Barely a week goes by when the local papers don’t run a story about MULTICULTURALISM. It might be about local kids locked up in mandatory detention. Their parents outstayed their visas. Or it’s about local initiatives for settling refugees from Sudan and other parts of Africa. Or the local Islamic leaders denouncing ism as the work of brainwashed extremists. And not in keeping with true Islam.
This week, they’re advertising the Indian- Australian cultural fair. Then there’s the RESTAURANTS that are advertised. There’s Indian and Malaysian and Thai, and Chinese. Korean and Mexican and Italian. You’ve only got to walk down the main street of Blacktown, and you realise we’re living in A MULTICULTURAL SMORGASBORD. Right here in Blacktown. A melting pot of cultures and nationalities and languages from all over the world.
But as much as we SEE THE FACES. I wonder how quick we are to CROSS THE CULTURAL BOUNDARIES. To attempt to talk to someone we struggle to understand. To feel self-conscious and embarrassed. It’s hard work, isn’t it? It’s much easier to stick with people who are just like YOU.
Just yesterday I was talking to one of the guys in our street. We were talking about some new tenants due to move into the street. And one of the families who looked at the house were Sudanese. My neighbour said he hoped they weren’t the ones moving in.
When I asked him why, he began his answer with “Not that I’m racist of anything..” Which always seems funny, because what NORMALLY follows that comment always sounds racist to me!
But he said that Sudanese didn’t appreciate money or accommodation because it was all given to them by the government.
I’m not sure whether he’d actually MET any Sudanese. But it didn’t sound like a very informed decision to me.
You see, by nature, we put up all sorts of BARRIERS to people who are DIFFERENT. We get uncomfortable. Even a little bit frightened. Of people with a different ethnic background. Or from a different religious background; even a different social group. A different denomination.
It’s a problem that goes all the way back to Acts 10 and 11. It’s not something that comes ly. It’s something that EVEN THE APOSTLE PETER has to learn. But the message that gets rammed home to the apostle Peter is this. It doesn’t matter WHERE YOU COME FROM. You’re welcome to come to Jesus.
And the key verse in our passage is there in Acts chapter 10 verse 34 and 35. He’s talking to a group of people that HIS RULES say he’s not even meant to be with. And he says “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism, but accepts MEN FROM EVERY NATION who fear him and do what is right.”
This is big news. Not to us, because I guess we’re used to it. Big news for Peter and the first Jewish Christians. That God’s not going to play favourites anymore with the Jews just because they’re Jews. The risen Christ is king of ALL THE WORLD.
And so GOD WANTS EVERY KIND OF PEOPLE IN HIS KINGDOM.
And that’s what he shows Peter. In a way that breaks through all his prejudices, and presuppositions, and social conditioning. And makes it very clear to him that the JEWISH DISTINCTIONS set by the Old Testament are OVER AND DONE WITH … for ever.
It’s hard for us to put ourselves back into someone else’s shoes. But I want you to try it for a minute.
And imagine you’re Peter. A good Jewish boy, brought up in Israel. Keen to keep the Jewish laws. And as a Jew, you’ve known since you were a kid/ there are rules for everything.
Rules for what’s CLEAN. And what’s UNCLEAN. Rules for what you can TOUCH and what you CAN’T. Rules for what you can EAT. And what you have to leave alone.
They’re STRICT rules. And very, very specific. You’ve been trained in the book of Leviticus/ that spells it all out in detail. Certain types of animals that are UNCLEAN. Like the snake. Like the PIG. Like anything with a CLOVEN HOOF.
Or PORK. Unclean, for the Jews. No pork sausages. No bacon and eggs. That’s a bit tougher isn’t it. No roast pork with ling and apple sauce. If you’re Peter, you won’t even THINK of eating that stuff. It’s unclean.
But it’s even worse when it comes to rules about PEOPLE. Cause if you were a Jew, from the time you were walking and talking, your mum and dad are telling you about a certain kind of people you couldn’t even MIX WITH. I mean, sure, you could say hullo in the street. You might even be allowed to buy something from them in the market. But as soon as you get home you have to WASH YOUR HANDS.
These people were called GENTILES. And the definition of a GENTILE is very simple. Anyone who’s not Jewish. Simple as that. If you’re not Jewish, you can’t come in the house. And I can’t come into YOUR house. If you’re not Jewish, you can’t touch me. And I can’t touch you.
And so for Jewish kids, that’s how it was, from a very early age. Clean, Unclean. Eat it, don’t eat it. Touch it, don’t touch it. Drilled into you until it’s like a reflex.
And so here’s the apostle Peter, he’s moving around the countryside up North of Jerusalem, and he’s doing amazing miracles, just like Jesus used to do. He’s raising the . Cripples walking. Not claiming credit for his own power, but pointing people to the POWER OF JESUS AT WORK. And people are believing, everywhere he goes.
And yet still very careful about what he eats. And who he touches. And who he talks to.
Peter’s still confining his mission to JEWS. Which means he still has to learn a lesson. And that is, it doesn’t matter WHERE YOU COME FROM – you’re welcome to come to Jesus.
Peter’s staying in the town of Joppa with a guy called Simon the Tanner; it’s just about lunchtime, and the smell of the baked lamb is wafting up to the roof where he’s sitting in the sun.
And as his mind starts to drift, suddenly he’s in the middle of a VISION. Incredibly vivid. It’s like he’s in a trance. And if you have a look at verse 11 there in chapter 10, you’ll see what it’s all about.
It’s like a trapdoor opens up in the sky, and down comes this big bulging sheet that’s being held by it’s four corners. And in it, there’s a writhing, squirming mass of animals. Like someone’s just raided the zoo. Four footed animals, wriggling lizards and flapping birds.
And then in verse 12, Peter hears a voice. Read what it says. Because to Peter, it’s one of the most surprising things he’s ever heard. “Then a voice tells him, LUNCHTIME! “Get up, Peter – kill, and eat.”
Now whether you’re Jewish or not, it’s sort of like your worst nightmare, isn’t it? I mean, it’s hardly very appetizing, lizard for lunch. But for Peter, it’s even worse. See, this is Peter who’s never eaten anything a good Jew shouldn’t eat in his life. This is Peter who’s never had a ham sandwich. Who’s never had Bacon and Eggs. And there in the sheet there’s a pig. Unclean. Let alone the snakes. Unclean. And it’s not so much that this stuff doesn’t look all that delicious. It’s that to Peter, it’s downright WRONG. Because it breaks all the rules about CLEAN AND UNCLEAN.
And so in verse 14, he says SURELY NOT LORD. He says, You’re kidding me. He says, “I’ve never eaten anything impure or unclean in my life.”
And then the voice speaks again. A key verse. Verse 15. Because if you’re thinking, you’ll see that it’s more than just LUNCH that it’s talking about. “The voice spoke to him a second time. Don’t call ANYTHING impure THAT GOD HAS MADE CLEAN.”
Now THAT… is a VERY loaded sentence. That’s a statement that’s full of meaning. Because it’s not just about FOOD, is it?
And in the next of days, Peter’s going to figure out what it means. He gets the same vision three times in a row, just to make sure he’s got it.
And then just as the sheet’s taken back up into heaven, … at that very moment … there’s a knock at the door. And there are three guys there, who have come all the way down from the town of Caesarea up the coast; on a very important mission.
Because while PETER’S had HIS vision, there’s someone ELSE who’s had a vision as well. And God’s very clearly working in the background to bring them together.
So while Peter’s just been told NOT TO GO CALLING THINGS UNCLEAN that God’s making clean… here’s a message from a Roman soldier. A GENTILE called Cornelius.
The sort of unclean person that a Jew couldn’t have any personal dealings with. And God’s already spoken to CORNELIUS in a vision. And told him to send for Peter.
So here are these three men at the door. And they say to Peter the words there in verse 22. “We’ve come from Cornelius the centurion.” They say, he’s a good bloke. Righteous. God fearing. And a holy angel told him to have you come to his house… SO THAT HE COULD HEAR WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY.
Now, again, the danger for us as we read this stuff is we can miss the point. Cause you might think the amazing stuff here is the angels. And the visions. But the REALLY AMAZING THING… is that God’s going to all this trouble… to have a GENTILE ROMAN SOLDIER HEAR THE GOOD NEWS ABOUT JESUS.
He’s GOT to go to that much trouble. To get A GOOD JEW LIKE PETER, to visit the home of an unclean Gentile like Cornelius.
So Peter goes. And takes his posse of Jewish mates.
Verse 24, he arrives at Caesarea; and Cornelius has organized a party. Called together all his relatives and friends; there’s quite a crowd.
Imagine the scene. As the two groups size each other up. Jew and Gentile. Clean and unclean. Two Tribes. Strangers. Yet, somehow, brothers. Or soon-to-be brothers.
And Peter knows as soon as he puts his foot over the doorstep, he’s past the point of no return. He’s broken the Jewish rules. And he says so to them in verse 28.
He says to them, “You are well aware that it’s against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him”.
But can you see, he’s learned his lesson. He says “But God has shown me that I shouldn’t call ANY MAN impure or unclean.” So here I am. And IN HE GOES. The point at which the BOUNDARIES OF THE JEWISH LAW have been broken. Once and for all.
And then Peter starts talking. Verse 34, he begins to speak, to tell this bunch of Gentiles about Jesus. He says the words we started with. I realise God doesn’t show favouritism. I REALISE THE GOSPEL’S FOR EVERYONE. Not just Jews. He says God’s going to accept people from EVERY NATION who fear him and do what is right. People who REPENT. And turn to Jesus. And that’s exactly what Peter calls on them to do.
Verse 36, this is the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, WHO IS LORD OF ALL. And he tells the story; he says, you’ve probably heard of him already; how this Jesus went around healing, how he overcame the power of the devil. And eventually, How they killed him.
But here’s the bit you DIDN’T catch. And we’re WITNESSES to it. GOD RAISED HIM BACK TO LIFE. And God’s appointed him as the ONE WHO’S GOING TO JUDGE THE LIVING AND THE .
And verse 43; the punch line. All the prophets testify about him, that EVERYONE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM… receives FORGIVENESS OF SINS through his name.
That’s EVERYONE with a CAPITAL E. See, he’s saying it doesn’t matter WHERE YOU’VE COME FROM. What nationality, what denomination, whether you used to be a Jew or you used to be a Hindu; whether you used to be a , whether you used to be a addict; no matter what. What you USED TO BE isn’t the point.
When you come to the point of BELIEVING IN JESUS, it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from. You’ve come to the right place. And you’re welcome. And you receive the one thing that matters most of all. The forgiveness of your sins. A clean slate. A chance to start fresh.
Whoever you are. Where-ever you’ve come from. Peter says, EVERYONE who believes, who puts their trust in this Jesus who lived and died and rose and sits in judgement; EVERYONE WHO DOES THAT – receives forgiveness of sins. In his name. By his authority.
The old testament Jewish rules about what was clean and what was unclean, the food laws, they were all sort of A SCALE MODEL. A picture of God’s purity. And our sin. And sometimes, to become ceremonially clean after you’d become unclean, you had to offer up a sacrifice. And the thing sacrificed took God’s CURSE for you.
But the message here is, when Jesus died as the FINAL sacrifice – all the rules and rituals are GONE. Because he’s opened up the way to get REALLY CLEAN. Sins forgiven.
And these gentiles who are listening, they believe. They want to be forgiven too. And an amazing thing happens, which when you look at it, it’s exactly what happened when it all started out with the Jews back in chapter 2. What they called the DAY OF PENTECOST. Two tribes becomes one tribe.
God’s promise is, when you believe, when you trust yourself to Jesus, you’ll receive his Spirit. And Peter thought God’s SPIRIT was just for JEWS. He’s WRONG. And to show what’s happening in a very visible way this first time, the Holy Spirit comes on Cornelius and his family in way that’s absolutely unmistakeable.
And so Peter says to his Jewish friends who came with him, COME ONE, we’ll baptise them. Because they’ve received the Holy Spirit just like WE DID.
Two tribes has become ONE TRIBE.
Friends, what we’ve seen there is one of the major turning points in the history of Christianity. Because let me tell you, if Peter hadn’t had that vision, if Peter hadn’t gone on that trip up the coast road to Caesarea, if Peter hadn’t broken the rules and preached to these gentiles, can I remind you, we wouldn’t be here today. As Christians.
Because we’re a long way from being Jews, aren’t we.
Trouble is, when Peter gets back to Jerusalem, he’s in trouble. Have a look at verse 1 and 2 in chapter 11. And see the reaction.
“The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers – the Jewish ones – CRITICISED HIM. “You went into the house of uncircumcised men, these dirty gentiles; and ate with them.” How could you? See, there’s a great picture of the way even your average JEWISH CHRISTIAN is thinking.
And so Peter steps them through the story; one thing at a time; the vision with the unclean animals; the voice from heaven; Cornelius, and his vision. And finally, verse 16, how the Holy Spirit came on them… just like he came on them at the beginning. No difference.
So he says if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus, who was I to think that I could oppose God? In other words, “it doesn’t matter where you come FROM – you’re welcome to come to Jesus.”
And who are we to say otherwise?
You know, it’s interesting, isn’t it. In one way, when you look back over the last two thousand years or so, we’ve done pretty darn well in that. Because Christianity has actually to almost everywhere. And made brothers and sisters out of people whose countries are at war. Made brothers and sisters out of people who live on opposite sides of the world.
I wonder, though, sometimes how well we put it into practice IN SMALLER WAYS. And we need to think about that, I guess. Because you see, God’s put out the welcome mat for EVERY SORT OF PERSON. And maybe we DON’T. And worse than that, maybe we don’t even NOTICE when we don’t.
For me, as I was thinking about this, I thought about Doonside Festival. And handing out information about church. And if I see an Indian or Sikh man wearing a turban, or a Muslim woman wearing burqa, or headdress. I’m tempted NOT to approach them. I’m tempted to think that God’s not for them.
And when the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Mormons come knocking at my door. I’m tempted to send them on their way. Not to talk to them about the TRUE offer of the gospel. Because I’m tempted to think that God’s not for them.
I need to see that THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS has opened the way for EVERYONE. No-one is off-limits.
We need to be people who say, ANY FRIEND OF JESUS IS A FRIEND OF MINE. No matter who they are. Or where they’re from.
What will that look like? How will that affect the people we invite into our homes for a meal? What will it mean about how we help the YOUTH fit in to church. Helping and encouraging them, rather than expecting them to fit in with US in everything.
ANY FRIEND OF JESUS IS A FRIEND OF MINE. It will influence the people we talk to at school, or picking up the kids from school.
ANY FRIEND OF JESUS IS A FRIEND OF MINE. It will have an impact on what you do with your lunch hour at work. Perhaps there’s a workmate who’d be interested in reading the Bible with you. Or maybe it’s a Christian workmate who you can get together with to PRAY about your workplace.
I know someone who does Christianity Explained with friends as she goes WALKING with them! That’s clever – doing two things at once.
ANY FRIEND OF JESUS IS A FRIEND OF MINE. It will influence what you do when you’re about to walk in your front door. And you see your neighbour working on their garden. Do you keep going. Or do you turn around and go and talk to them.
Because the simple message is, it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from – you’re welcome to come to Jesus. And that’s got to mean you’re welcome to come to US.