Second Lesson: Act 10:9-23
Once upon a time there was a man named Cornelius. Now already we know we’re in trouble because anybody can see that this is not a Jewish name. This is a Roman name. This man Cornelius is not Jew. He’s a Gentile. And everybody from little kids on up knows that Jews don’t have any dealings with Gentiles. Jews don’t buy grapes or figs or fish or milk or bread with Gentiles in the market. They don’t stop and talk with them on the street. They don’t come into their homes, and Jews most certainly don’t eat with Gentiles, or stay overnight with them.
And besides which, the very next thing we learn about this man named Cornelius is that he’s a Roman soldier. You remember what we’ve said about Roman soldiers. We’ve talked a lot about these Roman soldiers. They were sent from Rome to control and subdue the Jewish citizens and make sure the harsh Roman laws were obeyed and the very high Roman taxes were paid – those taxes that were dragging ordinary Jewish citizens down into poverty. They harassed the women and made life very difficult for the men. Now this guy Cornelius is Roman soldier. There are about a thousand Roman soldiers, all stationed not far away in Caesarea and he’s one of their commanders.
Now let me tell you just a couple of things that Roman Soldiers stationed in Caesarea have done about that time. Roman troops had brought a flag into the city of Jerusalem with a picture of the Roman Emperor on it. Which was terrible offense to the Jews, of course. A group of Jewish citizens had stormed Pilate’s palace in Caesarea in protest. (The Pilate that we know about from the story of Jesus’ trial.) Pilate called in the Roman troops and they surrounded the protestors and there was a standoff of five days before the protesters disbursed. Apparently nobody was killed that time. But there was another mass demonstration protest that we know about, and this time there were ten thousand protestors and Roman soldiers killed or wounded many, many of them. So Cornelius is a battalion commander of these troops in Caesara. And he’s a Roman. And a Gentile.
Now at that time Pastor Peter was staying at a house in Joppa. And one day about noon there are three men – messengers from Cornelius - standing at Peter’s door in Joppa, asking that Peter will go with them and meet with Cornelius. Go to his house in Caesarea. Have a meal with him in his house, and a conversation. So Peter had a problem. A real problem.
Because Peter was a Jew. A very good Jew. He had been a very good Jew all his life. He celebrated all the Jewish holidays, and he knew and kept all the Jewish laws. He knew the proper way for a Jew to wash her cups and bowls and plates and he did that. He knew what Jews were and were not allowed to do on a Sabbath and he obeyed all those rules. He had been circumcised when he was eight days old along with every other good Jewish boy. He knew what foods Jews were and were not allowed to eat, and he had never eaten the meat of a camel or rabbit, or pig. He had never eaten shrimp or clams. He had read the Jewish Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) and he knew the stories in the Old Testament. He knew the stories of Abraham and he remembered that God had made a very special promise to Abraham and to his descendants, and he knew that God was the God of Abraham and his descendants – only the God of Abraham and his descendants. And he knew very well that he was one of Abraham’s descendants. He understood that the Jews were the favored people of God for centuries and centuries. He knew very well that good Jews were not allowed to eat with anybody who wasn’t a Jew, or stay in their homes or have any kind of meaningful contact with them. And he had followed that instruction for his entire life.
So it would have taken a very powerful message indeed for Peter to have gone to the home of somebody who was not a Jew or stay overnight with him and eat foods that Jews were not allowed to eat -- from bowls or cups that had not been washed properly.
And it would have taken a pretty powerful message for Peter to have had anything whatsoever to do with a Roman soldier, much less a commanding officer – the man who would have ordered the attack on those innocent civilians – some of which Peter may have known.
But there’s one more thing to know about Cornelius. Somehow - we don’t know how and I won’t guess - the man has come to know God. Our God. And he worships God regularly. And prays to God constantly. AND he contributes money to care for poor Jews.
And the other very important part of this story is that Peter has just had a very strange dream. In fact, he had that same very strange dream three times in one day. At first he didn’t know what to make of this dream. He knew it had been God speaking to him in the dream, but it confused him. But when he saw these Gentiles standing there on the doorstep, he was convinced that God was telling him to go with them. It was God’s way of saying that it’s a new day now. It’s a new time. There is no longer going to be this separation between Jews and Gentiles. Gentiles and Jews together are going to be Jesus’ followers. From this new day on, Gentiles and Jews are going to sit together and eat together and have important conversations together. It’s a new time – was the point of Peter’s dream. It was a very powerful message.
So the next morning, Peter went to Caesarea and stayed at the home of Cornelius and spoke to a houseful of people that Cornelius had assembled. He told them about Jesus, and about everything he had done, and how he had died, and rose again. And then, as we read a few minutes ago, that whole houseful of people received the Holy Spirit and were baptized, and Peter stayed with them for several days.
But God says to Peter, and God says to us, “This is a new time. This is a time when all are part of my family. There’s no longer any separation between people, and all are welcome in my family.”
I have heard lots of talk these last several months about how you are all hoping for a new young pastor with young kids who will attract new young members and new young families to the church. And how when that pastor comes, this church will grow and there will be strong Sunday School, and a strong youth group, and the finances of the church will suddenly improve.
In just a few moments we’ll be hearing from Dr. Todd Cioffi and his Calvin College students and they will have very good things to share with us about becoming a church that is welcoming to younger folks. We are pleased and grateful and very blessed to have them with us.
And let me say this to you. Churches grow when people learn hospitality and help guests become part of the church. It’s just that simple. It really has very little to do with the pastor or how old he or she is and how many young children she may have. AND churches grow when the members know who they are and like who they are, and offer themselves as a gift to others.
And you know what? There are already talented, committed younger folks in this church. They are ready to serve and they have good ideas and they would love to be recognized. They would love to feel a part of this church.
But it’s going to take a new way of thinking here and a new way of behaving. It’s going to mean that younger folks will be liturgists and sound guys, and they’ll provide special music in the summer time. It’s going to mean that they will be asked to serve on committees and that their ideas will be taken seriously when they do. It’s going to mean that at coffee hour older, longtime members are going to seek out younger members for in-depth conversations about things that are important. And some warm personal bonds are going to develop between them. It’s going to mean that older folks are going to get creative about including younger folks and will be patient as that happens. It’s going to mean that younger folks who have been here a long time are going to start to feel like family.
It’s a new day for North Kent Presbyterian Church in Rockford. We’ve heard a powerful message for a new day. The Spirit of God is blowing like a strong wind in this place. And who can tell what will happen in a church when the Spirit of God starts to work there?