Sometimes, when the Spirit gets moving, it begins to feel like you’re on a runaway train, hurtling down an invisible track, never knowing exactly where you will end up. So much of ministry, and life in general, feels like this. My own personal path to ministry is something like this. When I was 18, right before college, I had an experience that changed the trajectory of my life forever. I was at a mission trip. I was asked to pray before the assembly. I resisted, but eventually gave in. When I spoke, something happened inside me that had never happened before, in that I knew the words that I was saying were not my own. I have no doubts now that it was the Spirit moving me, but it terrified me. I didn’t know it then that that began my entry on this crazy road that has led me to you today, in both Pineland and Hemphill. I hopped on a train that took me to places, people, and experiences that I had never imagined I would encounter. The I think about it, the more I realize that we may be on the train, but our vision is only looking backwards, to where we have been. The future is beyond the veil of our experience. This passage that I just read to you from Acts comes from the end of a very peculiar story, even more peculiar than last week’s story about the Ethiopian man. What was read is but the final scene. The story it sums up is one that causes Peter, the head of the new Church of Jesus Christ, to think again about who Christ came for. Perhaps it should make us all think again. The Spirit likes to do that, as we’ll see.
Cornelius the Soldier
At first, we are introduced to a man named Cornelius. This man is a Roman soldier, who is at the same time a believer in the Jewish God. This wasn’t entirely uncommon; after all, we met an Ethiopian last week who had the same faith. And yet, this Roman Soldier is similar, in that he is a Gentile, and unable to fully participate in the Jewish faith. Not only that, his whole household–family and servants–are also faithful believers in the Jewish God. So we have a man who is faithful, generous to others, and serious about his beliefs. Yet he is not welcome among fellow believers. Perhaps we ought to reflect on this. We have a tendency to form little tribes in the church, tribes we call “denominations.” By definition, we Methodists are one tribe, Baptists another, Catholics another, Church of Christ, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians–there are many tribes. So often we find pride in our little tribes, and we have an impulse to attach negative connotations to others, even though they are faithful followers, generous and loving. They aren’t us, however. The Roman Soldier Cornelius’s situation is not so far-fetched. We have a faithful man, but he’s unable to be a part of the community because he’s not “one of us.” In any case, Cornelius is given a vision. Visions, mind you, are uncommon occurrences. They don’t happen to everyone, nor do they happen often. This story is one of many visions and signs, though, so it should tell you that God is VERY INTERESTED in the life of Cornelius, and as we’ll see, Peter. An angel speaks to Cornelius and says this: “Your prayers and your compassionate acts are like a memorial offering to God. 5 Send messengers to Joppa at once and summon a certain Simon, the one known as Peter. 6 He is a guest of Simon the tanner, whose house is near the seacoast.” That’s it. No explanation of who Peter is. Just offer the invitation to this man you don’t know who is in a far-off area from where you are. That being said, Cornelius is a faithful and dutiful man, and when an angel gives you an order, you do it. So he does.
God likes Weird Metaphors
Meanwhile, the story jumps and we focus on Peter, traveling and doing his apostle thing. Suddenly, the visions come upon HIM. This time, it’s more elaborate. ” He saw heaven opened up and something like a large linen sheet being lowered to the earth by its four corners. 12 Inside the sheet were all kinds of four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds.[b] 13 A voice told him, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!” 14 Peter exclaimed, “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” 15 The voice spoke a second time, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” 16 This happened three times, then the object was suddenly pulled back into heaven.” Naturally, after a vision like that, one would be even more confused. This vision is a lot more cryptic than the one Cornelius got. I think Cornelius got off easy, he just got an angel to tell him to throw a house party. Peter gets the weird picnic blanket vision telling him to rethink his position on Jewish purity laws. After the vision, while Peter “broods” about it (I love the idea of a brooding Peter, considering he rarely takes a moment to think about anything), and the Spirit interrupts him to tell him to talk to the visitors coming to his house. And DON’T ASK QUESTIONS! Finally, the Spirit learns to shut Peter up before he Peters things up again. They invite him to Cornelius the Soldier’s house, so that he can give his message of Jesus to the people. Finally, Peter starts to understand. And he makes plans to go, without saying a word. Two days later, he arrives in Caesarea, at Cornelius’s door. He is allowed inside, and immediately Cornelius, a faithful soldier, falls to the floor and kneels before Peter. This is no doubt a show of respect; for Cornelius, in his position, he kneels to respect whom he sees as his superiors. What Peter makes known right then and there is a remarkable understanding of the vision he was shown. Clean and unclean… these are no longer categories that God cares about. And so, he tells Cornelius to get up. He’s just a man, a person, just like any other; signs of bowing to authority are not needed here. Peter already sees him as a brother.
The Great Re-Thinking
Peter then asks why he was sent for, and Cornelius relays his story about the vision of the angel. Peter, figuring there had to be some lesson in it for him, silently listened and understood; the same day he received his weird picnic vision was the same as this message from an angel. I mentioned earlier that the Spirit can take us on a ride like a runaway train. The truth that Peter perceived just then was that the train wasn’t out of control; it was doing exactly what it should. So he gave this speech in response. “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. 35 Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” He went on the share the good news of Christ, but really, for us, he could have stopped there. What matters to us right there is this: Peter was beginning to learn the true message of God: God doesn’t show partiality. God doesn’t take sides. God is God. Our task is like Peter’s: We need to think again on the message of God, and who that message is for. We already know what it is; that isn’t the question. What we have to do, though, is think about who God is telling us to reach. Who in our community needs the goods news of Christ? Where can we manifest the spirit? In what ways can we bear the fruits of this Spirit? If it seems like this message is similar to the one from last week, there’s a good reason for that; that’s a big over-arching theme of Acts. God sending God’s Spirit where we least expect it, and doing incredible things. We need to learn this, and relearn it. We need to think again about the Spirit of God. Thanks be to God.