Summary: God’s call to embrace all people not exclude them

Freedom to eat, Freedom to meet, Freedom to speak

God’s call to Embrace not Exclude

Acts 10:1-34, 44-48

Introduction to Topic

There are many cultures in this world, with various distinctions. One distinction that we have is in the foods we enjoy eating. There are some foods which we all enjoy eating, but there are others which are almost taboo.

What is a delicacy in one part of the world, is not necessarily a delicacy in another. About 6 years ago I was in Indonesia on a missions tour. We were at a restaurant beside a lake where the only light was a few flickering lanterns and so you couldn’t see much of what you were eating. We were being treated to a great feast which included a chicken dish. As expected, in it were chicken’s feet - quite crunchy & quite a delicacy. The atmosphere was quite placid until one of our elderly leaders let loose with a casual “Oh its a head - I wondered why it was so hard.” Thinking he’d selected a lovely looking piece of meat, he tried to take a bite from it. Being like a rock, on further inspection, this lovely piece of meat was in fact the head, complete with beak and eyes.

Cultural differences and social differences have always been a barrier to the Gospel and probably always will be. Even such simple things as different foods.

Background to Acts & the growth of the Christian Church:

In the early church, cultural distinctions caused a great deal of controversy. One of these was to do specifically with food and in general, the place of Gentiles in the Christian Communtity. It is the subject in Acts Chapter 10 & 11, part of which was read to us before.

Acts is a great book and we are going to be looking fairly closely at chapters 10 & 11, so please take your Bibles and open them to Acts chapter 1 because that is where the whole story starts.

Unfortunately, sometimes I think we cheat the book of Acts out of a bit of its significance. If I were to ask many of you what Acts is about, you would probably tell me that it is about the early church. And you’d be right, but, I’d argue that you’ve missed the main point. The book is about the development or the growth of the early church. If you lose sight of the growth aspect, the book looses a lot of its excitement and application to us. Luke wrote a two volume book to document the events which led to the Christian church spreading throughout the Roman Empire.

The first volume is the gospel of Luke which starts by relating the life of Christ up unto his resurrection. Acts continues the story and is an account of the church’s growth in obedience to the Great Commission which is the first recorded event in Acts (Acts 1:8 you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”). The story of the church being Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth is the story contained in the following pages of Acts.

Here in Chapter 10, Luke tells of the gospel crossing this cultural barrier between Jews and Gentiles, between Jerusalem and the Nations - a barrier that had existed since the time of Moses. So let’s now have a look at what it has to tell us about our growing church.

The passage at hand:

This story has 2 main characters. In verse 1 of chapter 10, we meet the first, an

Earnest Enquirer (10:1-2) - Cornelius

Cornelius is his name. He’s a soldier in the Roman army at Caesarea and was a centurian in charge of over 100 men and a God fearer. It’s important to realise that in the Jewish mindset, there were 3 classes of people.

1. There were Jews - any Israelite. You could not become a real Jew other than by birth.

2. Proselytes were non-Jews who had adopted the Jewish religion and had gone through the initiation ceremonies of circumcision and baptism.

3. Everyone else, who were not initiated into the Jewish religion was a Gentiles and therefore pagan. Among these, however were God fearers, who may have worshipped God and prayed, but not been initiated and therefore not a Jewish proselytes.

This earnest enquirer was praying at about 3:00pm, a traditional hour of prayer when he received a miraculous message through a vision.

Miraculous Message (10:3-8) - Send for Peter

The message received was simple - that God had heard Cornelius’ prayers, was pleased with them, and that he should send for Peter to find out more. The words used in verse 4 concerning his prayers going up to God as a memorial are the same words as those used of God being pleased by men’s sacrifices in the Old Testament. - There was no difference in God’s eyes between a Godly Jew and a Godly Gentile.

Now this command given to Cornelius to send for Peter was a fairly radical command. You see, Jews had strict laws about what they could and could not eat and they dare not visit or associate with any Pagan, lest they be served some forbidden food. To eat with a Gentile, or even to eat their food was repulsive and would bring condemnation from the rest of the Jewish community in which they lived. We’ll talk about these laws a little bit more later.

So Cornelius may have been a bit sceptical as to whether Peter, a Jew, would come to a Gentile’s house - but that was the command.

Bottomless Belly (10:9-10)

Scene 2 and the story shifts to a bottomless belly about 50 km south of Caesarea in Joppa. The bottomless belly is that of Peter - the right hand man of Christ, the apostle, the leader of the early church and apparently a man who enjoyed his food. Peter was apparently touring round the believers of Judea encouraging and teaching them (Remember the Great commission - The Gospel has made it to Judea and Samaria). Chapter 9 tells us that he had been in Lydda where he had healed a paralysed man and was now in Joppa where he raised Dorcus back to life. In both instances, as a response to the miraculous events, many people came to know Christ and the church grew.

Well, on this particular day, Peter was praying at about 12:00 noon, but was hungry. Isn’t it always the way, that when we are trying to spend time with God, there are so many things to interrupt our thoughts. But this interruption was used by God in a special way. While some food was being prepared to fill the bottomless belly, Peter fell into a trance and had an encounter with God. In his vision, God provided food for hungry Peter. A sheet was lowered from heaven and it was filled with all types of animals, reptiles and birds. God offered them to Peter saying in verse 13 “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”.

This would have normally been a good thing for a man with a bottomless belly, but to poor Peter it was a repulsive request.

Repulsive Request (10:11-16)

It repulsed Peter, because apparently all the animals in the sheet were considered to be unclean by the Jews. Thus because he was a Jew of the highest standing as we see in verse 14 he refused the offer. I bet the request by God to eat something unclean shocked Peter, but not as much as what came next. God rebuked him in vs15 saying “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Peter was puzzled and shocked, because how could God call something clean which was obviously unclean.

To understand the dilemna Peter was in let’s quickly look at the food laws which prescribed what Jews could and couldn’t eat. These originated from the Old Testament law given to Moses.

The Jew’s had a belief that only clean things were acceptable to God and therefore the cleanliness of a person was important. Peter was puzzled because God was asking him to make himself unclean which would obviously make him unacceptable in God’s sight.

In the mosaic law (leviticus), there were several things that could make you uncleanliness

1. disease

2. bodily discharges

3. death & dead bodies

4. idolatry.

5. food

The fact that there was clean and unclean food was the basis of the dietary laws of Lev 11 & Deut 14. In essence, these laws listed food (with a particular focus on particular animals) which could or could not be eaten. Unclean animals included

• those that died of old age, disease or injury

• mammals that did not chew the cud and have split hooves (e.g. pig, rabbit, camels)

• fish that did not have fins and scales (e.g. all shellfish)

• birds that were scavengers or carnivores

• insects except those that hop (e.g. grasshoppers were okay so a locust lassagne would have been the go)

• crawling animals - those that crawl on their bellies (e.g. snakes, lizards, mice and weasels)

What about the New Testament?

By the time of the New Testament, many of the laws had lost their meaning and had become mere outward observance. Where as God gave guidelines which would guide the heart, the Jews imposed restrictions which bound the body.

Christ tended then, to redefine and correct these laws. For example, He took the law “you shall not murder” and said, this doesn’t just mean the outward physical act of killing someone, but also the inner heart attitude of anger and hate which wishes someone were dead. It is not the action as much as the moral attitude. Similarly when challenged about not keeping the food laws (Mk 7:1-23), Christ said “Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’”. The sign of a person being unclean before God was not what one put into the body (food and the like) but what comes out of the body (words, actions, attitudes).

What is the application for us ...

In the passage in Acts 10, the food laws are once and for all withdrawn by God. We do not have to worry about what we eat, because our cleanliness is not based on what we eat, but on the forgiveness achieved by Christ on the cross. Christ’s death is a far superior cleaning agent than any dietary laws.

Physical barriers which distinguish who is acceptable to God and who is not, just do not exist in God’s eyes. Where did the sheet in Peter’s vision come from? Heaven. If only clean things could approach God, that must mean that these animals were now clean in the eyes of God and by logical extension, so were Gentiles. God loves everyone, even Gentiles. God was saying to Peter, don’t worry about what you consider to be unclean or clean, I am happy to embrace these animals, why can’t you? He’s asking the same question of us He wants us to embrace all people.

Who have we excluded? We can look at the Jews and call them bigots or immature in their thinking, but I don’t think we are very different from them. In our own lives, there are definitely 2 types of people. We might not refer to them as clean and unclean, but we often refer to them as popular or unpopular; lovely or unlovely; acceptable or unacceptable. There are people in all of our lives which we have consciously decided that we want to avoid if we can help it. We all have our perception of what makes a person or a group of people acceptable and who we would not like to be seen associating with. And this is a barrier to us sharing the gospel to them. It may not be food which marks the difference between the lovely and unlovely.

- it may be education - they don’t speak good

- it may be economic status, that they don’t dress the same as us, or that they don’t live in the same suburb.

- it may be the colour of their skin - many people I find are not kindly disposed to Asians or Aboriginals and I think it is maybe because they don’t know too many of them.

- it may be personal hygiene - body odours, or their appearance, etc

- it may be a personality trait which we find embarrassing

- it may be a difference in religious belief.

- it may be that we live in Australia and they llive somewhere else - out of sight and out of mind.

We all know who it is that we have put in a little box and why. I wonder who God is laying on your heart now who you have excluded from your life. If God is prepared to welcome them, so should we. He want you to embrace that person with his love because just as Peter found out, God equally loves us and everyone else on this earth.

Back to the repulsive request - God repeated the command to eat 3 times. After the third request to eat, the vision ended leaving Peter perturbed. All he wanted was something to fill his bottomless belly and instead he got a repulsive request. At that instant there was a knock on the door and who should appear but Cornelius’ messengers. They brought the invitation to Peter, an appeal to come to Cornelius’ house and speak God’s word.

Suddenly, all the pieces fell into place for Peter. He realised that God was pleading with him to embrace all people, no matter what their background and culture. God loved them enough to die for them and wanted us to show this love. What God showed Peter in the vision was that he now had freedom to eat with Gentiles, freedom to meet with Gentiles and freedom to speak with Gentiles. There was no longer a barrier to embracing them as brothers in Christ.

Accepted Appeal (10:17-35)

Peter immediately accepted the appeal to go to Caesarea and share with them.. In vs 28 (28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection”)

The message Peter then shared openly proclaims that the gospel has no limits in its application. - It is for the Jews, most definitely, but it is also for the Gentiles (34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism 35 but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right). God has no favourites and Peter had no right to by favouritism to exclude anyone either. neither should those who call themselves Christians (James 2:1-4 says My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favouritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? ..... 9 But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.)

In the message Peter preached, Christ was clearly communicated, the Christ who died for all men and loves all men equally.

Christ Communicated (10:36-43)

Peter taught that anyone who believes in Jesus Christ can be forgiven (10:43).

The events of Acts 10 show the Gospel spreading from Judea and Samaria to the whole world. Cornelius was a Gentile and from those nations spoken about in the Great Commisison. God’s salvation is for all people, regardless of economic, social, political and racial boundaries. As John 3:16 says - for God so loved the world that he gave his only son.

Then a remarkable thing happened. It was a truly enlightening encounter which confirmed the lessons learnt.

Enlightening Encounter (10:44-48, 11:15-18)

The response of Cornelius and his household was acceptance of Christ and faith. This belief was confirmed by gifts of the Holy Spirit (44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God).

This was enlightening because it was a repeat of what happened at Pentecost. It was a Gentile Pentecost. Pentecost was the fulfilment of Christ’s promise which we read earlier in Acts 1:8. It was when the Holy Spirit was given to all believers as a sign of their acceptance by God. At Pentecost the crowd was made up only of Jews. Yes there were many languages present, but if you read 2:5-11, you will see that they were the native languages of Jews (or Jewish proselytes) who were living in other nations.

Now with Cornelius, the same gifts are given by God, but this time to the Gentiles. There was no favouritism in God’s action. Cornelius was accepted by God without becoming a Jew. This is great for us because probably we are all Gentiles and we are acceptable to God, just as much as the Jews.

The natural application for us is that if God welcomed Gentiles, or the unlovely, so should the Christian church. God wants to save all peoples in this world. That means the people we like and the people we dislike. We as the church of God have no right to judge who we share His love and His gospel with whether they be people in this congregation, people in this city or people in this world.

I asked before who you are are consciously excluding from your life. Just like the Great commission has three spheres of application - Jerusalem, Judea and the whole world. This question can also be asked of three spheres of our life as Christians.

Firstly - Jerusalem, represents where we feel at home, where we feel comfortable. As Christians we could say that the Jerusalem is in our own church. We are a friendly church, aren’t we - or are we? Does everyone that walks in this door feel as though they are welcomed as a friend and I don’t think just being shaken by the hand on the way in and out the door is enough. Who in this building now are you guilty of excluding from the “in-group”, the “lovely” group, your group.

The same question could be asked about our Judea and Samaria. They represent people in the same culture as us - Gladstonians, or or Australians, people at work or school, neighbours. Who have you not embraced with God’s love. Maybe you’ve thought they were beyond God’s love. Maybe they are just too unlovely or you don’t really get on with them. They are not too unlovely for God - He’s already died for them. What would it mean for them if we were to embrace them with God’s love.

Are we embracing the world? There are many people in the world who need to know about God.

Read “The Special Story of Miss Thompson”, Who Switched the Price Tags, Tony Campolo, p. 69

As Christians in God’s church we have freedom to eat, freedom to meet and freedom to speak to anyone and everyone. Just as Peter learnt in Act 10 that God desires us to embrace all people, regardless of their economic, political or social situation, God desires that we embrace all people with his love. Are we willing to obey God - or is this just another command that doesn’t apply to us.