Bruce Van Blair
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Sunday, September 18, 2016
CHILDREN'S STORY AND SERMON
PETER AND CORNELIUS
You know something about a man named Jesus, right? And I hope you go on learning more about Him all your life. But Jesus also had some interesting friends. Those who became His followers are doubly interesting to us because we want to be followers too.
So who is the most famous among the twelve apostles? (Not a fair question, is it? On the other hand, there is no wrong answer.) Many people would agree that Peter was most prominent among the twelve.
Today I am going to tell you a story about Peter. In some ways, it is a simple story. Peter was spreading the news about Jesus. That’s what followers are supposed to do. It’s called “evangelism.” All followers of Jesus are evangelists in some way or another: carriers of the Gospel of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ. Some pretty big words in there, but you may come to love them more and more as you grow older, or at least wiser. At the time of our story, Jesus’ friends were telling people to trust God as a friend. Of course, nobody can believe that Message very easily. So then Jesus’ friends told them about who Jesus was and how He had revealed and proved the love of God, and that Jesus had sent them to spread this news everywhere.
Okay, so today’s story is about Peter getting this news to a man named Cornelius. That’s easy, isn’t it – one person telling another person Good News? Peter went to a man named Cornelius and told him about God’s love and how Jesus had made it known. Great story, good stuff, right?
How many of you have a friend named Cornelius (meaning “of the horn”)? It’s not a very familiar name anymore, but it was a long time ago. That means I better get a few things straight.
Jesus had already lived His life here on earth before this story took place. Jesus had been crucified and resurrected. He still communicated with His friends as Holy Spirit: a voice and a power inside the soul – just like today. But on the outside, the disciples were on their own. It’s a big, scary world and they were supposed to carry the Great Message, but they were not at all sure how – just like today.
All of us think of Peter as a great man – a giant of the faith – who always knew what he was doing. But at the time this story was happening, nobody had told Peter that yet. He did not know he was a great man. He thought he was just an ordinary person who had seen some very incredible things happen. So he felt pretty small and he often felt confused. Only, inside he was not as afraid as he used to be, because he knew Jesus was with him.
So the Holy Spirit is always alive, though Jesus the man is gone. And at the time of our story, the disciples were trying to spread the Word – but only to other Jews like themselves. Jesus had told them, “Go ye therefore and teach all nations,” but come on! “How are we supposed to do that? They wouldn’t understand us. They don’t want anything from us. They don’t even like us.” “They” is one of the ugliest words in the human language, just like “we” is one of the most beautiful.
So the Holy Spirit of Jesus sat around, twiddling thumbs, drumming on the table, waiting and waiting: “Come on folks. When are you going to get to it? At this rate, it will be a thousand years before the Message spreads to Egypt next door, never mind to the ends of the earth.”
What was the problem? The problem was that we cannot carry a Message of love to people we will not hardly associate with. We cannot talk about love to people we do not like or care about. And most people do not trust people who are different or new or unknown. As a matter of fact, Jews were forbidden to eat with Gentiles – meaning, there could not be close association between the two. That was the problem. “Hey folks, I want you to know that God loves you lots and we are all brothers and sisters, but I personally will not break bread with you – or even walk into your house for fear that somebody might think I would – because you are unclean and unacceptable to God and God’s people.” Real convincing, huh? Some things never change.
So the Holy Spirit thought, “If I don’t do something dramatic to get this show on the road, nothing is ever going to happen here.” So the Holy Spirit appeared in a vision to Cornelius, and this caused Cornelius to send servants to Joppa to ask Peter to please come visit him in Caesarea. Then the Holy Spirit came in a vision to Peter to convince him that it was okay to eat nonkosher food. In short, Peter was commanded to accept the invitation from Cornelius when it came, and to go visit Cornelius and be a true guest in his home.
Did I mention that Cornelius was not a Jew? He was a Roman. More than that, he was an important Roman – a Company Commander at the Roman garrison at Caesarea. The Holy Spirit worked big miracles to get Cornelius and Peter to talk to each other. Under normal circumstances, they would never have spoken to each other, even if they had lived in the same town and passed each other every day for a thousand years. And just like today, people are not going to say very much if they do not eat together, do not visit in each other’s homes, do not get to like each other. Carrying Jesus’ Word is not about advertising. It is about love – really caring. If you do not care, do not carry it. If you do care, you cannot keep from carrying it.
Anyway, Peter and some of his friends went off to Caesarea in obedience to the Holy Spirit. Cornelius had gathered relatives and friends, and they all had a nice banquet together. Peter spoke to them of Jesus, and Cornelius and his friends and relatives realized (felt/knew) that the Holy Spirit of Jesus was actually alive and with them right there. So they were baptized and became Christians – the first Gentile converts of the new age. Peter stayed with Cornelius for many days, and the two became great friends.
This is a story about how the Holy Spirit broke both Peter and Cornelius out of their old ways, out of their old customs, out of their safe surroundings. They had to trust somebody they did not know, and they had to go open to things that were not familiar. Christianity was new for both of them – as new for Peter as it was for Cornelius. This is a wonderful story, but what do we learn from it? To be Christian – to track Jesus – we have to be willing to go new.
THERE COMES A WIDENING
I should confess that the story I just told the children makes me nervous. If you heard very much of it, it is already too late to recuperate. As I was working with this text, I imagined that some of you would throw it back in my face (if I made it really clear) as an excuse for being open and interested in every kooky theory coming down the pike today. I imagined you using it as a pretext to go talk to every and any kind of character you know or happen to meet, inviting them to come here whether they “fit here” or not – whether they are “our kind of people” or not. Can you imagine?! Then, of course, some of you would walk off and leave me to deal with them. So as I was working on this text, I heard myself constantly saying, “Hey Lord, could we maybe sort of skip over some of these points?”
The part about all Christians being evangelists in some way, and the part at the end about Christians having to be open and go new – I took those out three or four times. Don’t know how they got back in. You think preachers like the Gospel just because they are preachers? Ha! You should listen to them sometime.
But then I got this vision of being here, just like I am right now, and looking out over this room and – love you though I do and wonderful though you are – the voice said: “Not to worry, not to worry. They are too bound up in their own affairs and still too frightened of soul to make enough changes to cause you any real alarm. Preach it like it is. It will be all right.” The question is: Do you trust a voice like that? A lot of you are not as spiritually asleep as you used to be. “Lead us not into temptation”? Well, what the hell ...
One of the things we learn from the story of Peter and Cornelius is that Christianity is always breaking barriers. There comes a widening, if you follow Jesus for very long or very far. There comes a widening. The Kingdom of Christ refuses to be contained. The love of God as we discover it with Jesus will not tolerate borders for long.
It has not been helpful in the long run, but some people aware of this principle have said things like “Christianity is not a religion.” Well, Christianity is a religion, whether anybody thinks it is supposed to be or not, so the statement ends up bringing confusion instead of light. But the folk who talk that way are trying to say that Christianity always breaks out of every creed, class, nationality, economic level, and stereotype that we try to keep it in.
Left to humans, Christianity would have become and remained a tiny Jewish cult or offshoot, like the Samaritans who still worship on Mount Gerazim to this very day. The Spirit would not have it! “Who are you to call unclean what God has made clean?” (Beast or food or human.) That blew the ceiling and the walls right out of Peter’s mind. There came a widening. He might waffle, but he could never think or see or believe quite the same way ever again. Do you know how disturbing it is to have the pillars knocked away like that?
If I get to choose the people, it is easier to believe in God and that God loves people. And the Spirit leaves it there for a little while, when we are young in faith. But there comes a widening. The first phase is knowing that God loves you and yours. The second phase is knowing that God loves others, including some you do not. Those who never get to the second phase become like Nazis. One group tries to perfect the world by exterminating those who are not “one of us”; the other group tries to perfect the afterworld by throwing them all in a lake of fire.
The story of Peter and Cornelius comes before “Christianity.” We did not have that name yet. There were a few followers of the WAY – believers in Jesus – but there was no Christendom yet. Today lots of Christians reason that because Christianity has been around a long time, anybody who is not of “no account” should have joined up already. You cannot imagine Peter or any of the early Christians thinking in such a way. “You join a religion and become acceptable to God? That’s worse than trying to trust in keeping the Law!” They were talking about knowing Christ Jesus in the Holy Spirit: knowing yourself as one of the family watching the New Age that Jesus is bringing in – realizing you are part of it.
What are the mind-blowers in this story?
FIRST mind-blower: Cornelius was a soldier and he was a Roman. He had not talked to Peter yet; he had not been baptized; he did not believe in Jesus. But he was sent a powerful spiritual experience: an angel appeared to him, told him his prayers were approved by God, and gave him clear instructions.
Does God care about and communicate with people outside the Christian Faith? Of course! How can we even ask? Well, many people seem to be saying or implying something different, but we have always known that God cares about and communicates with people outside the Christian Faith. We even remember Abraham and Moses. What about Socrates? Siddhartha? Lao Tzu? Your agnostic neighbor next door? The story of Cornelius is the story of a devout and sincere pagan who was lonely to know God, and who took stronger and at least as dangerous steps than Peter did to draw closer to God. He did it before he was a Christian.
Peter and Paul never saw themselves in the terrible roles we seem unable to shake today. They were not “dynamic salesmen evangelists” charging out to “convert/slay” the “evil unbelievers.” I like the King Arthur legends, but somebody got too much Roundtable mixed up with the Cross. Peter was not Lancelot. Paul was not Perceval. Satan is the enemy; not people. Evangelism is not a joust; it is a meal. It is not a duel; it is introductions. It is not a challenge; it is an invitation. If a person rejects the meal, the introduction, or the invitation, nothing “bad” is going to happen to them – except they will miss a party they do not want anything to do with yet.
Early Christians learned that people the world over were hungry to know God and eager to learn the source of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the ones who truly listened had already had encounter(s) with the Holy Spirit, and they wanted to know all they could about what this meant and where it was leading.
Cornelius was already devout. He was already a man of constant prayer. He talked with angels and they gave him clear instructions. He was also generous, highly ethical, sincere and compassionate. So why did he need Jesus? Some people actually ask me questions like that! He needed Jesus because he was lonely. He needed Jesus for the love and delight and truth of Jesus’ friendship. If you have met Jesus, you want everybody to know Him. You do not want anybody to miss the experience.
I can give you other answers if you do not like the real one. Why did Cornelius need Jesus? Because he was greedy. People who wake up spiritually get greedy for more. People who love money want more money; people who love God want more contact. The difference is, God loves you back – God is more eager for more relationship than you are. Jesus is the purest source, and knowing His story clears up a lot of things (though far from all of it). Cornelius was delighted to have more information, and he responded mightily to what Peter told him. Isn’t that what you would expect?
SECOND mind-blower: What was the church’s reaction? The Christian “establishment” at Jerusalem was scandalized. They were angry, criticized Peter, and tried to shame him back into his old thinking and behavior. “How dare you! Who gave you authority to break the rules? Get back where you belong!”
I know you feel the point and so do I, and I don’t need to “rub it in” in any way that hurts. But maybe all of us should just comfort each other, reassure each other of our lasting friendship, and then quietly admit to ourselves that if we are not bothering our own church by associating with people and bringing people into the church who make things feel a little uncomfortable from time to time, we are not yet awake and on the job. What vision is going to come down on the sheet for you?
Maybe you feel you are the one making others uncomfortable. Stop being so self-centered and start bringing your own Cornelius friends in here, and you will not be bothered by those feelings anymore.
THIRD mind-blower: Finally, regretfully, and also with a certain sad relief, I read to you from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. For until some messengers came from James [head of the Jerusalem church], he was taking his meals with Gentile Christians; but after they came he drew back and began to hold aloof, because he was afraid of those from Jerusalem. The other Jewish Christians showed the same lack of principle; even Barnabas was carried away and played false like the rest.” (Galatians 2:11-14)
Everything is going along fine, and the miracle of people from different cultures and religions finding love and faith and serving and growing together is incredible. Then bang! The legalists arrive. The perfectionists – the rules people. Who is in and who is out? Who is right and who is wrong? Who is acceptable and who does not talk right, eat right, or dress right? And guess what happens to the love and fellowship? I wonder how long it took, after this all blew over, before the Gentiles believed again that they were really accepted?
It has always plagued us. But we do not always have a Paul to confront it. Paul was not afraid of James or his authority, brother of Jesus or not. If we know anything about Paul, we know he would confront at this point. “But when I saw that their conduct did not square with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of the whole congregation: ‘If you, a Jew born and bred, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you insist that Gentiles must live like Jews?’” And then Paul launched into his famous passage of Law versus Gospel, which ends: “if justification [righteousness] were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”
How could Peter forget after his experience with Cornelius? The report is that Peter was big enough to realize that Paul was right, side with him, and walk again into the widening and back to the new. All I know is that it is terribly easy to forget, go weak, or even fail to notice that we have gone back to our old ways. Yet the story of Peter and Cornelius is astounding because it reminds us to this very day that believing in the Gospel will transform our relationships, put love on a new level, and bring us new friends and new friendships with old friends – whether we like it or are ready for it or not.
The only way to prevent this is to go with James instead of with Jesus. So I ask you: Do you remember the times and the experiences that widened your mind and your heart and your soul? If we follow Jesus for very long or very far, there comes a widening.
Copyright 2016 by Bruce Van Blair. All rights reserved.