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Reaching across cultures

by on June 9, 2015

tuvisionWhy is it so important that our gospel ministries in Sydney should reach across cultures? Because of what happened in Acts chapter 10. Here’s the talk from last Sunday at CCC.

Acts 10 Bringing the Gentiles in.

Each chapter of Acts seems to tell of a massive turning point, lately. Chapter 8, the church of Jesus exploded out of Jerusalem, and became a missionary movement. Ch.9, Saul was won over to follow Jesus, and became the apostle Paul. Now in chapter 10 something even bigger happens, something unthinkable, something that caused a lot of trouble for a long time afterwards. Gentiles, non-Jews, people from foreign nations, were allowed in to join the fellowship around Jesus.

That might not seem so big to you, you’re probably a Gentile yourself, like me. But for the people living at that time, it was big. We’re going to be asking 2 questions: 1. Why was this such a big deal? and 2. Why did it happen? Why was it that the Christians, who up till then had all been Jews, why was it that they did this strange and controversial thing, letting in foreigners?

First, why was this such a big deal? At the fringe of every new movement of people, there is usually a bit of a radical fringe. Weird people who get on board with the movement, but take things too far. You organise a peaceful march or rally, these people hang around the edges and start fights with the police.

Religious movements have these too. In the c.18th in the great revival of Christian faith known as the Great awakening, tens of thousands of people started to follow Jesus. But there were always crazies at the fringes of the revival, talking about levitation, foaming at the mouth and so on. They tended to give the movement a bad name.

The events in ch.10 of Acts must have seemed a lot like that to the people of that time. To the Jews. Even to the Christian believers – all of whom were Jews at this point. When they hard the report of what had happened at Caesarea, it would have smelt a bit off. It must have seemed that things had gone too far, gotten out of hand. We’ve learned to follow Jesus, that’s already got us into trouble. But now Peter, you’ve gone and done something that’s made us a stench in the nostrils of every good Jew in Judea. You’ve sullied this new faith, made it look dirty. You’ve brought Gentiles in to the fellowship!

You see, Jewish life was regulated by a concept of inside and outside: they called it clean and unclean. If you were clean you were acceptable, you could be included and share in the worship of God at the temple. You had a place in the fellowship of God’s people. You were an insider. If you were unclean you were unacceptable, you couldn’t come near in the temple and take part in worship. You were excluded, an outsider. You were unclean. There were lots of ways to become unclean. The easiest way to be unclean was to be a Gentile. A non-Jew, a foreigner. All Gentiles were unclean, automatically.

If you were a foreigner and you visited the temple in Jerusalem, you would find an outer court where you could go, maybe buy a souvenir. It was called the court of the Gentiles. But inside beyond that court, were the inner courts of the temple, where the sacrifices and the worship took place. You were not welcome there. How could you tell you weren’t welcome? Because there was a big sign up that told you. Archeologists dug up one of these signs in 1871. It reads:

NO FOREIGNER IS TO GO BEYOND THIS POINT. WHOEVER IS CAUGHT DOING SO WILL HAVE HIMSELF TO BLAME FOR HIS DEATH, WHICH WILL FOLLOW.

Thats a pretty clear message isn’t it! No unclean person could be allowed to pollute the fellowship. God’s people must remain holy, separate, clean.

But now, Peter has gone and visited Gentiles. This Cornelius, and his household, ok they were God fearing people, they knew the Jewish Scriptures and prayed to Yahweh. That’s nice. But let’s be clear about this: they’re Gentiles! Dirty Gentiles. And they always will be.

But Peter has invited them in, and even baptised them in the name of Jesus. Baptism: that’s the ceremony of entry, of welcome into the family. It’s as though Peter has taken them in past the big warning sign, into the sacred inner courts of the temple. It’s that serious. And everyone is shocked. In the chapters ahead, we’re going to see just how shocked people were. It’s like there was this veil protecting God’s people from the filth of the nations. But Peter has torn it. He’s ripped it open and let them in.

That’s why this was such a big deal. Secondly, why did the Christians, why did Peter and his friends do this thing?  It wasn’t just any Jew that tore open the veil: it was one of Jesus’ closest friends, the apostle Peter.  Let’s see how it happened. Acts 10.

Peter is in prayer, and has a vision. All these unclean animals on a big sheet. Peter is hungry and a voice says, take and eat. Peter recognises that it’s Jesus sending him this vision. But Peter is a good Jew, he’d never make himself unclean by eating them. He says, ‘No Lord.’ But the voice says “Do not call unclean anything that God has made clean.” And this happens three times over, the repetition helps it sink in.

Peter’s thinking this vision over, thinking “Strange!” Just then the Spirit tells him, ‘I’ve sent some men to fetch you. Go with them.’ And when Peter goes down, he finds – Gentile men. Unclean men. Normally a good Jew would say, ‘Thanks very much but we already gave at the office,’ and close the door. But the Spirit has instructed him: “Go with these men.” And Peter has to go. And he’s thinking, “Unclean animals. unclean men. Very strange.”

When he arrives at Caesarea, he meets Cornelius. Cornelius tells him v.30

“Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor.  32 Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” 

And Peter’s thinking. “I dream I’m being called to eat unclean animals. Then an angel calls me to visit an unclean Gentile man.” He’s putting two and two together, and it clicks. And he says to them, v.28 “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with Gentiles or visit them. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection.”

Peter has understood the vision. He should not call any person unclean or reject them. Because now Jesus has come, God is making a move on the Gentiles. He’s not just calling Israel, God is now going to gather people from every nation, from the whole world. It’s like the prophecy we read in Zephaniah 3: God’s plan to purify the lips of the Gentiles. Now it’s happening. Because Jesus will make them clean.

So Peter explains to them how Jesus makes people right with God. Jesus of Nazareth went around doing good and saving all those who were under the devil’s power. They killed him, but God raised him up to be lord of all. And now we can announce forgiveness and cleansing from sin in his name. v.43 “everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

And as Peter speaks these words, there’s like a second Pentecost moment, the Holy Spirit falls on these people, and they get excited, they start praising God for this good news, they’re speaking all kinds of languages. v.47-48 READ

Why did Peter and his friends welcome these Gentiles in to the community of Jesus? It wasn’t their idea. Peter didn’t wake up one morning and think, now how can I put a rocket under this Christian movement, stir up some bog trouble? No, he was entirely passive. There was no plan. At least not on earth!

Acts 10 makes it clear that the whole thing was God’s idea from start to finish. Jesus sent the vision. Then Jesus sends his angel to Cornelius, with instructions. Then Jesus sends his Spirit to fall on all these people. Gentile people. Unclean people. But by now Peter has understood. They’re not unclean any more. In Christ God has called them clean.

When Peter baptises them, he’s just facing up to what has already happened. God has accepted them, so we have no choice: “No one can stand in the way of this baptism.”

Why did the Christians start welcoming dirty Gentiles in to the fellowship? Because God did first. What we’re seeing here is not just Christian Jews welcoming Gentiles. We’re seeing God welcoming the nations back to himself, not holding there sins against them any longer. Forgiveness. That great divide made by sin, Jesus has closed it. That uncleanness that kept people for from God: in Jesus they were not unclean any longer. They were accepted. Adopted. Included by God. And so now Peter couldn’t call them foreigners any longer, he could see he now had to call them brothers.

Now, every religion and every human group has insiders and outsiders. Iran is dedicated to the destruction of the nation of Israel. In India there is a class of people called the untouchables, millions of people who are considered not fit to take part in society. The US has banned any products from Cuba for about the past 40 years. Cuba is bad. Cubans are not welcome. In Myanmar the government has declared one of their people groups, the Rohingyas are outsiders. They have no place in Myanmar. They have no citizenship, no rights.

But here at home we have insiders and outsiders too. We have neighbours who don’t want to come to our home for a meal. Why not? They are afraid of what food we might serve them – it might be unclean food. So they won’t eat with us. Division.

Many Australians are scared and angry towards Muslims. They don’t want to know them. Muslim women are attacked on our streets. In fact, white people don’t like to make friends with migrants from any other culture. When migrants start moving into a suburb, the anglo people start moving out. It’s happened again and again, it’s called white flight. There was a report in the paper recently of a local school where only migrant children attended. All the white families had pulled their children out because of the migrants. And these migrant children had actually started a campaign, they went door to door to meet the white families and ask them, won’t you come to school with us? We want to know you. And these migrant kids ghad T-shirts made, which they wore: bright white T-shirts with a slogan on them: Is this white enough for you? You see, they wanted to challenge the racism they were facing in their neighbourhood.

Wherever you go in the world you find this. Insiders and outsiders. Clean and unclean. Division, hatred and fear. And there are so many people in our society feeling shut out, feeling unwelcome, excluded. Feeling, in effect, unclean. It’s everywhere.

But Jesus changes all that. In Jesus all people are declared clean. They are washed of their sins and welcomed back to God. Everyone, no matter what nation they are from. No matter what crimes they have done. All are welcomed in. All receive the same holy Spirit. And so we are now brothers and sisters. Whatever the differences between us, our shared belonging to Jesus is stronger. Whatever the hatreds between us, Jesus has broken them down, put them to death in his own body. Whatever the barriers, they can now be crossed. Peter found himself called to cross a high barrier. To include Gentiles. It was no small thing he did. The division between Jew and Gentile was so deep, so wide, the hostility so great, people were prepared to kill or even die to keep that barrier in place. But Jesus told Peter go, so he had to go across and meet the people on the other side.

This is what is so earth-shatteringly surprising about Christian faith. It brings people together. It reconciles divides. In our splintered world there is nothing more amazing than that: a power that unites different people in love. Whatever barriers exist between us and our neighbours, Jesus is calling on us to be the ones who cross over. This is what it means to be the community of Jesus. We are the barrier breakers, the ones who bring new friendship, where none existed. We are the ones who bring peace when there is strife. We can do this because we know Jesus is doing it, it’s him acting through us. We are sharing in his new life.

There is no other power in the world that can do this, only Jesus. Our poor old world, so riddled with hatreds and hostilities, it can’t heal itself. A hundred years ago people were saying we could all get together and fix the world, bring unity. They really believed it, back then. We can unite the nations, if we all just get together and talk. Well, after all the talk, the past century has been the bloodiest, most violent century in the history of the world. It should be clear now, we shouldn’t have to wait another hundred years to be able to say this: we can’t fix ourselves. People have a built in circuit for division. They are programmed to exclude.

The only force that can bring healing is the SPirit of Jesus. And the people filled with his Spirit. That’s why CCC needs to become a meeting place for different cultures, different nations, different customs and education levels and different work backgrounds. Because as we do that, as we hang together in love,the world watches, and it says, ‘Wow! I’ve never seen that before.’ And everyone starts to realise, Jesus is Lord!

From → General

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