Scripture Readings: Acts 11:1-18 and Revelation 21:1-6
Have you ever gone through the process of buying a house? It can be a challenge, especially if you have a big family and everybody has their opinions. Some family members like new homes, others like old houses with lots of character. Some people like “move-in-ready” homes, others like “fixer-uppers”. (I find it interesting that with most married couples there’s usually one person who’s the ‘move-in-ready’ type and one person who’s the ‘fixer-upper’ type… which makes for some lively conversations!) And there can be advantages to all of these approaches to buying a home.
Our scripture readings for today are like house-building stories: the story from Acts is like a renovation on an old house, and the story from Revelation is like the building of a move-in-ready house. But in both cases God is making all things new. Let’s take a look.
In our reading from Acts, we see Peter defending himself to the apostles and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. And as often happens, our passage starts in mid-story so we need to back up and find out what’s happened so far. What happened was – and what Peter is explaining – is that Peter had a vision one day, in which God said to him three times, “what God has made clean you must not call profane”.
Peter was still puzzling over this vision when three men came to the house, sent by a Roman centurion named Cornelius. (Cornelius, being a centurion, was a commander of 100 soldiers.) He was also a God-fearing man, that is, he believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Old Testament. And as a result he was good to the Jewish people. Even though the Romans had conquered Israel he did not take advantage of his position. The apostle Luke says he was “well-spoken of by the whole Jewish nation”.
Peter goes with the men to Cornelius’ house, where Cornelius tells Peter he saw an angel. The angel told him to send for Peter and listen to the message he has to share. So Cornelius gathered his family and all his friends, a house-full of people, and they listened to Peter talk about Jesus. Peter told them about Jesus’ miracles, his healings, and his teaching of God’s word. He told them Jesus was crucified but rose from the dead three days later and was seen by many people. And Peter said, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43)
Cornelius and his family believed Peter’s message, and while Peter was still speaking the Holy Spirit fell on them in power and they began to speak in tongues and praise God. Seeing this, Peter realized (as he says) “Now I understand God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35) With God’s blessing Peter then baptizes Cornelius and all his family into the church.
What’s so extraordinary about this is that, up till this point, the vast majority Jesus’s followers were Jewish. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, he taught the Jewish faith, and the disciples were all Jewish. And Jews and Gentiles didn’t associate with each other. Jews did not eat with Gentiles or even go into their homes. And now all of a sudden, Peter has not only gone into the home of a Gentile but has shared the gospel with him, baptized him, and then stayed with his family for a few days, which would have meant eating with him. These things were not done in the Jewish faith!
Sidebar #1 – Was it God’s plan for Jews and Gentiles to be separate from each other like this? Not exactly. God does warn the Jewish people in the Old Testament (over and over) not to worship the gods of other nations. And God warns the Israelites not to marry outside the faith otherwise God’s people might be tempted by their spouses to worship false gods. But God did not choose the Jewish people so they could become an exclusive club. God’s plan always was for God’s people to reach out with God’s word to all races and nations. God said to Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22:18) So Israel was supposed to be a sign that pointed people to God.
And sometimes they were – we see Gentiles in the Old Testament like Ruth and like Job coming to the faith. But lots of the time they weren’t. The religious leaders in particular turned inwards and made up all kinds of rules for people to follow like what you can eat and what you can’t eat, and what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath and so on. It was all about religious tradition and not about faith in God and outreach to the nations.
Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day for exactly this. He said: “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven…” (Matt 23:13) He said things like: “you give 10% of all your mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters… justice and mercy and faith. […] blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Matt 23:23-24)
So it always was God’s intention to include the Gentiles in the heavenly plan of salvation. God got that message across to Peter by saying “what God has made clean you must not call profane”.
When Peter told all of this to the leaders of the Christian church in Jerusalem, they were satisfied this was a message from God, and it ushered in a new covenant – the New Testament. Now, for the first time, all the obstacles were cleared away that prevented non-Jews from believing in the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
What had concerned the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem was the question, ‘has Peter compromised the one true faith in the one true God?’ And their answer was ‘no’. Because God had declared Cornelius and his family pure by Jewish standards even though they were Gentiles – and God gave them a sign to prove it: Cornelius and his family received the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues, just like the disciples did on the very first Pentecost.
Sidebar #2 – This particular passage in Acts is one of those hot-button proof-texts some people use to try to “prove” that people must speak in tongues in order to be Christian. The argument goes like this: all believers in Jesus receive the Holy Spirit (which is true); when Cornelius and his family believed in Jesus they received the Holy Spirit, and immediately spoke in tongues; and so did the disciples on Pentecost; so therefore all people who believe in Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit must speak in tongues.
This is a mis-reading of the passage, and is as far off the meaning as those who claim the opposite (that the gifts of the Holy Spirit no longer exist). Both extremes are mistaken. The Holy Spirit gives different gifts to different people as God wills it, and this still happens today. There are no set rules as to who gets what gifts and when. To learn more about the gifts of the Holy Spirit I recommend to your reading I Corinthians chapters 12 and 13 where the apostle Paul talks about the topic at length.
Sidebar #3 – This passage in Acts has also been used by some to teach universal salvation – that is, the idea that because Jesus died for the whole world, everyone in the world is going to be saved. The passage says, “what God has made clean, you must not call profane” – and this applies to all people everywhere – but the passage does not do away with free will. All people are called to believe in Jesus Christ. All people are called to turn our lives over to the direction of the Holy Spirit. But not all people answer that call. God does not force salvation on anyone.
Look at what happened with Cornelius: God reached out to Cornelius – God took the lead – through a vision of an angel. Cornelius believed what the angel said and did what the angel said to do. Cornelius could have said “whatever” and gone about his day. But Cornelius listened to the angel, and sent for Peter, and listened to Peter. And when Peter said, “All the prophets testify about [Jesus] that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name,” Cornelius believed – and that’s when the Holy Spirit came.
The Holy Spirit is not like ‘The Force’ in Star Wars that is in all things and through all things. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, God within us. It is impossible to know God – in any way – apart from faith. The apostle Paul writes: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3) The apostle James, Jesus’ brother, writes, “just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (James 2:26) To have faith is to change the direction of our lives, and not everybody does.
So, getting back to our original thought: God is making all things new. In the story from Acts, God is adding on to the house that the family of God lives in. Where there was once just the Jewish temple, now there’s a whole new Gentile wing on God’s mansion! Which was always part of the blueprint.
So now that this new creation is under way, there are four things I’d like us to see:
- There’s a new covenant. Jesus called it ‘the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for many’. The old covenant was given through the law of Moses; and the new covenant is given through Jesus Christ.
- There’s a new temple. The old Jewish temple was destroyed when Jerusalem fell in the year 70AD and it was never rebuilt. The new temple where God dwells is in God’s people through the Holy Spirit in each of us. The apostle Paul writes: “do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?” (I Cor 6:19) In very real terms this means whatever we do to our bodies, and/or whatever someone else does to our bodies, they do to God, because our bodies are God’s temple. And I point this out because in a congregation of this size, odds are good that at least one person here (probably more) has been subjected to physical violence or abuse of some kind in their lives. If so, be assured that God is not ‘out there somewhere watching from a distance’. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God is in you, walking through this life with you. A Christian is never alone. (And if anyone you know has ever dished out violence – what they do, they do to God, and God will deal with those who mess with His temple.) I could preach a whole sermon on this but not today. For now I’ll just say if anyone ever sees or hears about any kind of abuse happening, let one of your pastors know. We’re here for you. There is no place for abuse or violence in the family of God.
- Since we have a new temple – our bodies – we now have new sacrifices. In the old temple they sacrificed animals. In the new temple, our sacrifice is “praise and thanksgiving”. That’s why we come to worship and sing songs and pray together. It’s why we celebrate communion together, and why minister to the community together. Our sacrifice is praise and thanksgiving.
- God has a new way of speaking to God’s people. The old order of priests and prophets as go-betweens between God and the people has passed away. Yes, there are still priests and prophets, but the people of God don’t need an intermediary any more. Now we have the priesthood of all believers – direct contact between God and God’s people. We pray directly to God, and we have the ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ – like we saw in the story of Cornelius – where God gives gifts to God’s people directly.
So these four things we have: new covenant, new temple, new sacrifices, and new ways of communicating with God.
And there’s a fifth ‘new thing’ still on the way, that hasn’t come yet. The apostle John talks about it in Revelation. This isn’t going to be just a new wing on the house. This is going to be a whole new house – a move-in-ready mansion! “A new heaven and a new earth” John says. The old earth and everything in it will pass away, and all will be made new.
It’s hard to imagine what that new heaven and new earth will be like. The Bible tells us surprisingly little; but what it does say makes me want to be there! We know God will be there. God’s people will be there – all the people we’ve read about in the Bible, and all the people of faith who have gone before us, from all over the world in every time and place, and all the faithful who will come after us. There will be no evil people in this new place, no God-haters. There will be no death, no illness, no addictions, no injuries, no pain.
We won’t have to spend our days working at jobs that wear us down, or slog our way through office politics just in order to put food on the table. These will all be things of the past. Don’t get me wrong: I think there will be work to do in this new earth, but it will be work that is a pleasure. I hope my work will involve taking care of cats! And I’ve already put in my application for the Celestial Choir.
The apostle John tells us the new Jerusalem, the City of God, will be ‘adorned like a bride for her husband’. It will be a city of brilliant colors and sunlight, with gates made of gemstones, and streets paved with gold.
And the best thing of all is ‘God himself will be with them, and he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ Can you imagine that? Every pain and every struggle we’ve gone through, not forgotten, but healed by the touch of God’s hand.
John writes, “the one… seated on the throne says, ‘See, I am making all things new […] these words are trustworthy and true.’”
This is the word of God for the people of God.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/24/16