Vicar's Sermon - 10th May 2015
When did Simon Peter (the apostle) become a Christian? Was it when he decided to follow Jesus when Jesus called him by the Lake of Galilee? Was it later, when he confessed Jesus to be the Messiah at Caesarea Philippi?- ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God’. Maybe it was in the Upper Room - ‘you are my friends’ said Jesus. Perhaps the deal was sealed when Jesus met with Peter after the resurrection by the lakeside: ‘Do you love me?’ Jesus asked three times. ‘You know that I love you’ replied Peter. The thing is, , whilst we might know ourselves to be Christians, we are all on the journey of ‘becoming’ Christians too....our faith grows and develops as time passes, if it doesn’t do so our faith has probably died.
You can see this growth in our first reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles. The reading comes from a long story that starts with a man saying his prayers. The man is a Roman Centurion, from the Italian Cohort: a middle ranking officer, part of the legion that was based in Caesarea, on the coast of Israel. Caesarea (as its name suggests) was a city built to honour the Emperor. It was the seaside residence of the Roman Governor. So Pontius Pilate would have made the journey to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover from this place. Here there is a Roman centurion who fears God, which makes me wonder...just wonder whether this man was the centurion Luke tells us, saw Jesus die? ‘Truly, this man was innocent’ he said, in Luke chapter 23.
Cornelius finds his way into Barnard Castle church through the window that portrays him behind you. There he is, praying: he was in the habit of prayer –not ‘one off’ arrow prayers shot up to heaven, no. Acts chapter 10 tells us that Cornelius prayed constantly and gave alms to the people. So he was a devout man, a ‘god-fearer’. Nowadays he would say he was ‘spiritual’ but his spirituality involved more than a few scented candles and pan pipes, it opened him up to the needs of others less fortunate than himself. Despite being the embodiment of the power of the Roman Empire, he won favour with the people of his town through his generosity.
This man is praying when, in a vision an angel tells him to send for another man, someone called Simon Peter to come to him from Joppa. He does so. His prayer leads him to action.
In Joppa, Simon Peter is praying too. Peter is staying with another Simon, Simon the tanner. His home is by the sea. It needs to be! Tanning leather involves getting ‘up close and personal with manure and urine’. ‘Where there’s muck there’s brass’ may well be true but Peter wasn’t living in the smart part of town. The only up side to his accommodation was the sea breeze that provided some relief from the powerful aroma that surrounded his lodgings. Anyhow, Peter is praying when he too sees a vision: this vision unveils to him a veritable smorgasbord of food to eat that Peter, eyes hungrily, only to find that nothing on offer is kosher. In his dream he tells the Lord ‘I can’t eat any of this’ only for a voice from heaven to reply ‘What God has declared clean you must not call profane.’ It is at this point that Cornelius’ messengers arrive at his door requesting a pastoral visit from Peter.
As you know from the verses of our bible reading we are about to witness the conversion of Cornelius and his household but we need to pause to take stock of what is about to happen because it is not just Cornelius who is converted – it is Peter too. Peter’s faith is about to grow an extra size or two. Just in case you need reminding, Peter was Jewish. His whole mindset has been hardwired by the observance of Jewish tradition and law: but the interior furniture of his mind is about to undergo a massive reordering. We are about to witness something akin to FW de Klerk embracing Nelson Mandela. This is a ‘Princess Diana touching the person living with AIDS/HIV’ moment. A huge mental, spiritual boundary is about to be crossed that we now look back upon and ask ‘what was the problem?’ but which, coming at it from the other end, involved huge courage, faithfulness and obedience on Peter’s part – another step on his journey, another element in his own conversion.
Remember, the marks of Judaism were four-fold:
1) Keeping the Torah (the Law), 2) observing the Jewish dietary laws, 3) male circumcision and 4) Sabbath observance. This story ditches the first three of these - and we know Jesus’ attitude to the fourth, Sabbath observance, was controversial too. Peter’s vision of the food involved a declaration that the food laws no longer applied. Peter’s hospitality offered to his foreign visitors and then his visit to Cornelius’ home – well, even he describes it as being ‘unlawful – he broke the Torah, the Law, in favour of another law, the law of the Spirit of Jesus. Lastly, the coming of the Spirit upon Peter’s hearers bypasses the Jewish rite of circumcision to bring the gentiles into the family of God. (Notice that Peter called for them to be baptised, not circumcised, as he catches up with what God is doing.)
What do you see then in this bible passage? What do you hear? When I first read it what struck me was the overflowing exuberance of God’s goodness and grace. Peter cannot even finish his sermon before God brings Cornelius and his household into the fold, into a deeper knowledge and experience of His presence. God is at work. He has been preparing the ground for the gospel in Cornelius’ life and He has been at work with Peter for years: now he brings these two together. Something of Jesus’ ministry has rubbed off on Peter, Jesus’ concern for the outcast, the unclean, those beyond the normally polite areas of society. These things are somewhere in Peter’s thinking as he responds to the vision and journeys to Cornelius’ home – but there is an inexorable logic and drive to what God wants Peter to learn. The Lordship of Christ must not be confined to a select few. Cornelius has till now been locked out of the Jewish covenant with God – but this situation cannot be left to stand. God here takes the initiative so that all people can be invited to respond to the Good News, and the message of God’s love and concern can be offered to all without exception.
But for that to happen, as with Philip last week, Peter must go to Cornelius, not sit waiting for Cornelius to come to him – and this is my second point. People are brought into the kingdom by obedient disciples out and about in God’s world unashamed to declare that Jesus is Lord by the way they are at work, the decisions they make, the way they treat people, the way they speak and act and live hopeful, courageous lives. Peter must proclaim the gospel but he must live it first. The most powerful part of Peter’s sermon was the bit that was unsaid but acted out as Peter stepped through Cornelius’ front door. ‘Actions speak louder than words’ and Peter’s willingness to go to Cornelius meant his message found a welcome in his hearers’ hearts. What matters to people is not our theology (though that may be important) but what we do with it: ‘being there’ for people, ‘being there’ alongside people. A faithful friend, a good neighbour, an active citizen, an openness to others and the world, a generous heart – these things speak of the gospel. Peter needed to come out of his shell and step into a new world of relationships with people he knew little about and credit to him he does so and finds that he is the agent for God’s blessing to fall upon this new community. Might that be you? Can you make the effort to speak to someone new this week ( in this congregation, certainly but beyond the congregation as as well), can you strike up a conversation, offer a smile, share something of your life with someone else – who knows, God may use you as he used Peter?
God’s grace -It is God who takes the initiative in this story. The challenge to ‘go’ and lastly ‘the importance of prayer’. ‘Prayer changes things’ we are told. True, but here ‘prayer changes people’. Both men, Cornelius first and then Peter are led by God through their prayers. A regular pattern of prayer allows God space to work with both of them, it creates room for Him to manoeuvre. So as well as taking something of the goodness of God into this coming week the question is, ‘do you pray?’ Do you pray regularly? Do you have a ‘way of praying’ that helps and sustains you? Christians have found down the years that setting aside a particular time for prayer each day is a great way of acknowledging that all time is his. In the run up to Pentecost (in 2 weeks time) we are especially encouraged to pray that God’s spirit might be at work within us: so to help you I have given a very simple pattern of prayer on the back of today’s pew sheet. Take it home. Use it. Find a time and a place that suits you to pray and do so, everyday. Let me know whether this helps. Get into a virtuous habit of prayer that will open you to the presence of God in your life and open doors for Him to work through you and around you as He worked with Peter and Cornelius.
The meeting of Cornelius, Peter and God’s Spirit marked a turning point in the life of the early church...but it all started with two men saying their prayers. What might God have in store for us if we prayed in this way?