Listen and Respond

by | May 1, 2022

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Berry French
“Listen and Respond”
May 1, 2022, Confirmation Sunday
Acts 10:33-36, 44-48

Introduction to the Scripture reading
The book of Acts tells the story of the early Christians working out what it means to follow the risen Christ, particularly in relationship to their Jewish heritage and to the “outsiders” of the Jewish faith – the Gentiles (that’s us, we’re the Gentiles)

The idea that Jesus came for all is a given for most of us today, but for the early Jewish disciples, the assumption was that Jesus was the Messiah only for the Jewish faith and there was no way for a non-Jew to become Christian.

Today’s story is part of a pivotal moment in the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit transforms the apostle Peter, and through Peter transforms the entire Church to understand that God’s grace through Jesus Christ extends further than the Jewish people to include all people.

Today’s verses cover the end of the story, so I’ll give you the character introductions and an overview leading up to our verses.

An angel shows up to this non-Jew named Cornelius in a vision.
Cornelius is a Roman centurion – he is a leader in the army that occupies ancient Israel. But he also is a devout man who practices prayer and gives money to the poor.

The angel tells this Cornelius to send for the apostle Peter – who he has never heard of before. Meanwhile in another distant town, Peter also has a vision while he’s praying and super hungry.

In Peter’s vision there is a large sheet lowered from heaven and in the sheet were all kinds of animals – notably animals that were “unclean” – animals that Jews were forbidden to eat.

Yet Peter heard God’s voice saying: “Get up, Peter and eat.” Peter, the good Jew, basically says– “No way. These are unclean animals, and I would never dishonor my religion by eating what Scripture commands not to eat.”

But God responds “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

This whole scenario happens 3 times – God says eat, Peter says this goes against a core belief of what it means to be Jewish, then God responds, “What I have made clean, do not call unclean.” Then the sheet with the animals is taken back up to heaven. Now that’s a bizarre dream. I imagine it was even more crazy for Peter.

The Bible says Peter was greatly puzzled about the vision, when suddenly the men that were sent by Cornelius appeared and the Holy Spirit tells Peter to go with them without delay. So Peter and some of his Jewish friends go to Cornelius’ home which is two days away.

By the time Peter arrives, Cornelius has gathered his friends and family to meet Peter. When Peter shows up, he basically starts by saying “Just to name the awkwardness, it is unlawful for me to be here with all you Gentiles, but God told me to come, and so I have come.”

Cornelius says, “well I sent for you because God told me to send for you.”

And here’s where today’s verses pick up – exactly where the religious rules say Peter should NEVER be: in a gentile’s home.

 

Text: Acts 10:33-36, 44-48
Cornelius wraps up his welcome speech in Acts 10, verse 33: “Therefore, Peter, I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.
Peter keeps on preaching … for 7 verses…
But while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers (the Jews) who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.

Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited Peter to stay for several days.

Sermon
Most of us don’t listen that well. At our worst, we mostly just prepare to defend our position while the other person is talking. It happens with siblings and spouses. It happens with political parties. It happens with nations.

But at our best, when we’re at our best, or maybe when we’re most Christ-like, we work to be open to what someone else is saying to us … with enough humbleness that another person may influence us, or even teach us.

What’s so fascinating to me about today’s narrative is that before the Holy Spirit can do the history-making fireworks of those Gentiles speaking in tongues and praising God … there was a LOT of humble listening.

Cornelius, the Roman solider employed as an occupier, was humble enough to LISTEN when the messenger of God said “send for an Peter and invite him to your home.”
It’s noteworthy that in this part of the drama God’s starts with an angel to the enemy.
Peter, though it took him a while, was eventually humble enough to LISTEN when the spirit said Go with these men even though it breaks the rules.

And so here they all are in this soldier’s home. Peter’s preaching about God’s love being limitless, when all of the sudden the Holy Spirit rushes out and speaks through the physical voices of Cornelius’s non-Jewish family. WHAT!?! This roman soldier is the voice of God TO the apostle Peter and eventually the Holy Spirit in these non-Jewish accents convivence the Church to do church like they’ve never done it before.

It took some intense listening, some serious trust, some willingness to break with tradition … but God put these two men and their people in the same house and unleashed the transforming Love of God EVERYWHERE!

We’re sitting here as a church full of Gentiles, but this is the moment that gets the up-till-now Jewish church to let us in. This is where the Holy Spirit ushered us into recognizing that our understanding of God and the Church was way too small.

I suppose when the church is most faithful, that’s what we do:
allow the Spirit to expand our understanding of Church and expand our understanding of God to let more and more light and love in.
Today is Confirmation Sunday, and we’re exactly one week away from Carolina’s graduation.

If University Presbyterian Church does our job well we encourage these young people: these confirmation students [that will be confirmed later today], and the college students who walk through the doors of PCM, to expand their understanding of God and Church so that their faith has room for questions and doubt, room to take Scripture serious enough to ask hard questions of it, and room to find spiritual practices that will anchor them.

In a few minutes we will Confirm 28 young people into full membership in the life of this church and the Church. That’s a lot of fresh voices WE NEED TO LISTEN to, expecting these young people to help us expand how we do church.

Today is the culmination of months of lessons on the confirmation journey. Kim McNeill and our youth advisors, confirmation mentors, along with our Music Ministry have been partnering with our young people for years, and before that many of them and their families were nurtured by Nancy and the Children’s Ministry Committee as they have learned the faith, and then learned to expand their faith.

Down the hall in PCM, this past week we’ve been saying goodbye, God-be-with-you to our senior class and celebrating the Student Leadership Team that guided us through this past year. At the same time, we’ve been welcoming and training a new team of student leaders. These nine students, if we do our job right, will transform and expand how we do college ministry and how we do church together.

I wonder if we – the grownups in the room – can be humble enough to LISTEN, if we might just hear the Holy Spirit blowing in non-Jewish accents – in the accents of our 8th and 9th graders, the accents of college students from Lillington, Asheville, and Indiana, convincing the Church to do Church like we’ve never done it before – with a more expanded and more faithful understanding of God.

I said earlier that we’ve done our job well as a church when we allow the 8th grader and 18-year-old to deepen and widen their faith. That’s true, but it’s only partially true. No one in this story is left as they were – God’s Spirit is always in the business of transformation. Peter, Cornelius, everyone in the house, and later the whole Church was transformed. Our job as a Church IS to faithfully provide for the nurture of young people’s faith as it matures … but we also have our own work to do.

If we – all of us – can LISTEN and allow the Spirit to expand our understanding of God’s love and grace – so that even our enemies can be loved by God then maybe we can expand our own grasp of God’s character enough to know deep in our bones that God’s love is big enough even to embrace the brokenness of our own lives.

Amen