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God is Bigger – Acts 10

Date: 02/08/2020/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

*50 days after Jesus’ resurrection, the followers of Jesus gathered and witnessed a miracle – “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” That was Pentecost.

*But did you know that something similar happened again?
Type the answer into the Q&A if you know the answer.

Today, I want to do things a little differently. We know that this online service can get a bit boring and unengaging.

So today I want to invite you to participate – instead of just listening to me preach, I want you to imagine that you are present there in the story, and I want you to think about what is going through each characters’ mind. I would also be asking questions about what you think and how you feel – I hope in doing so, we can think about how this passage applies to us today.

One thing to note is that the streaming of the service lags by about 30 seconds. When you type your answers into the Q&A, I would be further ahead in my sermon. I cannot be waiting 30 seconds for the answers to come in, so I have written this sermon with that in mind, so I would circle back so I can read your answers and address them. (like by this time, I would be able to see your answers to my question earlier about another occasion where something similar to the Pentecost happened)

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*So where did something like the Pentecost happen again? It happened in Acts 10, when Peter met Cornelius, when the Holy Spirit came on all who heard Peter’s message – including the Gentiles – Cornelius, his close friends and family. They spoke in tongues and praised God.

But let’s start from the beginning of Acts 10.

*In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.

Who was this Cornelius? Someone with status and privilege in society. Yet he was a devout man who feared God and gave alms and prayed constantly to God. Why? What about this God that draws him?

*What about you, yes – you in the here and now? What is it about God that draws you? I invite you to share your answers in Q&A.

Cornelius did not just pray to God, he also took action. He gave generously to the poor, living out his values and his faith. Perhaps it is because this God resonates with his values. The God of Jesus is about love, about mercy, about justice, about taking care of the least among us. This God is different from the other gods the Romans worshipped then. This God reveals a world different from the Roman empire that is all about power, domination, exploitation, and inequality.

For me, I follow God – because God is about love. God is love demonstrated by Christ – whose power does not come from domination, but instead power that comes from humility, service and vulnerability. Jesus treated his followers as friends, not as subjects. Jesus knelt before his disciples and washed their feet and commanded them, and us, to “love each other as I have loved you.”

So what about you?

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Then what happens to Cornelius?

Acts 10:3

*One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4 He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.

*5 Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6 he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8 and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.

*Why did the angel appear to Cornelius? Are you surprised?

Because of his prayers and his alms. Not because of his social status or his Roman citizenship, his gender identity or his sexual orientation. Prayer and alms.

And how do these translate to us in 2020?

Today it is our spiritual journeys, our spiritual growth AND our participation in taking care of the least among us. It is working on ourselves to be more and more Christ-like, more and more in the likeness of God, not just carrying the image of God – but also the qualities of God – loving, merciful, patient, just. It is about how we “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8)

Does it surprise you that an angel appeared to Cornelius?

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Reading the passage today, we may take it at face value, but if we put ourselves in that time, we would be outraged and shocked. How can an angel appear to someone who is a Gentile, someone who is not one of us? It would be as shocking to them as an angel appearing to a non-Christian to us. God is bigger than we think.

Now, we turn to Peter in Acts 10:9-16

*About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance.

*11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

*14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

*Can you imagine Peter, who has been brought up as a Jew, observing the Jewish dietary laws all his life, reacting to this vision? I think a useful comparison to understand this is to think about our Muslim friends who observe dietary laws as well – and how they would react to being told to break their dietary laws and eat something that is haram and not halal.

When Peter heard “Get up Peter, kill and eat” all these animals that are considered unclean, he protested. “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Peter said No to the voice. I can even picture Peter saying “But the Torah clearly says these animals are unclean!”

Peter grew up being taught those animals were unclean – and we can imagine the kind of revulsion he had when told, “get up, kill and eat.” These animals are described as “detestable,” Jews become unclean, “defiling” themselves if they eat them. It is not just something they cannot eat – it defiles them and makes them unclean when they eat them. It is all in the Scriptures!

This may be why the vision has to be repeated 3 times – God needed to repeat it for Peter to get it. Peter is not known for getting things the first time round –after all Jesus asked him “Do you love me?” three times.

Did Peter agree with the vision? What was Peter’s reaction? Peter was greatly puzzled by the vision –

*17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. 18 They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there.

*19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three[a] men are searching for you. 20 Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” 21 So Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?”

*22 They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So Peter[b] invited them in and gave them lodging.

*Immediately after the vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrived. Why do you think God send this vision to Peter instead of telling him directly to go to Cornelius?

While you type your answers, I want to tell you about the dietary laws in Leviticus 11.

The Jews had certain beliefs about the order of the world.

Things, including animals, were considered clean or unclean according to whether they “fit” into the order of the world. They believe in strict categories – and mixing things – be it mixing different materials in one’s garments, or different plants in the same field were considered wrong.

So animals also have to fit into this order. Animals with divided hooves are supposed to chew their cud – meaning they need to regurgitate their food to chew again to digest the food. Rabbits and pigs were considered “detestable” because their hooves and how they digested food didn’t fit this order.

Shrimp and turtles were “detestable” because they lived in water, but didn’t have fins and scales (didn’t look like fish). Eagles and owls were “detestable” because, unlike other birds that ate seeds or fruit, these birds ate other animals. Vultures were “detestable” because they ate carrion.

Eating unclean animals — or even touching them — could “defile” a Jew. It isn’t accurate to say that eating unclean animals was a “sin” in a moral sense; no one was harmed by such a deed. But diet was regarded as a fundamental way to honor the cosmic order as the Hebrew people understood it, and to eat foods that were “out of order” put a person “out of order.” It rendered them ritually unclean, meaning that they could not fulfill other religious obligations until they “cleansed” themselves.

Peter was greatly puzzled by what to make of the vision. Is God telling him that God is changing the rules? Or were these animals always clean, and they were wrong about them being unclean and even detestable?

And then right after the vision, the Spirit says to Peter, that the Spirit has sent 3 Gentiles to search for him. Go down and go with them without hesitation the Spirit says.

These men are also considered unclean – they were Gentiles. What is God trying to say to Peter?

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So why did God send this vision to Peter instead of telling him directly to go to Cornelius?

God is opening Peter’s eyes to see that God is bigger than what he has been taught – far bigger and far more inclusive.

The vision was to change Peter’s perception of the Gentiles. The vision challenges Peter’s way of seeing things as clean and unclean. It prepares Peter for his meeting with Cornelius, to welcome the Gentiles into the early church.

I can imagine Peter saying, “The Torah clearly says these animals are unclean! They are abominable! Detestable! Could I be wrong? Could God be doing a new thing?”

*The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers[c] from Joppa accompanied him. 24 The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.

25 On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. 26 But Peter made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.” 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28

and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?”

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the believers from Joppa who accompanied Peter – How do you think they felt about what Peter said? Type your thoughts in the Q&A chat.

What do you think was on their mind? Keep in mind – they may not have any idea about the vision that Peter had.

Peter, on the other hand, has arrived at his own conclusions after wrestling several days – from the time he received the vision to arriving at Cornelius doorstep.

He expanded his vision about not calling any animal profane or unclean to also include not calling any person profane or unclean. He allowed God to open his eyes to see that God is far bigger and far more inclusive than what the Scriptures taught.

He allowed his experience – this vision that he had – to trump over the Scriptures, and what he had been taught about what is clean and unclean all his life.

But what about the believers from Joppa?

We don’t know what they thought, because it wasn’t said in the text, but we can make some guesses.

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Then Cornelius tells Peter his own experience.

30 Cornelius replied, “Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. 31 He said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God.

32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ 33 Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”
34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.

Wow. We may not be shocked at what Peter is saying, but the other believers would certainly have some reaction.

I can imagine them saying “Peter, what are you saying? That God shows no partiality? Where in the Scriptures can you find that?
Because in our Scriptures God shows a lot of partiality. Yes, Peter was sharing the Gospel with the Gentiles, but the Gospel was always the good news for us, the Jews.

Now Peter is saying the story includes the Gentiles, these unclean people, and just the way they are? Peter is crazy! Peter is possessed by Satan!”

How do you think the story ends?

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.

Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

How do you think the believers who thought Peter was crazy, that Peter didn’t have any scriptural basis to say that God shows no partiality think now?

They are witnesses right here to a miracle – the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles.

Not only did it break the rules, it also changes their understanding of how the Spirit works – first you baptize with water, then you become open to the Holy Spirit. But here, here it is the reverse! ! God surprises us all the time – God is bigger than what we can imagine. The Holy Spirit first descended on these people they thought were unclean even before they were baptized! The Holy Spirit filled them even just as they were, without having to become Jewish first!

Wow.

What does this mean to us today?

God is far bigger than what we think.
And sometimes we must move beyond what the Bible, the Scripture says and see what God is doing around us.

God could easily have revealed the Gospel to Cornelius through the angel. But what would have happened then? There would be two Churches – one of the Jews, and one of the Gentiles.

God brought Peter and Cornelius together because this new thing that God is doing is about drawing the circle wider, and not about drawing more circles.

Peter had to go from Joppa to Caesarea, but the greater distance he travelled was within himself – from seeing the Gentiles as unclean and the Other to welcoming them as part of the Church and the family of God; from all he had been taught of the Torah, to embracing this bigger God that is radically inclusive.

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We find ourselves in the intersection of Christians and the LGBTQ and LGBTQ affirming people. We are Peter, and we are called bring the believers and the Gentiles together. And then go beyond that – to bring different people together – the LGBTQ and the straight, the privileged and the marginalized, the ones who are in the circle and the ones who are outside the circle – because this is what FCC is about.

FREE. First Realise Everyone’s Equal. It is about us working to build bridges, build community, to learn to love one another regardless. Regardless of who you identify as. Regardless of where you come from. Regardless of your race, your background, your gender identity, your sexual orientation, your race, your educational level, your physical attributes. Regardless of all the ways we divide and separate ourselves.

LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.

We will chart a different path – not one that sees people who call LGBTQ folks agents of Satan as our enemy, but a sibling. We will continue to speak the truths of our lives without denying the truths of other people’s lives. We will do all this, as best as we can, as harmless as doves.

This is what it means to be grow to become more and more Christ-like, more and more in the likeness of God. This is what “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” means (Micah 6:8)

May we allow God to use us to do new things. May our eyes be open to see that God is bigger than what we can imagine.

Amen