Sermon: The Gospel And Change (Peter And Cornelius)
There is an old joke that takes a Bible verse about some people not dying before the Second Coming of Jesus and applying at as a motto for a crèche or other gathering of babies:
“We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed.”
Change. Children change your lives like nothing else. Marriage is a big change, but having children requires far greater adjustment.
In our Bible reading today, we meet two people who are on the verge of major change in their lives – Cornelius the centurion, and Peter the apostle. Both are in a comfortable place in their lives, but things are about to take dramatic twists for both of them as their lives are about to meet.
First, Cornelius. To the readers of Acts, who are probably Roman, Cornelius as a centurion is an all-round good guy. Roman citizens admired their centurions, rather like the way many in our society see our soldiers as heroes. One Roman writer put it this way:
“They wish centurions not so much to be venturesome and daredevil as natural leaders, of a steady and sedate spirit. They do not desire them so much to be men who will initiate attacks and open the battle, but men who will hold their ground when worsted and hard pressed and be ready to die at their posts.” (Polybius, Histories, 6.24.9)
And not only that, Cornelius would have been regarded as a good egg by Jews – at least, as good as a Gentile could be:
He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (Verse 2)
He hadn’t quite gone all the way to becoming a Jewish convert – that would have required a painful snip for him – but in prayer and giving to the poor he practised two of the three basic disciplines expected of a Jew (the other being fasting).
But we can’t stop there. According to the angel who appears to him, even God has taken a shine to him:
Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. (Verse 4)
It’s all good, isn’t it? Admired in society, respected in the community of faith, and pleasing to God.
Except … God still has an agenda of change for him. That’s why he needs to meet Peter and hear Peter’s message. He believes in God, he does good deeds, and contributes to the well-being of society. Yet God says, ‘Cornelius, you need more. You need change in your life.’
Perhaps we know similar people today. We might be one of them. Good people – after all, the church has no monopoly on goodness. They may pray or even turn up at worship sometimes, but some say, “I don’t need to go to church to be a good Christian.” They may work hard at their job, love their families, and put in extra effort of an evening to do something positive in the local community.
And maybe God says the same today. ‘You need more. You need change.’ Specifically, I think he says something similar to what he effectively says to Cornelius. ‘You need to meet someone who will tell you about Jesus.’ Because that is what Peter would go on to do when they finally met.
Why do we need to meet Jesus when we believe in God, and do good in our community? Well, if we are serious about our belief in God and wanting to do what he likes, then we shall want to be acquainted with the One he sent to bring peace, forgiveness and true purpose of life. That One is Jesus. If God has been quietly working in our lives and we’ve been seeking to respond to him, then when we hear about Jesus we’ll be positive. If on the other hand all our talk about believing in God and being good is a smokescreen to avoid serious commitment, then the mention of Jesus will expose the truth of our hearts.
Happily, Cornelius wasn’t like that. He was truly interested in God and God’s ways. Change would come for him. Dramatic change, but good change.
Second, Peter. In order to get inside Peter’s attitude to life, let me ask you this question: have you ever been concerned with the fear that bad company corrupts good character? Perhaps if you are the father of a daughter and you are bothered what kinds of boyfriends she might have, you will understand this mindset. Can any young man ever possibly be good enough for your princess? What will you want to do to him if he wickedly steps out of line – say, he brings her back from a date five minutes later than promised? Really, you don’t want your angel influenced by such a wayward soul.
Translate that into a religious context and what you’ve got is a guy who has been brought up to believe that you shouldn’t mix with the wrong sort of people or your pure religious faith will be contaminated. And so, as a good Jew, he had believed he should have nothing to do with those who, in religious terms, were ‘unclean’. Cornelius, despite hanging out at the synagogue, was in some sense unclean to him, because he hadn’t become a fully fledged Jew.
Now, it has to be said, Peter isn’t always consistent in his convictions. We learn in this story that ‘He is staying with Simon the tanner’ (verse 6), and that is suspect behaviour for a devout Jew. Why? Because a tanner in his trade deals with the skins of dead animals, and good Jews were not meant to have anything to do with dead bodies. Yet Peter accepts hospitality from such a man. Either he’s compromising his convictions or he’s beginning to change before this incident. I suspect it’s the former.
But here, everything definitely begins to change for him when he gets hungry at lunchtime. As he falls into a trance he sees this strange vision of a huge sharing platter. Some of the items on the menu are foods regarded as unclean by Jews. The call to eat ritually unclean food becomes a metaphor for mixing with people he would normally shun (verses 9-20).
If Peter is to live in the will of God according to the love of God, then he has to make a drastic change to his life. He has to begin hanging out with people who are different from him. He needs to start relating to people whom he would otherwise consider anathema. What’s more, he will have to do all this for the sake of sharing God’s love in Jesus Christ.
You see, up until now, the followers of Jesus were effectively nothing more than a small Jewish sect. Just about everybody who had begun following the way of Jesus had been Jewish. There was the odd exception, like the heretics of Samaria, but the new faith hasn’t burst outside Jewish boundaries. The question of whether it should hasn’t even been raised.
But it is about to be raised, and effectively it’s God who does so. God calls Peter to a radical change that will take his life-transforming love in Jesus beyond the Judaism where it has begun to the rest of the world. Christianity as a world faith is about to begin in this story, especially in next week’s episode.
And you know what? It means something similar for those of us who are church regulars, too. Those who have heard me a lot here won’t be surprised to hear me say this, but it needs repeating, because we must take this on board. It might feel nice and safe to draw most of our friends from the people like us who share our beliefs and values, but really that’s the way to build a spiritual ghetto. We need to make friends with people outside the church if we are going to make a missionary difference today. I hope we will not be known as the kind of religious people who are forever looking down their noses at those whose values we query.
The church is not a social club. It is a worshipping community and a base from which to launch God’s mission of love for all people. If we are to see God’s love spread to more people, then like Peter we may need to embrace a radical change where we don’t wait within the walls of the church building for people to come to us on our terms. Instead, we risk getting dirty in the world showing the love of God to people.
Maybe then we shall meet the Cornelius types. People where God is already on their case and who are reaching out for him. Perhaps we can have the humble privilege of making the introductions.
You know, it could even happen today if people are reaching out for God.