May 10, 2015 - Sixth Sunday of Easter
The customs agent opened
my faulty passport. I was 5,500 miles from home, in Athens, Greece. My name was spelled wrong. It’s a long story. We stood in line for hours in downtown Chicago to apply for our passports, leaving what we thought was plenty of time for them to
be mailed to us. But they arrived the day before we were to get on the plane to
Greece. When I pulled mine out of the envelope, there it was, Stephen
“Bicynskyj,” with a “c” instead of an “l.” There was nothing to do but go with
So I was nervous and
scared that a scrupulous customs agent would compare my plane ticket to my
passport or ask to see my U.S. driver’s license and discover the discrepancy
and decide I didn’t belong there. I would wind up in the back room of a Greek
airport and then on a plane headed home.
Peter was nervous when
he came to Cornelius’ house. Acts 10 tells the long story of how God prepared
him to preach the Gospel in the home of a foreigner, a Gentile. Peter went only
thirty miles or so, but he crossed a wider cultural gulf than Chicago to Athens. He left the ancient Jewish port of Joppa and traveled up the coast to a brand new
city Herod built for the Romans, Caesarea. Jews barely spoke with Gentiles,
with Roman soldiers like Cornelius. They did not accept dinner invitations from
You might think
Peter’s dream at the beginning of the chapter is merely a metaphor. He saw a
sheet come down out of the sky filled with all sorts of mammals and reptiles
and birds forbidden by Jewish dietary law. None of it was kosher. But a voice
spoke telling him to kill and eat those creatures. Peter declined, saying he
would never eat anything profane or unclean, but the voice told him, “What God
has made clean, you must not call profane.” Verse 16 tells us that for
emphasis, to drive the point home, it happened three times.
Then messengers from
the Roman centurion Cornelius showed up at Peter’s gate, asking him to come to
their master’s house. Peter understood that these Gentiles, these people he regarded as profane and unclean were not profane if God sent them. So we
might imagine that the dream of eating the unclean food was all a symbol, a
metaphor for Peter’s need to accept and not reject his visitors and their master.
Spiritual reality is
not just metaphor and morality. We just watched a television show in which a
character complains that the homilies at his Catholic church all boil down to
the same thing, “Go out and be a little nicer to people.” But Peter didn’t just
need to be nice to Cornelius. He didn’t even just need to tell him about Jesus.
Peter the good Jewish boy had to go into Cornelius’ house, sit down to dinner
and say, “Pass the pork roast,” and “I’ll have another slice of ostrich,” and
“This octopus is really fabulous.”
In order to be there
and witness for Jesus to people that God was ready to accept into His kingdom,
Peter had to ready to sit down and choke down food he never imagined eating
before. Just ask a missionary or two and they will tell you stories about the
real meaning of this chapter.
Peter wondered if he
really belonged there in Cornelius’ house. He says as much to Cornelius and the
group of Gentiles gathered in his house in verse 28. “You yourselves know that
it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has
shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
It may still sound
like all that sheet of animals was just a symbol for Peter to accept Gentiles.
But look a the very end of our text, verse 48. Peter and his Christian Jewish
companions entered the Roman centurion’s house and in the end “they invited him
to stay for several days.” Peter had to accept that invitation. He had to sleep
in a Gentile’s house, eat at a Gentile’s table, become the friend of a Gentile.
As I entered seminary,
“friendship evangelism” was making a splash among evangelical Christians. I
read Lifestyle Evangelism by Joe Aldrich and Out of the Saltshaker by Becky Pippert. They argued eloquently for not just bombing people with the
Gospel, but for what we now commonly call “sharing Christ,” forming
relationships and befriending people. Evangelism is not just a salvation talk
or handing someone a Bible. It’s getting to know them and letting them get to
know you so they can get to know your Savior.
The problem with
“friendship evangelism” is that even after all these years we may still think
friendship is an evangelistic tool, a method by which we share Jesus with
people. But in the Covenant theology class I help teach we always have our
students read an article entitled, “Befriending in God’s Name,” by Covenant
pastor Jean Lambert. In that article she argues that “friendship” is not just a
method for sharing the Gospel. It is the Gospel.
Please don’t misunderstand.
We have a lot of good news to tell people about Jesus and what He’s done. When
Peter came into Cornelius’ house he preached a wonderful message containing the
heart of the Gospel about Jesus. It’s there in Acts 10 verses 34 to 43. We often read it on Easter Sunday, because it tells the whole story, how God loved “every
nation,” and sent Jesus filled with the Holy Spirit. It tells how Jesus was put
to death and then raised again on the third day. Peter concludes with the
wonderful news that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins
through his name.”
But look at what Peter
says in verse 34, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” And look
at the invitation to receive God’s forgiveness in Jesus’ name. That’s all to
say that God wants to be our friend, that He wants us to be His friends, to be
reconciled with Him.
We heard it in our
Gospel lesson from John 15 this morning. Jesus our Lord said, “I have called
you friends.” We are not servants, not subjects, not just followers, but
friends of our Lord. God shows no partiality in His friends. He doesn’t choose
them by color or language or gender. Friendship is the Gospel, friendship with
God, and friendship with each other, even with people who are different
from and strange to us.
The largest part of
this chapter is about getting Peter into that house. Will he make the journey
from Joppa to Caesarea and enter the house of a Gentile? But in the end the
question is not whether Peter is going to enter Cornelius’ house, but whether
Cornelius and his family are going to enter Peter’s house.
As some local pastors
heard Dr. Tony Evans say at Harvest House Publishers Friday afternoon, the name
Jesus gave Simon, the name “Peter” means “stone.” Peter learned that Jesus’
nickname for him was really the name of every Christian. So in I Peter 2:5 we hear him tell us, “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a
That’s the house which
shows up at the end of Acts 10, the household of God, built from the living
stones of men, women and children who trust in Jesus and receive His
forgiveness. And the big issue of the whole chapter is whether Cornelius and
his family and his slaves and his friends and everyone who was under his roof
that day would enter that house, God’s house of forgiveness and friendship in
Now we are ready to
hear verse 44, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all
who heard the word.” The opening lines of Peter’s sermon came true. God did not
show any partiality. Just like He poured out the Spirit on Jewish people in Jerusalem on Pentecost, He poured out the Spirit on Gentile people in that Roman house.
Christian friends, the “circumcised believers” as we read there in verse 45,
were surprised. They came along with Peter. He was their leader. They even
followed him into a Roman house. They said “Amen” as he preached about Jesus
dying and rising and offering forgiveness. But verses 45 and 46 say they were
“astounded” that the Holy Spirit actually showed up for Gentiles, that God really
did not see any difference. Those Romans filled with Holy Spirit spoke in
tongues like the apostles did on Pentecost.
Peter shined in that
moment. In verse 47, he stepped up to ask, “Can anyone withhold the water of
baptism from these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
That word “withhold” is literally the verb, “to hinder.” Peter asked whether
anyone was going to hinder these Spirit-filled people from being baptized in
the name of Jesus.
Last week we read the
story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, and the Ethiopian himself used the
same word after hearing about Jesus. He saw water and asked Philip, “Does
anything hinder me from being baptized?” You know the answer for both the
Ethiopian and Cornelius’ household. Nothing could hinder them. Philip baptized
the Ethiopian. In verse 48, Peter ordered that the Romans be baptized in the
name of Jesus Christ. No hindrance.
Do you see the theme? Turn
over to the end of the book, to the last verse, Acts 28:31. After everything that happened to Philip and Peter and Paul and Barnabas and
Luke and Dorcas and Lydia, Paul lands in jail in Rome. What’s he doing there? Acts 28:31 says he was, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus
Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” The very last word of Acts
means “no hindrance.” That’s the aim: no hindrance to people hearing about
Jesus, no hindrance to people being welcomed into God’s house.
Back in chapter 10 the
very end is not just an addendum, not just a nice little cap on this episode in
verse 48. When those new Gentile believers invited Peter to stay for several days,
that was the point. Peter stayed in that house to welcome Cornelius and
his friends and family into God’s house. He stayed to become their friend and
brother in Christ.
That’s still the point,
for us to be a house without hindrances to people hearing about Jesus and being
included in God’s household. It’s still surprising whom God welcomes in. I
mentioned a couple weeks ago sitting next to a man from Nepal at our conference dinner in Kent. He told how someone gave him a Christian tract back in Nepal. He just kept reading it over and over, finding Jesus to be the answer to all his
I asked him what his
family thought when he became a Christian. He said it was terrible. They
disowned him. He was the only son, the only male because his father was gone.
He was the one responsible for his family’s spiritual welfare in their Hindu
religion. He had let his mother and sisters down, and they were hurt and angry.
That’s astounding. Why would anyone want to do that, to leave the faith in
which you grew up, to embrace a strange, foreign God? Only because in Jesus
Christ Bashu found a God who welcomes everyone without partiality, without hindrance.
When he went looking for Christians like Cornelius looked for Peter, Bashu was
welcomed, both in Nepal and in America.
It’s been a challenge
for our Covenant church in Kent to accept and welcome those Nepalese believers
into their midst. All sorts of hindrances get in the way, culture, language,
sharing worship space. But they make it work. They are being built together as
You and are to welcome
the people around us, to put no hindrances between them and Jesus. It’s hard.
Twenty years ago we welcomed a Korean Covenant church into our neighborhood and
their children into our Sunday school. Language and their new building farther
away in Springfield caused us to drift apart. The hindrances are real and hard.
It was hard for Peter.
We know from what Paul says in Galatians 2 that after those golden few days in
Cornelius’ house, Peter chickened out. He go worried about eating with Gentiles,
worried what other Jewish believers would think. Paul had to rebuke Peter, to
haul him back to the real Gospel, the Gospel that is friendship without
It’s hard, but it can
happen. It never really occurred to me before, but it happened amazingly in the
little Baptist church in which I grew up. As I said to someone recently, that
church could have been a transplanted little piece of Texas. Some of the people
and pastors were from there. They brought us Texas Christianity with all its
warmth and with all its prejudices. You would think such a church would have
many hindrances for people of different races and nationalities. It was 50
years ago, long before being multi-cultural was cool, before anyone had written
books about it.
But I thought back
this week and realized my first memories of that church include a Cuban congregation
meeting in our fellowship hall, refugees from Castro. We shared potlucks and
occasional worship together. Then I recalled that a little later we sponsored a
Vietnamese family who came to worship with us for several years and brought
noodles to our potlucks. And finally, when I was in high school, an
African-American family came and joined our church. And a kind and deeply
spiritual black man named Fate Causey befriended this skinny awkward white boy
and helped encourage me to be a preacher.
Looking back, I’m as
astounded as those first Jewish believers there in Caesarea. How did the Holy
Spirit pull that off in a tiny Southern Baptist congregation in the 1960s and
1970s? How did He get us to speak in the tongues of Cubans and Vietnamese and
African-Americans and sit down to eat with them? All I can say is that it was
because God would not let us hinder anyone, would not let us keep anyone out of
That’s still what God
is up to, taking away the hindrances we create. He’s doing it right here in
this congregation now. He’s sent us people who don’t speak our language. He’s
sent us people with disabilities. In the past He sent us folks who were
mentally ill. He sent us people who were homeless or jobless or hurting from a
broken marriage. And God keeps asking us what Peter asked then, “Can anyone
hinder them from knowing Jesus?”
If you’re still
wondering, I got into Greece. No one noticed my bad passport, not in Greece and most importantly, not coming home to America. No one hindered me. That’s what God wants
for His church, for His house. None of us has a perfect passport into the kingdom of God. It’s Jesus who takes away the hindrances for us.
There’s no hindrance
here for you, whoever you are, whatever your background. If you haven’t trusted
Jesus yet and been baptized, there’s nothing in your way here. We’d like to
welcome you in. If you already are a Christian, but you’re different from
people sitting around you, there’s nothing in your way. We want to welcome you,
just like we want to welcome people from across the street who speak a
different language. We want no hindrances here. This is a house that Jesus is
building. Let there be no hindrance.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj