Sweetwater Presbyterian

Small in size, Big in Faith and Love



The 10th chapter of Acts which we read a portion of earlier, is one of the great turning points in the history of the early church. A month ago, we celebrated Pentecost which is considered the ‘birthday’ of the Christian church. The people that day who were filled with the Holy Spirit went and began teaching others about Jesus and those who believe began to gather themselves in house churches - to support one another, to learn and to worship together. Whenever the house church would get too large for the particular house they were in, they would split and form a new house church. In this way the church of Jesus Christ began to grow.
In the beginning, the church was made up only of Jews. At Pentecost it was Jews who heard the message and received the Holy Spirit, and it was to other Jews that they spread the message of Jesus. So this new church of Jesus Christ was made up solely of Jews. The Apostle Peter and Jesus’ brother James, along with several other of Jesus disciples became the leaders of the church and they took on the responsibility of making sure the church stayed true to the principles Jesus had laid out for his followers. These leaders were convinced that this new church was for Jews and only for Jews and in order for someone to become a member of Christ’s church, they would first have to become a Jew. This understanding of Christ’s church continued for many years as the church grew in Jerusalem and some of the surrounding areas.
The Apostle Peter felt that God had called him to a more missionary type work and so he began to travel north of Jerusalem teaching and preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ - but only to Jews.
The book of Acts is a record of the history of the church as it began to grow and flourish during the first century. The beginning of Acts tells us of the ascension of Jesus, then we have the account of Pentecost and then follows stories of how the church spread first in Jerusalem, then to the surrounding areas, and eventually up through Asia Minor and to Rome by the Apostle Paul. The accounts in Acts kind of fluctuate between the happenings of Peter and of Paul as each understood their ministry and their calling to spread the knowledge of Christ. They continued to struggle with one another about who the Gospel was for - Peter felt that it was Jews only and Paul felt God had called him to deliver the message to the Gentiles. The story that begins in Acts 10 records the first first time a Gentile is going to receive the message of Jesus and become a part of the Church of Jesus Christ. This man was Cornelius and since he is such an important part of church history we need to learn about who he was.
Cornelius was a Roman centurion stationed at Caesarea, the headquarters of the Roman government in Palestine. Palestine was essentially what we would call Israel today and Caesarea was a city on the coast, a little southeast of Nazareth where Jesus was born. A centurion was the leader of roughly 100 soldiers. He had a good reputation in the army, was known to be courageous and loyal to Rome. So Cornelius had two strikes against him if you were a Jew. First of all he was not only a Roman soldier, but the leader of Roman soldiers and the Jews in Palestine hated these soldiers who occupied their land and made their life difficult and had taxed most of the Jews into poverty. And his second strike was that he was a Gentile - and Jews hated all Gentiles. A Gentile being simply anyone who is not a Jew.
But we also know that Cornelius was a God-fearer. This was the term for Roman soldiers who had become frustrated with the gods of Romans and had attached themselves to the Jewish God. They did not formally become part of the Jewish faith, but they believed in one God and the ethical principles of the Jewish religion. Cornelius then was a man who was seeking after the one true God. The account in Acts also tells us that Cornelius was a man who was, for a Roman soldier, uncharacteristically kind. He was charitable and had a love for his fellow man that was not often seen in the Romans. He was also a man of prayer, again an unusual description of these Romans who occupied the Jewish lands.
After Luke, the writer of Acts, introduces us to Cornelius, the story shifts back to the Apostle Peter. Remember Peter adamantly believed that God had no use for the Gentiles. The Gospel of Jesus was not to be wasted on sharing with Gentiles. In fact Peter would go out of his way to avoid any contact with Gentiles. Peter was on one of his missionary journeys to share the gospel with other Jews and he was staying with a man named Simon who was a tanner. Peter went up to the roof of Simon’s house to pray. The roofs of these Hebrew houses were flat and were used as a room in house and this was often the place where people would go for some time alone. While Peter was up there praying, he had a vision. In his vision, there was a great sheet being let down from heaven. This sheet was full of animals and he heard a voice saying, “Kill them and eat them”. Now remember Jews had strict dietary laws and they were not allowed to eat any meat except animals who chewed their cud and had cloven hooves. All other animals were forbidden. In this vision, were animals of all types - even the forbidden ones. Peter was shocked by the voice and said that he would never eat anything that Jewish law forbid. This same vision happened three times, each time Peter protesting that he would not eat the meat he as a Jew was not allowed to eat. But he came to understand that this vision was God’s way of telling him that Gentiles were OK - that Gentiles were OK to receive the Gospel. And it wasn’t like he was instantly changed, but the seed had been planted.
Now at the same time, Cornelius is at his home praying and he hears the voice of God telling him to send for the Apostle Peter to come to his house. So Cornelius did and two of Cornelius’ emissaries when to where Peter was staying and asked Peter to come with them. Peter did and he found himself at the door of Cornelius. Remember that Peter had no use for Gentiles, Peter had been taught his whole life not to associate with Gentiles, never to go into a Gentile home, that Gentiles were unworthy and unclean and at all cost were to be avoided. Even with the vision from God assuring him Gentiles were to receive the message, can you imagine how difficult it was for Peter to stand even in the doorway of a Gentile home? Cornellius respected this and met Peter at the door fully expecting Peter not to come in. But feeling that the spirit of God led him here, Peter went in to Cornelius’ house.
Once inside, Peter told Cornelius the story of Jesus and while they sat together, the Holy spirit came into Cornelius and Cornelius became the first Gentile to hear and receive the message of Jesus Christ and the first to receive the Holy Spirit. Cornelius then asked Peter to stay with him for several days so that he could learn more about Jesus. Peter baptized Cornelius and his whole family.
This was the power of the Holy Spirit at work. Peter who had despised Gentiles his whole life was given the courage by God’s Spirit to be led into a Gentile home and Cornelius, through the power of the Holy Spirit, became a believer.
Peter wasn’t the first person to struggle what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. While we don’t think about Jesus as someone who struggles with anything, the story we read from the Gospel of Matthew about the Syrophoenician woman is a story which helps Jesus realize that he was sent not only for the Jews, but for all people. In this story, the woman, called Syrophoenician because of the area she was from, comes to Jesus and asks him to heal her little daughter who was possessed with a demon. Jesus just ignores her but she persists in asking him to heal her daughter. He looks at her and says “I came just for the Jews and you are a
Gentile.” But she again begs him to help her little girl. Jesus replies, “It is not right to take the children’s (meaning the Jews) bread and give it to the dogs (referring to the Gentiles).” But even after this insult, she is not easily dismissed and says, “But even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table.” Jesus stops and looks at her and says, “I have not seen such faith from anyone else” - meaning the Jews, who are the ones who should have had faith. In other words, Jesus sees that this woman’s faith as a Gentile is far greater than the Jews he has been preaching too.
Jesus began to understand the Gospel was for all people - the same lesson learned by Peter as he ministered to the Gentile Cornelius.
The church changed that day that Peter was able to put his past behind him and enter Cornelius’ house.
The church is in a period of change now. Change is hard – it was hard for Peter; it was even hard for Jesus.
This pandemic has forced us to look at church in a new way; forced us to look at worship in a new way. Forced us to see that the church of Jesus Christ will continue to do what Jesus needs us to do regardless of where or how we worship; regardless of a pandemic; regardless of social distancing or masks…
Just as Peter had to learn to see following Jesus in a new way; just as Jesus had to see his mission in a new way – we need to stop and spend so time considering what God is trying to teach us as the church; as those who follow Jesus. What is God trying to help us see as we work to be faithful to our call as the people of God and the church of Jesus Christ?