By and large, we live in a pretty tolerant culture here on the eastern edge of London. Most people are happy to mix with, live next door to, and talk to people from all different walks of life and different lifestyles. But that’s not true of all cultures, and there are some where it is simply not permitted to associate with what is considered to be an enemy culture. You only have to think of Belfast at the height of the Troubles, where your surname or address could immediately identify you as belonging to a particular group. Trying to cross those cultural boundaries could lead to a beating, or worse.
We find a similar sort of division at the start of our passage this morning. It would be great if you could have the Bible passage open in front of you, and have a look at verse 2. The apostle Peter has just arrived back in Jerusalem after a trip north, and the other Christians criticize him and say “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” They are referring to Peter’s visit to a Roman centurion called Cornelius, which is described in chapter 10 of Acts. Here in chapter 11, though, we get Peter’s report of what took place.
To understand what’s going on, we need to remind ourselves of a bit of Old Testament history. God had called Abraham from his home in a pagan city, and promised him that he would be the father of a great nation. As a sign of the covenant he made, God instructed Abraham to circumcise himself and all the men in his household. Once they had grown into a nation, they were given a set of laws which set them apart from the other nations. In particular, they had strict laws governing what they could eat. Abraham’s descendants were the Jews; everyone else was the Gentiles.
Up until this point in Acts, all of the Christians had basically been of Jewish background; either observant Jews, or (later) the half-Jewish Samaritans. All of the men would have bene circumcised. They kept the Jewish food laws. Socialising with a Gentile, and particularly eating with him, was seen as turning your back not just on your cultural heritage, but also on that special covenant God had made with Abraham. It was like turning your back on God. You can see why the Jews were worried!
This is the last of our short sermon series looking at the early church in Acts. The history of the early Church grew teaches us something about what God is like, and about what it means to be followers of Jesus. We have seen already that the early church was a growing church, with a God who is active. They were a praying church, speaking to a God who listens. They were a generous church, remembering how God is generous to us. They were a church who suffered persecution, just as Jesus did. And last week, we saw how God was able to convert even Jesus’ fiercest critic, Saul, to be a disciple of Jesus and leader of the church.
So, what of our passage this week? What does it show us about God? Well, most of all, it shows us that God makes unclean things clean.
1) God makes unclean things clean
Peter was hesitant about going to help Cornelius. He was a Jew, a circumcised believer, just like his critics of verse 2. He would have had the same misgivings, the same reluctance to have anything to do with those who were not God’s people.
Wonderfully, God provided sign after sign to convince Peter that it was worth going. Specifically, these signs pointed to the fact that Peter wasn’t just on some human diplomatic or mercy mission; God was at work. It was God who would make Cornelius clean. I wonder how many of the signs you spotted as we heard the passage read? Signs to convince Peter, the other Jews, and us.
Firstly, there was Peter’s vision in verse 5. Peter was praying, and he had a vision of a large sheet coming down from heaven, from God, filled with all kinds of animals. Then a heavenly voice tells Peter that these are not just animals, but food – Peter should kill and eat.
As we have seen, the food laws were an important part of religious purity and holiness for a 1st century Jew (and for many Jews today). You did not simply “kill and eat” at random – careful selection of the correct types of animals was required, according to the food laws. The animal would then need to be carefully killed in the correct manner, and the blood drained, before it could be eaten. You can see why the simple command to “kill and eat” was such a problem to Peter!
Peter expresses his concerns to God, but he is overruled. Then the whole thing happens again. And then it happens a third time. When an event is repeated in the Bible, it is usually to make a point. Think of Peter denying Jesus three times on the morning of the crucifixion. Once might have been a mistake, a mishearing. After three times, you really should take note of what is happening.
The second sign occurs in verse 11 with the arrival of three men at the house where Peter is staying. The Holy Spirit convinces Peter that he should have no hesitation in going with these men, back to Caesarea, to Cornelius’ house. Chapter 10 tells us that these men were two of Cornelius’ servants, and a soldier who was one of his attendants. All three were almost certainly Gentiles, so it was no small thing for Peter, as a Jew, to agree to travel with them. Nevertheless, Peter tells the other apostles that the Holy Spirit told him to go, and he obeyed.
Thirdly, Peter was accompanied on his journey by six witnesses mentioned in verse 12, fellow Christians who were able to testify about what they saw. It seems that these Christian brothers had accompanied Peter to Jerusalem, and so could confirm Peter’s account. We can be sure that Peter’s account really is the truth about what happened.
Fourthly, when the party arrives at Cornelius’ house, he explains why he has called them there, as we read in verse 13 He, too, received a message from God: a vision of an angel. The angel told him to send for precisely the person who could help him and his family. And the angel told him where this person could be found, in Joppa, a small town some 30 miles away.
Fifthly, as Peter begins to speak in verse 15, the Holy Spirit comes on the people of Cornelius’ household. This is apparently visible to Peter and the six men with him. Peter is quite certain that Cornelius and his household have indeed received the Holy Spirit.
The sixth and final sign that God is at work comes in verse 16 as Peter remembers Jesus’ promise: “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit”. Baptism with the Spirit was not a human invention, something that the early Christians thought up for themselves. It was promised by Jesus.
Six signs show that God is indisputably at work in the conversion of this Gentile household. But why is this important? What exactly is it that God is doing? We see the answer in the repeated message that God gives Peter during his vision: God has made clean what was unclean. This was not just a message about eating food, but God preparing Peter for the work he was about to do with this Gentile household. God is making people clean.
As to how God makes people clean, Peter doesn’t need to spell it out to the Jerusalem Christians, but it’s clear from what he tells Cornelius in chapter 10. It’s all about Jesus – how he lived, was crucified, and rose again from death. As Peter says in chapter 10, verse 45, “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
We see a picture of this in the book of Revelation. Another of the apostles, John, describes a vision in which he sees a great multitude dressed in white and waving palm branches before the throne of God. One of the elders there in the vision tells him that these people are those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. We are made clean by washing in the blood of the Lamb, by trusting in his death in our place for forgiveness.
But what should we do with this news? How should it guide our lives, both individually and as a church? I think that there are two points that stand out from the passage:
2) All Christians have been made clean by God
When the believers in Jerusalem heard that Peter had been eating with Gentiles, they were shocked. But once they have heard his account of the episode, their opinion changes dramatically. In verse 18, we see that the Judean Christians “had no further objections and praised God, saying ‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.’”
Why the change of heart? – after all, the original accusation was true Peter had indeed been eating with Gentiles. The answer is found in Peter’s statement of verse 17: “God gave them (the Gentile Christians) the same gift as he gave us (the Jewish Christians)”. The Gentile Christians are in exactly the same situation as the Jewish Christians. All of them have been made clean by God.
And this means that, where there was once a barrier, a dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, for Christians that barrier has been torn down. Although every Christian is still Jewish or Gentile by background, that is no longer our defining characteristic. Instead, we are simply Christians: people made clean by God. That is true for every single Christian, and so there is no second-class. No Christian has the right to look down on any other.
In the early morning of 15 April 1912, the RMS Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg. The loss of life is well known: of the 2224 people onboard, only 710 survived. What is particularly tragic is the way that the casualties were distributed; the proportion of first class passengers saved was more than double that of third class passengers. It is thought that there are a number of reasons for this, one of which may be a reluctance of first class passengers to share the small lifeboats with those travelling in lower classes.
As Christians, we are in the fortunate position of having been rescued. We have been made clean by God. Let’s not look down on the others who find themselves in our lifeboat.
That has a few implications for us. It means that we are not just a smallish congregation here in Gidea Park. We are part of a worldwide church that has lasted for two thousand years, and will last until Jesus returns in glory. And every other Christian, every other person made clean by God, is part of that church.
It is a church made up of men and women old and young, from every tribe, tongue, and nation. I am pleased that we reflect some of that diversity here at St Michael’s – we have members of all different ages, of different skin colours and from different nationalities. This is something that we should work hard to keep going. We don’t want people to look at St Michael’s and think that Jesus is only for white people, for the middle class, or for married couples. Instead we want people to see that we are here because we have been made clean by God, regardless of our backgrounds.
It also means that we should recognise our fellowship with other Christians, with other churches who believe that they too have been made clean by God. We need to remember that what we have in common is much greater than any differences in style or background. You may have heard that St Michael’s has recently been grouped with some other local churches into a Mission and Ministry Unit, and I hope that this will encourage us to work with other Christians from different backgrounds. I would love to see us developing more partnerships with Christians in other parts of the world, as we remember how we have been brought together in Christ. Maybe we could build relationships with some more missionaries and support them financially and in prayer?
When we look at other Christians, let’s not be quick to notice our differences. Instead, let us be quick to praise God, that he has given them and us repentance unto life.
So, all Christians have been made clean by God.
3) Anyone can be made clean by God
The second implication from our passage is that anyone can be made clean by God.
From a distance, Cornelius must have looked like a very unlikely convert. For one thing, he was a Roman, the foreign invaders who had conquered and oppressed God’s people. What’s more, he was a soldier, and a successful one at that; a centurion in the army. He had no Christian or Jewish background. Why should the apostles bother with him?
After all, the apostles were busy men. The church was still small at that stage, and there were many people in Jerusalem and Judea who had heard about Jesus, and who knew some of the facts about his life, death and resurrection. People of Jewish background who were supposed to be waiting for the Messiah to come. Wouldn’t the apostles’ time be better spent with them?
Thankfully, as we’ve seen, Peter wasn’t given the opportunity to assess Cornelius from a distance. Instead, he was forced to go, and to learn that anyone can be made clean by God. In chapter 10, verse 34, Peter says to Cornelius “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism”. We cannot predict which people will become Christians, because God does not show favouritism. And so we should not write anyone off as being a waste of time. Our role is to pray for those we know, and to take opportunities to speak of Jesus.
I hope that you do pray for those that you know. In particular, please pray for those that don’t yet know Christ, that they might be saved. But I’d like you to have a think about the people you come into contact with, and ask yourself whether there is anyone that you’ve given up praying for. Perhaps a devout Muslim colleague, who already has their own religion? A neighbour who is content with their house and car, and shows no interest in spiritual matters? A friend or relative who has been going to church for years, but just doesn’t seem too bothered about Jesus? If there is anyone like that, can I encourage you to think again, and to pray for these people? To talk to them about Jesus when the opportunity arises? Because God can make anyone clean, and does not show favouritism. Anyone can be made clean by God.
Finally, there may be some here who don’t consider that they have been made clean by God. Maybe that’s just fine by you, and this has just been a dry exercise in church history. If that’s you, then I want to thank you for listening, but I’d love to talk further with you (perhaps over tea and coffe?) about why I think that this is important.
On the other hand, maybe you are very aware of your past failings, and you are longing for someone to give you a fresh start with God. In that case, can I reassure you that God is willing and able to make you clean, through Jesus. God makes unclean people clean when they trust in Jesus. He’s already done it for every Christian, including millions alive around the world. And he is able to make anyone clean if they come to him. There is great rejoicing in heaven when someone repents and turns to Jesus.