October 2, 2016 “Essentials” – Acts 10:23-48
October 2, 2016 – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
I prayed last week that we would not forget anything. I was loading our suitcases, a bag of breakfast items and some fishing gear into the back of our old Toyota 4Runner for a week-long journey to northern Washington. I didn’t want to wake up the next morning without Beth’s oatmeal. I didn’t want to get to the river a few days later and find my waders missing. I wanted everything essential to get packed.
As Christians we are even more concerned to pack in what is essential to our faith. That was part of the discussion at the philosophy conference Beth and I attended in Bellingham. What is the nature of faith? What’s essential to having faith and what is not? Even more, what is essential to Christian faith?
As we continue the story of Acts 10 with Peter’s visit to a Roman soldier named Cornelius we see him grappling with that question, “What is essential?” And we watch his heart change as God gives him new understanding. The essentials for putting faith in Jesus Christ were not what he first expected.
Cornelius expected to hear something crucial, something essential to his life. While Peter made the two-day journey to Caesarea as it says in verses 23 and 24, Cornelius gathered a crowd, his relatives and close friends, to hear what Peter would say. Verse 25 shows just how high his expectations were. When Peter arrived, Cornelius knelt down to worship him. He had seen an angel and he expected Peter to be someone of that order, a divine visitor to whom he ought to show the utmost respect.
Peter knew that kind of respect was unnecessary. “Stand up;” he says in verse 26, “I am only a human being.” Verse 27 shows us Peter entering to find many people assembled in that house, all with expectations as high as Cornelius had. Peter’s mind had changed about what was essential. Verse 28 tells them he was there even though Jews were not to visit in the homes of Gentiles. But God had just taught him not to “call anyone profane or unclean.” Those differences were not as essential as he had thought.
As we heard two weeks ago, we keep having to learn the lesson Peter learned. Those differences which seem to make so much difference really don’t make any difference among people who follow Jesus. Politics or clothes or language or lifestyle that may seem essential to us do not matter to God. No one should be called profane or unclean.
What is essential is about to appear. Peter asked Cornelius in verse 29 why he sent for him. The next few verses have Cornelius repeat the story of his angel visitor and word for word what the angel said. It’s important enough to repeat. It’s essential that everyone there and that you and I understand that Peter has been sent for to bring a message from God. That’s why verse 33 says, “So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”
Cornelius had ahold of one essential of Christian faith, of what it means to follow Jesus. We listen and pay attention to what the Lord has to say. That’s why Cornelius brought together a crowd of friends and family and why Peter walked thirty miles up the coast of Palestine to speak to them. There is a message, a Word that is essential. We are here this morning for that same essential reason.
Being Jewish was not essential. Peter learned that in the first half of this story, the first part of chapter 10. That’s what Peter started out with in verse 34 and 35, “God shows no partiality.” But there was still something essential, a message that did come first to Jewish people, to the people of Israel, as he says in verse 36. It’s the message of “peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.”
The Word about Jesus is essential. In the next few verses, 37-43, Peter preached the same sort of brief, bullet-point sermon he preached in Acts 2 and Acts 3 and Acts 5. He hit the high points of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, especially the fact that He was crucified and God raised Him from the dead. Bible scholars call that the kerygma, the central, key message of Christian faith. In other words, preaching the essentials.
As I explained before, Cornelius was a “God-fearer.” He worshipped the God of Israel, had even read the Hebrew Bible. Evidently as Peter says in verse 36, he and his friends had also heard about Jesus. His ministry had attracted attention. Now Peter explained the essence of it all. Jesus died and rose again so that, as Peter concludes in verse 43, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
That Word about Jesus is essential. Hearing that message and taking it into our hearts and minds and then living it out in faith is absolutely crucial to being a Christian. That’s what we’re about here in Valley Covenant Church. We want to hear that Good News, absorb it, and then act it out in everything we do. That’s what our Community Bible Experience is aimed at.
We’re starting at the essential point. As I just discussed with one of you this past week, the Old Testament is important, but the heart of our faith is in the New Testament. That’s why we are reading it together in the next eight weeks. Just like those seekers in Cornelius’ house, we want to hear the Good News about Jesus, talk about it and take it deeper into our lives. And when we’ve really heard and received the New Testament message about Jesus, it’s easy to read the Old Testament and see that it’s about Jesus too.
So let me welcome you into a truly essential things in God’s eyes, the hearing and practice of His Word, the Good News of Jesus. It’s essential because it speaks to everything that matters most to us. Someone here today may need for the first time to receive what Peter promised, forgiveness of sin in Jesus’ name. You are tired of your failures, worn out by the guilt you feel, crushed by shame. This Word addresses all of that and says that in Jesus God loves you, God forgives you, God wants you to have peace by Jesus Christ.
And that essential peace which Jesus brings is not just forgiveness. It’s hope. In verses 40 and 41, Peter says twice that Jesus rose from the dead. He and the other apostles were eyewitnesses. They ate and drank with Jesus after He was raised. It really happened. That means there is an essential answer to all the sorrow and grief you may be feeling at this moment. Whatever you’ve lost, whoever is gone from you, however you may be feeling your own inevitable death, Jesus rose above it all. And He will raise you and raise those you love with Him. That’s the very first and key essential of our faith, the Word of Jesus our Lord.
We heard Habakkuk 2:4 today, “the righteous live by their faith.” That means our faith in the Word of Jesus is life-giving. Our faith, our trust in Him raises and restores and renews life in us when we feel like we are dying, whether by guilt or by grief. We live by faith in that essential Good News that Christ is risen.
Yet believing the Word is not all there is to becoming a Christian, not the only essential. Sometimes we’ve made the mistake of thinking it is. At times in Christian history, we have focused almost totally on correct doctrine, on making sure everyone hears and believes the Word as full and accurately as possible. The Word became the only essential for Christian faith. It is essential, but there’s more.
Making Word the only essential can divide us. If what you believe is all that matters, you had better get it perfectly right. I grew up in a church where some people refused to believe that Presbyterians or Catholics were really Christians because they didn’t believe exactly what we believed. That was wrong on two fronts. First of all, all three major branches of Christianity, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, believe the essentials, believe what Peter preached in that house in Caesarea, that Jesus died and rose again for the forgiveness of our sins.
Second, there’s not just one essential. In verse 44 a second essential interrupts and adds to the first. Peter was not finished. His sermon was just getting cranked up. But God interrupted him. We read, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” That Spirit is another essential. The living power of the Holy Spirit is the evidence that the Word is not empty belief, not mere doctrine. Peter preached in verse 38 that God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit. God gives that same Holy Spirit to those who receive the Word and trust in Jesus.
For the Gentiles gathered in Cornelius house, the Spirit came down upon them in a visible and audible way. They spoke in tongues. As verse 45 tells, that blew away the other Jewish (“circumcised”) believers who accompanied Peter. They still thought being Jewish was somehow essential. They were astounded that God would give Gentiles the same Spirit He gave to Jewish Christians.
Peter got it, though. Just like the Holy Spirit came down on him and the other disciples on Pentecost, the Spirit entered these people in the same way causing them to speak in tongues. It’s called the “Gentile Pentecost.” In verse 48 Peter refers to them as “these people who received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” For Peter the sign of Holy Spirit was all it took to convince him that Cornelius and his family and friends had the essentials, everything they needed to be received as Christians.
That’s still how it works. When you pray to ask Jesus into your heart, the Spirit comes to bring His presence. You received the Word about Jesus and then His Holy Spirit comes to make that real in you. Not everyone receives the Spirit by speaking in tongues, but there is still evidence. Galatians 5 says, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” The Spirit is essential for that fruit. He appears in many ways, quiet and loud, visible and invisible.
Word and Spirit—two essentials—are the focus this morning. They are the foundation of our denomination, the Covenant Church. Our spiritual ancestors were people of the Book. They read the Bible constantly, talked about it all the time. Yet they also felt themselves guided by the Holy Spirit in their understanding of that Book and in the way its message worked out in their lives. The Covenant is a movement of Word and Spirit. They are both essential.
So as we read the Word together for the next two months we want to be open to the Spirit, to watch for and listen to what He does and says through others around us. That’s why discussion groups are part of this. Neither the Bible nor the Holy Spirit is an individual possession. They are gifts to us together. We see the Spirit when we gather, like those folks who got together to listen to the word in Cornelius’ house.
At the climax of this story in verse 47, Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?” They’ve got the essentials. What was necessary to be Jewish was ignored. The men didn’t need to be circumcised, the house didn’t need to be cleansed and made kosher, nobody was asked to stop working on the Sabbath. None of that matters anymore. These people have everything needed to enter Christian community.
So why then did Peter want to baptize them? Is baptism essential? A Lutheran pastor and I talked about this on Friday. Lutherans might say that baptism saves you. That sounds like it’s essential. But as we talked we agreed that Jesus is the Savior and that baptism is just one of the means through which He works in our lives.
Baptism is like the seal on a package or a bottle. All you need to be a Christian is to take in the Word about Jesus and the Holy Spirit will come to bring you forgiveness and new life. All you need to make wine is to put grape juice in a bottle. It will start fermenting and becoming something new. But that bottle still needs a good seal. Use a moldy cork or don’t get it in right and the wine will be ruined. Baptism seals the work of the Word and the Spirit in us like that, holds them together in us. That’s why Peter didn’t want to keep baptism from those new Christians. He wanted their faith to be well-sealed.
Baptism is also a reminder of what God is doing in us. Through His Word and His Spirit He is pouring the life of Jesus into us, transforming us to be like Him, filling us with His peace. Remembering your baptism is a way to remember that you have the essentials, that you have heard and believed that Jesus is your Savior and His Holy Spirit lives in you.
We are constantly tempted to think all sorts of other things are essential, that in order to have peace and joy I need a better job or a bigger house, that I need alcohol to dull my pain or entertainment to forget my sadness. But to be, as Paul put it, buried with Jesus by baptism into His death and raised to walk in newness of life is to have everything essential. It means you are hearing the Word and walking in the Spirit. It’s all you need.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj