September 11, 2022

Breaking Down Barriers  September 11th, 2022

Passage: Acts 10:1-23

Gracious God, send your Spirit to open our minds and hearts to hear your Word. Challenge us, change us, and move us to follow Christ, who speaks to us as a friend whose word we can value and trust. Amen

When you’re driving somewhere have you ever noticed that the person in front of you who’s poking along is nothing but a nuisance while the guy who passes you just flying is a maniac? That’s because, by our nature, we’re all prone to thinking the way we are acting is the right way and to condemn those who are acting differently than we are, even when we’re not following the rules and, in this case, the speed limit. We’re prone to judge others according to outward characteristics or actions of people like them, rather than to accept them as individual human beings on an equal par with us with needs and hopes, just like us.

And we’re not alone in this, it’s human nature. All people have prejudices, they’re just part of the way we are in sin. We all have built-in prejudices that God must break down if we are going to be effective in his service. And the two main characters in today’s lesson from the book of Acts, Peter and Cornelius, both have prejudices, and those prejudices are against each other. But, as always, God is at work, and we’ll see just how he brings those two men together as Christianity is first brought to the Gentiles, those people who were not of the Jewish faith.

When God first spoke to Abraham and said to him, “…I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” (Genesis 17:7) he made a special relationship with the Jewish people. They were to be his people, his witnesses, and his missionaries to the rest of the world. But somewhere along the way they forgot their purpose and began to create barriers between themselves and the rest of the world. They soon believed that salvation was only for the Jews, so they began to distance themselves from people different than they were.

And the Apostle Peter, being of the Jewish faith, in the same way had been taught not to have anything to do with those outside the faith. But, through the grace of God, all that was about to change, and it was to begin with a Roman army officer by the name of Cornelius. This is what we’re told about him, “At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. About the ninth hour of the day, he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter.”

Cornelius lived in Caesarea which stood on the Mediterranean coast about 30 miles north of Joppa. He was a centurion in the Roman army and oversaw what was called a century, a group of 100 men. He’s described by Luke as being a devout man, who, along with all his household, believed in God. He also worshipped God on a regular basis and in keeping with the command of Jesus, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”, he regularly gave money to the less fortunate.

Now God, in his wisdom, was about to use Cornelius to open the eyes of both he and Peter to their prejudices. This is what took place, “About the ninth hour of the day, he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, ‘Cornelius.’ And he stared at him in terror and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’ And he said to him, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter.’ Cornelius, who normally would never associate with someone like Peter, listened to the Lord and did what was asked.

Peter, at this time, was in the town of Joppa and was staying with a man by the name of Simon, who was a tanner. This in itself was a change for Peter since according to the laws of the Old Testament, tanners were considered ceremonially unclean as they worked with dead animals. Because of this tanners were not permitted to go to the Temple and faithful Jews were to avoid contact with them. But Peter was slowly changing his old ways.

One day, while at the house, this is what took place, “Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’ And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’”

Peter, even though he’s now a Christian and following Jesus, he’s still from the Jewish faith. In fact, at this time, nearly all of the Christians had a Jewish background. Jesus came to God’s covenant people, which were the Jews. All the disciples were Jews, and after the Christian church was founded on the Day of Pentecost the members still met at the Temple and synagogues. And, as a follower of the Laws of the Old Testament, Peter is kosher. He can only eat what the Law allowed him to eat, no bacon, no shellfish, no pork, Peter can only eat kosher food.

But the Lord said to Peter, “What God has made clean do not call common.”  It then became obvious to him that these words had a far greater implication than simply what he was and was not allowed to eat. Peter suddenly realized that he was not to regard certain people as unclean nor were they to be avoided. God is revealing to him that all people are to be accepted, including Gentiles. The lesson that God was teaching Peter is that now there was no difference between Jew or Gentile.

I wonder if Peter remembered these words which Jesus spoke to him and the other disciples when they were all together, “‘There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.’ And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, ‘Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus, he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, … and they defile a person.’” (Mark 7:15-23)

God makes this clear to Peter right away, because while he is still contemplating the meaning of the vision of the animals on a sheet descending from heaven this is what happened, “And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” This is another step forward for Peter; the walls are breaking down.  Peter invites these Gentiles in to be his guests, something he would have never done before. And so, Peter begins to open up, to accept, and to take these men in. Peter is supposed to get this message: people that you have formerly regarded as common and unclean and separated from your fellowship are not to be viewed that way. Go with these men. All can be God’s people.

Peter had been raised within the strict barriers of Judaism, and it was hard for him to think beyond those barriers. But the longer he lived with Jesus, and the more the Holy Spirit dwelt in him, the more suspicious Peter became of the barriers that separated Jews from the rest of the world. Peter was growing as a result of his walk with God. And as time went on Peter started to realize, through the prodding of the Holy Spirit, that if God is the Creator of all things, how could God play favourites?

And this is the same question we need to ask ourselves today, if God's mission of making disciples of all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is going to be carried out, what needs to change in us for his mission to move forward today, here and now? Peter and Cornelius were given visions to see the world differently. Are you and I seeing visions of the vastness of God's grace?

Are we growing in faith through our walk with Christ? What old prejudices is God breaking down in our lives as we walk with God? Whom have we come to know, love and respect as an equal, not as someone different, as a result of our faith in Christ? Are we growing as a result of our relationship with Jesus? Is our perception of God getting bigger and bigger the longer we study the Scriptures, come to church, and live out our faith in the world? Are we more accepting of others because of Jesus? What barriers are we breaking down as God’s people? Let’s think about these important questions this week as we go about our lives as followers of Christ.

Let us Pray:

Heavenly Father, please help us see our prejudices. Cleanse us from it, so that we, like Peter, may be responsive to the teaching of the Spirit, and offer the love of Jesus to those whom we might not naturally be inclined to like or who are different from us. Help us break down our barriers. As you have accepted me, help me accept others.  In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen

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