I was listening to the radio a few weeks ago and an expert was speaking about group dynamics. He explained that people readily place themselves in tribes and that these tribes can be very arbitrary. For example he took a group of people and asked them about favourite colours. He then observed that in the following discussions people sided with those who agreed with them about colours. He even divided people into tribes on the basis of whether they thought a bundle contained more or less than a hundred matches.
People are tribal. It is a part of the problem with humanity. I have no doubt that the troubles in the north had little to do with real religion. It was about people despising those who were not a part of their group. Tribalism, shows itself in racism, sectarianism, the snobbery of the rich, the inverted snobbery of the poor and ageism. The problem is not loving those who have things in common with us but hating those who are different.
The Jews of the first century were deeply tribal. Prejudice was raw and unashamed. The apostles lived among a people who had a morbid dislike of those who were not Jews (Gentiles). Some rabbis forbade Jews from helping a Gentile mother in childbirth because that act would bring another Gentile into the world. There was a local proverb that taught that Gentiles only existed to fuel the fires of hell.
Such attitudes are so far removed from what their faith actually taught. Israel had been elected to be a light to the nations. Amongst her heroes were a Canaanite like Rahab and a Moabite like Ruth. Their major prophets looked forward to a day when people from all over the world would come into a living relationship with God. Yet the Jews had become narrow and sectarian, and were out of touch with the heartbeat of the God they claimed to know.
1. Everyone needs a Saviour
Our passage begins with a very noble Gentile. Cornelius is a man of some influence, a centurion. While those who worked for the occupying forces were hated this roman soldier was actually respected. He is what the Jews would have referred to as a god-fearer: he had not undergone the Jewish rites of passage but he had an allegiance to their God. He is conscientious with his household, generous towards the poor and he prays continually.
However, this devoutly religious man needs to be forgiven. We know this because earlier in Acts the apostle Peter spoke of the name of Jesus, by which all people need to be saved. Then near the end of this passage we see Peter explain to Cornelius that everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness through his name. Good people like Cornelius need to be rescued from their sin.
A man wrote to the Church of England newspaper, the Church Times. He explained: ‘Dear Sir, I am a country solicitor and was, at the time of my conversion some 18 months ago a churchwarden. I had been a churchgoer for most of my ... in theory at least, I appeared to have all the right qualifications for calling myself a Christian; but I have to say that I have serious doubts as to whether I truly was one ... Now by the grace of God I have joy and peace when before they were lacking. Why? Because I have been "born again".’
God is kind: he restrains our evil so that no-one is bad as they could be. God is no fool: he sees that even our best actions are tainted with self-centredness and pride. God is holy: he warns people of what our sins deserve. God is love: he sends his Son to die for a guilty world. God is merciful: he desires that all people would be rescued from condemnation.
Everyone needs a saviour and that saviour is to be offered to all types of people.
2. The Saviour is for everyone
Cornelius was not the only person who gets converted in this story. Peter is converted too. God deals with Peter's prejudices against the Gentiles. God sent an angel to Cornelius but the angel did not share the gospel with him; it was Peter who got to share the gospel with him. God could have had Peter arrange for the gospel to be sent in a message via Cornelius' servants but God wanted Peter there in person. Cornelius had to meet Peter because he was becoming a part of a movement of people, and Peter had witness Cornelius's conversion in order to learn that God does not have cultural and ethnic favourites but accepts everyone who fears him.
For Peter it began with a vision. He is praying on the flat roof of the house in which he is staying. It is midday, the day after Cornelius met the angel. The vision is of a sheet descending with all sorts of animals on it. 'Rise Peter, kill and eat.' Peter protests, these foods are unclean, but the voice responded, 'What God has made clean, do not call unclean.'
You may know that Jews don't eat pork. Actually the Old Testament forbade eating many sorts of meat. The purpose of these food laws was to distinguish God's people as being different. But since the Day of Pentecost all of God's people have the Holy Spirit. Now what marks God's people as separate, or holy, is not what we eat but what is in our heart. The Holy Spirit produces his fruit in our lives. He enables us to be truthful, gentle, self-controlled and kind. He makes us think and behave more like Jesus. He makes us different, which is what it means to be holy.
The animals on that sheet pointed Peter to people he considered unclean. He had failed to see that God had a plan for such people. These were people his culture had taught him to despise. Who might we be tempted to dislike? Who would we rather that God had nothing to do with? What would be on the sheet if he was calling us to share the gospel with those we call unclean?
Would the sheet contain the rainbow flag of the gay and lesbian community? Maybe our attitudes towards gay people has less to do with defending the Biblical view of sex and marriage and more to do with our instinctive fear of those who can appear effeminate, loud and assertive.
Would the sheet contain chocolate or peaches reminding us of those with brown skin or those called white? Would the sheet contain the caravan of a traveller, a boat for migrants, the needle of an addict, the bottle of a drunk or the burka of a Muslim? We are called to go to all these people groups with the gospel. The gospel is good news for all.
We are to be a people rich in love and devoid of prejudice. When people from different backgrounds become Christians we are to welcome them into our church and homes as brothers and sisters. We are to delight in diversity for we are on our way to a heaven filled with people from every nation, tribe and tongue. One of the ministers of All Souls Church in London claimed that if we are not mixing with people of different cultures it is a denial of the gospel.
3. The Saviour died that we might live
Cornelius gathers his family circle and close friends to hear what Peter has to say. It is our desire that our loved ones would be exposed to the message about Jesus. Peter reminds them of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. He tells them that we can either have Jesus as our judge or our saviour. He points then to the offer of forgiveness and life. The Saviour of the world died that we might have life.
Notice that Peter speaks of Jesus dying on a tree. That is a strange way to talk about the crucifixion, especially to a Roman soldier. The Romans had developed crucifixion into an art form. Cornelius knew Jesus died on a cross. So why talk of a tree rather than a cross?
Because Peter knows that Cornelius is a God-fearer who has studied the Scriptures. The cross could be thought of as a tree. The book of Deuteronomy said 'cursed is anyone hung on a tree.' Peter is teaching Cornelius that Jesus bore God's curse for our sin. Jesus died as a substitute in our place. He was counted guilty so that a holy God could punish our sin in him. As the apostle Paul later puts it, 'God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the rightness of God.'
As Peter was still speaking the Holy Spirit fell on those who listened and the began to speak in strange tongues. This is not a description of what normally happens when people come to faith. This is an echo of what Peter and his Jewish friends had experienced on the Day of Pentecost. They are being taught that there won't be two types of Christian. There won't be one experience for the Jews who come to faith and another for Gentile believers. The same gospel speaks of the same Jesus who as risen Saviour gives the Holy Spirit to all his children.
The gospel message is humbling. It tells generous and devout people like Cornelius that they are actually in desperate need of forgiveness. It tells us that our sin is so serious that nothing less than the death of God's own Son could deal with it, and that is exactly what he has done for us.
But racism, bigotry, sexism and ageism are arrogant and proud. They say, 'I am better than other people because of the group I belong to.' God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. Therefore bigotry is anti-God.
The book of Acts centres on a command of the risen Jesus to take the good news from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. The book of Acts finishes with the apostle Paul in Rome, the centre of their world at that time. For those Jewish apostles they needed to overcome their prejudices if they were to be faithful to Christ's commission. We should honestly evaluate what prejudices we might be tempted to harbour and ensure that they never get in the way if sharing the good news of Jesus with all people.