Breaking down the barriers
Summary: The Spirit descends upon Gentile believers before Peter is able to finish his sermon. When Peter shares what happened with the church leaders they realise that the kingdom of God is open to more people than they had first imagined.
In the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit moves in a mighty, miraculous way. On the day of Pentecost, which is the birth of the Christian church, over 3,000 people heard, and responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ and they became Christians. I will look more closely at the meaning of Pentecost on 4th June, which is Pentecost Sunday.
A man who had been lame from birth was healed and began to walk, leap, and praise God. Demons were exorcised from those oppressed by them, and people were raised from the dead.
The power of God was being seen, up close and personal, but perhaps the greatest demonstration of the Spirit’s power, was how the Holy Spirit needed to, and did, bring transformation within the early followers of Christ, even before they became known as Christians, and before what we now know as ‘the Church’ became established. It was a seismic change. It rumbled their worldview, and actually, it continues to rumble our world views as well.
#BE SEPARATE (THE HOLINESS OF GOD)
God, who is by nature, 100% holy, had created man in His image, and He has been separating out for himself, a people to follow, in faith, his pattern of holiness.
God’s command to follow his pattern of holiness is a call to imitate his moral holiness, and the way that God’s people do this is that we must separate from anything that hinders us from pursuing after moral holiness.
Thus, God’s desire was to call out a people who were willingly and wilfully separated from anything that God prohibited and were exclusively devoted to God’s moral character and will. This became the pursuit of every righteous and zealous Jew.
The Jews lived out God’s call of separation by prohibiting marriages to other tribes and nations. Joshua had a burned earth policy of destroying everything in the path of Israel’s invading army was meant to keep the Jews separate from any foreign influences. (The burned earth policy was not followed through and the Old Testament records centuries of the Jews turning from Yahweh and following other false, foreign gods.)
God’s call for Israel to be a light to all nations and to bring all nations in to a worship of the one, true God was interpreted by the Israelites as meaning that any non-Jew who wanted to truly worship God must first become a Jew.
(slide)By the time of Jesus, **separation** was a central doctrine of the Jewish faith. If a Jew came into contact with a gentile, that person was ritually unclean for a period of time; he or she was not allowed to worship. The separation doctrine fostered an animosity toward anyone who was not a Jew. Gentiles were considered almost sub-human, while Jews thought of themselves as the elite of humankind.
(slide)All of this changed with the cross of Jesus Christ. Paul writes that everyone is a sinner and everyone has fallen short of the glory of God. John proclaims in his gospel that God love the world so much that he gave his son so that everyone who believed might be saved. All humankind was in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. Suddenly the key word was “inclusion” rather than “exclusion.”
(slide)Peter precipitated a crisis when he baptized Cornelius, who was a Roman soldier, and his household. Obviously Cornelius was not a Jew and according to the Old Testament standard he and his household could not experience salvation. In the eyes of many earlier Christians, Peter had also desecrated himself by associating with gentile heathen. Peter understood that God was up to something and he proceeded to tell his story.
Peter tells of his vision—of being told three times to eat unclean food and his refusal to do so. He went on to tell the accusing and questioning Jewish Christians that after his vision he was summoned by Cornelius and told to answer the summons by the Holy Spirit. He began to share the gospel with Cornelius and his household, but before Peter could finish his sermon the Holy Spirit descends upon Cornelius. The filling of the Holy Spirit was the mark of a Christian. **“If God had made them Christians,”** Peter asks, **“Then how was I supposed to deny them entrance into the Christian church and fellowship?”**
Peter’s critics were silenced. They then began to praise God for what the Spirit had done. Their rejoicing was short-lived, though.
(slide) Later in the Book of Acts Luke records conflicts between Paul and members of what we could call *the circumcision party*.
In their manifesto, the circumcision party was made up of Jewish Christians who rejected Peter’s vision and experiences. The insisted that gentiles who wished to follow Christ had to first become Jews. Paul brought this issue before the first Christian Council (a meeting of Christian leaders). The council decided in Paul’s favour—for inclusion rather than exclusion—but in took scores of years and perhaps even centuries for the change, which was instituted by God, to be widely accepted.
It had never occurred to the early Jewish believers that God might actually give the Holy Spirit to believing Gentiles as He had to believing Jews. But once they saw the truth, they responded correctly by praising God.
There is a great application for you and me today: once we recognise a clear move of God, we are wise to join Him. It may not be what we expected or hoped for, but He is in command, not us.
I think it is a true statement to say that The church of Christ has struggled to be inclusive rather than exclusive throughout its history.
In fact, if we have been in the church for any length of time, we have experienced these struggles first hand. Personally, I have seen this struggle over and over again, manifesting itself in many different ways. In my childhood, there was a complete separation of where Christians who were white and Christians who were black, would even think to worship. In my late teens, this was being tested, and I can remember the furore caused in the suburban Anglican church Rosie and I attended, when we organised a youth service to which we had invited kids from our nearest black township. During the struggle for Zimbabwe’s independence, in a Nazarene church that Rosie and I were now going to, after we were married, I can remember overhearing a white greeter telling a black visitor where he could find ‘his church’ in the township. Things change, and a few years later I was minister of that church, and I had a called a wonderful black associate minister to work with me, who went on to pastor that church for many years.
The racial divide has not been so defined in the UK, but here it can be class of people, or liturgical tradition, or the hymns we sing, that can separate us into the US who are proper Christians because we do it this way, and THEM who need to get with the programme and become like us to be proper Christians.
I find it fascinating in the life of our Lord, that Jesus seems intent, that every time we make a circle in order to define who is in and who is out, that he steps out of the circle and dares us to make it bigger.
(slide) Like the Israelites, we are challenged to be in the world, but not of the world. Jesus also commands us to **“love one another as I have loved you.”** Living out these instructions each day is not only be a daunting task, but also a confusing one. What does a life lived in this way look like?
Forces with the church and within our society seem to be at odds with these important, basic teachings of Jesus.
Human values, not Godly values, seem to me to be making us increasingly more divided and hostile toward each other then we have been for a long time. In the midst of all of this, I find myself asking some simple questions to help me determine the decisions I make and the path I walk. Does what I hear, see, or read:
• Foster understanding or fear?
• Hurt others while I benefit?
• Widen the circle or make it smaller?
• Promote peace between people or violence?
• Inspire me to love my neighbour like myself?
I realise that in our day and age, there are no easy answers. I wish it were simple, clear, black and white — but it isn’t.
I also understand that each one of us must ask our own questions and make our own decisions about these things. We each have our own histories, our own cultures, and our own family-led sub cultures, which have formed us.
I am convinced, though, that when we make a decision to have a life lived passionately loving God and others, it is a life worth living—no matter what the cost, and that we can and will experience the abundant life that is ours through the cross of Jesus Christ.