Read Acts 10:8-20
Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
Sammy loved the Lord. He sang the popular worship songs, listened to several podcasts with solid Christian teaching, and read his Bible every day. He was truly a model follower of Jesus, someone who any church would love to have in its congregation.
But Sammy hasn’t been inside of a church in several years. The last church asked Sammy and his family to leave because it felt it couldn’t meet Sammy’s needs. The last time Sammy attended service, he screamed out “amen!” one too many times. One of the interruptions was during the most holiest times of the morning..coffee hour.
No, Sammy wasn’t welcomed at this church. “We don’t have a program for him,” the pastor told his mother. “Our church takes faith and traditions very seriously, and we can’t have anyone who can’t follow our rules and be respectful to the Lord in our fellowship. Please don’t bring him back.”
Sammy has autism. He’s very functional and independent, but sometimes his behavior gets in the way. Seems to “zone out” during the day and says one too many Amens.
Sammy’s family was devastated at the pastor’s “request.” Wasn’t the Lord for everyone? Didn’t Jesus die for Sammy as well as for the pastor? How would his parents even explain this?
This is a common situation in the church today. People who have disabilities often find themselves on the outside of faith communities. It’s hard to find acceptance. And this is not new nor does it happen just to people who have disabilities. It has happened to people who are a different race, sex, foreigners, good people, bad people. Maybe you have experienced rejection from God’s family, too, for just being you.
Let’s go back to the scriptures and look at a time when Jesus’ close friend had to learn what it truly meant to welcome someone who is different into the family of God. To do this, we start with an outsider named Cornelius.
The Biblical Story
We don’t know a lot about Cornelius. What we do know comes from Acts 10. Cornelius was a Roman military commander in charge of 1000 men. He honors God. He and all his family were devout and God- fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” (Acts 10:2)
But Cornelius was stuck. He doubted that he could ever be on the inside, that he could never be a true member of God’s family. The Jews had all these laws they must follow to be seen as Holy to God. The food laws, for example, were taken very seriously. The law said they could only eat certain animals and even told people who they could eat with and Roman military men certainly weren’t one of them.
One afternoon Cornelius had a vision. He heard an angel! “God has heard your prayers and he is pleased,” the angel said. “Send for Simon who is called Peter, and he will help you.” Cornelius sent for Peter right away.
Meanwhile, Peter had his own experience with the Lord. The next day he was praying at noon when he had a vision. Let’s pick up the story in Acts 10:9-16:
“Peter became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’
“‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’ The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.”
All of Peter’s life he has been taught to observe and obey the Torah. In fact, he knew it inside and out! His eyes are so focused on getting all the steps right that Peter couldn’t see how the same Law actually was stumbling block to the mission Jesus gave him to do.
Up to this point, Peter has been called by Jesus, (Luke 5:1-8) learned under Christ’s feet ( Luke has the most parables in the Gospels, and Peter heard all of them!) denied him (Luke 22:55-66), experienced the resurrection (Luke 24:12), received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-5), and preached the message of salvation (Acts 2:14-51). But there is still one more lesson Peter must learn, something he has completely missed.
This is what Israel thought Isaiah meant. If it looked good, didn’t sin, and showed its “good side”, the nations would take notice and want what it had. But a well dressed, a well behaved person rarely attracts others. Why? Because it looks fake. Something that perfect must be a fraud. Perfect people usually make others uncomfortable, as if they are hiding something. This often causes divisions and mistrust.
But Jesus had other ideas for what it meant to be a light. GO! Get up and preach the good news to ALL PEOPLE. Go is an action word. It means to get up, move those feet and start taking action. Tell people about Jesus.
But Peter wasn’t about to do that. He’s stuck. His mindset wouldn’t allow him to go. Instead what happens? Cornelius sent for him and two men picked him up and brought him back. The student had to go get the teacher. Peter finally fulfills the last part of the Great Commission and went beyond his comfort zone.
And what happens when he gets to Cornelius home? Peter hears a conversion story…Cornelius’ encounter with the Living Christ. For the first time, Peter finally understood the mission. “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34-35)
Boom! Shock! God had just torn down major walls, misunderstandings, and begin his work of including EVERYONE in the Kingdom of God. Peter stays on a few days probably telling stories about his time with Jesus, the miracles, his death and resurrection. At the end of it all, Cornelius and his family were baptized and became a part of the family of God. Peter obeyed the Great Commission.
Are you Cornelius or are you Peter? Are you looking to come into fellowship with the Lord, or do you try to stop someone trying to become apart of your group just because they’re a little different from you? Think of it this way: are you advancing the Kingdom of God or are you a roadblock to the Kingdom of God?
Everybody is invited to participate in the Kingdom, to have a relationship with Jesus. Sunday morning services may have an extra Amen! or two, but that’s totally okay. The Lord loves to hear his children.
If you’re a Cornelius today, I invite you to step out and reach out to Jesus. Send for your Peter so he can help you learn about Jesus and all that he has done for you. If you’re Peter, stop it! Stop with your traditions and thinking that you way is the only way. Add an extra Amen to your coffee hour. Because one we do that, once Peter meets Cornelius, the church, Christ body, will be a little more complete.