Sunday 6 January 2019

Man vs Food (Acts 11:1-18)

I was seventeen and it was the last day of a summer school I was doing in Malaysia and as I got back to my seat in class I found a card on my desk. It was from a girl and it said something like, Dear Calvin, Great knowing you. Stay in touch.

I was seventeen - remember - and I thought, It’s now or never. So I walked up to the girl in front of everyone in class holding the card to my chest and I said, “Thank you for the card.”

And I said, “I just want you to know that I really, really, really…” - and it was around about the third “really” that I noticed, Hey, that guy has the same card as me. And, That girl over there has a card, too. (I later learned that she had given a card to every student in class)

“... really, really, erm, thank you for this card,” and ran back to my desk. Smooth.

If you can imagine the embarrassment, the surprise, the foolishness of being in such a situation, then maybe you understand the impact of what Peter says in verse 17 of Acts Chapter 11 - God gave them the same gift as he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ - it is the impact of learning that God loves people who are very different from us. That God gave his Son to die for other people and not just for us.

For Peter, that impact resulted in a series of confrontations - a series of conflicts - with man, with food and with God - our three points from our passage today from Acts Chapter 11.
(1) Man vs Man. (2) Man vs Food. And (3) Man vs God.

Man vs Man

The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticised him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
Acts 11:1-3

Peter gets into trouble. The moment he gets back to Jerusalem, the moment he steps back into church on Sunday, he sees everyone holding up a sign that says, “Intervention.” Some of them are angry. You idiot! Most of them are disappointed. How could you do this to us?

What did Peter do? He went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them. That is the accusation of verse 3 by circumcised men, which some take to be a small radical group and that’s possible. But verse 1 reminds us there was a wider audience - “the apostles and believers throughout Judea” - who were concerned, who were confused by Peter’s actions.

You see, Peter broke the rules. He broke the Old Testament food laws - no eating unclean foods; no eating with unclean people, meaning, unbelievers - not unlike a Jewish person today eating food that is not Kosher or a Muslim eating food that is not Halal. But it was worse for Peter because Peter was their leader. Peter was Apostle Number One.

The amazing thing is Peter does not pull rank. He does not push back and say, “How dare you question my authority?” Why? Because Peter understands it is a good thing to be held accountable, especially, being held accountable to God’s word and that’s what they were doing. And what he does in response to that is bring them back to God’s word, notice that. Verse 4, “Peter began and explained everything to them precisely as it had happened.” That is a mark of a godly leader - someone who submits himself to God’s word and someone who calls us to do the same.

Man vs Food

“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’”
Acts 11:6-7

If you’ve been to Korean BBQ or Chinese Hot pot BBQ, the great thing about that is you get to cook your food before eating your food and it is a lot like that here in Peter’s vision, except, Peter is told to kill his food before eating his food - four footed-animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds - basically, every kind of meat there is, kinda like a Zoo-Buffet-BBQ type restaurant.

And Peter gets that this is a test. So he says in verse 8, “Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” God was testing him with this vision and Peter thinks he nailed it. All my life I have been preparing for this test: I have never eaten anything impure or unclean. He expects God to say, “100% A++, Peter. Well done!”

But that’s not what God says.

“The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.”
Acts 11:9-10

EEEEEHHH! Wrong answer!

What is more, this happened three times (meaning, either just the last bit happened happened three times - “This is clean! This is clean! This is clean!” - or that the vision happened three times and Peter denied God three times, “Surely not, surely not, surely not!” - three times!) How confusing this must have been for Peter. He thought he knew the answer, he was so confident he was right. But God reminds him three times not call something wrong that God has made right, not to call something impure that God has made holy.

What does this mean? All foods are clean? If that was all that happened that day, sure - God is saying it’s OK to eat char siu pao and chilli crab. But right then, something else happened, something else that made Peter think this was more than just a vision about food.

“Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’”
Acts 11:11-14

The word “house” occurs four times in four verses. They arrived at the “house” where Peter is staying. Peter goes with them into the “house” of this man (Cornelius, from Chapter 10) who talks about how an angel appears in his “house” and how Peter is meant to bring a message that will save him and his “house”.

What was the significance of entering this non-Jewish, non-Christian, non-Kosher man’s house? It was the crossing of boundaries. It meant entering the space, the lives of people you previously shunned, you previously avoided and you previously discriminated against. Up to gate? Yes. Up to the door? Maybe. But to enter into this uncircumcised man’s house was to have fellowship with him. To yum cha with him. To make friends with him. Remember the accusation of verse 2, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

And all this happens immediately after the vision. (Verse 11: “Right then.”) Meaning, there is a connection between what God was saying there and what God is saying here. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” - not referring to unclean foods but unclean people. Verse 12, “The Spirit told me to have no hesitation,” literally, “no discrimination about going with them.”
Friends, what does discrimination mean? Holding back the gospel. Holding back Jesus from people who are not like us and not one of us.

And it is not enough to say, “Come to the Chinese Church. We do not discriminate against anyone.” It is not enough to say that because what was Peter commanded to do? Go to this man’s house. Bring the gospel to him - not bring him here to our church, our community - but to enter into his. It is crossing boundaries and crossing cultures.

The vision of the food and animals left Peter confused but even after he understood the significance of the vision I think Peter was still confused. How could God do this? What does this mean? In the end, Peter did not let his confusion get in the way of his obedience. Notice, everything God says to Peter is a command. Get up. Kill and eat. Go with them. Preach to them. It is a good thing to seek clarification from God’s word but never to use it as an excuse for disobedience (or delayed obedience). God gives us enough clarification to obey him fully and wholeheartedly in his word. And in the end that’s what we see in Peter - his obedience and submission to God’s commands.

Man vs God

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
Acts 11:15-17

So Peter is there in the house. The man tells him he is supposed to tell them the gospel so that’s what Peter is doing at this point - telling them about Jesus - his life, his death, his resurrection (Acts 10:39-43) - when suddenly the Holy Spirit comes on them in a powerful way.

And it is important to see that this happens for his benefit not just theirs. I mean, it was wonderful for God to bless the new believers in this special way, but notice how Peter internalises everything he sees. “Then I remembered...” verse 16. “Who was I to think…” verse 17. God was teaching Peter something significant about what he was doing through these new believers - they have received the same salvation, the same Lord, the same Holy Spirit as Peter the his friends did at Pentecost. And the only condition was faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, verse 17, “we who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

For Peter, this is especially convicting to his soul. “Who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” What does that mean? It means that up to that point, up to that moment when it finally dawned on Peter’s consciousness that God wanted to save these non-Jewish, non-Kosher Gentiles into his kingdom, Peter was, in fact, opposing God. And that’s an awesome thought. “Surely not, Lord,” he said back in verse 8. Peter was so sure of himself back then, thinking he was right and, by implication, that God was wrong. But step by step, God reminds Peter that God is God. Step by step, God reminds Peter that this was his plan all along. “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus said in Acts 1, verse 8, “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The gospel is for everyone. You don’t get that, you don’t get the gospel.

Amazingly still, Peter’s testimony convicts everyone else in the room.

When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Acts 11:18

Notice, Peter never says to them, “You need to change. You guys are wrong. You need to repent.” They instinctively do this on their own. Why?

Two possible reasons. One, Peter’s conviction becomes their own. Remember, Peter is their pastor and there is something very powerful about a pastor standing up in front of his people and saying, “I messed up,” standing up in front of the whole church and saying, “I was wrong.” It reminds us of our sinfulness. It reminds us of God’s grace. Peter was just like them, denying God’s word, denying God’s grace, denying God’s plan for the Gentiles. We see this here in his testimony and actually we this all throughout the gospels. Peter was guy who said the wrong thing, did the wrong thing again and again and again but was restored by Jesus by his grace again and again and again. And his heartfelt, genuine repentance and submission to God’s word made it possible for everyone else to do the same.

So that’s one reason but I think there is another: They finally understood God’s love. It might be a strange thing to say but in God’s sovereign wisdom we understand God’s love better and clearer when we see it operating in the lives of others and not just our own.

“God gave them the same gift as he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Peter was talking about the Gentiles. People who never had the Old Testament. Unclean people. Sinful people. Here in Cambridge, think of someone uneducated. Here in the Chinese Church, think of someone disrespectful of their elders. Here in a civilised nation like the UK, think of a corrupt cruel despot. Now imagine God saving them. Imagine God pouring out his Spirit on them. Imagine God giving his Son to die for them.

That’s the impact of the encounter that Peter had seeing the Holy Spirit poured on these uncircumcised, uncivilised, unclean, impure Gentiles. If God can love them, boy oh boy, do you realise that is what it means for God to love me?

Friends, it is one of the reasons why International Ministry is such a precious gift God has given us here in Cambridge. It is not a convenience - “How convenient it is we don’t have to get on a plane to some far off country to preach the gospel?” or “How convenient it is they can go back to their countries and we don’t need to send anyone?” It is not convenience but conviction. When you see someone so different from you get it, you get it. When you hear someone so unlike you praise God, you start praising God. When you embrace someone you used to shun and avoid and discriminate but now you call them “brother” and “sister”, you begin to realise: That is how God embraces me in Jesus Christ - as loved, as accepted and as his own.

Such a truth will cause conflict. If that happens, we go back to the word of God and submit ourselves to it. Such a truth will cause confusion. If that happens, we must never be disobedient. God always gives us enough to know what it means to obey.

But such a truth will ultimately result in praise.

When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

And I pray that will be true for us.

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