>The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, April 25, 2010. The text for this week’s message is Acts 10:44-48.

Today is the final week of our Seismic Shift series in which we are looking at some significant changes that took place following the resurrection of Jesus Christ. A seismic shift is a geological event that happens within the earth that can literally change the world. These seismic events take place on a daily basis; some of them have a significant impact, while others are barely noticeable. The seismic shift that is the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one that has changed the world more than anything else in all of history.
Two weeks ago, we looked at a story in Acts 5 that encapsulated some major shifts that took place in the life of the disciples. We saw three major changes in just a few short verses. Instead of falling away like they did when Jesus was arrested, the disciples are now standing before the Jewish Council. Instead of hiding behind a locked door, they were teaching in the open, in eyesight of the prison from which they had just been miraculously released. And finally, in Peter, we saw him speaking boldly about Jesus to the high priest and the Council, instead of denying Jesus like he did when questioned by a slave girl during Jesus’ trial.
Last week, we were in Acts 9, looking at the story of Saul, also known as Paul. We were introduced to this person as a man who surrounded himself with threats and murder against the followers of Jesus. He is a major player in the early persecution of Christians, and through Acts 7, 8 and the beginning of 9, we see him becoming more and more aggressive towards the followers of Christ. He created around himself an environment filled with violence against Christians. And at the beginning of Acts 9, his reach is expanding as he is going to Damascus in order to find more Christians to arrest.
On the road to Damascus, Paul has a profound experience with the risen Jesus. A bright light flashed all around him. He fell to the ground and his world was changed by one conversation with the risen Christ. He went from being the worst enemy of the early Church to becoming its greatest missionary, and the primary reason why Christianity spread in the face of terrible persecution in the first century.
We learn in these two stories that anything is possible with God. The complete reversal that we see in the disciples and the dramatic change in direction that we see in Paul, are proof enough that God can work in anyone’s life, whether that person is follower of Jesus or not. Our role in the midst of all this is to listen for God’s call in our lives, see where it is that we need to be changed, and see where it is that we can be an agent of change in people’s lives. We can’t expect anything as dramatic or sudden as what we see in Paul, but that doesn’t mean we can’t expect God to work in big ways in our lives, and in the lives of others.
This week, we are not looking at the story of any particular individual, but we are looking at how the resurrection of Christ created such a shift in the religious systems of day that something once considered fundamental to Judaism was now turned on its head. We see a major shift in the paradigms of the Jewish faith, a shift that was so crucial that it is a major reason why we are sitting in this sanctuary this morning.
One of the problems that I had in coming to today’s text is that to get the whole story, we really need to read the whole passage. Unfortunately, Acts 10 is 48 verses long. So, what I would like to do this morning is walk through the chapter so we can get the whole story, and make some pit stops along the way to see what we can learn from it.
Acts 10 begins by introducing a man named Cornelius. Cornelius was a centurion, which means he was in charge of 100 Roman soldiers, and he was a part of something called the Italian Cohort. A cohort consisted of 600 men under the charge of 6 centurions, and 10 cohorts made up a Roman legion. Centurions were fairly high on the social ladder because they were paid roughly fives times more than the average soldier. So, right off the bat, we know that Cornelius is a man of power and means. But then Luke gives us some unexpected details about this Roman centurion.
Cornelius was a devout man. He would have been considered a God-fearer. A God-fearer was a Gentile who worshipped the God of Israel and was attached to a synagogue in some way. God-fearers adhered to the Jewish faith, but they didn’t make the jump to embrace full conversion because adult, male Gentiles were not fond of circumcision, which was necessary for full conversion.
In Cornelius, we see a man of faith who leads his household by example. Two signs of a pious person in Judaism were prayer and almsgiving. And Luke tells us that Cornelius gave generously and prayed continually. So we are seeing a Gentile who is living a very pious life here. Already, for Luke’s Jewish audience, this might raise an eyebrow or two. Because there are a lot of Jewish people who weren’t nearly as pious as Cornelius.
Think about your social circle right now. What if I told you that there were probably some people who don’t follow Christ that live a more pious life than those in your Christian social circle. That might raise a few eyebrows. And that’s one of the questions that Christians have to face all the time. What about good people who don’t follow Jesus? How do we deal with that?
Well, the short answer, which is all you’re going to get this morning, is that we don’t follow Jesus to become good people. We follow Jesus to become forgiven and redeemed people. Now, for those who are earnestly following Jesus, there will be significant life changes and they should become “good” people. All fire trucks are red, but not all red trucks are fire trucks, do you know what I mean? Followers of Christ should be good people, but not all good people follow Christ. Okay, back to Cornelius.
What we see in Cornelius is a pious Gentile, a person who is genuinely following after God. And that’s important for what happens next. Cornelius has a vision. In fact, Luke says that he saw this vision clearly. And in this vision, an angel of God tells him to send some men to Joppa to find Peter and bring him to Caesarea. So, Cornelius gets two of his servants and a devout soldier, and sends them to get Peter. Now, just a general rule of thumb here: when an angel of God appears to you clearly and tells you to do something, do it. Just tuck that away in your memory, that one’s free today. Then the scene jumps to Peter.
We are told that Peter was in Joppa, and he went up on the housetop around noon to pray. While he was up there, he got hungry. And as he was preparing lunch he falls into a trance, and he has a vision. In this vision, Peter saw the heavens open up and a great sheet descending upon the earth. In this sheet were all kinds of animals – clean and unclean, and a voice tells him to kill and eat.
Unlike Cornelius, who immediately obeyed the vision that he received, Peter has a little conversation. When he is told to kill and eat, Peter initially refuses. He says, “No. I’ve never eaten anything that was unclean.” But he is given the same command two more times. Peter is told not to declare anything unclean that God has made clean. And in verse 17, we are told that Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what this vision might mean. Now, think about this for a minute. Peter has spent his whole life distinguishing between the clean and the unclean foods in his world, and now, he is being told by God not to make those distinctions. There is a major shift taking place.
One thing that I’ve noticed about people is that people aren’t fond of change. We find things that suit us, and we develop habits to maintain routines in lives. We are kind of like water; we prefer and seek out the path of least resistance. We spend our lives compartmentalizing things so they make sense to us. We spend our lives putting things in boxes to make them more manageable for us. And once we think we have everything figured out, we don’t want to change them. But the problem with doing the same thing over and over again is that you can dig yourself into a rut, and that’s a dangerous place to be as an individual and as a collective.
The Jewish people had dug themselves into a rut. Yes, they were supposed to keep separate from the things that were not holy. Yes, they were supposed to be set apart from the other nations. But, this wasn’t for their sake. It was for the sake of the other nations. The Israelite people weren’t set apart so that God could bless them more than the other nations. They weren’t set apart so that they could see themselves as better than everyone else. They were set apart so that they could be people of blessing for all the nations.
When God came to Abraham and told him to go to a distant country, He didn’t say that He was doing it so that all of Abraham’s offspring would be blessed. No! In Genesis 12:3, God says, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” He didn’t say “your family;” He said “all families.” Israel was to be a light to the world. Israel was to be a blessing to the world, but they had gotten to the point in their faith where it became about them – what they deserved, what they wanted, what they preferred, what was best for them – and nothing else.
And let me tell you something, as much as we read the Old Testament and roll our eyes about how Israel just didn’t get it, we are equally prone to put ourselves in the same rut. When a congregation forgets that the message of the gospel is for those who are on the outside, it has failed in its first responsibility. William Temple, an archbishop in the Church of England at the beginning of the 20th century, said, “The Church is the one institution that exists for those outside of it.” The people of Israel forgot their responsibility to be a light to the world, and it serves as a warning for those of us in the Christian Church today. We cannot forget our responsibilities, because if we do, God’s will is going to get done with or without us.
Christianity was never intended to be a separate religion from the Jewish faith, but it was a fulfillment and a call to be the blessing that the Israelite people were supposed to be. It was really a reform movement of sorts. We have a little something like that in our own denominational history. The Methodists began as a movement to reform the Church of England. John Wesley himself did not want to create a separate denomination, but that is what ended up happening. Okay, back to Peter.
Peter realizes that something much bigger than himself is going on here, and he listens when the Spirit tells him to meet these people that have come out to get him. He put two and two together and realized that these visitors had something to do with this vision that he had. The next morning, they get up and head out to Cornelius’ place in Caesarea. They get to talking and realize that God is doing something here. What is crazy about all of this is that Peter and Cornelius don’t really know why they are supposed to get together until they get together.
Peter says, “You know, I’m not really supposed to be here. It’s not lawful for me to associate with Gentiles, but God told me to come, so I came.” Cornelius then tells Peter about his vision. Peter figures out that he is there to share the message of the gospel with this Gentile and his family. So that is exactly what he does. He tells them about Jesus.
As Peter is telling them about Jesus, we get a second Pentecost. The first one happened in Acts 2 amongst the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. But now, the Holy Spirit descends upon this group of Gentiles. The paradigm has been busted. A major shift has occurred. Peter realizes that what God is doing goes far beyond anything that he could have imagined.
As we’ve walked through this series, we’ve seen a lot of changes. Not only have the disciples been changed, not only has Paul’s life been changed, but now everything that they took for granted in their faith was being challenged and changed. And the inevitable questions begin to take shape and stare right at us. What are the areas in our lives that need to be changed? Where do we need a dramatic reversal in the direction that we are headed? What are the things that we take for granted that need to be challenged?
Change simply for the sake of change is not worthwhile. Change for the purpose of fulfilling the call that God has on our lives is not only good, it is necessary. Sometimes, things have to change. If you ever look around and don’t like where you are in life, there is nobody to blame but yourself. It’s a very simple principle in life – you end up where you are headed. That is true for individuals, and that is true for groups of people. What we see in today’s passage is that sometimes, there is a need for the old paradigms to be demolished, because nothing is ever going to move ahead if they don’t.