By Rev Ron Ham
May 21, 2006
One Sunday at the Collins Street Baptist Church my sermon topic was, “A flame in the desert”. It was a sermon about John the Baptist. We always had the sermon title on the notice board on Collins Street. The staff member who put the letters of the title on the Board got his spelling wrong and gave the sermon title as, “A flame in the dessert.” The Herald Sun drew attention to this on the Monday morning and asked whether this was a reference to Bomalaska, an ice cream dessert put in a pan in which the source is lit and flares up.
My sermon title this morning may seem like a mistake too: Should we convert the world or the church? Have I got my wires crossed? No, I have not got my wires crossed because the passage we have read this morning from the Acts of the Apostles is about God converting Peter and with him the early Church. God was converting them from the view that the church is made up of only one race or nation.
It might surprise you to know that Peter and the Jerusalem Church originally had no intention of evangelising anyone but Jews. Luke, the author of the Acts, tells how the Church did come to include Jews and Gentiles, and grew beyond Judea and reached across Asia Minor and even to Rome. But that break-away from an exclusive Church began in earnest with the conversion of a Centurion named Cornelius. And the record of this in the tenth chapter of Acts marks a turning point in the Book itself, and also in the life of the infant church. Luke thought this was so important for an understanding of what the Church must become that it is the longest story in a book of stories – longer than the three accounts of Paul’s conversion put together, and longer than the Pentecost story, including Peter’s sermon.
The story is superbly told. I will take a little time to summarise the story because you need to know it if you are to follow the movement of the Holy Spirit in turning the young Church around.
Cornelius was a Roman Centurion. A Centurion in the Roman Army was in charge of one hundred foot soldiers, and men of his rank were among the most-experienced and the best-informed officers in the Army. We read that he was “a very religious man. He worshipped God…He had given a lot of money to the poor and was always praying to God.” Hang on a minute! Aren’t we talking about a pagan Roman citizen here? There are not supposed to be non-Christian, devout people like that in the world, at least not if we think about the way Peter thought of non-Jews as godless, and as the way some Christians view anyone outside the church as godless.
Let us see how the story unfolds. One afternoon in Caesarea, Cornelius had a vision in which an angel came to him, called him by name and told him that God had heard his prayers and knew about his gifts to the poor. The angel in the vision told him to send some men to Simon Peter, and he gave him the address.
The next day at midday the men were near Joppa where Peter was staying. Peter had gone to the rooftop to wait for lunch and he fell sound asleep. He too had a vision; it was of something like a huge sheet coming down, held up at the four corners and containing all kinds of animals, snakes and birds. A voice told Peter to kill them and eat them.
Peter refused: “Lord, I can’t do that! I’ve never eaten anything that is unclean.” You understand that Peter was responding out of his Jewish background which had strict food laws about clean and unclean animals. What a wake-up call Peter had when the voice reversed Peter’s fiercely-held view with the rebuke: “When God says something can be used for food, don’t say it isn’t fit to eat.” This was repeated three times before the sheet disappeared and Peter was left wondering what this was all about.
While he was thinking about the vision the Holy Spirit told him three men were enquiring for him. They were the men Cornelius had sent to ask Peter to visit him. Inviting them to stay the night, Peter went with them the next day to Caesarea to the house of Cornelius. Peter had the grace to say, “You know that we Jews aren’t allowed to have anything to do with other people. But God has shown me that he doesn’t think that anyone is unclean or unfit (Peter got the point of the vision). I agreed to come but I want to know why you sent for me.” Cornelius told Peter about his vision and ended with this invitation: “All of us are here in the presence of the Lord God, so that we can hear what he has to say.”
You heard in the reading what Peter said to them. He told the story of Jesus which this devout Centurion had not heard before. Peter concluded: “God told us to announce clearly to the people that Jesus is the one he has chosen to judge the living and the dead. Every one of the prophets has said that all who have faith in Jesus will have their sins forgiven in his name.” That ‘all’ in the address of Peter shows that this story is about the conversion of Peter to the wideness of God’s mercy as well as about the conversion of Cornelius – there was a need also for the conversion of the Church! – “some Jewish followers of the Lord had come with Peter, and they were surprised that the Holy Spirit had been given to the Gentiles”!
My title for this sermon is a bit provocative: Should we convert the world or the church? The answer is that both need converting! In this story, Cornelius needed converting and in that he represents the world at large. Cornelius, with all his devout lifestyle and deepest convictions, yet needed the story of Jesus Christ in whom the love of God comes to most moving expression; he knew it when he heard the story of Jesus, and he eagerly responded. This is the story we are called to tell, and we are to invite people everywhere to become disciples of Jesus Christ.
I want to put this challenge to you. You may not have made up your mind to deliberately become a disciple of Jesus Christ. You may be a Cornelius kind of person, longing for God and doing your best to live devoutly. But something is missing. Unlike Cornelius you do know about Jesus, but somehow you cannot say with any certainty that you experience any life-giving relationship with him. To give your life to him would be a conversion, and if you were then to do what Cornelius and his company did, you would confess it in baptism. Think about this and speak with one of the pastors to discuss it.
But I also challenge you with the message of this story which is that in some things the church needs to be converted. We don’t find in the New Testament a ban on slavery. Paul instructs Christian people of his time to be kind to slaves, and slaves to be loyal to their masters. Is that what we would say today? The Church today, when it is obedient to God, condemns any kind of slavery, and it does that because less than several centuries ago Christians, and others, realised how dreadfully wrong slavery is. Sections of the Church were converted to this view, but it took some sections of the Church, for example, in the southern USA, a long time to come around to this.
In the same way the Church has reasonably recently been converted to the view that women should have full recognition in the ministry of the Church. Scripture has been quoted to show that women cannot have leadership in the Church, but large sections of the Church, including our own, have been converted to the full ministry of women because that is what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
What is the Spirit saying to us in this church? When I was growing up in a Baptist church, things likedancing, going to the cinema, and drinking wine with a meal were as strongly objected to as was Peter’s belief that only Jews should be in the Church. Those old rules mean nothing to me now and I have lived long enough to see churches converted from such narrow, misguided concerns.
We have to listen to the Spirit who may be trying to reach us through some vision about our blindness and prejudice. In the early 1960’s I was converted from the view that we in Australia had no business interfering in the politics of South Africa on the issue of apartheid – the separation of the black and white races. Our Prime Minister of the day refused to lodge a protest at the policy and I thought he was right. But when I began my studies in New York City in 1966 and found that students were withdrawing their accounts from the First National Bank of New York in protest for their investments in South Africa, I was converted. I realised that wherever injustice occurs, we must speak for the voiceless and make our protests.
The voice of the Church needs to be heard in politics. Politicians don’t like it and say that the Church should stay out of political debate. What arrogance that is! We have no right to force our opinion on any government, but on issues like human rights, poverty and racism, we must not be silenced. Today in the Bulletin we remember that May 26 is National Sorry Day, and I feel ashamed to be an Australian when our government has refused to say ‘sorry’ for past injustices to indigenous people while being quite happy to bask in justified praise to those who were at Gallipoli.
There are many areas of our lives where we, the people of the church, need to be converted. Do you need to be converted to the view that the gospel of the love of God is not merely about telling the story of the cross of Jesus and calling people to repentance, but that it is also about immersing ourselves in this community, perhaps through a Community Hub or some other community connection, so that we are with people in the fullness of their life’s need for food, clothing, comfort in loss and in the fear of the future.
Read Acts 10 before the day is out. Pray earnestly that God will show you as a Christian and we as Church, the beliefs and the blindness from which we need to be converted.