There’s Room for Cornelius

Acts 10:1-28

 

Last Sunday was kind of a busy one.  We had our usual Sunday morning services.

And then, as we often do, Kelley and the boys and I went out to lunch.  Following that, she was planning on taking the boys swimming with some friends.

I was unable to go, because I had church council meeting later that afternoon.

Of course, we also had the start to our Bible study on the Parable of the Prodigal Son—misnamed as it is—during our evening services.

But in the midst of it all, I had something on my priority list.  There was one thing I was determined to do that afternoon.

In between commitments, I watched soccer.  The United States was in the finals of the Gold Cup against Panama.  So, from 3:00 ‘til church council, I watched soccer.

 

Now, if you would have told me twenty years ago that I’d be making a point to watch such an event, I would have laughed in your face.

The same would probably be true during my time in college, and maybe even as little as ten years ago.  I just wasn’t into soccer.

In fact, I didn’t like it at all.  I thought it was a rather ridiculous sport, and I even went to efforts to ridicule it.

I had friends who played it regularly and seriously.  Often I would, as tactfully as I could, point out how the sport paled in comparison to football, baseball, and basketball.  I also pointed out how it would never catch on in America.

 

Why did I feel this way?  I had reasons, which I was happy to share.  It seemed boring.  These players would run for hours and never score.

Furthermore, they fell down all the time, it seemed.  Beyond that, the time moved forward, rather than counting down.  That made no sense to me.

There were rules that also made no sense to me.  Because the sport was more popular outside the U.S., the lingo escaped me from time to time.

And I could go on and on.  But do you want to know the real reason I didn’t like it?

It was because I had never played it.  My lack of experience made me no good at it.

Furthermore, I didn’t understand any of the nuances of the game.  Just like with most humans, I tossed soccer to the curb because it wasn’t the way I’d do things.

 

Slowly, however, a shift began in the way I viewed soccer.  It began when I was introduced to the World Cup.

If you don’t know about the World Cup, that is the ultimate worldwide soccer event, a tournament that comes about every four years.

Though the U.S. wasn’t all that good, I found myself rooting for them with all my might.  I get that way around the Olympics as well.

I’m almost ashamed to admit how animated I got while watching the Americans face Canada in the ever-popular event known as curling during the last Winter Olympics.

If you don’t know what curling entails, let me just say that you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.  But these types of major events get me fired up for my team.

So I learned about curling.  And, during the World Cups, I began to learn about soccer.  I shifted even more favorably toward soccer early in our marriage.

Kelley’s brother, Michael—whom many of you know, moved in with us for nearly two years.  He played regularly.  He had soccer video games.

He taught me various rules and nuances.  But my transformation regarding soccer became complete about three years ago.

That’s when my son, Andrew, took up the sport.

 

Now, you know what it’s like when your kids become interested in something.  I began to coach his teams.  It was easy in the first years.

At that young age, all you really can do in soccer is teach them which direction to kick the ball.  That, in my limited soccer knowledge, I could do.

But Andrew has gotten quite good.  Beyond that, he will be in the 9-10 year-old group this year.  I’m having to learn on the fly.

I’ve started enlisting help from soccer players at ETBU.  I’m watching more and more soccer on TV, trying to understand formations and rules.

Eventually, we got to the point where I carved out a couple hours on a Sunday afternoon to watch a soccer match.

 

So what does that have to do with anything God-or-church-or-Bible-related today?

Well, let me start by saying this.  There’s nothing wrong with soccer.  In fact, it’s pretty cool.  Go watch a professional match sometime.

The things these players can do with their feet—I don’t even know if I could move that quickly and nimbly while carrying a ball, much less kicking it.

I had just built up a judgment in my head.  I allowed myself to become narrow-minded.  I refused to open my eyes to another alternative.

And, if you know your Bible, God’s people—and really humans in general—have always been prone this type of pitfall.

And they don’t merely have this closed-mindedness towards inanimate objects or concepts—such as soccer.  They have it toward people as well.

 

One of the NT themes of the gospel message is that, in Christ—as we read a moment ago—there is no east or west.  There is no male or female, no black or white.

And even the earliest followers of Jesus Christ had to learn this.  So, in looking at those early followers, we turn to the book of Acts this morning.

I’ll be in chapter ten, and I invite you to join me there.  Here we will read about a well-known disciple, Peter, and his encounter with a man named Cornelius.

I hope we’ll learn a valuable lesson as well.  Let’s begin with the first verse of chapter ten.  You look along as I read.  (Read Acts 10:1-2.)

 

So here we have Cornelius.  He seems like a good man, except…he’s not a Jew.  So what do we know about him?  Firstly, he’s a Roman military leader.

As you might expect, there’s a certain stereotype that would go with that particular position.  It might be assumed that he would be brutal and harsh.

It might be assumed that he would be godless and merciless.  It might be assumed that the only authority in his life would be Rome, and Rome alone.

And yet, we read that he feared God.  This man was by all accounts a Gentile—a Roman military man who lived in Caesarea, a highly Gentile area.

And yet, once again, we read that he feared God—with a “capital G”.  He was a devout man—deeply committed in a religious sense.

Commentator David Peterson states that, “There were many Gentiles in the first century…who frequented synagogues and sought to live as much as they could by Jewish law.”  This may well have been the case with Cornelius.

But was his religious observance a bunch of hot air, as we might have seen with the Pharisees?  That question is answered in the rest of verse two.

His whole household feared God, presumably because of the leadership of Cornelius.

He gave to the poor.  And it wasn’t just to any poor—it was to the Jewish folks who were poor!  Finally, he prayed continually.

Paul wrote, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, a command to pray without ceasing.  This is no empty religion on display within Cornelius.

This was a man who knew God, sought Him, and served Him through his actions.

 

And, as we will read next, he found God.  Or, rather, through an angelic messenger God found Cornelius.  Look at verse 3.  (Read Acts 10:3-8.)

So God sends a message…to a foreigner, no less!  This would have been big news, for the Jews tended to believe that God was the God of the Jews exclusively.

And notice how Luke, the author of Acts, gives specifics in regards to this vision.

Notice that it was the ninth hour of the day, which is roughly 3 pm.  Furthermore, notice how Luke writes that Cornelius clearly saw this angel.

This lends believability to the story.  Many Jews would likely be reading Luke’s account.  With these details, it could be that he is attempting to drive home the point that, yes, God really did appear to a Gentile.

 

And notice a couple of other details in this account.  First of all, Cornelius fixed his eyes on the messenger and said, “What is it, Lord?”

Immediately, he recognized that this was a message from God.  Too often, even the insiders of the faith fail to recognize God in their midst.

This was certainly not the case with Cornelius.  Moreover, look at the message to Cornelius.  God has noticed his prayers and generosity to the poor.

I found it curious that, when those two things were mentioned in describing Cornelius earlier, they were reversed.

Luke wrote that he gave to the poor and prayed continually.  I wonder if this might be a bit more convincing for Jewish readers.

Obviously, they would find it very attractive that this Gentile, Cornelius, had been favorable and hospitable to Jews in their need.

 

The angel of God, however, puts the prayers of Cornelius first on the list.  Could that be because God values the relationship more than the acts of service?

We see time and again in scripture that God detests the sacrifices and offerings of His people.  What He desires more than good religious deeds is obedience.

That’s what defines our relationship with God.  He is the Master, and we are the servants.  Therefore, obedience is not some sort of religious obligation.

It’s the fleshing out of our relationship with God.  Cornelius prayed to God, and God listened.  What’s more, part of prayer is listening to God when He speaks.

Cornelius did this as well.  God commands him to send for Peter, and Cornelius doesn’t hesitate.  Once that angel leaves, we read, he summons his servants.

He explains everything to them, and off they go to Joppa to find Peter.

 

Peter’s part in this drama begins with verse nine.  (Read Acts 10:9-16.)  Meanwhile, back in “Jewish-ville”, we might say.

You see, God is at work in both places—with the Jews and the non-Jews.  I love that song we heard earlier, All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.

I love that line, “Let every kindred, every tribe on this terrestrial ball.”  That’s a fancy way to refer to the earth.  It had to be done in order to rhyme with “all”.

“Let every kindred, every tribe on this terrestrial ball to Him all majesty ascribe and crown Him Lord of all.”  He’s the Lord of all of them—every kind and tribe.

 

And what do we find Peter doing in these verses?  He is heading up to the roof to pray, around noontime.  Notice that he has the same priorities as Cornelius.

Cornelius, a foreigner to the nation of Israel and their relationship to God, is a praying man just as Peter is—the same Peter who walked with Jesus.

Now, being that it is the lunch hour, Peter becomes hungry.  It is then that God’s vision comes.  It’s a large sheet coming down from the sky.

On the sheet are all types of animals.  This sight is accompanied by a voice instructing Peter to get up, kill, and eat.

You see, sometimes God meets you right where you are.  I love how Luke tells us about Peter’s hunger, and then God provides food—almost immediately.

You know how it is at times when we are hungry.  All we can think about is food.

Never, ever go grocery shopping when you are hungry.  Everything looks good!

So, what we see here is God speaking Peter’s language.  His message to Peter isn’t primarily about food, but that might be what is most understandable right now.

 

On the sheet are all kinds of animals, according the scripture—even reptiles.  This will cause the studious OT scholar to look back to Leviticus, chapter 11.

In that chapter, various kinds of animals are deemed to be unclean for eating and even for physical contact.  Reptiles are on this list, along with pigs and rabbits.

Various sea creatures and birds are also on this list.  The same is true with insects.

My favorite animals on the list are the shaphan and the hoopoe.  I have no idea what they are, but I think it would be cool to own one.

I imagine introducing someone to my pet, “This is Harry the Hoopoe.”  In any case, getting back to our Acts passage, it says that all kinds of creatures were available.

This means that certain condemned—or unclean—animals were there.

 

Now, Peter recognizes two things.  First of all, he recognizes that to eat some of these animals would be in violation of the law in Leviticus.

He knows his law and his OT.  He rejects eating such things.  However, notice a specific detail in his response to this voice.

He says, “By no means, Lord.”  Peter also recognizes the voice!  He is speaking with God.  And this is an important point.

God’s spoken word always trumps ink on pages.  Consider Mark, chapter seven, verses 18 and 19 for an example.  Jesus says this:

“Are you lacking in understanding also?  Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?”

Mark then adds this bit of commentary:  “Thus He declared all foods clean.”

Jesus is not rejecting God’s law or nullifying it.  Rather, He is ushering in a new era and a new kingdom—one sustained by the Holy Spirit and ruled by the soon-to-return Christ.  All the law existed only to point people to their need for Jesus.

Now that Jesus has come, people ought to stop looking at the signposts.  They need to look at the Savior.  God’s revelation through Jesus is utmost and foremost.

 

Getting back to our Acts passage, Luke writes that God triply drives the point home, causing the sheet to descend three times.

Clearly this is a message and a lesson that God wants ingrained in Peter’s mind and heart.  But is it all about food?  As you might have guessed, it is not.

But we have to be careful about allowing our present circumstances to distract us from the bigger picture.

Peter’s present circumstance was hunger; therefore he may have been tempted to assume that God was merely declaring all foods clean now.

But there’s more to the story.  There’s more for Peter to sort out.  So let’s pick our reading back up, beginning with verse 17.  (Read Acts 10:17-23a.)

 

So now the worlds collide.  Cornelius’ obedience enlightens Peter’s vision.  First of all, we see Peter doing a very important thing.

Verse 17 says he was perplexed as to what the vision might have been all about.

He’s left to wonder the greater meaning—the answer behind the answer, so to speak.  In the meantime, the men from Cornelius come to visit.

But before we get to them, take a look at Peter in verse 19.  The passage says that he was reflecting on the vision.  You see, Cornelius’ vision was specific.

Go to Peter.  Send for him to come to you.  Peter’s vision was much more mysterious.

So he takes time to reflect.  Do we ever do that?  Do we ever pause to reflect on what God has said to us—on whether or not He has said anything at all?

 

The men come to the door, and God helps Peter connect the dots.  Notice that, as Peter is trying to discern the meaning of the vision, God doesn’t give it to him.

Instead, He tells Peter to go meet these visitors, for He is the One who sent them.

What we see here is God testing Peter.  He wants an explanation, but all God gives Him is a command to follow.

How often do we want the answers to life’s great mysteries?  And, instead of giving them to us, God gives us a new step of obedience.

Answers may well come, but they will come according to His timing, for He knows best.  He knows the best time for us and our circumstances.

 

So Peter willingly embraces God’s plan and command.  He is in process.  The dots aren’t all connected, but He is connected to God.

Therefore, He’s on the right track.  I wonder how often we miss these connections.

God speaks to us—and He does it in so many different ways, even speaking our language—but we aren’t listening

Or, perhaps, unlike Peter, we aren’t reflecting.  We aren’t asking God to help connect the dots.  We aren’t stopping to pray.

Peter doesn’t know all the answers at this point, but He knows and trusts in the One who does know.  So, just as Cornelius obeyed, so does Peter.

At the command of God, he makes himself available to these men, who just so happened to be sent by God.

 

Our scene shifts again as we pick up the reading with the rest of verse 23.  (Read Acts 23b-28.)  So Peter heads to foreign soil.

You know, sometimes that’s the best place you can be.  Jesus came to foreign soil for us.  Often, to see things as Jesus did, we must do the same thing.

Peter walks into Cornelius’ house, and Cornelius immediately falls at Peter’s feet, practically worshipping him.

Whatever was right about Cornelius’ spirituality and relationship to God, clearly we see a need for discipleship here.

Peter corrects him.  You see, Cornelius needs the help of community.  We all need it.

We all need discipleship.  We all may have our own relationship with God, but we cannot grow in that relationship without a discipleship community.

Cornelius was on the right track, but he needed Peter’s help.  Likewise, some of you in here might be on the right track, but you need the church’s help.

And I’m not talking about coming to more worship services.  I’m talking about plugging in, coming to Sunday School, praying together, et cetera.

 

Now let’s turn to Peter.  At this point, he connects his vision to his mission.  It’s all starting to make sense.  Notice his words in verse 28.

God has shown Peter that he should not declare anyone unclean.  The voice in the vision said “anything”.  But now Peter has made the transition.  He gets it.

Just as God had now declared all foods clean, He is now declaring His kingdom open to all peoples, all races, and all nations.

Peter has understood as much.  In reading verse 34, He declares that God shows no favoritism, no partiality.

 

But do we?  Do we show favoritism or partiality?  We easily fall into that trap, especially when we are rarely around anyone unlike ourselves.

God, the only perfect One there ever was or will be, shows no favoritism.  If anyone could, God could.  What He says, goes.  But He does not.  So how dare we?

Here’s how we get on that path.  You see, for Peter—and the Jews, in general—preconceived notions could easily take priority over God’s commands.

Do you remember the account of Jesus going up to the Feast in Jerusalem, found in the eleventh chapter of John?

His brothers, mostly in mocking fashion, urged Him to go up to the Festival and publicly announce His ministry and mission.

He told his brothers that they should go on up to the Festival, but He was not going to attend.  Then, sometime later, He actually went.

So what happened?  Did Jesus lie?  Or was Jesus simply telling His brothers that He would not operate on their timetable.  He would only operate on His Father’s.

He would go to the Festival when His Father said so, not when some set of rules or some convention of society said so.

 

Memorizing passages of scripture is an excellent, godly discipline.  But it’s more important to be in touch with and attuned to the God of the scriptures.

I think we show partiality because we don’t listen to God enough.  Peter and Cornelius both were praying.  Peter spent time reflecting.

In verse 28, Peter says, “And yet, God has shown me I should not call anyone unclean.”  In verse 34, he says, “I now see—or understand—that God is not one to show partiality.”

We need more of these “and yet” and “now I see” moments.  And God will provide them if we are a listening and reflecting people.

 

Have you been limiting God to what you thought you knew about Him?  Have you shut your ears to the “new song” He wants to teach you—to the new lesson about His nature, or the new experience He has in store for you?

Undiscipled believers such as Cornelius need these experiences with God.  Experienced Christians such as Peter need these experiences with God.

And we all need to accept this truth—if God commands it, it must be done.  It must be heeded.  For Jesus truly is Lord of all—each and every one of us.  (Pray.)

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