Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed. Alleluia!]
Have you ever been flipping through the channels on TV and come across the last few minutes of a movie? You don’t know any of the characters. You don’t know any of the backstory. You don’t know how things have gotten to the point they are now, but you watch it anyway. You may pick up on a few important details, but not having seen the rest of the movie, you don’t know what details are important. You may see a happy ending, but is it pure joy or is it bittersweet, tinged with a loss you know nothing about? Who has gone through the greatest character development, maybe starting as a bad guy and ending as a good one?
That’s a little bit like the reading we have this morning from Acts 11. It’s the last few minutes of a movie. Acts 10 is the rest of the movie, going through the whole story with extra details here and there, with less commentary at places. It lays the groundwork for what we hear this morning. In fact, in today’s reading, this is actually the second time we’re hearing about Peter’s vision is this giant sheet from heaven. It’s the third time we hear about Cornelius’s vision that he should have someone go find this Peter character. And no, you didn’t miss anything in today’s reading; we only know Cornelius’s name from Acts 10. We’ve missed out on Peter’s character development. He went from highly skeptical of this whole situation to defending it. It was actually a pretty dramatic move.
I mention this all because we need to recognize that we don’t have the whole movie in front of us this morning. There are details both small and large that don’t come up in today’s reading that make a difference to how we understand what God has given us in Acts 11. These chapters together tell the story of Peter coming to realize that God is offering salvation to all people, regardless of their ethnicity. Jesus is for everyone. So if God is offering salvation to all people, how is a person saved? It’s only by the grace of God. So let’s back up, run through the whole account, and see where we are today.
The apostle Peter was praying one day. As typically happens around lunchtime, he got hungry. But as does not typically happen, God gave Peter a vision. Coming down out of heaven was a great sheet with all sorts of unclean animals on it. A voice from heaven said to him, get up, kill the animal of your choice and eat it! But Peter, being a follower of the Old Testament dietary laws, said no, “by no means!” If you remember back to our Romans Bible studies, you’ll remember the intensity of that phrase. The idea repulsed him. But the voice spoke to him again and said, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” If this weren’t enough, the whole scene repeated itself a total of three times! Sheet descending. Voice from heaven. Peter’s refusal. Voice again. Sheet descending. Voice from heaven. Peter’s refusal. Voice again.
When the vision finally ended, Peter was confused. Acts 10 says that he was “inwardly perplexed” about the matter. What in the world does it all mean? Food that was unclean is now clean? It’s ok to eat what was once not ok? Or maybe he considered the fact that he was just so hungry he hallucinated the whole thing! If all we had were Peter’s strange vision, we may be able to write it off that way. But we’re not left that option. Because just then, a couple servants and a soldier show up to Peter’s house, having been sent by Cornelius.
Cornelius is a pretty interesting guy. He was middle-management in the Roman military, overseeing a hundred soldiers stationed not far away. Cornelius was different though. Instead of worshiping the gods of the Romans, he worshiped the God of the Old Testament, the one true God. But Cornelius was not a Jew. By all outward accounts, he was unclean. In spite of his faith, a good Jewish person could not interact with him without himself becoming unclean. Yet this Cornelius also had a vision. An angel appeared to him and told him to have Peter come and tell him what he needed to hear. So he sends a couple servants and a soldier to go collect Peter and bring him along.
Just as they arrive, Peter has another vision! This time, the Holy Spirit tells him that there are three guys waiting for him and that he should go with them at once. So, that’s just what he does. He follows them, meets Cornelius and his whole family and a number of his friends, and shares the Good News of Jesus with them. As he’s speaking, the Holy Spirit rushes in, fills them all, and they praise and extol God. Seeing this, Peter has them all baptized. There’s no need for them to become Jews before following Jesus. They are part of Him then and there, no intermediate step necessary.
And with that, we’re to our text for today. Some thought, like Peter, there needed to be a middle step. Being a Christian wasn’t enough, a person needed to be Jewish first. But no, God offers salvation to all people, regardless of their ethnicity. Jesus is for everyone. So if God is offering salvation to all people, how is a person saved? It’s only by the grace of God. You heard about God’s grace throughout this whole encounter. He is the one who gives visions. He gave visions to Peter and Cornelius and to Peter again. He gives His Word through Peter. He sends down His Holy Spirit. He washes them clean in the waters of Baptism. God is at work in the lives of all people in order to save His own.
That all sounds great, but there’s one gift that’s part and parcel of the whole thing that we can’t ignore. It’s in the last line of today’s reading. “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” Without repentance, there is no salvation. But even that repentance is a gift from God. It’s a bit of an unusual gift to be sure. As a kid, you thought socks or underpants were a bad gift. Here’s God giving all people the gift of saying, “I’m a horrible person. I’ve made terrible life choices. I sin in just about all I do. I deserve nothing but God’s wrath and eternal damnation.” How’s that for a gift?
But as much as repentance seems like just about the worst gift ever, it actually, truly is a blessing. As much as we don’t like to admit it, everything we repent of is true. We are horrible people. Deep down, human nature is not good. It is fully corrupt and evil. Even using our best reason and judgment, we choose to sin all the time. We sin even when we don’t think we’re sinning! And as we hear from the unanimous testimony of God’s Word, “the wages of sin is death.” We do earn God’s wrath and eternal death. Repentance, therefore, is the ability to see things the way they truly are and do something about it. With this gift, we can call our sins our sins and turn to the only One who can forgive and remove them.
God gives us His Word, where we hear about our condition. God gives us repentance, when we turn away from our sin and to our Savior, Jesus. God gives us His Holy Spirit now in the waters of Baptism and in His Scriptures. It’s all God’s work. It’s all His doing. And these gifts are for all people: Jew and Greek; slave and free; male and female; Republican and Democrat; gay and straight; Christian and non-Christian alike. We have been given the gift of repentance that leads to life. Most people don’t take Him up on that gift and so they don’t receive that life. But it’s open and available to each and every person on this planet. God is offering salvation to all people, regardless of their ethnicity or any other distinction marker we create for ourselves. Jesus is for everyone. So if God is offering salvation to all people, how is a person saved? It’s only by the grace of God.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed. Alleluia!]
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Lobe den Herrn
B. A. Woell