May 13, 2012

The Holy Spirit Has Been Poured Out Even On The Gentiles

Passage: Acts 10:45-47

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, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’

The invention of the remote control gave rise to a practise that is now quite common among us; we call it channel-surfing.  For those who watch sporting events this affords you the opportunity to keep up on a number of games that are being broadcast at the same time of day.  Channel-surfing also means that you can tune into movies or programmes mid-broadcast and decide on whether that snippet intrigues you enough to see more.  I am sure the producer of the movie or programme would think this an ill-informed decision; but such are the vagaries of channel-surfing.

Do you do this with books?  I have purchased books based on the title and the name of a person whose recommendation appears on the book jacket only to be disappointed with my purchase upon reading the book.  I must say I like a bookstore’s website feature where you can read some randomly selected pages of the book prior to making a purchasing decision; I think I have avoided some disappointments.  But have I?  I am sure the author would prefer a fuller reading before assessment.

Our reading today of five verses from the book of Acts is a little like joining a movie mid-story or flipping open a book and reading a page in the middle of the book.  The text is a high point in the larger story of the conversion to Christian faith of a Roman centurion named Cornelius and his household; it is a pivotal juncture in this story that points forward to the conclusion that the followers of Christ are drawn to by the Holy Spirit with respect to the Jew-Gentile divide.  The Jewish believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.  The conclusion of the story is midway through chapter 11 where the Jerusalem church leaders conclude that “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

1. Luke, the author of Acts, considers this episode in the early church crucial.  One of the reasons we know this in because of the space Luke dedicates to telling this story.  Luke wrote Acts in an era when there were no books as we have them.  People wrote on papyrus scrolls, papyrus being made from the pith of the bulrush plant (or animal skins). Scrolls were exceedingly cumbersome. A scroll couldn’t be longer than 35 feet (unrolled) or else it couldn’t be handled.  Because of its bulk and its cost and the fact of its being hand-lettered, a scroll contained relatively little (compared to a modern book): you were very careful what you put into it, there being space only for what was crucial. Acts, for instance, would have taken up an entire scroll. Luke had reams of material he could have put in and no doubt wanted to put in; yet so crucial was the episode of Peter and Cornelius that Luke uses two precious chapters in order to tell the story twice. “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Have you ever had snake soup?  The Wall Street Journal featured a story about a Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong that has a braised five-snake soup on its menu.  According to Chef Yuk-lam Lee each of the five snakes in his snake soup offers its own medicinal cures from soothing a cough to banishing a headache. If you are queasy about eating snake soup you will understand how the apostle Peter felt when he had his dream or vision of the sheet let down by God, and inside the sheet were “clean” animals (those he could eat) and “unclean”, those he would never eat.  As the sheet came closer and his aversion grew, God spoke to him: “What God has cleansed you must not call unclean”.  This was the vision Peter had just before Cornelius’ messengers arrived to invite him to come to the home of a Gentile.

Cornelius was a gentile and an officer in the Roman army. He was also what was known as a “God-fearer”. God-fearers were gentile men and women who had become disgusted with the pagan religiosity which surrounded them, together with its immorality; they were attracted to the monotheism and ethics of Judaism. They remained on the fringe of the synagogue, however, inasmuch as they didn’t conform to the dietary laws of Judaism or submit to circumcision.

It was a miracle of grace—nothing less than a miracle—that Peter went to the home of Cornelius, because Jews never entered the home of a gentile. After all, every morning a Jewish man thanked God that he hadn’t been born a gentile. No help was to be given a gentile woman in difficulty during childbirth, because to help her would only add one more gentile to the world. And a gentile man, uncircumcised, was spoken of as a dog.

When Peter goes to the home of Cornelius he defiles himself (according to the Judaism of that era) as he eats with a gentile.  Peter commends the gospel to the Roman officer and it was while preaching the gospel that the Holy Spirit was poured out on these gentiles just as on the Jewish Christians on the day of Pentecost.  That is where we are in the story—God making it plain to Peter and the Jewish Christians that gentiles were welcome to believe in Jesus Christ.  “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.  They did not need to become Jews to be in fellowship with God through Jesus Christ.

Do we grasp how crucial this episode was in the history of the young church? Apart from this episode you and I wouldn’t be here today.  Would followers of Jesus ever remain a sect within Judaism—apart from this episode the gospel would have been confined to Judaism.

When Cornelius came to faith in Jesus Christ and found himself invigorated by the Holy Spirit his first reaction was to kneel before Peter as a sign of reverence; after all, Peter was the spokesperson of that gospel which brings repentant people like Cornelius from death to life.  But Peter refused to accept such subservience from Cornelius: “Stand up”, Peter said, “for I am only a man, just like you.”

In Christ there is no subservience; within the fellowship of Christ there is no grovelling. By his grace God grants repentance of sin, faith in Jesus Christ, and obedience to the master; by his grace God grants this to any and all, regardless of racial distinction.  Any and all whom God brings to repentance, faith and obedience thereafter embrace each other without distinction.  After all, everyone whom the cross has drawn knows that the ground at the foot of the cross is level.  Peter says, “What God has cleansed I must not call unclean”.  Paul says, “All Christians are one in Christ him there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free”.

2.  On Tuesday, May 1 2012 the General Council of The United Church Of Canada released the report of its Working Group on Israel/Palestine Policy. The report calls for a boycott of Israeli goods produced in what the authors call illegal Israeli settlements, including East Jerusalem.  It is to be voted on this summer at the meeting of the General Council.  Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs charged that the United Church of Canada has been hijacked by a small group of anti-Israel activists who have become obsessed with doing harm to the Jewish state and in the process have blackened the church’s reputation.  Fogel said, “Israel has become an obsession for a small vocal group.  I think frankly it betrays the sensibilities of the vast majority of ordinary members of the United Church.”

Here is just one paragraph from the “working group assumptions” section of the report.  “The working group also takes seriously charges that church actions disproportionately criticize Israel in comparison to other countries in the region or other situations globally. The working group believes that Israel can and should be held to a higher standard than surrounding non-democratic countries or authoritarian regimes. It is precisely because of Israel’s close identification with democratic ideals that it needs to be challenged on its policies around the occupation.”

If the authors of this report “take seriously” the charge that Israel is disproportionately criticized then why would you say, in the very next breath, that Israel is to be held to a higher standard than surrounding non-democratic countries or authoritarian regimes?  And why be so condescending of other surrounding countries—are they not capable of this “higher” standard?  How do you purport to offer a policy on Israel/Palestine and the role that Hamas plays is not even mentioned?

The report further claims that “the deepest meaning of the Holocaust was the denial of human dignity to Jews”.  That is a revisionist view of history; how can you reduce the horrors of the Holocaust to a matter of mere “denial of human dignity”.  It is no wonder that our Jewish friend Mr. Fogel called this reference “obscene”. “The Holocaust was not the stripping of human dignity but the murder of six million people.”

I bring you back to the episode in Acts 10 and 11. We read there of “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter” to Cornelius’ home. According to Luke, there were seven in total, Peter plus six brothers (11:12).  Why in the number mentioned?  According to Egyptian law (which first century Jews knew well) seven witnesses were necessary to prove a case. According to Roman law (which first century Jews also knew well, since they were governed by it) seven seals were needed to authenticate a legal document.  When the seven Jewish Christians enter the gentile home of Cornelius and break down centuries of deadly prejudice, the fact of the seven witnesses renders the case proved.  It stands proved and sealed that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free. It stands proved and sealed that what God has cleansed we are not to call unclean.  It is established that any and all whom God brings to repentance, faith and obedience thereafter embrace each other without distinction.

This morning you and I and all Christ’s people aren’t charged with proving or sealing anything. We are charged simply with living, day by day, so as to demonstrate the truth of what has been proved and sealed already, never yielding any support to those who want to contradict it.  The racism that was overcome when Peter and the six others came to the house of Cornelius set a trajectory that has been a blessing for Gentiles.  Sadly, in the life of the church through its history the reverse racism has been too often the case.  We need to resist it when we see it today.

3.  Any and all whom God brings to repentance, faith and obedience thereafter embrace each other without distinction.  We understand that but doing it is challenging.  According to the Town of Markham statistics 65% of the 250,000 plus population are identified as visible minorities.  Of these visible minorities approximately 52% are Chinese and 26% are South Asian.  I am not saying that it should follow that our congregations ought to reflect the larger population; there are many factors that influence the composition of a faith community.  It would be fair to say that we have not had a lot of success in attracting people of these communities.

A few weeks ago I attended a fundraising banquet for a Christian mission aimed at gospel proclamation to Chinese people.  I was one of the few people of white-Anglo-Saxon descent present of the thousand plus who attended this event.  The evening was conducted completely in Cantonese; we listened to a simultaneous English translation via headsets.  When we sang hymns I knew the hymn because of the tune and did my best to recall what I could of the hymn from memory.  The people we most hospitable and great effort had been expended to include us; still I found that it took a disciplined effort on my part to remain engaged in the event.

I got to thinking that in some measure this is how it must feel when people come to a worship service among us who come from other cultures and experiences of life.  Everything feels so normal and obvious to us as to how things are to be done that we think anyone joining us will be excited about remaining among us.  Food choice is so ingrained in us that it is self-evident that we should have date loaf, cookies, and fruit at coffee hour; it’s other people who eat odd things.

My point is that it takes effort to be people who embrace each other without race or class distinction.  We may indeed be ready to embrace people of any race but it is often our preferences for the way things should be done or comfort with the pattern of a worship service—the things of secondary importance for which we should allow one another latitude; these things often get in the way of a ready embrace.  I remain convinced that personal invitation is the most effective way of new people joining our congregation.  The ready embrace begins with getting to know our Markham neighbours one on one; may our Lord whose love transcends all racial boundaries help us to so reach to our neighbours.

4.  On April 21, 2012, at 80 years age, Charles Colson died.  Colson spent seven months in prison for Watergate-era offenses; he had been known as President Richard Nixon’s hatchet-man.  He went on to become an influential social reformer.  Michael Gerson went to work for Colson ten years after Colson’s conversion to Christian faith and prison stay.  Gerson wrote a thoughtful article about his mentor that appeared in the Washington Post.

“[Colson’s] swift journey from the White House to a penitentiary ended a life of accomplishment — only to begin a life of significance. The two are not always the same. The destruction of Chuck’s career freed up his skills for a calling he would not have chosen, providing fulfillment beyond his ambitions. I often heard him quote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and mean it: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.”

Among other accomplishments Colson founded “Prison Fellowship, the largest compassionate outreach to prisoners and their families in the world, with activities in more than 100 countries. ... It is easier to serve the sympathetic. Prisoners call the bluff of our belief in human dignity. If everyone matters and counts then criminals do as well.  Colson led a movement of volunteers attempting to love some of their least lovable neighbors.

I have long been inspired by Colson’s conviction that the gospel transcends this boundary too.  We must be clear that the gospel in not primarily the announcement of eradication of divisions, or the promotion of unity for unity’s sake, or the insistence of inclusion for as if radical-inclusion will now save us.  The gospel is the announcement of Jesus Christ and our rescue from sin that is the source of all dehumanizing division.  Colson knew this profoundly.

“Many wondered at Colson’s sudden conversion to Christianity. He seemed to wonder at it himself. He spent each day that followed, for nearly 40 years, dazzled by his own implausible redemption. It is the reason he never hedged or hesitated in describing his relationship with Jesus Christ. Colson was possessed, not by some cause, but by someone.”

“... the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles”, thanks be to God.