Sermon January 12, 2020

“God may be Impartial, but God is not Indifferent”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
Acts 10:34-43
January 12, 2020

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Acts 10:34 & 35i

There are times when the meaning of particular Bible verses is frighteningly clear. When Jesus talks about turning the other check, I don’t think this is simply metaphorical. It is a direct warning against using violence to counter violence. I ignore this warning and my soul is in jeopardy. Other passages may need a little unpacking to get at their meaning. I think our reading from the tenth chapter of Acts falls in this category of needing to be unpacked.

Our task today, then, is to discover two things. First, why it was important when it was written, and second, what it has to say to us today. So, let’s begin.

Remember, we are looking first to discover why this passage was important when it was written. To do this, we have to place it in its historical context. We begin by looking at who is speaking, to whom are these words directed, and what would they have meant for those hearing these words for the first time.

  • Who is speaking? Peter. It says so right at the beginning of our reading (verse 34). And what do we know about Peter? In Acts of the Apostles, Peter begins by arguing that to be a Christian, one first had to be a Jew. This makes sense for a number of reasons.
    • How can you speak of God’s Messiah if you are not a Jew? Does “Messiah” have any meaning outside of a wider Jewish context?
    • Just because Christians today have the Old Testament always before them, the gentiles of Peter’s day did not. They did not know of Adam and Eve and their being exiled from Eden. They did not know the great stories of God delivering the people from Egypt or of the people returning to Israel from a period of captivity in Babylon. To speak of Jesus being the redeemer without knowing what one is being redeemed from seems a stretch.
    • What about the Jewish dietary law code? Can Jewish Christians eat with gentiles who consume food that Jews are forbidden to eat? Jesus himself in Matthew 5:17 says He has not come to abolish the law, that the Biblical law code will not be revised but rather fulfilled by Jesus. So, how can those who do not obey the Law say they are Christian?
    • Peter represents the interests of the church in Jerusalem that held one must be Jewish in order to be Christian.
    • But Peter has a vision on the rooftop in Joppa. A sheet or shroud from heaven descends with all kinds of animals in it. A voice from heaven tells Peter to kill and eat. Peter refuses. He has never eaten anything that was “unclean,” and he’s not about to now. But the voice is insistent and declares what God has called clean is clean. Peter relents and eats. He is still reeling from this vision when he speaks here in Acts 10:34 f.f.

That’s who is speaking.

To whom are these words directed? Who is Peter talking to?

  • To find this out, we have to turn to the beginning of this 10th chapter of Acts. It seems that Peter isn’t the only one who had a vision. Cornelius, who resides in Caesarea, is a centurion of the Italian cohort, (a “cohort” was 1/10th of a Roman Legion which in Palestine at this time was comprised of 760 infantry and 240 cavalry). Cornelius is told by the angle from God to send a delegation to Joppa to ask Peter to come and speak to Cornelius and his household. A couple of interesting things to note:
    • He is a centurion, a Roman, and, of course, Cornelius was not a Jew.
    • Cornelius selects two slaves and a “devout” soldier to fetch Peter.

So, Peter is talking to a group, a large group of non-Jews and begins by saying that he, Peter, shouldn’t be there, that he should not have come because it is not lawful for a Jew to visit a non-Jew. He goes on the explain that God had just shown him the world was changing — what was once thought unclean was now proclaimed by God to be clean. But Peter, not sure why he had been summoned, asks why Cornelius wanted to see him. Cornelius shares with Peter that he, too, has been visited by the Spirit of God and it was God’s Spirit that told Cornelius to send for Peter.

There. We are finally caught up. Now Peter shares with this group of non-Jews the story of salvation through Jesus the Christ. If you read on, Peter is so convinced of their conversion to the Christian faith — despite them being non-Jews — that seeing a body of water, he baptizes them right there. Later in Acts, Peter is going to defend baptizing these people to the church in Jerusalem which at first is not pleased with Peter having baptized non-Jews.

So, now you know. This reading from Acts and Peter saying that God shows no partiality is meant to legitimate the mission to the wider gentile world. It is Paul who will expand this mission but even Paul faces problems convincing the Jerusalem church that such a mission is okay.

If the first part of this sermon was an exploration of the text in its fuller context, the second part was to explore what it means for us. Two things.

First, is this time in history when we are being told that immigrants and refugees are to be feared and, indeed, jailed, remember how our reading started: “I truly understand that God shows on partiality.” In God’s eyes devout citizens of the United States are no better than a devout mother from El Salvador. That the children of one group should be allowed freedom while the children of another group is locked up in cages is an affront to God’s impartiality. The artist Benjamin Wildfower captures this in a piece entitled, Mary, also known as Mary at the Border Fence. We are citizens of the State but our higher calling is to be citizens of God’s Kingdom.

The second message found in the words that are serving as our text is that those who fear God and who do what is pleasing in God’s sight are acceptable to God. So, know this, God is watching. What one does in a world that marginalizes the poor and tramples on the weak, matters to the One who judges perfectly. Peter may have come to realize that God shows no partiality, but God does have standards. We are free to reject the teachings of Christ. We are free to walk away from our obligations to those who are in need. We are free to set up barriers and make distinctions between us, but God will not be mocked. So as we leave this place know that our nationality, our race, our creed matter not to God, but our compassion and care for others will stand as proof of our love of God. Let us pray…

i Acts 10:34-43

34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”