“Living in a Small World”
In the book of Acts, one of the main points of the text is how the message of Christ spread to different groups of people. It is the story of how our world was becoming a smaller place. God was demonstrating to the disciples that people everywhere mattered.
Apollo 14 astronaut, Edgar Mitchell after being on the moon once said “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you s## o# a b####“
Now I think it is true that America does matters. Trump is still rattling on about Making America Great Again. We could certainly do without skyrocketing prices, inadequate wages, unaffordable housing, horrific health care cost, and crippling gas and food cost. We could do without supply chain disruptions because we have made ourselves reliant upon China, but we also live in a world that God and history has shown us cannot be long ignored, except without paying a terrible price. We need to be careful stewards of our environment because there are enough people in the world to alter our ability to survive. We must care about how nations treat people and respond to pointless aggressive actions. If Russia is not met with strong resistance what will their reign of destruction, death and totalitarian rule become? Surely Nazi Germany has taught us something about that. Russia is not fighting the Nazis, they have become the Nazis. We must have compassion for those knocking at the door of our nation, and searching for a better life. Our world is a small world and people matter. Everyone needs to know that there is salvation in Christ. This movement toward a global outreach of truth and hope found in Christ began in Acts.
If you think about it, they were an unlikely pair — Peter and Cornelius. Peter was well for lack of a better word Jewish. His world was about his faith and religious law. He was a child steeped in the teachings of the sacred stories of prophets, scriptures, covenants, kings and God’s promised land. He followed the Jewish way of life, adhering to dietary laws and religious rituals and customs. As a nation many of the people waited for a messiah –Someone to restore the old order of sovereignty and worship. Someone to drive out the Romans. Peter knew that God’s answer had been made known in Jesus, and God had sent him out to share the good news. To this end, Peter became the house guest of Simon the tanner.
A tanner was the occupation of preparing hides and turning them into leather. I will not go into what that process entailed, but the solutions a tanner used were unpleasant. In fact, they were so bad that people tended to shun people who practiced this trade, because even away from their trade they still carried the stench of their work. So, a tanner was not an upscale, upwardly mobile profession. The house Peter was staying in probably wasn’t poor, but Peter wasn’t living in the rich part of town either. He was among the common class of people, or maybe a bit lower.
Cornelius on the other hand was an officer in the Roman Army. He lived in Caesarea an urban center built by Herod the Great and named after Caesar. It was an important center of Roman rule and administration. The scriptures tell us that Cornelius was a centurion of the Italian Cohort. A quick review suggest that this cohort was composed of about 600 men largely from Italy, and a centurion was in charge of around 100 men. Their duty was to police the city and keep order. Cornelius made a respectable living, and the scriptures also note his acts of charity and kindness. He had enough to share.
So, Peter was a Jew following his faith and living with the most common people, and Cornelius was an Italian, a well-off outsider of position and rank -a gentile. Cornelius probably knew the pleasure of a few slices of bacon for the morning meal, and he had soldiers and slaves to carry out his wishes. He and Peter were different in so many ways, that their paths were not likely to ever cross; unless if Cornelius ever had reason to arrest Peter and take him jail. He probably was not someone Peter would have cared to become acquainted with.
However, they did have a couple of things in common: a sincere faith in God, and God took an interest in both. Cornelius found favor in God’s sight for he was “…a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” Cornelius was someone who truly wanted to know and serve God more. This was like Peter. Each would seek to honor and love the one God and love one’s neighbor.
Thus, as Cornelius sincerely prayed to God, God called upon Peter to prepare him for going to see Cornelius. Peter was on the roof top of Simon the Tanner’s house at noontime; waiting for lunch to be prepared. He takes a moment for prayer and meditation. The cooler breeze was blowing in off the Mediterranean Ocean. Probably dissipating the stench of the tanning process. He was hungry and waiting for lunch; then Peter saw lowered before him a great sheet, like a sail, supported at four corners. Like a great ship it landed before Peter, and it was just filled with squid, snails, lizards, snakes, pigs, vultures and animals of prey. If you look in Leviticus and Deuteronomy you can find a lists of what is and isn’t on the menu for Peter, and what Peter was looking at were things considered unclean, and a sin to eat.
When I was young, I remember that I didn’t like eating new things. Probably that is common for most children. Now days I have moved on. I am open to trying new things. Somethings I like and others well… That is how my wife talked me into trying escargot, calamari, and oysters on the half shell. You do know what those foods are don’t you –snails, squid, and well sort of a slimy shellfish. If you have a taste for such, to begin with I apologize, because I must ask, “Why would anybody really want to eat that stuff.” It reminds me of Peter’s story. Peter must have thought it was some type of a test. God says Peter get up, kill, and eat. Here he was hungry, and God seems to be tempting him to kill and eat these unclean foods. “Lord, never have these unclean foods passed my lips.” Maybe I am hungry, but I am not that hungry. I can wait.
God continued to direct Peter to rise, kill, and eat and each time Peter hesitates, and each time God’s message was, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Three times this vision and voice came to Peter. What did this vision and word mean? Lord just give me a little lamb stew, or a bit of chicken on some pita bread; maybe a few olives, some cheese, and a glass of wine. I think I will leave the rattlesnake steaks and vulture drumsticks for another day. My mama’s matzo ball soup is good enough for me. Suddenly the whole thing was taken back up into heaven.
Still indelibly the words of the Lord are now inscribed into Peter’s heart and mind. “What God has made clean; you must not call profane.” “What God has made clean; you must not call profane.” “What God has made clean; you must not call profane.”
As Peter ended his prayers, and was still thinking about this vision, Cornelius’ people were just completing their 30-mile trek from Caesarea to Joppa to look for Peter. God gave Peter still another push and told him, “These three men are looking for you. Go without hesitation. I have sent them.” Peter is not being nudged here. He is being kicked out the door, and then suddenly this unlikely meeting between a good but rather poor Jew, and an important officer in the Roman army from a significant city takes place. I must wonder what they initially thought about each other, and how Peter was processing God word to him concerning the importance of every person.
Peter seems like the reluctant apostle. If you read the whole story in Acts, twice he asks why they sent for him, and twice the question is answered. Then when he gets back to those who held tightly to the separation between Jews and Gentiles, who separated out life between those who are circumcised and those who are not, he is so criticized for his actions that Peter has to go to Jerusalem and explain for a third time why he went and what became of his visit to Cornelius.
In a vision God revealed to me that he “shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Peter preached and those who heard believed and were baptized. The gift of life and grace was being poured out upon not just the Jews, but upon all who love God and live according to what is right. A strict adherence to Jewish law is not a prerequisite to salvation. Cornelius, and all of his relatives and close friends experienced their own Pentecostal moment, and the church got a whole lot bigger that day. God brought Peter together with Cornelius, and those present became disciples as they learned about who Jesus is and what Jesus’ life meant for even them. The Roman Officer began to name a Jewish man who died on a Roman cross as his Lord and Savior. If you think about it, you must admit there is a certain absurdity in that. They were an unlikely pair, Peter and Cornelius, but how wonderful, and what joy there is in realizing that God is speaking to us all. Everyone counts. Our world is an “us,” and not a “me and them.”
You just have to like this story. It reminds us that at the cross God did not leave anyone on the outside, but Jesus died for all. Everyone who hears and believes in the message with a humble heart can know the transforming power of the Holy Spirit within his or her own life. All may be saved.
Cornelius’ story is about the beginning of how the message of Jesus Christ was given to the non-Jewish world. It was the beginning of how that message was going to spread throughout the entire Roman Empire and down through the years of history; even until it intersected with your life today. Quite possibly you are a Christian today, because God opened the doors of a Jewish man to hear the request of a gentile visitor and a gentile man gladly received that Jewish man into his house. Peter was sent to Cornelius and that made all the difference.
Cultural backgrounds, social economic status, how rich or poor you are, who you know, these things are secondary to how much God loves even you. In this is the mystery of how God connects us to Godself and to one another. In this is the mystery of church growth. It is the calling to take the message of Christ to all the world and consider the needs of every person. As we live our lives and even consider our politics, let us remember how small God has made our world, and that all who call upon God with a sincere heart God considers acceptable and desires to give to each the gift of life eternal through Christ who changes all things. Perhaps this is seeing the world from enough distance that we realize both how small and yet how important we truly are. We are seeing the world from God’s perspective.
If you live within that nature and power found within Christ, then you are indeed blessed and will discover many blessings to share. Amen.