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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The German author and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves otherwise we harden.” Unfortunately, no one really likes change except babies in diapers. Every good and faithful pastor struggles with resistant and fearful parishioners quoting the Seven Last Words of the Church, “We never did it that way before.” In church circles, we often politely joke, “How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?” “Change!” “My grandmother gave that light bulb in memory of my Uncle Torvald. It’s a memorial. My father installed it with his own two hands. What do you mean it’s burned out and we need to change it? Change. Well this church can live without you too.”
Today’s reading from the Book of Acts, might simply appear to be a chance meeting between an apostle and a Roman soldier, similar to the meeting on the desert road we heard about two weeks ago in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. But this is no simple coincidence. Under normal circumstances, Cornelius and Peter would have never met. No, the Holy Spirit has strategically brought the two together to be changed and the whole movement of the church with it. At the heart of the story, you see, is an historic prejudice and confusion about God’s love for all people which continues to this very day. As Goethe said, “We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves otherwise we harden.” This was true even of Jesus’ closest followers. The early movement called the Way had to learn to leave its traditions and ingrained prejudices behind if it was ever truly to become the Church of Christ unto the ends of the earth.
So let us begin with Cornelius the Roman Centurion. Cornelius was a man well loved and respected by his community. He was a senior commander who was allowed to bring his family to the newly established capital city of Caesarea on the Sea. It was the place where Pontius Pilate had his governor’s palace. Cornelius was a God-fearer. Now, this was not just a descriptive term for a follower. It was also the title for Gentiles-who had embraced Judaism, but who had not yet converted, and in in the ancient world, there were many. According to historians, there were between 5 and 6 million Jews living outside of the land of Palestine in the 1st century. Almost every major city around the Mediterranean Sea had a Jewish community of more than 10%, and within their synagogues there was a significant portion of the local Roman and Greek-speaking population who were drawn to Judaism’s central belief in monotheism. These Gentile God-fearers had abandoned the pagan idols of Rome and the animistic gods of their neighbors. They worshiped the God of Israel regularly on the Sabbath with their Jewish neighbors- who in turn, treated them as members of the community except for two conditions. One, families didn’t have to keep the kosher laws for cooking, and two, men didn’t have to subject themselves to circumcision. Gentile God-fearers were, in principle, welcome to enter into the synagogue, but they were still not welcome into the Jewish homes- lest they be made impure. Prejudice was never blatant, but it was also less than hidden.
There was, of course, justification for Jewish hatred and animosity towards the Roman authorities. The lands of Judea and Samaria were the last to accept the Roman rule. Every soldier, magistrate and tax collector was, therefore, a part of an oppressive government, so Cornelius was at best a friendly, devout adversary. He and his family were all devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. Interestingly, according to the angel who appears to him, even God had taken a shine to him, as he announced. “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.” But they were still all Gentiles.
In spite of the fact that that Cornelius was admired in society, respected in the community of faith, and pleasing to God, God still had a change in store for him. That’s why he needed to meet Peter and hear Peter’s message. Perhaps you know similar people today. You might be one of them. Good people – after all, the church has no monopoly on goodness. They may be friends and family who pray or even turn up at worship once in a while, and say, “I don’t need to go to church to be a good person.” They may work hard at their jobs, love their families, and put in extra effort of an evening to do something positive in the local community. But maybe God is saying the same to them today. You need more. You need to change. Specifically, he is saying what he said to Cornelius. “You need to meet someone who will tell you about Jesus.”
Now you may be wondering, so why do we need to meet Jesus when we believe in God, and do good in our community? Isn’t that enough? Well, if you are serious about your belief in God and wanting to do what he desires in this world and in your family, then you should want to become acquainted intimately with the One he sent to bring peace, forgiveness and true purpose of life, his only begotten son. That One is Jesus. If God has been quietly working in your life and you’ve been seeking to respond to him, then when you hear about Jesus you’ll be ready for change. On the other hand, if all your talk about believing in God and wanting to be closer to him is a sham it will expose the true hardness of your heart and your reluctance to change. Cornelius wasn’t like that. He was truly interested in God’s ways and was open to change.
Let us turn now to the apostle Peter. Now as a good, progressive Jewish man, Peter would have never acknowledged that he was even a tiny bit prejudiced. Oh, yes, he held resentment against the Roman authorities, but that was politics. He certainly wasn’t prejudiced towards Gentiles, he just didn’t have any personal contact with them. He accepted the practice like most of his contemporaries that religious people shouldn’t mix with the wrong sort of people or their pure religious faith will be contaminated. Gentiles could be God-fearers, sort of associate members of the church, but that was all. Now, it has to be said, that Peter wasn’t always consistent in his convictions. In the Book of Acts, we read that he was staying with Simon the tanner and that was questionable behavior for a devout Jew. Why? Because tanners dealt with the skins of dead animals, and good Jews were not meant to have anything to do with dead bodies. Yet Peter accepted hospitality from such a man. Either he was compromising his convictions then or he was already beginning to change.
But certainly change was gaining pace for Peter in Joppa when he got hungry at lunchtime. As he fell into a trance he saw this strange vision of a huge table cloth. Some of the items on the menu were foods regarded by Jews as unclean. God’s invitation to eat ritually unclean food was a metaphor for mixing with people he would normally shun. If Peter was to live out the will of God according to the love of God, then he had to make a drastic change to his life. He had to begin speaking with people who were different from him. He needed to do this for the sake of sharing God’s love in Jesus Christ. He needed to accept that God shows no partiality.
This was an important and transformative moment in the life of the church. Up until that meeting between Peter and Cornelius in Caesarea on the Sea, the followers of Jesus were nothing more than a small movement called the Way within Judaism. After all, just about everybody who had begun following Jesus had been Jewish. There were the odd exceptions, the eunuch from Ethiopia and the Samaritans, but the new faith hadn’t burst outside its Jewish boundaries to the Gentile world. The baptism of Cornelius and his Roman family would change that, and the waters of the Mediterranean Sea would become the highways for the apostles to travel bring the good news- and everything about the church would soon be changed.
Truthfully, the story of change in the lives of Cornelius and Peter is just as important and applicable today as it was 2000 years ago. It might feel nice and comfortable for us to gather with friends and acquaintances who look a lot like us and share our beliefs and values. But if we are going to be true to God’s calling, we need to make friends with people outside the church- even those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. As Goethe wrote, “We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves otherwise we harden.” We must never see the church harden as a social club with a declining membership. It must always be a worshipping community and a base from which to launch God’s mission of love in Christ Jesus to all people. It is a place where men and women should have every right to expect that they will not be told they are good enough already. But it must be a place where someone like Peter will speak about Jesus, so that they can be changed by him.
Cornelius was admired in society, respected in the community of faith, and pleasing to God, but God still had a change in store for him. Being good enough was not what he desired, nor was it what he prayed for. That’s why he needed to meet Peter. My friends, if we are to see God’s love spread to more people, then like Peter we must be prepared for a radical change where we don’t wait within the walls of the church for people to come to us on our terms. We must be prepared to go out and invite in the “Corneliuses” of the world. They are the people whom God has already called and who are reaching out for him. Perhaps, it will be yours and mine humble privilege to introduce them to Jesus. Yes, it could happen today, but it may demand a radical change from you and me. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.