Sermon series: Going Right in a Culture Gone Wrong
Scriptures: Acts 10
Our salvation certainly changes the way we relate to God, and our new identity should impact the way we relate to believers and to the unsaved. This sermon builds upon the theme of relating to those who are different from us by examining the story of Peter and Cornelius.
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the most inspiring speeches ever given on American soil. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., King preached about freedom for all men and denounced the chains of segregation and discrimination that crippled so many of our nation's citizens. His closing exhortation " … for all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentile, Protestants and Catholics to join hands and sing the old Negro spiritual, Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at Last," remains an ongoing struggle in the United States.
As followers of Christ, we must take the challenge of Martin Luther King Jr. one step further. While he dreamed of a society where "children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," Christians have a higher calling that directs our relationships with others. We are called to go beyond the content of character and to relate to individuals on the basis of God's grace. From this story of Peter's transformation from race relations to grace relations we discover several important principles that guide us in developing a mature faith.
I. Grow Spiritually
The story illustrates the need for ongoing growth as followers of Christ. Peter was blessed to spend three incredible years with the Lord Jesus. He received personal instruction from the world's greatest teacher. He witnessed miracles and even performed miracles under the Lord's supervision. Peter walked on water, and he was invited to be a "backstage guest" at the glorious transfiguration of Christ. Somehow, even with all the special instruction, Peter had failed to grasp the significance of spreading the gospel to the Gentiles. God graciously leads Peter through a series of visions and sends a special group of visitors to grow Peter's faith in this area of race relations. More than just a condemnation of prejudice, this passage illustrates that sin is the result of spiritual weakness and immaturity. Peter was prejudice because he lacked spiritual understanding and discipline. False teaching and ungodly tradition had shaped his thinking in this area more than the commands of Christ.
Your struggle may or may not be in the area of race, but we all struggle in some areas of our lives. Like Peter, you will find that your struggle can be traced to a spiritual weakness. Whether the problem is financial, relational, or emotional, the root cause will usually be a spiritual issue. Peter would write in his final letter to the saints of God to crave the Word of God like a newborn so that you would grow in the faith. The apostle Paul exhorted the saints to combat weak faith and, "Be strong in the Lord." Through spiritual growth we develop the strength to confront and to destroy the strongholds that threaten our lives as individuals and as a church.
A poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes entitled The Chambered Nautilus describes the challenge to grow: "Build me more stately mansions, O' my soul, Let each new temple be nobler than the last, Till thou at length art free, Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea." Are you still growing? When was the last time you outgrew something other than a pant size? God is inviting you to grow beyond the shells that limit your ability to experience His abundant life, adventurous calling, and amazing grace.
II. Go Faithfully
When we begin to grow spiritually, God will send us to go faithfully. Notice verse 20 of chapter 10 says, "Go with them for I have sent them." One of the major principles from Henry Blackaby's Experiencing God is "You can't go with God and stay where you are." Our God is a sending God. He sends His followers out of their comfort zones to places and circumstances that require us to express faith to accomplish God-sized tasks.
Like Peter, we face several obstacles that threaten to keep us in our shell. Fear of failure or the unknown often keeps us in our shell. Apathy and a coldness toward those who need the love of Christ keeps us confined. Busyness blinds us that we are living in the shell. We may be moving around a lot, but it is still in a shell or carrying the shell with us wherever we go. Bad habits and what the Bible calls "vain tradition" keep individuals and especially churches in bondage from trying to new things to reach the lost for Christ.
False teaching has also crippled the church. Of particular interest in this story is false teaching about the gospel including Gentiles. Jesus taught and demonstrated throughout His ministry that His kingdom included all people regardless of race, age, nationality, or gender. In our churches, pastors (me included) have often presented evangelism to the "average saint in the pew" in a manner that creates unfair and even unbiblical expectations.
One example is teaching that the "soul-winner" must sow seed, water the seed, and harvest the seed by leading the lost in the "sinners' prayer" in one 15-20 minute encounter. That kind of spontaneous soul-winning may happen, but it is not the picture the New Testament paints for evangelistic followers of Christ.
Jesus used the phrase "fishing for men," which indicates a disciplined process with appropriate training and resources. Can you imagine cleaning the nets, charting tides and movement of fish, trimming the sails, preparing the boat, and catching fish in 15 minutes? When the apostle Paul described his evangelistic ministry and his partners in the ministry, he said, "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow" (1Cor. 3:6).
Fear, apathy, busyness, and false teaching are just some of the chains that keep us from getting out of our shells to advance the gospel. Where and to whom is God calling you to go?
III. Show Mercy
We need to grow spiritually, go faithfully, and show mercy. Without a proper understanding of the context in which this story occurs, it is difficult to appreciate why Peter was reluctant to take the gospel to the Gentiles. We see examples of the racial divide even in the contemporary conflict in the Middle East where Jews and the Palestinians live with ongoing hostility. Think of the hatred that exists in Bosnia between the Serbs, Muslims, and Croats.
In this passage we find Peter receiving a divine revelation to take the gospel to someone who is not only a different race, but someone (Cornelius) who represents the enemy of Israel. The Bible says that Peter "entered the house" (v. 27) and declared that "God does not show favoritism"(v.34).
Christ-honoring evangelism is not just telling people what to do; it is showing them where to go to find Christ. Peter's willingness to enter the house was a major factor in the walls of prejudice being torn down to provide an atmosphere of receptivity or openness for the gospel. Peter entered their world and boldly proclaimed the gospel. When Peter stepped through Cornelius's door, he had to step over hundreds of years of hatred, false teaching, and cultural differences. He had to be willing to experience the criticism of the traditionalists, legalists, and racists. Peter had to walk away from the applause of men and seek the approval of God.
This is the story of obedience more than a story of amazing compassion. As Peter obeyed God, mercy began to flow from his soul. We mistakenly think we must feel merciful before we obey, but the Bible reveals that obedience precedes emotional feelings.
Our church takes an annual mission trip to work with orphans in Mexico. The final night is always an amazing display of divine mercy. Through a week of ministry doing construction during the day and Bible Schools at night, our youth and adults build a level of trust to share the gospel. Then, we watch God graciously use our team to present the gospel seeing numerous souls added to the kingdom of God.
I have watched with tears running down my face as American teenagers who are so concerned about "being cool" in front of their peers openly respond to the call of God. Men who have learned to hide emotions weep openly as people embrace the gospel. More tears flow as final goodbyes are shared as the orphans load the bus and wave goodbye. The transformation in our group from the beginning of the week is amazing. No one goes on the trip to have their heart ripped open, but as they obey, God pours mercy and grace in and though their souls.
Do you know who needs mercy? Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, the rich, the poor, fat and skinny, young and old. Jesus said, "God so loved the world …" Are you willing to climb out of your shell to grow, to go, and to show? You never know who will respond. It might change your life. I know it can change someone else's life forever!