May 19, 2019
Make Wide the Net! 5th Easter
Psalm 148 May 19, 2019 Acts 11:1-18 John 13:31-35
I’m curious to know how many of you have been, or currently are, part of a step-family? (You know—you have step-sisters or step-brothers, step-mom or step-dad, or step-children.) Family counselors do a lot of work with step-families, helping them adjust to new people who are thrust into their lives. We already know that being a part of a biological family is sometimes difficult enough—but at least you have had time to adjust to each other’s odd habits and annoying ways.
For example, I whistle…all the time! It’s not something I choose to do, and many times I am not even aware that I do it. But I grew up in a household where whistling was the norm, so it doesn’t bug me. But it really bugs some people! Melissa (dear, sweet, patient girl) has learned to just tune me out, and our kids grew up with it, so it was just “background noise” around our house. (Still gives me a stab of joy when I hear one of them whistling!) But, even if they were annoyed by it, my family loves me anyway. However, I am aware that those of you with step-family experience understand the difficulty of loving (or even tolerating) near-strangers that are suddenly thrust into your lives! And yet, you are expected to love them.
Well, our Scriptures for today are all about loving the people in the family of God. And this includes people we didn’t expect to even BE in that family! Let’s take a look.
Our passage in Acts is a crucial pivot point in the life of the church. I call it a pivot point because this is the moment when the church was called to widen its perspective and include Gentiles. You see, up to this point, Christianity was considered to be simply a sect of Judaism. The Christians were all Jews who accepted that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. They believed their “mission field” was Israel (and Jews who lived outside of Israel). The basic attitude they had inherited from their culture was that Gentiles were mostly to be avoided, in order to keep from being “contaminated” by them. It hadn’t occurred to the church leaders that God wanted the Gentiles to hear the Gospel!
I find this very strange. These former Disciples (now Apostles) had been with Jesus when he led them into Gentile territory and interacted with non-Jews. In his leadership, he showed them that Gentiles were worthy of his time, his love, his healing. According to Mark, before he left, Jesus told them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” Matthew remembers it this way: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Luke tells it this way: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Think about it. If they were to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations and be witnesses in Samaria and to the ends of the earth, wouldn’t that mean taking the Gospel beyond the confines of Judaism?!
But it took a series of extraordinary events before they began to catch on. Last week, we remembered that Peter was asked to come to Joppa because a wonderful member of their church had died. Peter went there, and prayed for her, and she came back to life, and many people believed that day. I’m sure Peter was still “recovering” from that amazing event when God sent him a vision of all kinds of animals being presented to him and a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter’s response was, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” God’s response was, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened 3 times.
While Peter sat puzzling over this strange vision, God’s Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” The men explained to him that Cornelius, a God-fearing centurion, was told by God to ask him to come and explain the Gospel.
Peter must have been dizzy from all this input: 1. A miraculous healing of a dead woman; 2. a vision from God that seemed to violate all his upbringing; 3. the Spirit telling him to go with these Gentiles to take the Gospel to a Roman Centurion!
He went with them; he spoke to Cornelius and his family and friends; and The Holy Spirit fell on his listeners just as it had fallen on the Apostles on the day of Pentecost! God was moving in a mighty way! Peter said to these Gentiles, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” This is an amazing revelation to Peter!
However, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was sharply criticized and questioned: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” And all he had to do was to tell his story and finish with his conclusion, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” Who was I that I could hinder God?!
When the leaders of the church heard this, they were silenced. It took a minute for the Truth to settle in. AND THEN THEY PRAISED GOD, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!”
And the church turned a corner.
Friends, I sense that the 21st Century Church is being asked to turn the corner again. Oh, sure, the characters today are different, but the message is still the same: God does not show partiality to one group of people over another.
Jesus once said, “You will know them by their fruits.” In other words, we are not supposed to judge people according to what group they come from, but we must discern the character of a person based on what flows from their life.
The voices in our culture are clamoring for us to judge entire groups of people. Is it fair to judge these groups by the actions of a few of their number? Muslims, Jews, politicians, Raiders fans, Cubs fans, Roman Catholics, Democrats, Republicans, fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks, tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with chicken pox?
Our culture insists that we judge, but Paul tells us “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Discerning the will of God is what makes it possible for the church to turn a corner! When we “conform to the world” and judge people according to their groups, we will not be able to see God’s activity in the people we are being encouraged to distrust. But when we allow God’s Spirit to transform us, we become God’s instruments of peace and healing and joy.
Let me finish today by going back to the idea of being in a “blended family.” God is telling us, “Here are some people that I am including in the family. You may not like them. But you must learn to LOVE them. Start by treating them with love, and look for the ways in which I am moving in them. You’ll see…all will be well! Make wide the net!”