1. Three years ago when President Obama renewed diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba he said, “the United States will not be imprisoned by the past.” As I remembered and thought about the lesson this morning, I realized there is a connection between the two. It’s a connection that applies not only to nations but to organizations, corporations, churches, communities and individuals. How can we escape being imprisoned by the past? At the same time, how do we know the difference between that and losing our moorings and commitments to some basic and permanent values that define us?
These moments of transition come in different forms and stages. Sometimes they are almost unnoticed. They are gone before we know it. We wake up one day and things we once considered unshakable have been replaced by new beliefs. Things we once held dear are obsolete or forgotten. I remember many quotes in the 60’s about the shame of men having long hair. In an earlier day there were disputes about women being silent in church or having their heads covered. Whatever happened to those simple controversies?
Other changes are more traumatic – even violent. We take the Protestant Reformation for granted but many people on both sides died during that period. The abolition of the slave trade scandalized some Christians because they believed it was ordained by God and supported by Scripture.
We will, hopefully, never be imprisoned by the past but where is the line between false teaching and progress? How do we tell the difference between the changes that keep us from stagnation and create new life and those that destroy traditions and beliefs?
Some changes in the church are so radical they create permanent divisions over which people argue for centuries and some beliefs are so deeply held that God himself must speak through the Holy Spirit to change people’s minds and practices. This morning we are looking at one of those changes. Not a cosmetic change but a change that literally saved the life of the church itself.
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!” Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa. About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there. While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” 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.
This sounds like a peaceful scene with Peter on the roof of a house in Joppa by the sea waiting for dinner. In fact, he was in Joppa because the Church was experiencing the first broad persecution and everyone but the apostles had left Jerusalem. Everyone was on the run and the Church was in danger of being destroyed only weeks after Christ’s ascension. Peter, the fisherman, is learning how to be a shepherd. The church is in disarray and now this. It’s not enough to be considered a heretic and enemy by Saul but now to be stretched even further. Normally, these are the times you concentrate on rallying the troops around the few things that are certain and not suddenly change the rules of the game.
We often think of Paul’s being knocked off his horse as a violent conversion but this would have been just as much an earthquake for Peter as that was for Paul. This would make Peter not only a heretic but an apostate. That is a significant difference
Heresy is false teaching and false doctrine. Apostasy is to abandon not only what you believed but to become a traitor to those who believed in you, to sell out, to betray. It is to turn your back on your own people and even put them at risk.
Think about it this way.
Paul was accused of abandoning the distinctives of Judaism and encouraging Gentiles to identify themselves as part of the chosen people – those who had been grafted in. While we don’t have religious identity issues as deep as the Jews, we do have national and political identity issues. What would our response be to someone who says:
You can be an American and:
Not salute the flag
Not speak English
Not pay taxes
Not change citizenship status
Not defend the country
Draw social security
Pray for our enemies
Call our enemies Americans
Choose to live outside the country with foreigners
Start fights and riots with Americans in other countries
Expose Americans to persecution and physical harm
…and still claim his rights as an American.
How would we respond? That’s exactly how the Jews felt about Paul. He was something far worse than a false teacher or a heretic. He was a traitor. He was an apostate. You don’t argue with apostates. You expel them – or worse.
That is how the Jews and even the other disciples might have treated Peter in accepting Cornelius as one of them. He would have been completely on his own.
2. It’s true that his openness to Cornelius should not have come as a total surprise. He had been with Jesus when he heard him say, “Man was not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath was made for man.” He had been there when Jesus was challenged by the devout about not washing his hands before eating or, worse, eating and associating with known sinners and low life.
But, Peter also had some notions about what God could and could not do. He had strong opinions and beliefs about proper behavior for God. This is not the first time he has said, “Not so, Lord.”
Remember in Matthew 16 when Jesus announced to his disciples that he was going up to Jerusalem and there he would suffer many things and that he must be killed? Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you.”
Remember when in Luke 22 Jesus tells Peter that he will turn away from him and Peter says, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”
Remember on the evening of the last supper his response to Jesus washing his feet? “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Peter had his own ideas about what was appropriate and right. He had his own well-formed beliefs about his deepest principles and values. Just as Jonah had strong beliefs about what God should or should not do with the pagan Ninevites. Just as the older brother of the Prodigal Son had a sense of justice that was more righteous than the father’s. None of these were only prejudices. They were beliefs based on historic religious tradition.
Moses, Abraham, David and Jeremiah all argued with God on the basis of His honor and reputation being protected. They wanted to protect Him from Himself at times and teach Him some basics about being God. But, they discovered as we all do that His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways not ours. God is not a prisoner to any set of expectations on our part.
At times, God seems even to break His own rules and then expect us to follow with sometimes disastrous consequences. I remember the story of the air squadron pilots who flew into the ground behind their leader. Like the Blue Angels, they had trained tirelessly in order to fly together as if they were one. Their training would even override their instincts. They followed the wing leader even when everything in them wanted to do something else and they all died.
Even worse, God seems to break His own promises. Abraham is tested in a way that none of us can imagine. Or, as with Job, God will take some people to the point of saying, “Though He slay me yet will I trust him.”
These are extreme but there are times when God makes us almost turn inside out. He is not a safe God or housebroken. There are times when He asks us to do what we think of as inconsistent or even ungodly and forbidden. Everything in us reacts against this change because we have been trained to know what pleases and displeases God. We understand the rules. We are not prepared for something that makes us question the very nature of God himself and to see the unfamiliar other face of God.
3. This is not pleasant and we resist it for several reasons.
There is a certain safety about customs and traditions. We like the “no surprise” God who is stable, predictable and reasonable. We like religion that comforts and explains. Our identity is secure and we have the approval of friends and our community. We know the rules. We know what Scripture says and everything is settled.
As I get older I have realized I am even less interested in having things unsettled. It’s hard enough to do everything as it is. I don’t want to have God change the game now that I have it down. Besides, the stakes are higher, the losses are greater, the chances of recovery are less and the approaching sense of judgment for how well I have done makes following the known rules more appealing than counting on the riskiness of grace. Grace was for another time. This stage of life is about making sure you pass the final exam. It is not about being isolated and cut off. I think I could handle being a heretic but not an apostate and in our world today we brand anyone who disagrees as a traitor and not just one who disagrees. There is no margin.
Am I alone in this?
4. Of course, even Peter found it difficult to hold on to the change. Look at Galatians 2:
“When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”
It’s costly to change, isn’t it? The friends of James are not evil people. They are just the people who make it difficult on those who change. It’s so easy to go back to what is comfortable when you are with people you’ve known all your life. It’s not easy to give up our standing in the community or to disappoint people who look up to you. It’s one thing to be innovative and creative within the rules but when you go outside the lines you had better be prepared for the fall out. I remember John Piper’s now famous tweet to Rob Bell when Rob Bell started questioning some of the most fundamental beliefs of evangelicals. “Farewell, Rob Bell.” was all he said. I am sure some people said the same to Peter.
5. All of us have righteous rules that limit the mission of the church. Now, I don’t believe God was contradicting himself in saying that Peter should not consider some people unclean and Paul’s admonition for us to stay away from certain people.
Consider 1 Corinthians 6 and 2 Thessalonians 3:
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you.”
Considering Gentiles as unclean and common is not the same as separating ourselves from people whose influence would corrupt us and the church. There is a difference between a quarantine and pride that says some people are not worthy of the Gospel.
No, it is our own version of knowing best that makes us resist God’s ways of working in the world.
I like the way C.H. Spurgeon puts it:
“There are many who say, “Not so, Lord” every morning when they wake up and say, “Gloria as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.” We’ll just do the same old thing. To those I would say, Shake yourself up a little, my Brother! If you are too precise, may the Lord set you on fire and consume your bonds of red tape! If you have become so improperly proper that you cannot commit a proper impropriety, then pray God to help you to be less proper, for there are many who will never be saved by your instrumentality while you study propriety! All of us are apt to err in this manner, for we incline to attach undue importance to matters which are proper and useful in their places, but which are, by no means, essential to salvation! One person thinks a great deal of confirmation which is purely an ordinance of man! Another thinks equally much of attending class meetings which is an instructive practice, but not a subject of Divine command. Where Jesus has made no rule, we are not to make any! We are to receive all whom Christ receives! None are unclean whom He has cleansed! None are to be set aside if He admits them to His love. Yet this lesson is not soon learned by sticklers for propriety—they question any man’s salvation who follows not with them and, when bid to commune with them, they start aside with Peter’s cry in their hearts, if not on their lips, “Not so, Lord!””
6. But how do we know what to hold tight and what to let go? How do we know we are hearing from God and not just having a schizophrenic episode or suffering from an overactive imagination? How do we know what to keep and what to cast off? What is merely liberal or even heretical and what is a rightful earthquake from God to shake us up?
These are not perfect but let me offer four guidelines.
– First, Peter had a disciplined relationship with God. He did not just follow rules. He followed Jesus and while that made it difficult to change it made it possible for him to recognize God’s voice when he heard it. The same was true of Cornelius. He was a man of regular prayer and good deeds. This was not an answer to prayer but the result of a practice of prayer. They were not looking for ways to make the faith relative or be on the right side of history. This was absolute revelation.
– Second, there were two visions that were in agreement. Peter did not just wake up and say, “The Lord spoke to me and everything is changing.” Cornelius had the same vision. The same is true with Paul and Ananias. God spoke to both of them and his message was consistent.
– Third, the Holy Spirit confirms the change. Acts 10:44. “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.” Look at Acts 15:8. “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.”
– Finally, there is a confirmation by others who would normally be opposed. Look at Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem as James and the others hear the reports from Paul and Barnabas about the ministry to the Gentiles.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this…
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”
Finally, I would repeat what we read a couple of weeks ago in the book of 1 Peter. “Do not fear what they fear.” Fear of change. Fear of displeasing God. Fear of losing standing or friendship or status. Fear of God changing the rules. All these would have us say, “Not so, Lord.” All of these would encourage a spirit of fear. Instead, let’s always be open to God’s changes and ways that we do not understand and that sometimes conflict with everything we’ve been brought up to believe but we will trust that He is leading and the eternal God is our refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.