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Open to the new

January 26, 2014

“The savior of the heathen”Peter and Cornelius

Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”

The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.”  Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.

The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along.  The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.  As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence.  But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”

While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people.  He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.  So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”

Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me  and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor.  Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’  So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism  but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right”.

Acts 10:21-35

It is believed that Cornelius is the same Roman centurion of whom it is written in the Gospel of Matthew that we also have shared today.

Twice, once through Jesus and a second time through the Holy Spirit, the early church receives a clear and revealing message for that time:

Everyone is invited to be part of the kingdom of God. God announces his gospel to all nations. The invitation is universal; it is for all inhabitants of planet earth. Everyone can receive salvation. As Jesus says in the Gospel: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31) says the apostle.

Surely we have heard these words from the Bible more than once.

The message for today is challenging for the church and for every one of us. Back then, wanting to proclaim the word of God to people who did not belong to the people of Israel would have seemed crazy. The events that we just heard about broke with the traditional belief that God only manifested Himself to the people of Israel. Now the invitation for salvation was for everyone, even for those Romans who were considered not only as pagan, namely without faith in the God of Israel, but were also watched as enemies, as foreign people.

We often think that God is limited to our race, or our customs, or even our language, or that God lives only in our church. Or just in our Lutheran church or even that our Lutheran doctrine is the only holy and pure doctrine without error. We do not believe that we can find God in other churches that are not Lutheran even though they are Christian. This is a mistake; an error of faith.

The message for today is challenging because it wants to test our faith, and wants to test our faithfulness to God. What are we more faithful to – the doctrines and traditions of men or the Holy Spirit of God? It is a good question to ask on this day. The kind of blessing that we will receive from God can depend on how we respond to this question.

Even the apostle Peter was afraid to share the Gospel with those Romans. Not only did he have doubts about their honesty because Cornelius was a Roman and a potential enemy of the early church, but also because he came from another culture with other traditions and different ways of dealing with God. He was already a Christian but perhaps with a different way to praise (and sing) to God and with other forms of worship, what we would call liturgy today; in short he came from another culture. Surely that also weighed on the apostle Peter. While he was a man of God, an apostle and a preacher of the gospel, he was also a man that belonged to a people and had all the imperfections that any one may have. These human limitations were about avoiding evangelization towards these people and if followed would make it impossible. This stubbornness, which was also perhaps insecurity toward what’s new, leaves us unreceptive to God’s blessing. Many times God does not bless us because he cannot, did you know that?  You may wonder how it could be that God cannot bless us. Sure, he is willing and able, but we are the ones who are closed to the blessings of God when we do not obey Him. When we close ourselves and act to obtain what we think is best for our church and ourselves, without consulting it with God, we are not obeying God and God cannot pour out the fullness of the Holy Spirit as he would like to and want to.

It is important to understand what it is to obey God. We must be open and receptive to hearing the voice of God. You could ask, “How can we hear and know what God wants to tell us?” The first thing you need to do is to have a life of prayer. Without prayer God cannot speak. When we have a question, before deciding ourselves what we have to do, we have to ask God in prayer. I mean we have to pray. Pray and allow a little time to pass, and trust that God will speak to us. He will put thoughts and decisions firmly in our hearts. Pray that the Holy Spirit is manifested in our thoughts and in our decisions. That’s the first step we need to take.

This is what the apostle Peter did when he was challenged by the new ideas and events. He was faced with something new that broke with tradition, yet he was comfortable like this. Surely he must have thought: Please do not bring me new things. It’s as the saying goes: ‘better the devil you know than the one you don’t.’ It’s a feeling of ‘I’m comfortable with that’ and ‘I do not want to talk to these strange people.’ What does this roman want with our ancient customs? I do not want him to change us. We are well and do not want to change. Yet the Bible says that Peter began to pray (Acts 10:9) and God answered him, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15).

We have to take care not to label things that may not come from God as good with our words and wishes. Then we will be forced to wander as Peter did and declare with our own words that something is not pure even though it is pure and blessed by God.

Peter realizes through his prayer life that God has other plans in mind and that there are things that seem new to us or people that seem like outsiders to us. But they will be a great blessing for us as individuals and as churches. Let us be careful not to block the will and blessing of God with our human opinions, if we’ve not been praying a lot about what God would like us to do. Otherwise, we will not attract God’s blessing but rather a curse.

Peter, as a good Christian, realizes that he couldn’t go against the will of God, even though he had many things in his head that may have prevented him from accepting the new things and changes. The Roman who appeared before him represented everything new and strange for a son of the then ancient people of God. Peter says: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” and then adds in verse 36: “Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.”

And these words we interpret as meaning that Jesus is present everywhere; not only in the Lutheran churches, but in all denominations. And we can also be blessed by others who are not from our culture, our race, our traditions, our theologies, our doctrines or even our Christian confessions. God is a God of change. The Holy Spirit is God Himself: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8) The Holy Spirit is movement, is change. We need to be open to this change and renewal in life. To do so is to be open to the Spirit and to be especially open to obeying what the Spirit of God wants to show us.

Peter opened himself to what was new; this openness to the new allowed the Christian church to spread throughout the world through the apostles. If the early Christians had not had the ability to listen with humility and obedience to God’s voice, perhaps we would not enjoy the benefits of being part of God’s people today. Perhaps we would not have this faith in Christ and be considered God’s heirs. And how many more people could we reach for God if we remain open to changes with faith and a gentle, humble and obedient mind trained to God’s word!

I always imagine the number of people who could come to this church and listen to the preaching of the pastor and the testimony given by every one of us. Many people could get to hear the living word of God in this church and many could also start being a part of this community. Everything depends on us and whether we listen to what God speaks to us and what he tells us through the words of Peter: “God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”

May God look upon us with favor because we want to be obedient to Him and be guided to do things that will benefit our church and may we receive abundant, alive and renewed blessings through His Holy Spirit.

Let us pray: Lord Jesus, you are a God that moves, that constantly brings us messages that you want us to talk every day. Let us keep a prayer life that listens to you. Let us do your will and have the courage, as Peter did, to take such correct actions for the extension of your kingdom and to receive your blessing. Amen.

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