But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Isaiah 43.1–2, 19
Last week, we heard of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch. We heard that the Spirit of Jesus led Philip to him; we heard that there was no reason for a eunuch not to be baptised. In other words, there was every reason for him to be baptised!
Today, we have heard the final act of another very important story in the Book of Acts. It’s the climax of the story of the conversion of Cornelius and his household.
The Ethiopian eunuch had an important position in his country, but he was also considered an inferior. Cornelius also had an important position; he was in charge of 100 Roman soldiers. But no one considered Cornelius to be at all inferior, because he was a Roman.
Luke wrote the Book of Acts with an eye towards Rome, and so he spends a lot more time on Cornelius than he did on the Ethiopian eunuch, whose name we don’t even know. (Have you noticed that?)
Cornelius was a seeker. He was searching for truth, and that search had led him to become a ‘God fearer’. God fearers were Gentiles who found the Jewish belief in one God and the Jewish ethical code to be very attractive, but they did not take the step of actually becoming Jews, with all the demands of the Jewish law that entailed.
So Acts tells us that Cornelius
was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.
It was while he was praying one day that God told him to fetch Peter to his house. Listen to what happened to Peter the very next day:
Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
Remember we said last week that the message was to go from Jerusalem to the countryside, to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth?
And remember we said that in Jerusalem, the disciples knew how things worked; but that things got very strange very quickly the further away from home they were?
Well, Peter is in strange territory. He has to feel his way. To put it better, he has to discern the way forward with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Peter had thought he knew how God works. In his vision, he declined the offer of unclean food because no one in Jerusalem would eat things like bacon sandwiches.
And Peter thought it was like that in Joppa too, where he was staying by the Mediterranean Sea. (And who wouldn’t stay there? It’s lovely!)
But Peter was to find that God was going to shake things up, just like he had with Philip when he told him to go to the Ethiopian eunuch.
So Peter goes to Cornelius, and tells him the good news about Jesus. Cornelius and his household believe, and the Spirit gives them the gift of tongues. This is proof to Peter and his friends that everything has changed. The Spirit’s seal of approval was upon the household of Cornelius.
And look at verse 48: ‘they invited [Peter] to stay for several days’. So Peter—who before now would not eat anything unclean—stayed in a Gentile house, eating Gentile food with Gentile cutlery and crockery. In Jerusalem, that would have made him unclean. Peter’s friends wouldn’t have let him enter their homes. But God had shown that he considers Cornelius and his people to be perfectly clean.
Friends, this is all about the Resurrection. Jesus died for all, and Jesus was raised to new life for everyone—no matter who they are. This is one reason the season of Easter lasts for fifty days—we can’t tell the whole amazing story in one day!
The Gospel was given to Gentiles; most of us are Gentiles. We owe a great debt of gratitude to Peter, and to Philip before him. They took the Gospel to our people.
Now, the Acts reading isn’t the only second half of a story we have today. Today’s Gospel Reading follows the well-known passage on Jesus, the true Vine. Remember, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’?
And the vine is taking a new route, trailing its branches in new places. The vine has begun to quench the spiritual thirst of Gentiles as well as Israel.
Peter is living in a new time, the time of Easter. And we are still living in that new time.
Now in this passage about the vine, two words come up quite a bit: pruning and abiding. How was Peter ‘pruned’ in his encounter with Cornelius? How does he ‘abide’ in the true Vine as one of the branches?
Peter was pruned as he realised that he had to let go of his ideas about how God works. He went from
By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean
God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.
That’s a huge shift! Peter made it in a matter of days.
Peter is finding that God’s grace and salvation are given to all. Peter is finding that trust in the God of Jesus Christ alone is sufficient for baptism. Peter is finding that the Holy Spirit falls on Gentiles as well as Jews, just as Philip discovered that eunuchs are acceptable to God too.
That’s a real pruning for a man who has been brought up in the faith of the God of Israel.
Peter realises that he’s been getting God wrong. God is the God of the whole world, not just the God of Israel. God is going out to the lost and forsaken, and calls the church to follow.
Peter needs to take that in so he can produce fruit, the fruit that rejoices in faith no matter who has it.
Because although Peter is being pruned, he is gaining a whole new family in God that he never knew he had. A whole mob of Corneliuses and Ethiopian eunuchs; and Aussies too!—even though Peter had no idea of the rich Indigenous culture of this Great South Land, God certainly did.
It’s not just about being pruned. The passage about the true Vine also talks about abiding in Christ.
But we can’t abide in Christ by staying in one place. Christ is on the move, from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Christ is going out to the lost and forsaken, and calls the church to follow.
So if we abide in Christ, we have to move too. We can’t say I’ll stay where I’ve always been, thank you. We’ll be left behind if we do. The wind of the Spirit will be blowing in all sorts of other places while we do what we’ve always done and think what we’ve always thought.
Christ is on the move towards people who have been excluded before. Abiding in him means moving with him. We can’t always stay the same and be faithful.
In 1977, abiding in the Christ who is on the move led us to form the Uniting Church out of the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. We have had to be pruned of our former identities and follow Christ so we could keep on abiding in him.
Abiding in the Christ who is on the move leads us into places we never thought we’d go. But we do go, because the risen Lord is there.
Peter, and the early Christians with him, needed pruning of their set ideas about God. They needed to let go of the notion that the way things were at home in Jerusalem was the way they were at the ends of the earth. They needed to see that Gentiles could receive the Spirit without first joining the people of Israel.
They had to move to the edges and beyond with Jesus in order to stay with him, to abide in him.
Then, in time, the church had to move in relation to slavery. The economies of the ancient world depended on slavery, but that wasn’t the way of Jesus Christ. And when the British Empire ended slavery, Christians were in the forefront of the work to abolish it.
And the church had to move in relation to the ministry of women. We have come to the conclusion that the exclusion of women from the church’s ministry is not the way of Jesus Christ. Sadly, some churches still have to make that move.
We take being the Uniting Church for granted. We take it for granted that slavery is evil, and the women have an equal place in the church’s ministry and life. But these things were all hard-earned, and people argued over these things which were hugely controversial in their day.
Are there any controversies left? Has the Spirit stopped moving the church to the edges? Indeed it has not. We too are called to wrestle with issues that are difficult for many.
The national Assembly of the Uniting Church meets every three years. It meets next in July, just a couple of months away. One issue the members of the Assembly will discuss is whether the church should allow ministers whose conscience permits them to marry same-sex couples as Australian law allows. It will be asked to determine if this is the way of Jesus Christ. Is this one of the edges that Christ is calling us to in our day?
Faithfulness to Christ means moving with Christ. It means discerning just where the Spirit is leading us. Our interconciliar form of church government aims to give a way of discerning just that.
So, the Assembly will ask itself Shall we be abiding in Christ by making this decision? That’s the question before us, and a question that invites our prayers as the Assembly draws closer.
The Book of Acts gives us a direction to follow; the Spirit blows us towards people the edges and calls us to follow. I invite you to reach out to people on the edges of faith as you live day by day. I also invite you to pray for the Assembly and for the wisdom of the Spirit of Christ for the whole church.
Preached at Trinity Wellington Point Uniting Church, 6 May 2018