who like the same kind of music - What do you call that? Most of us would call that “normal,” I know. The bible calls that strange. Strange: because one day men and women from every nation, tongue, people and tribe will gather around Jesus can worship him as Lord. Strange: because we live in a city filled with people from many nations, tongues, peoples and tribes; we walk past many of them today in order to come here to the Chinese Church.

At this point, it is tempting to react by saying something along the lines of “We have to try and welcome everyone to our church.” And yes, that’s a very bold statement. I think this passage gets real with us by showing us that it is better to think of the “someone” rather than focusing generically on everyone. Who is the someone that God has put in your life whom you’ve been avoiding simply because they’re different? Has there been one person you have conveniently ignored simply because frankly, you’ve written them off? “That guy will never be a Christian! She would never want to come to Solid Rock, she hates this kind of thing!”

Notice that in Peter’s case, God was gracious enough to nudge him in the right direction step-by-step. Actually, those of us who were here last week saw that in the way God brought Peter step-by-step to Joppa where he ended up staying with Simon the tanner (and in doing so was already breaking one of the rules in Leviticus 11). Here, we see God using his hunger and his hang-ups about the food laws. God sending the men to his home and Peter welcoming them in. Later, we’ll see that God already gave a vision to Cornelius confirming Peter’s visit there. Every step of the way, God was helping Peter to see his own pride and prejudice; to see God’s purpose and plan for the Gentiles.

2. More than good

So, that’s Peter. Next, we look at Cornelius under our second point: More than good. That is, goodness isn’t enough to be accepted by God.

Cornelius, we’ve already said, was a Gentile military commander. The beginning of Chapter 10 tells us more about him: He and his whole family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. He wasn’t a Christian and yet this guy would put most Christians to shame with regards to his prayer life, with regards to the amount of money he gave to the poor. And you know what? Even God recognises his goodness. An angel says to him in verse 4, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.” How many of you here today can God say this: “I’ve seen how loving you’ve been to the poor and I’m proud of you.”

Friends, if you are here today and you are not a believer, I want you to notice that here is God commending a non-Christian for his goodness. Here is God speaking to a non-Christian recognising his generosity. As a Christian, I can think of non-Christian friends who are nicer than me, more hardworking than me; who are better husbands than me; who are better sons to their parents than me. And frankly, I thank God for them.

But here’s the thing: It’s not enough. Being good was not enough for Cornelius. Even Cornelius, for all his goodness and piety, had to turn to Jesus for forgiveness and rescue from God’s judgement.

I think the most striking thing about Cornelius is not his goodness; it’s actually his humility. He sends his servants to fetch Peter, but he also, in verse 8, tells them “everything that happened,” meaning these were men who had similar regard for God, whom he trusted enough to share this vision from God. He didn’t send them to Joppa to force Peter to come though he could have - after all, remember that Cornelius was a powerful man - but he sent them to accurately convey the message he had received from God.

And later on when Peter arrived in Cornelius’ home in verse 24, Cornelius has gathered all his friends and family (verse 27 says there was a large gathering of people). This guy is so eager to hear God’s word that the moment Peter enters the house, Cornelius falls to the ground and Peter has to make him get up - this respected army officer - and say to him, “I’m only a man myself.”

But finally, in verse 33, Cornelius says to Peter, “Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” That’s truly remarkable, for a non-Christian to say to a Christian, “I am so conscious of God’s presence here today. God must have something he wants you to tell us. Please would you preach the gospel to us!” Something like this doesn’t happen every day and I suspect it was new even for the apostle Peter. But God was preparing this non-Christian’s heart in a powerful way, impressing upon him the privilege of hearing his word spoken and preached.

Cornelius was a good man. There is no denying that. But he was a good man who knew that there was more to being accepted by God than just being very, very good or trying your utmost best. Cornelius would have been aware of his own status as a Gentile - as someone who stood outside the promises of God. Peter says to him in verse 28, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile.” Cornelius knew that and if it wasn’t for God commanding Cornelius to bring Peter to his home; if it wasn’t for God telling Peter to enter into his home, Cornelius would not have dared to go against that law. Which is why Cornelius repeats the vision to Peter a second time. He wants Peter to know that this was not a scheme of his, this was not a great idea he had - this was something God had commanded Cornelius to do and he simply obeyed that command.

At the same time, he was so excited to hear what Peter had to say. His whole family were there. He got all his friends round his house to come - and the fact that so many of them came is a testament to how much they respected this guy. “Now we are all here in the presence of God,” he says to Peter, “to listen to everything the Lord has told you to say to us.”

The reason why we open up the bible each week here in the Chinese Church is because we share that same anticipation, that same expectation that comes from hearing God’s word. It is the anticipation and expectation of the presence of God in our midst. We believe that these words are God’s words. More than that, when these words are read out loud, what we hear is God’s voice speaking to us.

What Peter goes on to tell Cornelius is the gospel. Which brings us to our third and final point, because verse 36 describes this gospel as “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.”

3. Lord of all

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
Acts 10:34-38

What we have here is a blind first date. Peter and Cornelius have been brought together by two visions from God. They know they are supposed to be there but there’s a sense of awkwardness in the room. Cornelius mistakenly bows to the ground when Peter enters the room (verse 26). Peter says something to the effect of, “Erm, I’m not really supposed to be here. Why did you ask me to come?” And Cornelius answers, “But you’re supposed to know! I’ve got all my friends here and told them something big was going to happen. Now please tell us why we’re here?” Peter is looking at Cornelius; Cornelius and his friends are looking at Peter.

So, Peter opens his mouth and begins to preach. This much, he’s figured out - God doesn’t show favouritism and accepts even the Gentiles - Peter got that much sorted in his mind. But then notice how he says, “You know... you know...”? He is trying to build up momentum. “You know that this message I have - it’s from Jesus. He’s the one who started it all. You know about him, right? He had a powerful ministry in Galilee (up north) and Judea (down south), and Jesus did amazing things like heal the sick because, well, God was with him, that’s why.”

That is, Cornelius would have been familiar with the message so far. He would have heard of Jesus as a good man, perhaps even, as a man of God. He might have heard about Jesus from other Christians in town. After all, we know from Acts Chapter 9 that both Paul and Philip were in Caesarea preaching about Jesus in that town and maybe word got round to Cornelius that Jesus was someone who did great things for God.

But then Peter went into what Cornelius, perhaps, didn’t know. What Cornelius really needed to know - that Jesus died on the cross. God raised him from the dead. And that Jesus was appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. Friends, that’s the essence of the gospel - who Jesus is and what Jesus did. And the key that unlocks the person and work of Jesus Christ is the cross. He died to take our judgement of sin and he rose again as proof that he was victorious over death and sin.

Peter says in verse 43, “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

At that moment, God interrupts Peter’s sermon. A few of us were at a wedding last week when the sermon was interrupted - a couple of times actually - by cellphones that started to go off in the middle of the service. It was actually quite funny to hear the different ringtones people used - one was a recording of a pop song, another had peculiar beeping sound - you don’t really hear the old familiar Nokia ringtone very much these days. Of course, it wasn’t so funny for the pastor and the bride and groom! “How rude,” we might be tempted to think. Only here, in verse 44, it is God who rudely interrupts Peter’s sermon!

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Acts 10:44-46

God was giving a powerful sign and very visible sign of his Holy Spirit by causing Cornelius and his family and friends to speak in tongues. This was a repeat of the Pentecost event when Peter and the 120 believers with him were filled with the Holy Spirit and supernaturally enabled to speak in tongues, that is, to praise God in various different languages of the nations.

Only notice that now, the reverse was happening. The nations were praising God before the Israelites. You see, this was a sign, not for Cornelius, but for Peter. Look at what Peter says in verse 47.

“Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
Acts 10:47-48

“They have received the Holy Spirit,” Peter says, “just as we have.” It was only at that moment that the penny dropped. These outsiders were now insiders. The Gentile Christians were full members in the family of God. Jesus Christ is Lord of all - of all nations, of all races, of all peoples.

Conclusion: Mission is God’s idea, not ours

Acts is a picture of God on mission. Missions is something God does. Mission is God’s big idea, not ours; his work, not ours. And the way we see this in today’s passage is in the way God prepares both Peter and Cornelius.

For Peter, God prepares him by breaking down his preconceptions. Even Peter, who was an apostle, who was a follower of Jesus Christ, who was a leader in the church, had preconceptions about who can be saved; about who should be saved.

I think God was very gracious in the way he did this. He led Peter step by step. But in the end, God helped Peter to understand that missions is not reaching your own people who are most like us; mission means bringing the gospel to the nations. And being involved in God’s mission inevitably involved engaging with people we would normally classify as “unclean” - people towards whom we are naturally prejudiced towards.

Even Peter needed to learn this lesson. Don’t you think that we do, too, here in the Chinese Church? Jesus commanded us to make disciples of all nations. I don’t think we can say that we have done that faithfully if our focus as the Chinese Church is exclusively on the Chinese.

And what about Cornelius? God was preparing him, too, by sending him the vision through the angel. By sending Peter to his house to preach the gospel. God was preparing Cornelius from the beginning to receive the gospel - not by doing more and more good works - but by trusting in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins through his substitutionary death on the cross.

Now, unless, we forget, we have more in common with Cornelius than we do, Peter. Because we are Gentiles. Culturally and racially, we stand outside the boundaries of Israel. I wonder if that is why we’ve lost that sense of expectation and anticipation Cornelius had when he saw Peter walking into the room. Maybe that’s why we don’t feel like we need to invite our friends to hear what God has to say in his word. It is because we have taken God’s grace to us for granted.

Prejudice works both ways. On one hand, we can be prejudiced against others, like Peter was. But we can also be presumptuous about ourselves, as if we deserve to have God’s presence with us, because he has always been with us, because we are his church and because we know his word. We forget that mission is God’s idea, not ours. Mission is God’s work, not ours.

Cornelius was so bowled over at the expectation of hearing the gospel, the guy fell to his knees when Peter walked in the room, right in front of all his friends and his family and even his servants. Friends, you may or may not realise this, but these words we have in front of us are pure gold. If you would but just listen, you would hear God’s voice. If you would but just humble yourself, you would find yourself in God’s presence.

Friends, the brutal honest question - and it's so obviously in front of us, I admit I missed it the first few times I looked at this passage - is simply this: When was the last time we humbled ourselves before our God in prayer? God appears to Cornelius in a vision at three in the afternoon, it says in verse 3, but it isn't until verse 30, that Cornelius clarifies, that it was when he was on his knees in prayer before God. God appears to Peter when he is on the rooftop - in prayer. Friends, you can be the nicest guy on earth and the kind of person who helps little old ladies cross the road but if you call yourself a Christian, and you do not regularly come before the Lord of the universe on your knees, humbling yourself before him in prayer - I don't care who you are; you are proud.

The question at the end of the day is not: Are you like Cornelius or are you like Peter? That’s not the question. No, it’s: Are you like Cornelius and Peter: who were both humbled by God; who were both obedient to his word? That is what is means to call Jesus the Lord of all. It means all of us need to humble ourselves before him. It means all of us need to be forgiven by him - the judge of all. It means all of us who put our trust in him, receive full  and final forgiveness through his name.

No comments: