Community of Hope – Acts 10:9-35

This is the last in the series we began back in September. I hope it has resonated, touched a nerve, made you think, challenged your perspectives, made you uncomfortable. Trying to grow together as an intercultural church is going to involve all of those things. In the midst of it all there is hope because we are focussed on Jesus Christ who welcomes and accepts all who come seeking him, no matter what their ethnicity, ability, gender, social background or religion. In accepting us, we are not expected to become clones of each other, but come together as the community of God’s people in Christ Jesus, showing how diverse people can live together and giving an insight into the Kingdom of God. That is quite something! Many would say it is idealistic, but we are followers of Jesus who can make the impossible happen.

I think this story of Peter visiting Cornelius is my favourite account in the development of the early church from the Book of Acts. This is because Peter realises that the Kingdom of God is bigger than the disciples of Jesus had understood it to be. Peter also passes through a process of rapid learning and transformation in his understanding. I have no idea how old Peter was, but he  wasn’t living in a world that was particularly tolerant and I can imagine that like many of us, he was fairly fixed in views. The Jews had worked hard to maintain their separation from contaminating influences, and whilst Israel was the invaded nation and under  occupation, they still considered themselves to be better than their invaders or other cultures. 

Whilst Peter did not have the same religious credentials as Paul, he would have been a good Jewish man. He was prominent in the leadership of the Jerusalem Christians, and would have been looked to for direction, guidance and the maintenance of standards. Remember, at this stage they would have been worshipping Jesus in recognisably Jewish ways; what else did they know? As far as they were concerned, they were Jews who followed and believed in Jesus the Messiah, taught about in the Hebrew Scriptures. There is no reason to think that they were not living a Jewish lifestyle and observing Jewish customs and laws. In fact this becomes obvious as Peter meets the crowd in Cornelius’ house and the response he receives from the Jerusalem Christians when he gets home.

Let’s do a brief profile of Peter:

  • In the first group of fishermen to be called by Jesus – not the usual sort of disciple.
  • Prominent amongst the disciples – not least because he seems to speak and act spontaneously.
  • Singled out by Jesus as the one upon whom the church would be built.
  • Severely rebuked by Jesus: Matthew 16:21-23
  • Forthright in his convictions.
  • Spectacular in his mistakes.
  • Witness to the resurrection.
  • Early on took a lead among the Jerusalem Christians.
  • Bold in preaching, and speaking before the authorities.
  • The one who steps over Jewish boundaries and realises the gospel is for the Gentiles as well.

I’ve called this message, ‘A community of hope’, because that is what the church should be as it reaches out across all boundaries – especially the ones we have erected ourselves. The community of hope takes off as Peter overcomes his religious traditions, his prejudices and stereotypes, to take the message of Jesus to Gentiles. Let’s take time to consider what Peter did.

  • Responds to the vision: he is bemused by it, because it seems to be telling him that all of God’s creation is ‘clean’. This is exactly how Mark understands Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7:18ff. 
  • He works out the meaning of the vision as he takes one step at a time and listens to the Spirit’s leading.
  • Acts 10:25 Peter enters the house of a Gentile and lifts Cornelius up, who has bowed down to him. He touches the man.
  • 10:28 Gives a strange introduction as he begins speaking. Not the most endearing opening, but Peter voices his thought processes and the development of his understanding: we should not call any person common or unclean.

Let’s pause and explore that a bit further. Peter has come to a momentous understanding: all people are equal in the sight of God, because God has created all people. That was the thrust of the vision. If we begin from this premise, then the differences between people are an expression of God’s creativity and diversity. Those of us from a white heritage need to remember that the Garden of Eden is identified as being in what is now Iraq. From here the diversity of creation sprang.

  • Peter’s conclusion is confirmed as the Holy Spirit comes on the people who have been listening to him preach.
  • Peter stays with them for some days and even eats with them! I don’t think we can begin to understand the enormity of a Jew of Peter’s time sitting down and eating with Gentiles. To do so would be to contaminate yourself. Think about how you felt about being close to other people during the height of the pandemic. There was the fear of contamination. This might give an insight into what Peter did as he sat down and ate with Gentiles.

The people back in Jerusalem are not happy and Peter is roundly criticised for his behaviour: they’re not circumcised, they eat the wrong foods, they’re foreigners, Cornelius represents the occupier! You can imagine that the few lines of objection noted in Acts 11 took a lot longer to deliver and probably not very politely by some.

It would be naive for us to say that there are no prejudices in this church. We inherit them from our families, from our friends and from our society and dare I say it, from our churches. Prejudices will have emerged and continue to emerge from a week in which the UK has an appointed Prime Minister from an Indian heritage. Will we as Christian people stand against such prejudice or collude with it? Are we prepared to face up to our own prejudices as people who proclaim the Kingdom of God, and want to be a community of hope in a society that needs to see how Jesus Christ changes people? We should recognise that prejudice and racism is not the preserve of white Western Europe. We have been prominent in promoting it through slavery, conquest and empire, but it exits between other ethnicities and nations as well. I experienced this as a headteacher of a multicultural school. Talking with a local minister, I realised it is experienced in the church where one particular group is dominant back in the home nation, and they are seen to have that dominance here as well.  

One of the things the human race has managed to do particularly well is to find ways in which to feel superior to others, judge others and find reasons to dominate, because ‘they’ are not like ‘us’. We may be good at covering up prejudice in polite society, but it will emerge in our conversations, our attitudes and our willingness to question why we exclude others. Do we want church to mirror this or to show a different way? Peter came to realise that the Kingdom of God is broader than he understood it to be. It is in Acts that we see this demonstrated as the church begins to expand in all directions. It was kick started with Pentecost and people from a variety of nations responding to the gospel message. It happened through individuals such as the Ethiopian royal official. It happened through persecution as Christians began to migrate from Jerusalem.

So how do we move forward in developing an intercultural church?

  • Personally we find out about Christians from a different ethnicity who have made an impact. That is why I encouraged you to find out about someone and present in church. 
  • Be willing to question our own assumptions and attitudes, looking at things from a different perspective.
  • Start to make friends across the ethnic divide. It begins here on a Sunday after church.
  • Enter into things when they are done differently, even if it doesn’t push your buttons.
  • Join in with fellowship events, with serving in the church, and just talk to people. If we don’t share together we won’t grow together.
  • 20th November.
  • If you are a reader, then read books from a different ethnic perspective; if you use the internet research some Christians from history of a different heritage; if you use YouTube listen to recordings of Martin Luther King Jr and others.
  • We have two more discussion groups for this series. It would be great if people from other ethnicities could be part of them.
  • I would like to hear from people as to how we take another step in becoming an intercultural church.

The most important starting point is to go back to the gospels and read about Jesus. Note the engagement with people who were on the margins, who faced prejudice and who came from other nations. Remember the person proclaimed to have the greatest faith came from the most unlikely background: he was a Roman soldier. 

Peter came to this conclusion: 

I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism, but accepts from 

every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.’ Acts 10:34-35

The Kingdom of God is broader than we can imagine. The Kingdom of God welcomes all those who come seeking Jesus and there is no favouritism. Those in the Kingdom are all one in Christ Jesus, but we are not clones.