First Mennonite Church
May 21, 2017
Doing Good, for God Was with Him
Text: Acts 10:34-43
The background story of this passage is that of Peter’s visit to Cornelius, the Roman centurion. Peter was praying when God gave him a vision of a large sheet of cloth coming down from heaven having in it every kind of animal, birds, and reptiles, both clean and unclean according to Jewish diet. A voice from heaven commanded Peter to kill and eat, but Peter objected to do so on the basis that nothing impure or uncommon has ever entered his mouth. The vision appeared to Peter three times. While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, some men came looking for him. They were the servants of Cornelius to whom God had also appeared through an angel. The angel had commanded Cornelius to send for Peter. It was not until Peter was talking with Cornelius and his family that he understood the meaning of the mixture of animals, reptiles and birds he was commanded to kill and eat.
It is rather interesting that this incident happened some years after Peter had become a disciple of Jesus. But even then, Peter had not grasped the extent of the Gospel’s reach. Peter had not overcome his cultural and religious prejudice towards non-Jewish people. Until that day in Joppa, Peter still believed Jesus had been sent only for the Jewish people. So, when he began his speech at Cornelius’ house, Peter declared, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” Think of this: God shows no partiality.
Peter’s encounter with Cornelius can teach us what is needed to overcome religious parochialism.
Stephanie was a trouble-girl. She was always late at school. She only had two friends, one was a high school drop-out and the other was the daughter of a church deacon. From her church-going friend, Stephanie borrowed clothes, which she never returned. At her high school, Stephanie also often came to this friend at lunch time because she did not have lunch money. On most weekends, Stephanie wandered by herself in the park. She did that including some Sunday mornings when she could not get a ride to her friend’s church. When Stephanie attended church, she secretly both admired and hated church people. She admired the closeness, love and joy she saw in these families. She wished her family could be like one of these. But Stephanie also hated the church people. They were so busy amongst themselves. She felt their gaze as if she were a curiosity among them. The times some of them got to interact with her were only to inquire about the reason she chose to tattoo a skull on her forearm or to ask her why she missed church two Sundays in a row, or how come she was wearing a “fancy” bracelet, which she found in the park. The only connection she had with the church was through her girlfriend, daughter of the deacon. What Stephanie did not know was that even the deacon’s wife was against her daughter’s friendship with Stephanie.
One day during a fellowship meal, an elderly lady, a widow, sat at the table where Stephanie was eating. The conversation started around the apple pie they were having for dessert. The lady began to reminisce about the time she was growing up on her father’s farm. In tears she recounted how her dad died in an accident and how that affected her when she was in her teenage years and how she rebelled and ran away from home. At this, Stephanie began to cry. She began to tell her story. Her father had left them three years ago. She said she did not know how to ease the pain and anger inside her. Her mom, despite working two low-paid part-time jobs could not provide for her family’s needs. Stephanie said often times food is was limited. Often times she was left to fend for herself a whole day or even two depending her mom’s work schedule.
During the week, the lady told Stephanie’s story to the pastor. The pastor presented the situation to the church and many of the church members expressed regret for the way they had related to Stephanie. The general lament was, “If we only knew Stephanie a little more our attitude would not have been what it was.” The church began to collect food for Stephanie and her family. Every week the church gave a basket of food items to Stephanie. Stephanie also changed. She found a place and people where she felt at home and who embraced her as one of their family members. She got baptized and that day she confessed that her life began to be changed the day Gwen, the lady, came to sit at her table.
Dear church, there are many Stephanies out there. They live in our church neighborhood, down your street, and all about our city. Girls and boys like Stephanie are often criticized instead of being listened to. Girls and boys like Stephanie are often times avoided instead of being invited around a family table. Girls and boys like Stephanie suffer pain, both psychological and physical and their suffering often times is not of their own making. There are many homes like Stephanie’s. Most of them want to be happy, together, and even God-loving. They call to God in their own ways and God hears their cry and prayers. These individuals and families somehow are like Cornelius waiting for a spiritual breakthrough. But where are the Peters who God wants to send? Could it be that we are still like Peter who was up fulfilling his spiritual duties of prayer-schedules on our roof tops? Could it be that we are like Peter who was caught in his own religious parochialism? With our religious and cultural biases? With his fear of getting defiled if he mingled with Gentiles? I do not mean to make us feel guilty. It was not Peter’s fault to be biases and fearful of other who looked different to him. Who can fault us for our biases and fears if we had them? No one! These would be natural to have. Let me tell you why.
When Peter opened his mouth before Cornelius, his family, and close friends, Peter started by saying, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” And in verse 34, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Only God can open our eyes to how he sees the world as he does. We learned our biases and fear of others from the world around us, even from our parents, possibly. It has to be God who can convince us he makes no difference between us and others. I pray that God would impress in our heart and soul that he shows no partiality between the Stephanies in Paso Robles and us who gather at FMC. I invite you to pray to God the promise of Paul in 2Timothy 1:7, For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
One more thought about our passage today. When Peter begins to share the gospel with Cornelius he says something really interesting about the way Jesus carried his ministry. In verses 36 to 38 we read: You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
Jesus went about doing good. What I am about to say is very painful for me to say. But this is the right occasion for it. We all desire our church to grow. I myself would like to see that happen. But here is the truth. Churches that grow do not only gather to worship on Sunday. They do not only look after their own interest. (Remember this advice from our last three sermons.) Churches that grow reach out to the community by meeting a particular need, even one. Churches that grow come together to reach out to specific needs like Stephanie’s. These outreach efforts are not carried out by the pastor only. It’s the ministry of the whole congregation. And they do it with love and with conviction of heart. Jesus went about doing good. What good can we go about doing?
The other description of Jesus’ ministry is that he went healing all who were oppressed by the devil. Jesus carried out a ministry of healing. The Stephanies in Paso are broken and in pain. They need healing by having someone willing to hear their stories like Gwen did. They need someone willing to sit with them to share, maybe, apple pie. Healing does not necessarily mean performing a miracles. Healing comes through listening, human touch, sharing personal stories. Most of human pain is the result of spiritual oppression by the devil. Let us not be intimidated by this truth. The apostle John has this promise for us: Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world (1John 4:4).
This week, take time to walk down your street. Try engaging those you meet. Be a friend. Ask for their names. Be genuine. Or if you cannot go around, when you go to the store, shine the light of Christ through your smile, greeting, or words of appreciation for the help you are given. Be deliberate in doing these things. Be open to know someone. Knowing others makes the difference in our approach and attitude.
Let us go with these words echoing in our heart: God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. Let us go and do the same. Amen!