This week as we continue in our series, Telling Our Story, we come upon one of the most powerful stories of the journey. Who exactly is the Gospel for? In the first church, early on in their story, in spite of what Jesus had told them, they thought the Gospel was just for them and the people who were like them. What we see today, though, was the time when God intervened to help them understand that it was entirely bigger than that. Let’s talk about just how big.
Have you ever run into someone you didn’t expect in a place you wouldn’t have imagined? When I was 12, my parents planned a surprise party for me. The plan was for my dad to take me out to run an errand, but “forget” his wallet at home. While we were gone, a whole bunch of my buddies invaded the house. When we got back to get the wallet, I ran inside as fast as I could because I was 12 and that’s what 12-year-old boys do. Right as I got to the room where the wallet was supposedly sitting, they all jumped out at me. I’m pretty sure I defied some laws of physics as I changed directions in mid-air and crumpled to the ground in a little ball figuring that I was toast. One of my buddies had even thrown on a Wolf-Man mask for good measure. I’m just grateful I didn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of making a mess of myself from the shock. It wound up being a great evening, but I just about didn’t survive the shock of seeing all those guys in that place at that time.
Well, as we continue in our journey through the story of the first church in Acts this morning, we are going to see how a man reacted to something kind of like the shock of my surprise party. This morning finds us at the ninth stop in our series, Telling Our Story. For the last several weeks and with a few more to go, Lord willing, we have been retelling the story of the church—our story. There’s just something powerful about telling old family stories and this one is no exception. Maybe this is a story you’ve heard before, but maybe not quite like we have seen it together on this journey.
Ours is an incredible story. It’s not incredible because we have somehow shown ourselves as particularly exemplary, but because of the faithfulness of our God it so clearly puts on display. Our God is faithful, and His church is unstoppable. That’s our story. That’s the legacy to which we are heirs. That same power is what undergirds everything we do still today. All efforts to thwart our advance are doomed to fail just as spectacularly as they did then. That’s why we are telling this story. As we are together figuring out how to do church in this new reality, this reminder of what matters most is something we all needed to receive together.
God’s got a plan for His church. He’s got a plan for His world. From where we are at any one point along the journey, though, we can’t always see it very well. In fact, we usually can’t see it well at all. From the standpoint of hindsight—the view we have of the first church in Acts—it’s easy to see. We can see the whole picture and how Jesus made plain what He wanted them to be doing and what His ultimate plans were. But when you are living in the story, you can only see what you can see. And I know you might be thinking, “Well of course you can only see what you can see,” but think about it a bit more. God’s got stuff going on that involves us, but which we don’t realize and may not realize until later…sometimes much later. The result of this is that we often run into surprises along the way.
As we talked about last week, Saul was one of those surprises. Nobody expected Saul to embrace the Gospel, let alone as thoroughly as he did. They were fearful that he was going to finally be the church’s undoing and then he became the church’s most powerful weapon in advancing its scope and impact.
Now, again, this much of a surprise should perhaps have tipped the church off that God was up to something entirely larger than they had thought to imagine in the beginning, but they were living in the story. They couldn’t see as clearly as we can. And what they couldn’t see was that God wasn’t done with the surprises.
Well, after Luke tells us about Saul’s conversion, he shifts the scene once again, this time to Peter. When we last left Peter, he and John had traveled north to a town in Samaria to investigate and give their blessing to the Gospel work Philip had started there when he fled Jerusalem from the persecution that Saul had led. Oh, the ironies, right? Once they left this town, they began to make their way back to Jerusalem, stopping and proclaiming the Gospel in all the towns they passed. Now, whether Peter continued to hop from one town to another on this journey or if he made it back to Jerusalem and then went out again, we don’t know, but Luke tells us that eventually he came to a town called Lydda. In Lydda, Peter heals a paralyzed man named Aeneas. Word of this healing spread, and he soon found himself summoned to the nearby town of Joppa. Joppa was right on the Mediterranean coast and would have been a pretty nice place to have to spend a few days or even weeks. It’s always tough to be called to serve God in paradise, yes?
In any event, Peter is called to Joppa because a much-respected woman named Tabitha has died. This was something different than the apostles had yet encountered. They’d performed healings before, but raising the dead was something else entirely. Yet that’s exactly what Peter does. And before you go trying to argue that she wasn’t really dead, while the folks back then were pre-scientific as far as we are concerned, they saw a whole lot more death than we do. They knew when someone was dead and when they weren’t. This was a miracle. A big one. Not unexpectedly, then, the Gospel did pretty well in Joppa and Peter stayed for a while to oversee things.
Luke tells us those two stories to demonstrate just how increasingly incredible were the works the apostles were doing, but also so he could explain how Peter got to where he was when this next story took place.
Some background here will be important. We’ve talked about how much Saul hated Christians before he became one, right? Well, as much as Saul’s hatred burned, the Jewish people generally felt that way about the Romans. This went double for members of the Roman army. The Romans were pagan, meaning they rejected the One True God which was a big enough strike against them. But they had also conquered Israel and were currently occupying the Promised Land—their land. Roman soldiers and governors had made life as miserable as possible for the Jewish people for a very long time. They thought the Jews were uncultured scum and treated them like it. The Jews returned the sentiment. The blood that flood between them was bad. Really bad.
But, there was this one centurion stationed in Caesarea, a little ways up the coast from Joppa. His name was Cornelius, and he was an exception to the rule. Luke tells us this about him in Acts 10:2: “He was a devout man and feared God along with his whole household. He did many charitable deeds for the Jewish people and always prayed to God.” I don’t know about you, but no matter what his background is, that sounds like the kind of guy God might be pretty interested in having near. Well, we would think like that on this side of the cross…and God did indeed think like that too…but in that day, well, we would have been in a pretty lonely company.
Still, as I said, God agreed with us and moved to do something about it. Verse 3: “About three in the afternoon he distinctly saw in a vision an angel of God who came in and said to him, ‘Cornelius.’” Now, how would you react to that? Just like me: You’d be scared out of your mind. Romans believed in spiritual beings just like the Jews did. He knew this was an angel, but Luke doesn’t mention any fear. Instead, he was absolutely blown away and only asks what it wants. Interestingly, this is pretty much the only angelic appearance in the Scriptures that doesn’t begin with “fear not.” Take that for what it’s worth. Anyway, the angel responds by giving some instructions, but starts with praise: “Your prayers and your acts of charity have ascended as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa and call for Simon, who is called Peter. He is lodging with Simon, a tanner; whose house is by the sea.’”
Well, Cornelius didn’t know any better than to simply do what he was told…which brings us back to Joppa. It was a hot afternoon and Peter was getting pretty hungry for lunch, but God had other plans. He gave Peter a vision, and a strange one at that. Peter sees this giant sheet descending from heaven with all kinds of religiously unclean animals on it. Then he hears this voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter figures this is some kind of a test from the Lord or else a temptation resulting from his advancing state of hunger. He quickly insists that he cannot eat these things because he has never eaten something unclean in his life. He’s a good Jew. He can’t eat that filth! Then the whole thing happened a second time, but this time, the message was different: “What God has made clean, do not call impure.” The vision happened a third time and then Peter woke up totally perplexed as to what had just happened and what it meant. And then came one more word from the Spirit: “Three men are here looking for you. Get up, go downstairs, and go with them with no doubts at all, because I have sent them.”
Suddenly there was a knock on the door. Sure enough, there were three men at the house looking for Peter. Three Gentile men. Three Roman, Gentile men. Three Roman, Gentile men who happened to be soldiers there at the behest of the local centurion. Cue the ominous music and quiet prayers of, “Lord, what have you gotten me into?” The men quickly explain themselves, Peter invites them to stay the night since it was too late to travel back to Caesarea with them that day, and the next morning they head up the coast together. And again, let me stress how shocking this all would have been to Peter. No one would have believed this story in his day. Nate will help you see that in more detail next week.
When Peter arrives, Cornelius is so excited, that he bows in worship. This was offensive to Peter who quickly, but gently scolds him for it, but it would have made sense to Cornelius. An angel told him to send for this guy. He was therefore really important and thus worthy of this kind of submission. Peter, being Peter, feels the need to explain why he’s even there. I think he was probably speaking out of the shock of the whole situation. I love how awkward this would have been. Listen to this in v. 28: “Peter said to them, ‘You know it’s forbidden for a Jewish man to associate with or visit a foreigner…’” In other words, I’m not even supposed to be here. “But God has shown me that I must not call any person impure or unclean. That’s why I came without any objection when I was sent for. So may I ask why you sent for me?” That is, “Normally, I would have called you unclean and not had the first thing to do with you. I’m only here because God told me to come. What do you want?”
Sometimes God’s kingdom advances because of our active and helpful participation. Sometimes it advances in spite of us tripping all over ourselves as we clumsily, offensively do something God has called us to do but we don’t understand or like. This was an instance of the latter. Cornelius explains his vision to Peter who responds once again with an hysterical lack of self-awareness in v. 34: “Peter began to speak: ‘Now I truly understand that God doesn’t show favoritism, but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’” In other words, “Oh, I get it now. The Gospel really isn’t just for Jewish people.” He goes on to proclaim the Gospel—something Cornelius hadn’t heard before, but was as ready for as he could be. He receives it and then in what would have been just an incredible moment, the Holy Spirit descends upon his household just as He did that original group of 120 disciples gathered in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. Peter’s response is perfect: “Can anyone withhold water and prevent these people from being baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And of course, nobody could. God was undeniably moving in this place that no one expected Him to be moving.
You see, sometimes God moves in the places and among the people we expect Him to be moving. But sometimes, He goes off and changes the narrative by moving in places and among people we would never expect. The reason for this is simple, but sometimes hard to wrap our minds around: The Gospel is for everybody. God has to keep going places we don’t expect Him to be and working with people we would never expect Him to use because we tend to draw lines around the Gospel in order to make sure the people we want can get to it, but the people we don’t want have a little harder of a time. Now, of course, God can move, and they can get to it anyway. He doesn’t play by our rules. We just like to think we have some sway. But the simple truth is that the Gospel is for everybody, even the people we don’t expect. The Gospel is for everybody, even the people we don’t expect.
Think about what this means for a minute. I mean, on the one hand, if you’ve been around the church for long—especially if you grew up in church—you’ve been fed this idea all your life. This whole sermon has seemed a bit like review to you. But can you be honest enough to acknowledge that there are some folks you mentally write out of the Gospel picture? It may be because they look differently from you. They have a different color skin. They are at a different socio-economic level. They have chosen a different lifestyle for themselves. They have different political alliances than you do. They’re just not like you in some way. The Gospel may be for a lot of people…but not them. But the Gospel is for everybody, even the people we don’t expect.
Think about that place or people where you personally think the Gospel is least likely to catch on. The Gospel is for that people in that place. The Gospel is for everybody, even the people we don’t expect. The question is: How can we be a part of bringing it there? Just like the first church, we are called to follow our Savior even into those places that we wouldn’t normally go because we don’t really believe our efforts there will be worthwhile. And if we’ll do it; if we’ll go; if we’ll follow Him in taking the Gospel into our community in those places where it seems to us to be least welcome, we’ll get the chance to be a part of Gospel movements that will take our breath away. The Gospel is for everybody, even the people we don’t expect.
Do you know how I know this is true? Well, obviously because of what Luke writes here. But do you know how else I know it? Because the Gospel is for me. It came to me—He came to me—and I embraced it. Perhaps you can say the same thing. You see, there wasn’t any reasonable expectation that I should have been able to embrace the Gospel and be received by Christ. None. I was once broken by sin. It may not have been in flashy ways, but sometimes the less flashy our brokenness is, the more dangerous it is because we aren’t really convinced we need saving from it. But it came to me all the same. How about you? Were you broken by sin? Are you broken by it? Have you received the Gospel? Has it come for even someone like you? If it could be for you and if it could be for me, then it really could be for anybody. The Gospel is for everybody, even the people we don’t expect. If you have received it, be a part of someone else sharing in it—even if they don’t fit your mold of who its for. The Gospel is for everybody, even the people we don’t expect.
As we draw near to the end of our time this morning, we are going to celebrate and remember together the thing that sets this truth before us more firmly and clearly than just about anything else. We are going to observe the Lord’s Supper together. In the Lord’s Supper we are reminded that Jesus was so committed to the Gospel being for everybody that He was willing to give His life to make it available. He let His body be broken—which we remember in the bread—and His blood be spilled—which we remember in the juice—in order to pay the price for our sins and to make available an entirely new way of relating to the Father. Because He died and rose, the Gospel is for everybody, even the people we don’t expect. If you would name Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then I would invite you to join in this remembrance with us. Let’s take a minute and prayerfully prepare our hearts and then we will eat and drink together.