The Holy Spirit overcomes all prejudices
Acts 10 : 23b - 48
You don’t get life necessity details very much in the New Testament. Paul does allude to being looked after by Christian congregations but there is little more. Here we learn that Peter and some of the congregation from Joppa left with the visitors who had come to fetch Peter to go to meet the Roman centurion Cornelius. What did they live on? There must have been some congregational fund to buy food. We don’t know. It is interesting because we are the opposite today. We are obsessed with our living standards, the FTSE Index - has it gone up 3 points or down 10? We are desperate to find a bargain while shopping. We are anxious and concerned about our income and benefits. We want things, prosperity, money. We envy lottery winners. Gambling is increasing, more accessible on TV, more sophisticated - because you can bet on whether a particular footballer will score a goal by the first 20 minutes of a game. We are nuts. We have lost the plot. We live in an absurd society. We are driven by greed and its cousin - want.
The first Christians were not like us at all. They lived for the Risen Lord Jesus Christ and close to Him and they lived inspired by Him. Earning money and eating food were well down the list of their priorities. They went where they believed they were being led and it never occurred to them that they would ever lack provision of accommodation, food, friendship, security and care. Joppa to Caesarea was a day’s walking journey, we are told. Cornelius had a house party waiting. He had invited his close friends to hear the Christian message as well as his family members. Peter crossed the threshold of the house - that was breaking a Jewish custom - no orthodox Jew ever entered a gentile house. (Remember when Jesus was taken to Pilate for trial - the Jews wouldn’t go in - they waited outside). Cornelius was overwhelmed by the presence of the great St Peter, leader of the Christian Church and prostrated himself on the ground. Cornelius would have done this for his emperor and even for his military general if required. But Peter had humanity and humility too. 'Stand up - I am only a man myself', he said. Such humility was lost in the history of the Church as clergy took up positions of authority and added the costumes and performance of rulers of nations. The Pope is carried on a regal chair. Bishops wear impressive robes. Some church members kneel before them and kiss their hands or Episcopal rings. Even some of our own silly Moderators wear purple stocks and large wooden crosses round their necks to show who they are. Peter was not like that and the Christian Church did not begin that way. If Peter was indeed the first Pope, he said it well, 'I am only a man myself'. He distinguished between the life and presence and power of Jesus Christ living within him and his own life and personality. He did not confuse the two.
Contrast the folly of our age with its glorying in celebrity, famous people, entertainers mostly, and sportsmen and women. Denis Law is one of Scotland’s greatest ever footballers. I remember seeing him at Hampden playing for Scotland - he was in a different class - none of the other players around him were quick enough to see what he was doing. When he scored goals for Manchester United - he gave the Roman salute of victory to the supporters - raised right arm and one finger pointed into the air - the first to do this kind of thing in Britain. Denis Law was mercilessly lampooned by Jonathan Watson in his Hogmany comedy shows for years. In retiral, Denis Law as with many others was invited to open events and present prizes over the years. People asked to meet him. But he alone said this; 'People should never meet their heroes - they will always be disappointed'. A humble man.
Peter and Cornelius had an initial chat and then went into the atrium area of the Roman villa where by now there was a large gathering of people. We may estimate perhaps 30. Peter began to speak and teach and preach but he began with his most recent testimony. God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. Surprisingly perhaps, he asked, 'May I ask why you sent for me?'. But it was not that he doubted that God had planned it all - he knew that. He wanted to know what God had been doing in Cornelius’s life. So Cornelius told Peter his story - how he had had the angelic visitation and the instruction to send for Peter. He concluded, 'Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us'. A soldier - you see - like the one Jesus met - who understood chain of command. You Peter are under authority of the Lord Jesus Christ and I recognise that. Peter then spoke a phrase that has come down through the centuries of Christian witness. 'God has no favourites'. Jewish pretension to election were wrong. God’s love is for all and God sees no barriers except sin common to all humanity which can be and is forgiven in the acceptance of Jesus Christ and his salvation.
Peter uses the phrase you know twice to the people present in Cornelius’s house. You know the message of Go. You know what has happened throughout Judea. These people knew about Christianity; they had heard about its impact. They were not however themselves committed Christians - yet. Christianity is familiar to many today in our land and Christianity is familiar to church goers. But there is a big difference between such knowledge and true commitment to Jesus Christ. In the Church of Scotland parish system, we include people who have some interest in Christianity even if they are not committed Christians. God’s writ runs large. The Brethren, in contrast, for example, distinguish between being a non-Christian and a committed Christian. So - this was not actually a cold call for Peter. Those listening to him knew something already about Jesus Christ.
Peter recounted recent events surrounding Jesus and then said what today you and I can also only say. We cannot scientifically prove the existence of the Risen Jesus Christ in a laboratory experiment to convince atheists. But it was the same then. We are witnesses of everything he did. We are witnesses that Jesus Christ is alive in our hearts and lives. Peter told the people that he and the disciples had eaten and drunk with Jesus after His resurrection and that they had been commissioned and empowered to preach and teach that Jesus was and is the world’s Messiah, the Son of God, Judge and Saviour of all, everyone who believes in him received forgiveness of sins through his name.
Then something happened that was out with the control of Peter or anyone else there. The Holy Spirit came down on everyone present. They were filled with spiritual power and joy and spoke in tongues. This was dramatic and tangible and certain and it provoked Peter’s own companion from Joppa into astonishment that this had happened. God himself before their very eyes had anointed gentiles with His Holy Spirit. What was significant here was that these gentiles had not first made confession, been baptised and been laid hands on by Peter for the transmission of the Holy Spirit and entry into the Christian Church. God had acted ahead of Peter. The idea therefore that some denominations have that it is only through bishops that the Holy Spirit can be passed from one generation to another is manifestly false. God then and now can act and choose and bless and empower whoever God chooses. God takes the initiative in Christian lives. God makes people Christians. But he then asks them to join the Church.
Peter turned to his companions and asked them if they had any objections to him baptising everyone there present. Because - fellow Presbyterians - this whole event had not followed procedure - and if the Clerk of Joppa Presbytery had been told about it - he might not have been pleased. And if 121 Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem heard about it then they would be even less pleased. There is a tragedy unfolding in our Church of Scotland at present. The significant congregation of St George’s Tron in Glasgow has departed - seceded - from the Church of Scotland. But the minister and congregation are now to be evicted from church and manse. Procedure and legalism dominate everything and court battles have begun. This is a case and situation for attempting to solve the issues in a higher and better way. What matters most? The congregation’s continuing witness and ministry or - claimed entitlement to property? Who truly represents Jesus Christ in this? Sadly, these questions are being buried in litigation and misery for all.
Peter said these people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. That is interesting and important. Peter sometimes gets a bad press; but here he is rational and sensible and humble and obedient. He got the message - just as we have - the same Holy Spirit - not a lesser form or weaker brand - the same. For us today - we must never think that we are superior or inferior to other Christians whom God has called. And we must make room for God to work in our midst while holding to the central affirmations of the Christian faith. Finally - everyone was baptised - in reverse order from the missionary practice at the time - after being baptised with the Holy Spirit. And then Cornelius and his family and friends asked Peter and his companions to stay for a few days. They had the pre-eminent leader of the first Christian Church as a house guest. Peter, the Jew whom God has spoken to and warned not to put up any barriers to his work. And no doubt over the visit, Peter told Cornelius all about the years of Jesus’ ministry and his own failings and even his earlier doubts. And of course, the transformation of the Day of Pentecost, the birth of the Church and the missionary activity of the disciples become apostles.
We today stand directly in this tradition of faith as we remember Jesus’ death and celebrate His resurrection and it is His Holy Spirit that speaks to you and convicts you and convinces you that it is all completely true. And it is He who anoints you with His blessing again and again.