I love the way that our reading from Acts 10 starts – Peter opened his mouth… . Now his track record on what happens when he opened his mouth was not an encouraging one – he tended, as the old saying goes, to out his foot in his mouth.
But here he says something which is quite remarkable – he says “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any who fears him (God) and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
The immense radical ness of what Peter says here has often been lost on us, and we need to understand where Peter had been for the amazing sense of this verse to really impact us.
Firstly we need to understand where Peter is standing when he says this – he is standing in a Roman Centurion’s home – a gentiles home.
In Acts 10 we have a clashing of worldviews. Peter and Cornelius were as far apart as you could get. Peter had assumptions about Cornelius, not because he knew Cornelius but because Cornelius was not a Jew. Peter’s world revolved around his Jewish-ness, in a negative way.
If you were able to look inside of Peter’s head at the beginning of Acts 10 I would suggest that there was one thing which Peter held as a certainty; He knew who God loved. He knew who God accepted. The answer – people just like him; people who thought like him; Jews who accepted the messiah. And if you wanted to get to know God then you needed to become like Peter. God would never speak through Gentiles; God would never send His spirit on a Gentile; Gentiles could receive God but they had to become Jews first.
Cornelius is called a God fearing man in Chap 10 v2. This meant that he feared God, and probably followed the Law of Moses, but was not circumcised, which was needed in order to make him a convert. One reason why Cornelius might not have gone the whole way is that if he were to be circumcised, and his superiors in the Roman Army found out, he would be court marshalled and probably executed because he would be acknowledging that Yahweh was greater than Caesar. Yet, he was seen as just a God fearer and not a full believer because he had not accepted circumcision.
We are told that Cornelius and his family did acts of charity and kindness for the people and the people had great respect for them (v22). And we are told that God comes to Cornelius and answers his prayer. We will come back to the significance of this in a moment.
Yet in all this, Peter still believed that God would never work in a Gentile. And the reason for this was that Peter was ethnocentric. What does ethnocentric mean: the deep belief, usually sub-conscious, that one’s own culture, language, race, nation, or people group is superior to all others (a group ‘self-centeredness’)
Some people would even call this racism; Now imagine this: Peter had conversion, discipleship training, baptism in the HS, ministering in the power of the HS, church leadership – and he was still ethnocentric. He still believed that God would never work in Gentiles. He still believed that Gentiles were inferior, and unclean to the Jews.
And especially Cornelius. Cornelius was a representative of the Roman Empire and the Roman army which was occupying the nation. For a Jew, Cornelius was an enemy. Not just a Gentile but a Gentile which represents death and oppression. I think we don’t quite understand the hatred which existed between the jewish people and the Roman Empire at this time. To have any contact with a Gentile, let alone a centurion, would be putting Peter’s reputation to scrutiny.
Yet here is Peter, in Chap 10, at Cornelius’ house. And the penny begins to drop. He starts to understand that God wants fellowship between Jewish Christian’s and Gentiles.
God begins to dismantle Peters worldview – to remove all his preconceived thinking and beliefs. Then Peter hears for the first time that God had come and revealed himself to a Gentile.
How would it have sounded to Peter – here was someone whom Peter had thought could not have any intimate contact with God, explaining that God has answered his prayers; that he had received a very personal revelation from God and that part of the this revelation was to get Peter to his house (v30-33).
The penny finally drops for Peter – “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any who fears him (God) and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
How wonderful is this verse – it reaffirms God’s heart for reconciliation which began way back in Genesis 12:2-3:
I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you, I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse, AND ALL PEOPLES (ETHNE) ON EARTH WILL BE BLESSED THROUGH YOU.
This is the same theme from our reading from Isaiah this morning – the Servant of the Lord – the special, ideal servant of God will accomplish God’s purposes to ALL THE NATIONS – not just to the Jews, but to the Greeks, and the Arabs, and the Chinese and the Africans and, and, and… . He will never grow weary or be discouraged – and this is a promise – it will happen – and it has begun to happen – the Servant has come – Jesus Christ – and we await its completion when he returns.
We must be so careful not to present God as a tribal God – as either white middle class or white western. I know of a Muslim who became a Christian. He accepted Christ and believed the Gospel. But for many in his Church this was not enough. He had to renounce everything about his culture and his history. He had to become a westernised Christian before he was accepted as having been truly converted.
We must also be careful not to write off anyone as someone whom God could NEVER convert, or work through, or speak through. No-one is outside the reach of being changed and used by God.
God does not look at the external appearance, or nationality, or wealth, or social status or achievements. The emphasis is that Cornelius’ gentile nationality was acceptable to God so that he had no need to become a jew.
This has a huge implication on how we share the Gospel with others.
Evangelism is not about making someone conform to our cultural way of doing church or Christianity. Real change only happens when the Holy Spirit convicts. We must never be focused on superficial change but on real deep rooted change.
Good evangelism is about reconciliation with the Father. And when we grasp God’s heart for reconciliation our evangelism is no longer a programme whereby we try and make others like us – white western Christian’s – but where we try and release people back into the vibrant, life giving relationship between them and God. The heart of our evangelism should be about the glory of God – that the creator of the Universe desires reconciliation with you and I.
Here we can and must learn a vital lesson from Peter as his assumptions, biases, and discriminations are slowly stripped away. He ended up in front of Cornelius, willing to accept him, to listen to him, to attempt to understand and learn from him and finally to serve him as believer and a follower of Jesus.
And lets not forget Peter – who willingly accepts that his earlier view of God was defective. He has no problem accepting his error because for Peter saving face or saving his honor or pride is utterly irrelevant – he desires to bow down to God’s truth and willingly accepts correction when he is wrong.
The Church exists in a culture which seems increasingly alien to us and increasingly superficial and appearance based. For us to be able to reach into this culture we need to learn from Peter and we need to let God continue to break down our assumptions and our biases and our discriminations. In Matthew’s Gospel, chp 27:51 it says Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was split in two from top to bottom; the earth quaked and the rocks were split. The curtain which separated everything from the holy of holies was torn down the middle – symbolizing that now God was approachable by all – nothing lay in the way for anyone to approach God. Yet too much of church history and our current times has seen the church trying to sew that curtain back together again, creating barriers and setting man made rules to determine who may or may not approach God.
There is absolutely NO ONE excluded under the call of God to repentence – be they rich or poor, criminal or terrorist, murderer or petty thief – all can come to repentence and be forgiven – as Romans 10:9 says if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.
There is absolutely NO-ONE, having come to God in repentence, excluded from receiving the Holy Spirit.
As Peter says, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any who fears him (God) and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Can you & me say Amen to this verse? Do we know in our on lives and in the lives of others that God shows no favoritism or patiality?
How wonderful, merciful and holy is our God.