Sermon: Easter 6, 6 May 2018, Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

Acts 10:44-48

-On Thursday night Jenn and I went to see the ‘Merry Widow’ ballet at the Opera House.

-From the audience you look down to 154sq metres of stage area,

-Where all the action takes place.

-All the action that is,

-That takes place on the stage.

-I gave you that precise figure of the stage area,

-Because I googled the specifications of the Joan Sutherland Theatre,

-To discover that around what the audience sees on stage are wings and a backstage area.

-17 dressing rooms, eight soloist’s rooms and a Green Room are one level below the stage.

-Another floor down is the scenery dock and four loading bays with a truck turning area.

-Imagine what’s taking place in all of those spaces while a show is running,

-All those busily interlocking pieces.

 

-And all of that behind the scenes activity is happening during the performance,

-Think of what happens before the doors even open.

-The programme is chosen,

-The performers are hired,

-The orchestra booked,

-The advertising planned,

-Media purchased,

-Tickets sold.

-Front of house staff rostered,

-Ushers deployed.

-Hundreds and hundreds of little steps,

-And an army of people for that one 90 minute performance.

 

-Back in Acts 1:7-8 Jesus said to his disciples;

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:7-8

-And this morning we read Acts 10:44-48,

-The remarkable conclusion to a chain of events,

-That began 43 verses earlier at Caesarea with a Roman centurion named Cornelius,

-But divinely interlocked with a multitude of little steps and people in the greater plans of God.

-Scene 1 opens with an introduction to Cornelius,

-Where we learn that he and his whole family were devout and God-fearing.

-‘God-fearer’ was a technical term for a gentile who followed the Jewish faith but stopped short of one final step.

-For a gentile to become part of the Jewish faith they had to obey the Law of Moses,

-Be baptised and circumcised.

-‘God-fearers’ took the first two steps but baulked at the third.

-But this didn’t stop Cornelius’ devotion to God,

-Which was expressed by prayer and generosity to those in need.

-Prayers and generosity that generated a remarkable spiritual response.

 

-Before I press on though can I ask,

-What do you expect to happen when you pray or give?

-Let me share with you a couple of encouragers for your praying;

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” Hebrews 5:7

“The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.” 1 Peter 3:12

“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” James 5:16

-God hears our prayers,

-Our prayers are powerful and effective.

-And to give you a bit more perspective on devotion to God and the power of giving,

-From Proverbs 22:9;

“Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.” Proverbs 22:9

-And from the Apostle Paul;

“You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.” 2Corinthians 9:11

-Well Cornelius discovered another powerful response to his devotion, prayers and giving,

-When an angel appears in a vision and proclaims;

“Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter;” Acts 10:4-5

 

-The scene then changes about 40 kilometres south of Caesarea to Peter at Joppa.

-A hungry Peter is about to have his own vision.

-But rather than an angel,

-A large sheet comes down out of heaven with all sorts of potential foodstuffs,

-Hopping, crawling and flying about it.

-As hungry as he is,

-Peter turns up his nose as he hears the command to get up, kill and eat.

-Being a good Jew he exclaims;

“By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Acts 10:14

 

-In any good story or production there’s a point where dramatic tension is introduced.

-It’s that point where the characters are thrown into some form of dilemma or quandary,

-And the audience waits expectantly to see the outcome.

-Here’s Peter as hungry as a caterpillar in an Eric Carle children’s book,

-But he draws the line at eating one.

-His religious scruples forbid him from eating anything unclean,

-But the voice says to him;

“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Acts10:15

-Peter is scratching his head wondering what this means.

-But we’re not are we?

-Because we’ve seen Scene 1.

-In fact we’ve also read the prologue and the authors background notes to this part of the play.

-In ch1 we know Jesus had commanded the disciples,

-To be witnesses to him in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.

-Luke has told us in ch2 that Jews from all around the world had gathered in Jerusalem,

-And had heard Peter and the other apostles speaking to them in their own native tongues.

-In ch8, because of the Jerusalem persecutions,

-Philip has gone witnessing to the people of Samaria.

-In ch8 there’s also a little teaser when Philip is taken by the Holy Spirit,

-To witness to another God-fearer and foreigner who believes and is baptised.

-And while Peter is puzzling over his vision,

-The men from Cornelius rap on his door,

-And the Holy Spirit says;

“Look, three men are searching for you. 20 Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” Acts 10:19

 

-The plot is thickening,

-Because there again is that command to ‘go’.

-And once again,

-We know the significance of that little word,

-Because we’ve not only read Luke’s story so far,

-But we’re also familiar with Matthew’s account of the Great Commission and Jesus’ command;

-‘To go and make disciple of all nations.’

-And now in Scene 3 as Peter stands before Cornelius’ household and friends in Caesarea,

-The penny drops;

“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem.” Acts 10:34-39

-Peter acknowledged to Cornelius that it was unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile,

-Yet the sheet vision showed that God had opened up the way for even Gentiles,

-To be fully welcomed into God’s family.

-In Christ, all those old prejudices where done away with.

-And as Peter witnesses the good news to these attentive Gentiles,

-The Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.

 

-Now here comes the surprise for us as we watch the final scene unfold.

-Having broken the dramatic tension about Gentiles being accepted as members of God’s family,

-Luke has been teasing us with another problem,

-How do we really know they’re accepted?

-Maybe Peter got his interpretation wrong,

-Maybe it was really about permission to eat whatever Cornelius offered for lunch.

-But have a look on your reading sheet to v44-45;

“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” Acts 10:44-45

-And look at Peter’s response;

“‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Acts 10:47

 

-Every Sunday during one of our services you would have heard the word ‘sacrament’ used.

-Just before we all share communion,

-The deacon says;

“Come let us take this holy sacrament of the body and blood of Christ in remembrance that he died for us, and feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving.”

-Communion and baptism are the two sacraments the bible authorises Christians to repeat.

-A sacrament is often described as;

“An outward sign of an inward grace.”

-The outward sign in communion is the bread and wine,

-Which reminds us of the grace we receive through Jesus’ death for us.

-The bread and wine are symbols of his body and blood.

-It’s not the bread and wine that saves us,

-But that free gift of Jesus’ death.

-The outward sign in baptism is the water,

-Which reminds us of the washing away of our sins through faith in Christ.

-The water doesn’t save you,

-Rather it reminds you of who does.

 

-Now let me come back to that other teaser I said Luke had slipped in,

-The story of the Ethiopian eunuch.

-When this God-fearer hears Philip witness to Jesus through those verses from Isaiah on his scroll,

-He believes and says to Philip;

“Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?” Acts 8:36

-This foreigner knows that the outward sign of an inward faith in Christ is baptism.

-He knows his own heart and his new found faith in Christ,

-And he wants to make it obvious to all.

-But who other than Philip would know that indeed this gentile had been accepted by God into his family?

-That he truly was a follower of Jesus?

-That part of Luke’s story in Acts is left hanging,

-Till Peter sees a puzzling vision,

-Receives an invitation to speak with a foreign soldier,

-And he and the other Jewish believers who were with him,

-Hear Gentiles speaking in tongues and extolling God,

-Just like the disciples and those first Jewish converts did at Pentecost.

 

-Actually that wasn’t the final scene because there’s an Epilogue.

-The news of the Gentile conversions spreads faster than a Donald Trump tweet,

-And not all are happy.

-The accusation is made back in Jerusalem;

“You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” Acts 10

-So Peter has to explain himself,

-And in this explanation we get an insight into how God’s big plan of salvation will come to fruition;

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: “John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.” 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?’”

-Peter also had six other eyewitnesses to this extraordinary act of God,

-Remember the circumcised believers of v45 who had come with Peter?

-In the house of Cornelius they were only extras,

-But now back in Jerusalem they’re crucial eyewitnesses to the gospel going out to the ends of the earth.

 

-Just like those six unknown disciples we all have a role in being witnesses to Jesus.

-Look on your reading sheet to John 15:16 where Jesus says;

“You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last,” John 15:16

-We’ve been chosen by Jesus to be his followers,

-Just as he chose Cornelius.

-And as disciples he wants us to be bearing fruit,

-To being witnesses to him.

-I want to propose that we can do exactly what the early disciples did with a slight modification.

-Just as the disciples took the good news from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth,

-We have the same opportunity.

-But our Jerusalem is those friends and family who are closest to us.

-Judea may well be where we work,

-Our local neighbourhood,

-The school gate,

-Probus, Rotary or RSL club.

-Samaria may be those places where we feel uncomfortable,

-Where we don’t think it’s right or appropriate for us to witness to Jesus,

-Those places where we might need to see a new vision for what God is calling us to.

-And how close is the ‘ends of the earth’ here in our multi-facial community,

-Where the young and the old,

-The weak and the strong,

-Are coming to us?

-This play is not coming to an end anytime soon,

-And until that final curtain falls Jesus tells us to go,

-And gives the promise he’ll be with us to the very end of the age.