Who Should Hear the Gospel? Lesson of Cornelius

Sermon, April 24, 2016 – The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C
Acts 11:1-18

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Have you ever done something that seemed like a good thing at the time, only to face a reprimand later on? This is the situation that Peter is facing in Acts chapter 11. Well, what’s this all about?

The previous chapter, chapter 10, tells us the story of what got Peter into trouble. Chapter 10 is divided into three parts. In the first part, an angel appears to Cornelius, a god fearing Roman centurion. Luke tells us that Cornelius was a great guy, telling us that “he and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” But Cornelius was not a Jew and had never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jewish law frowned on close fraternization between Jews and Gentiles. Much of this had to do with the Jewish dietary restrictions. Think about how it might be for a vegan to share kitchen and a meal with a red-blooded meat eater. No matter how much good will might exist, the probability of contamination would probably be too much for the vegan to endure. It was the same thing with Jews and Gentiles, and so the Jewish law held that Gentiles were ritually unclean, and thus not to be dined with.

In the second part of chapter 10, God teaches Peter a very important lesson about the Gentiles being ritually unclean. God gives Peter a vision in which he sees a collection of animals deemed unclean under Jewish law and Peter is told by God to kill and eat them. Peter responds very firmly saying that he will not eat such animals because they are unclean, and God repeats himself twice more. As Peter is wondering at the meaning of his vision, servants from Cornelius come to seek him out. An angel tells Peter to accompany them.

And so we come to the third part of chapter 10, in which Peter travels to the house of Cornelius. At this point, Peter finally grasps the point in his vision and he says to the people gathered at Cornelius’ house “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” Cornelius then tells Peter about his own vision to ask Peter to come to him and tell him about the Gospel. Peter then shares the Gospel story, Cornelius believes, and the Holy Spirit comes upon the household. Following this, Peter stayed with Cornelius for a few days.

And so this is where we are when we begin chapter 11. Can you blame Peter? God told him the same thing three times over in his vision, and this vision was later confirmed by Cornelius who shared that he had also had a vision in which he was to ask Peter to come preach the Gospel. And then, to top it all off, when Peter did preach the Gospel, they came to believe and the Holy Spirit came down upon them all. It seems to me that Peter was on pretty solid ground here. But there was a group of strongly Jewish Christians in Jerusalem that were not yet convinced.

Our reading describes Peter’s explanation to these Jewish Christians. Scholars believe that the group which criticized Peter were a sub-group within the Church in Jerusalem which saw the Jewish faith as foundational to the Christian faith. They thought that in order to truly follow Jesus, a Gentile would need to first become a proper convert to Judaism, and only then would they be in a position to receive the Gospel. Furthermore, they believed that Christians still were constrained by the Jewish ceremonial laws and were not to fraternize with Gentiles. And so when they heard the reports of what Peter had done, they criticized him and said “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

Peter explains to them what happened, and we see a sort of Cliff’s Notes summary of chapter 10. Peter concludes his explanation with a challenge. He says “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 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 not only relies on the multiple visions he had from God, but also on the very words of Jesus. And to their credit, it seems as if the Jewish party relented, at least for a while. As an aside, if you continue reading Acts, you will see that this issue comes up again.

So what is the lesson for us today? Nobody today suggests that Christians need to be circumcised and convert to Judaism before they can become Christian. So how can this story be relevant to us today? What is the lesson for us?

To begin with, let us consider the authority for this lesson. Peter was one of the pre-eminent disciples who knew Jesus during his time on earth, and a leading apostle in the early Church. And Peter needed God to repeat himself three times before he began to accept what God was saying. But that wasn’t enough. Peter’s vision was confirmed first by Cornelius’ vision from God, then by the very words of Jesus to his disciples, and then by the coming of the Holy Spirit when the Gospel was preached. But even that didn’t clinch things. Peter then had to explain himself to the Church in Jerusalem, which weighed his explanation before accepting it. This lesson is obviously a very important one, and one that God made sure was heard.

And what was the point that God was making to Peter and the Jewish Christians? Consider the two options that were up for debate. Under option one, Gentiles would be required to jump through multiple hoops to comply with ceremonial laws before they would have full access to the Gospel. It would be only after they achieved this pre-requisite status that they could then become full disciples of Jesus. That’s option one, and it doesn’t sound very much like what Jesus was preaching, does it? Under option two, which Peter came to see was God’s plan, Gentiles had immediate and full access to the Gospel message. They didn’t have to first meet a prerequisite status of Jewish ritual cleanliness or ceremonial status.

Think about it this way. Suppose you wanted to enroll in an introductory class at college, and you go to the registrar and ask to enroll. And you are told that you can’t. First you have to complete 5 other classes which are prerequisites to the class you want to take. What would that tell you about the class? Well, it would tell me that the class is not introductory, but rather something more advanced. Not something for just anybody to take, but only for those who can get the prerequisites done.

But that is not the Gospel message. Jesus doesn’t say “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever becomes circumcised, then follows the Jewish ceremonial law in order to convert and become a Jew in good standing, and who only then believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

The point being made is that the Gospel is the only thing. Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins and his resurrection from the dead are the only things that matter. There are no prerequisites. No hoops that we need to jump through first before Christ’s death on the cross becomes effective for us. The Gospel is not about us climbing up the mountain part way ourselves before Jesus will reach down for us. This is the point in the story of Peter and Cornelius.

And how might this apply to us today? I think that the issue that Peter and the early Church struggled with is something that we still struggle with today. Just as the Jewish Christians wanted Gentiles to first become a certain kind of person before they thought they were worthy of fully hearing the Gospel message and being fully included in the fellowship of believers, so many Christians today expect people to dress up and act in a certain way before they are prepared to welcome them to church or share the Gospel with them.

Nobody admits to this, and certainly nobody teaches this as a doctrine. It tends to be an unspoken thing – more of an attitude or an emotional reaction. When a homeless person wanders in to the church, our natural inclination is to find out what help they need and then give them some food or gas and send them on their way. We tend not to think of inviting them in and presenting the Gospel to them. Now, I am not trying to guilt trip anyone here – I have this very same attitude, and the reality is that most people coming to our church looking for assistance are only interested in receiving assistance, and not in hearing the Gospel. But I am challenging us to look at our own attitudes about sharing the Gospel of Jesus with those we meet along the way.

What sorts of other people do we automatically read out of the Gospel because we don’t think that they have reached the prerequisite status that we deem necessary? The Gospel is for all people. People of different social classes, people of different political persuasions, people of different races or nationalities, people of different languages, people who dress differently. We are called to present the Gospel to everyone. Think about it. The Gospel is God’s rescue mission to his people on earth. What sort of fire fighter would someone be if they entered a burning building and spotted someone with their leg pinned under a fallen beam and, instead of helping them remove the beam, simply stood in the next room and said “heh you there! I am here, ready to save you. You just have to drag yourself over to me, and once you’re here, I’ll help you the rest of the way.” Jesus meets people where they are. The Gospel is to be preached to everyone where they are. Not where we think they should be.

So the message in today’s reading is most certainly about including everyone in the hearing of the Gospel. But it is much more than what our current culture means by inclusivity. Our culture’s concept of “inclusivity” is that someone is included in a group, but nobody is to suggest that they change anything about themselves. They are included but there is no good news to share with them. But this isn’t what Peter is talking about. Peter doesn’t just include Cornelius in the Church as a devout Gentile and nothing more. And Cornelius didn’t want to just be included. No, this was inclusion for a purpose. Cornelius was included so that he would be fully able to hear the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ. And it was after he accepted Jesus Christ as his lord and savior that he became fully a part of the Body of Christ on earth.

Jesus Christ came to rescue us from our sins; to rescue us from our sinful selves. He is the Medevac helicopter landing on the field, while we are fatally infected with disease needing to be picked up and treated. We should welcome everyone to the landing pad, and do all in our part in helping them get there. Not just for the sake of getting them to the landing pad, but so that they can board the Medevac helicopter and be rescued. This is the message of Peter and Cornelius. We are called to invite everyone to our community to meet Jesus, no matter what we might feel about them.

And so, we want to hear what Peter heard when he told the Christians in Jerusalem about what happened. When our fellow Christians hear who we introduced the Gospel to and their response, may they praise God, and say, “So then, even to them God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

Let us pray the collect for Cornelius the Centurion , who we remember every year on February 4:

O God, by your Spirit you called Cornelius the Centurion to be the first Christian among the Gentiles; Grant to your Church such a ready will to go where you send and to do what you command, that under your guidance it may welcome all who turn to you in love and faith, and proclaim the Gospel to all nations; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Washing Feet and Servant Leadership

Sermon, March 24, Maundy Thursday, Year C
John 13:1-17; 31b-35

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Today is Maundy Thursday, when the Church commemorates three things.  The first is Jesus’ command to love one another.  This is where the name “Maundy” Thursday comes from.  The Latin word for command is mandatum – which has become “Maundy.”  As we heard at the end of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus told us “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”    The second thing the Church commemorates today is the institution of the Lord’s Supper by Jesus on the night before he was captured, tried and crucified.  We heard this in our passage from First Corinthians.  The third thing we commemorate is the washing of feet.  Our Gospel passage describes how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.

It is this third thing that makes us scratch our heads.  We can understand Jesus’ command to love one another – that sounds pretty Christian and something we ought to do.  And we celebrate the Lord’s Supper pretty much every week, and so that is rather familiar to us.  But this mention of foot washing seems rather dated to us, and the odd inclusion of foot washing during the service makes many of us uncomfortable.  It’s weird to have someone wash our feet.  If you are like me, the foot washing is the part of the service that requires a bit more thought.

It is important that we do since, after he washed their feet, Jesus told his disciples “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  Jesus is telling us that he set an example for us which we are to follow.  Now, let me say right off the bat – if your church growth strategy is regular foot washing, my bet is that your church will either decline pretty quickly or it will fill up with some rather questionable newcomers.  So what really is Jesus telling us?

To begin with, we need to understand what foot washing meant in the ancient near east.  When you were going to go out to an important event, you would wash at home, put on your best clothes and then you would walk the dusty streets in your sandals until you arrived.  When you got to where you were going, your feet would be dusty and dirty and it was customary to have them washed.  Thus, Jesus says “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet.”  Normally, the task of washing the guest’s feet was left to the household slaves.

By washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus was taking on the role of the lowest of servants.  This is why Peter exclaims “No, you shall never wash my feet.”  By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus was turning the social order on its head.  It’s hard for us to imagine what this meant.  I can only think of an example that comes only a little bit close.  A couple of weeks back, I was hosting a lunch meeting in our library conference room between myself, the head university librarian and some of other librarians that we supervised.  Although I was not the highest person in the pecking order, I was number two, and I was the meeting host.  Our meeting room was going to be used immediately after we were finished and I had agreed that I would clear out the lunch dishes so that the caterer could come and get them.  At a point in the meeting that did not concern me, I got up and began to gather up the plates.  This made one of my librarians very uncomfortable, and he whispered to me “Why are you cleaning up the dishes?”  It made him uncomfortable that I was doing this.  Leaders are not supposed to do work that is thought to be beneath them.

But Jesus did.  And he did it to make a point.  There is the obvious double meaning that Jesus needs to wash us, as in washing us of our sins, and Jesus makes that plain when he says to Peter “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”  But there is another point that Jesus is making.  He says “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

In other words, Jesus is saying to them that he is their leader and lord, and, in that capacity, he acted like a servant towards them.  And what’s more they should now act as servants towards each other.  There is a term for this concept and it is called servant leadership.  And yes, that is a leadership concept that is popular right now in management theory, but it is much more than that.  It is how Jesus calls each one of us to act towards each other.  Note carefully that Jesus doesn’t say have “I set you an example that your clergy should do as I have done for you.”  No.  He is addressing all of the disciples.  This is a calling on each one of us.

Why does Jesus put this calling on us?  Out of love.  Remember how I mentioned that Maundy Thursday commemorates two other things besides foot washing?  One was Jesus command that we love one another as he loved us.  The second was the commemoration of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, which is a commemoration of Jesus’s death for us on the cross.  He died for us because of his great love for us.  Jesus calls us to servant leadership out of this great love.  If we love one another, we will put others first, and we will be as servants to them.

The Bible scholar and former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, wrote about what this means for church leaders.  I believe that each one of us is a Christian leader, and so I think that this should apply to each one of us:

The critical thing is whether the same leader is prepared to get up in the middle of the night to sit beside the bed of an old, frail, frightened man who is dying all alone. The test that matters is whether the same leader is ready, without a word of either complaint or boasting, to stay behind after the meeting and do the washing-up or put out the garbage. Of course, it’s important that everybody in a church family helps with the necessary tasks. But the truly Christlike leader is known by the ease and spontaneity with which he or she does the little, annoying, messy things – the things which in the ancient world the slave would do, the things which in our world we always secretly hope someone else will do so we won’t have to waste our time, to demean ourselves.

Bishop Wright continues, and I don’t think that I can put this any better than he did:

The point is that, for us as for Jesus, we should be looking away from ourselves, and at the world we are supposed to be serving. Where the world’s needs and our vocation meet is where we ought to be, ready to take on insignificant roles if that’s what God wants…. And, as with Jesus, the picture of footwashing is meant to serve not only as a picture of all sorts of menial tasks that we may be called to perform…. It also points towards the much larger challenge…. the challenge to follow Jesus all the way to the cross, to lay down life itself in the service of God and the world he came to save.

And so we see that the three things that the Church commemorates on Maundy Thursday – love, laying down one’s life for others, and servant leadership – are really the same thing.  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Let us pray.

Holy Father, you put all power and authority into the hands of your son Jesus Christ, who washed the disciples’ feet in humble service.  Teach us to love one another as Christ has loved us, so that everyone will know that we are his disciples; through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray.   Amen.