By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Acts, chapter 10
A rope walks into a bar and walks up to order a drink. The bartender walks over and takes a look at him and says, “Hey, you’re a rope. We don’t serve ropes in this establishment. You’re gonna need to leave.”
So the rope leaves the bar; kind of frustrated, a little angry. He decides to try again the next day; maybe it’ll be a different bartender. So, once again, the rope walks in, walks up the bar to order his drink. But, it’s the same bartender and the same spiel: “Hey, I recognize you. You’re that rope that came in here yesterday. I already told you, we don’t serve ropes in this establishment. You’re not welcome here. Go; and don’t bother coming back.”
The rope leaves; he’s even more frustrated than the first time. But then he gets a brilliant idea. He ties himself in a knot and he takes the portion of rope above the knot and separates the strands so they appear frayed. He walks back into the bar and boldly walks up to place his order. The bartender walks over suspiciously, “Hey, aren’t you that rope that was just here?” “No,” says the rope. “No, I’m a frayed knot.”
This morning we’re going to look together at a bible story that takes an entire chapter to tell. Because of its length, I’m going to break up the story and intersperse it (in my own words) with my message. This is a story that reveals so much about the nature of God and how God is at work in our lives and our world. Part of what it reveals is the striking difference between God’s nature and ours in regards to how we perceive others. As human creatures, we judge by human standards; we label people. To those outside the Church, we may appear as those who claim the right to decide who does and doesn’t get served by God’s grace. Those on the outside may even feel that Church is a place where they will be compelled to become something other than what they truly are if they want to be welcomed.
As human creatures, we struggle with issues of boundaries and we resist change. Predictability and categorizing allow us to become comfortable while change and our culture’s growing pluralism unsettle us. If we are honest with ourselves, we all struggle with certain people who do not seem to belong or fit; they make us uncomfortable; they may even evoke feelings of anger or fear. They offend us in ways we may not be able to explain or justify. Perhaps we have a visceral response to them: our stomach churns, our jaw tightens. We may see many of the changes taking place in our culture as threatening to Church as we grew up knowing it, loving it, and basking in it. Grace is a tremendous thing when it is extended toward us; but a grace that encompasses people and experiences that are strange or offensive to us, is a very different story...
A story found in Acts, chapter 10, where we are introduced to a man by the name of Cornelius. Remember that Jesus and his original followers were all Jews. But Cornelius was a Gentile; a Gentile who worshipped the God of Israel and, although he wasn’t circumcised and probably didn’t pay attention to things like the kosher food laws, Cornelius was attentive to some of the essential Jewish spiritual disciplines or practices (the kinds of practices we looked at during our Lenten study this year). Cornelius was generous towards the poor and he prayed “constantly” according to the bible story. He was likely praying when he had this vision because the hour of his vision corresponds to a Jewish prayer time. He was also, incidentally, an official in the Roman army.
So our bible story begins:
In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a captain of the Italian Guard... He was a thoroughly good man. He had led everyone in his house to worship; he was always helping those in need, and he prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o'clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God come and say to him, "Cornelius." Cornelius stared at him in fear and said, "What is it, sir?" The angel answered, "Your prayers and your mercy and charity have captured God’s attention. Now here’s what you are to do: send men to Joppa to get Simon, who everyone calls Peter; he is staying with Simon, a tanner, whose house is down by the sea."
And that is all the angel says. So Cornelius dispatches his servants to go find Peter.
The next day, as Cornelius’ servants are approaching the home where Peter is staying, Peter is praying. Peter’s hungry and our bible narrator tells us that he falls into a kind of trance and sees a vision. Something like a large sheet comes down out of the heavens and on it are a variety of animals that law-abiding Jews would never eat. They’re animals that God declared off-limits to the Jews way back when God entered into a covenant relationship with them during their crossing of the wilderness from Egypt into the Promised Land. The animals Peter sees served up on this sheet are not on the menu for any serious Jew. But Peter hears a voice instructing him to eat. Peter objects but the voice instructs him, “If God says it’s okay, then it’s okay.” And at that very moment, Cornelius’ servants arrive. The timing couldn’t be better. I love the way the bible translation The Message relates this part of the story:
“As Peter, puzzled, sat there trying to figure out what it all meant, the men sent by Cornelius showed up… They called in, asking if there was a Simon, also called Peter, staying there. Peter, lost in thought [and no doubt, confusion], didn’t hear them, so the Spirit whispered to [Peter], ‘Three men are knocking at the door looking for you. Get down there and go with them. Don’t ask any questions. I sent them to get you.’”[i]
Meanwhile, Cornelius is so excited about all of this that he’s packed his house with friends and relatives and they are all eagerly awaiting the arrival of Peter. Cornelius, we might note, has a great deal more clarity, confidence (and joy) about what’s unfolding than Peter does. When Peter and some of his friends show up at Cornelius’ home Peter’s still not really sure why he’s there. He makes a rather lame introductory speech about how God has shown him not to call anyone profane or unclean. If you read between the lines, a more direct rendering might be this: “I don’t really want to be here with all you unclean Gentiles. I find it really objectionable; but God told me I had to come so I did.”
Next, Cornelius shares his testimony with Peter of how he was praying and heard this voice from the heavens, etc. etc. And he wraps it up by commenting that here they all are, gathered together to listen to what God has told Peter to say to them.
And what Peter says is the gospel, the summary story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Peter acknowledges that this gospel is for everyone; but he isn’t shy about placing it firmly in the context of Judaism. He explains that Jesus was God’s message to Israel; inaugurated with the ministry of John the Baptist. Peter notes that Jesus’ mission unfolded within Judea and Jerusalem (Jewish territory) and that who and what Jesus did were a fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.
Now, Peter’s been preaching this sermon about Jesus pretty frequently. He’s got it down pat. It’s a good, solid, expository routine. But then God throws Peter a curve ball. As he’s speaking, before Peter even has a chance to wrap up his sermon with whatever might have been the first century equivalent of the modern-day altar call, the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and all his Gentile buddies. They begin to speak in tongues, praising God. Just like the apostles did on Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. Poor Peter. He must have been really blown away. I mean, it’s hard enough for Peter to cross the threshold into the home of this unclean Gentile; that would have been an enormous theological stretch for Peter (and one he never would have taken if God hadn’t pushed him across the boundary of that Gentile threshold).
But now God has even gone and messed up the good, orderly sequence of conversion. You see, we find this logical process of conversion throughout the Book of Acts. The apostles preach, then people repent, then they’re baptized and then – then – they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. But this time Peter hasn’t even had a chance to consider baptizing them when the Holy Spirit falls upon them. What on earth was God thinking? What kind of chaotic, willy-nilly plan is this?
And so, the story wraps up with a change to Peter’s tune when he addresses the good Jewish “Jesus-disciples” who are there with him; he says to them, “Do I hear any objections to baptizing these friends with water? They’ve received the Holy Spirit exactly as we did.” “Exactly as we did”… and with those words, Peter is led to confess that the Church is much bigger and far more inclusive than he could have ever imagined; that it may not be his place to say who is in and who is out, who should or shouldn’t be served by the grace of God through the Jewish messiah, Jesus.
Friends, this story of Cornelius is a far more radical story than we today could ever begin to imagine. For this Cornelius character is not just any Gentile. He’s an officer in the Roman military during a period of history when the Jewish people were forced to live under the thumb of Rome. It was people like Cornelius, members of the Roman military, who were occupying and defiling their holy land. This Cornelius guy is not one of God’s chosen people, he has the wrong blood running through his veins and he works for a boss everyone loves to hate…
And yet, despite all that, Cornelius is sincerely seeking God and, whether God’s people are ready for it or not, God will welcome Cornelius into the Church with open arms.
You know, as I already mentioned, Peter has a good stock evangelistic sermon for these situations and it always includes a call to repentance… a component that is noticeably missing from this sermon… which makes one wonder: maybe this time it was the preacher and the Church that needed to repent. You see the Greek word for repentance in the New Testament means, literally, “a change of mind”. And, in this particular case, it was Peter, the apostle par excellence, who needed a change of mind and heart.
Friends, whether we like to admit to it or not, we all draw mental boundaries and borders and sometimes it’s hard for us to confess that God doesn’t see people like we see them. Even at this very moment, it’s likely that most of us are thinking of someone we know that we consider prejudiced or judgmental in their thinking. We might be thinking, right at this moment, “Well see, this story proves they need to repent.” And yet, if push came to shove, if a line-up of “objectionable characters” were paraded through our sanctuary like that sheet full of unclean animals was placed before the eyes of Peter, there’d be someone in that line that we’d each recoil from and we could likely find some verse from scripture to justify their exclusion. But folks, Peter had an entire Old Testament to justify his attitude toward Cornelius. Yet whether Peter approved of it or not, God had the right and God chose to change – to erase – those boundary lines.
On this Mother’s Day weekend, this sermon reminds me of my mom who so powerfully expressed the hospitality and welcome of God. My older brother was a character growing up. He turned out fine; but there were some pretty rough years and he had some pretty “out of bounds” kinds of friends. You wouldn’t have expected that those friends would have been so drawn to a church-owned parsonage. It sure wouldn’t have seemed to be a likely hang-out. But it was because my mom showed so much kindness toward those young people. I can remember many afternoons and evenings playing in the living room while my mom sat talking with one of them at the kitchen table serving up a kind smile, a welcome heart, a listening ear… and usually some homemade baked goods. Even when my brother grew up and moved out, they still came around because they knew my mom would always welcome them and listen to them and never judge them. She would serve them the gracious, welcoming presence of Jesus. Decades later, some even attended my mom’s funeral.
Friends, at the end of time, God won’t require the assistance of any of us to judge the eternal fates of others so why should we worry about offering our judgment now. Out there beyond the walls of this church are people who need to know that God welcomes them and God is counting on us to convey that welcome. It may even be someone you already know. The Spirit’s prompting will probably be more subtle than a sheet full of animals dropping out of the sky. But if we pray and we watch and we listen, who knows?
[i] The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language by Eugene Peterson; NavPress; 2002; p. 1988
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