Sunday, 10 July 2011

The right to be called the Children of God

Pentecost 4 year 11 Acts Series Part 6 
Ok let’s recap what we’ve learned in our series on the book of Acts…the sequel Dr Luke wrote to his gospel.
At the beginning Jesus orders his disciples back to Jerusalem to wait for the empowering of the Holy Spirit
before trying to make disciples in their own strength…
They’re happy to trust Jesus…
they’ve spent time with him since his resurrection.

When the Spirit comes…Peter preaches powerfully... chastising Israel for crucifying the Messiah…
and calling on everyone… to repent and be baptised
in Jesus’ name. Warning the crowds to save themselves …from a corruption generation…

And the church is born…though still seeing themselves as Jews… but with a new covenant…a new Israel
a new people of God… who would be a light to the nations…where Israel failed…
a people who would proclaim the good news of God’s love …revealed in Jesus …… the ends of the earth.

In the weeks that follow...thousands are baptised in Jesus’ name and in obedience to his Nazareth manifesto …the Jesus movement organises themselves to be a visible sign of good news for the poor and marginalised

They hold everything in common…so anyone in need will be looked after…they devote themselves to the Apostles’ teaching…to prayer and table fellowship in each other’s homes.

But their popularity…their preaching in the name of Jesus… and their insistence on the reality of the resurrection…make the Jesus movement a huge threat
to the religious authorities in the Temple.

Peter and John are jailed…but with angelic assistance escape to continue preaching. Again they’re arrested and flogged… but see their suffering as a badge of honour.

The growth in numbers requires more ministry teams…
so the most vulnerable can be cared for…while the Apostles… keep their focus
on teaching the good news about Jesus.

One of the new team is stoned to death for daring to challenge the religious authorities…while a young man named Saul… looks on in approval. On that day Saul spearheads a persecution to destroy the church…and as Dr Luke reports… except for the apostles…the Jesus movement is scattered. But instead of dying out…

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the church spreads…into Judea and Samaria… as those who flee…continue to preach the arrival of the reign of God in Jesus the Messiah…wherever they go.

Last week we heard how one refugee from Jerusalem is guided by the Holy Spirit to the chariot of an Ethiopian Eunuch… who as a result of the encounter…will carry the Gospel deep into the African continent…and plant seeds for a church which is still strong today

While all this is going on… Saul the persecutor
meets the risen Christ on the Road to Damascus
and has a complete change of mind and a change of name. He begins to use his Greek name Paul.

Meanwhile Peter takes the good news…right to the coast in Samaria…where word of his preaching and healing grows the Jesus movement…right along the coastal plain of Sharon, from Joppa to Mt. Carmel beyond Caesarea. But Peter’s next adventure almost gets him stripped of his apostolic credentials

and reveals another amazing example of God’s timing and triggering a quantum shift…in the spread
and the makeup of the church…and due in no small part to the power of the Roman Empire itself…

Roman roads map
At no other time in history…before or since
has there been such a vast system of highways
like those built by the Romans for military exploitation Stretching across the Empireeighty thousand kilometres of roads…would allow Rome to spread its culture and influence far and wide…but this extraordinary achievement of engineering would be another reason the good news about Jesus will sweep through the Empire so quickly

And the speed of communication almost cost Peter
his Apostolic credentials…because he’s been hobnobbing with unclean gentiles and everybody finds out before Peter can explain himself. In today’s story Luke tells us
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The apostles and believers throughout Judea
hear the Gentiles have also received the word of God …
before Peter even gets back to Jerusalem.

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Luke reports the circumcised believers…Jewish males in the Jesus movement…are ready and waiting to condemn Peter’s behaviour when he walks in the door

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“You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” Peter you have defiled yourself! And suddenly a real stumbling block for the early church is exposed

unless there’s a massive change of mind…a quantum shift in the Apostles thinking…the Jesus movement will begin and end in the Jewish community…[pause]

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But the story Peter tells them…not only gets him off the hook…but revolutionizes the Apostles understanding…
of who has a right to be called… the Children of God?

What actually happened when Peter went among the gentiles? Was it his idea? No way says Peter

the whole thing happens…because first a messenger of God…an angel…appears to a Roman Centurion named Cornelius and instructs him to send for Peter…at a specific address in Joppa thirty K to the south…

Because according to the angel…Peter has a message through which Cornelius and all his household will be saved.

Now this Roman Centurion’s already a ‘God-fearer’ …that means he’s part of a gentile community who follow Jewish beliefs and practices…but stop short
of actual conversion… which of course would compel them to… strictly obey the Law of Moses…
including adult circumcision…

And while Cornelius’ men are on their way to find Peter… who is of course in Joppa…where the angel said he’d be Peter has a vision…and hears a voice
telling him to kill and eat…from a huge buffet of food
… forbidden under Jewish Law…

Alarmed to say the least…Peter protests that nothing unclean has ever touched his lips

But instead of being praised for his obedience
to the Law…Peter is scolded by the voice…

Slide words
“Don’t call anything unclean that God has made clean.”

The next thing that happens…while Peter’s trying to work out what the vision means…he’s advised by the Spirit that three men are downstairs looking for him…

Slide words
Don’t hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.

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And purely trusting the Spirit’s guidance
Peter agrees to accompany the men back to Caesarea where Cornelius tells him he has it on an angel’s authority…that Peter has a message through which he and all his household will be saved.

And the real reason you can’t blame me for all this
Peter says…is that
Slide words
‘As soon as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them just as the Spirit came on us at the beginning. And I remembered what Jesus said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’

So…Peter continues…
if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ

Slide words
who was I to think I could stand in God’s way?”’

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When Peter finishes his story according to Luke …
everything goes very quiet…………
and instead of stripping Peter of his Apostolic credentials …those gathered on that day…begin to the praise God, saying,

slide words first reveal
So then, even to Gentiles, God has granted repentance that leads to life.
The Greek word Luke uses here which we translate as repentance is

Second reveal
μετάνοιαν metanoian… which means a change of mind… a renewing of mind…a life giving transformation…

So…in this way…Luke tells us…Jews across Judea and Samaria learn
Slide words
the Gentiles also had received the Word of God.

Not the written word of course… since the Gospels and Paul’s letters hadn’t even been written…nor the spoken word… because Peter had only opened his mouth to speak…but they’d received the Word of God…
by the initiative of the Holy Spirit…

the Word made flesh is received…the word with a capital ‘W’… the person of Jesus Christ…is received…
not a disembodied set of ideals or beliefs or principles …but the very revelation of God’s will
in the person of Jesus…his name…his authority.

Many years later in another Gospel…John would record what the first believers discover on that day…

slide words
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

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The church in Jerusalem had a choice…either to believe Peter’s account of the work of the Spirit…or reject it …their decision would seal the future of the church. Maybe they remembered the words of Isaiah ‘and in his name the Gentiles will hope.’

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I thank God… they believed Peter…otherwise Christianity would have remained just a sect of Judaism.
And I thank God…the Apostles were teachable and open…to new information about the will of God…
But as a gentile and a sinner and definitely not born of Jewish descent…I especially thank God… that from that day…they began to welcome those previously judged unclean into the family of God.  For as Paul would later write…it’s the Spirit who baptises…not human kind…

Slide words
For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

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Two questions for us this week…1. how open are we to new evidence of the will of God…and 2. How well
do our relationships with God and with others
indicate that by the power of the Holy Spirit…
we too have received the word of God?

Let us pray…