I once heard a friend of mine, who is a gifted evangelist, talk about an Agnostics Anonymous group he had run; he had invited people of no faith or of very uncertain faith to come together and have some conversations about their doubts and questions about God and Christianity. There was a good response to his invitation and the group ran for a few weeks. One of the interesting things was that, when my friend presented what he thought were good arguments for the existence of God, most of the people in the group weren’t particularly moved by them. But at one point he asked, “Have any of you ever had unexplained experiences of God or the supernatural?”. Immediately heads started to nod all around the room!
One of my convictions as an evangelist is that the risen Jesus is at work long before I arrive. We tend to think of the world around us as anti-God and anti-religion, but what we often miss is that spiritual hunger is alive and well. Twelve-Step groups are predicated on the existence of ‘God as we understand him’, and they’re springing up all over the place. First Nations spirituality is firmly based on faith in the Creator. And many, many people who never darken the doors of a church are actually quite curious about God.
Canadian sociologist Reg Bibby has spent his lifetime analysing data about faith in Canada. In a book published in 1995 he indicated that 40% of the people he interviewed believed it was possible to have contact with the spirit world, and 90% said they had asked questions about what happens after we die. 30% believed in reincarnation, 80% believed that God exists, and an amazing 35-45% claimed to have experienced God in some way. I couldn’t find the figure, but I remember Reg Bibby saying that a large percentage were willing to admit that they had unmet spiritual needs. Sadly, though, the majority said they did not believe they could get those needs met in churches.
So we have a situation where church attendance has been steadily falling for decades, but interest in the spiritual dimension of life is not – in fact, I think there are signs that it’s rising. Many Canadians are spiritually curious, but they aren’t convinced that the church has anything worthwhile to offer them – at least, not convinced enough to cross the barriers we unintentionally put in their way. And yet, most churches still hope that unchurched people will start attending church. Most clergy see success in terms of increasing church attendance. And when we’re asked what we’re doing to try to reach new people, we talk in terms of the welcome we give them when they come to church. But of course, they have to come in order to experience that welcome. And most of them aren’t coming.
When we turn to the pages of the Book of Acts we discover a completely different story. The followers of Jesus in the Book of Acts don’t seem to have had public church services to which the general populace were invited. They did not wait for people to come to their services. The movement was entirely in the other direction. Ordinary Christians – not just apostles and evangelists, but ordinary Christians too – saw it as part of their Christian journey to go out with this message and pass it on to others. And that’s exactly what they did.
Some of them – apostles like Peter and John and Paul and Barnabas – went on long missionary journeys around the Mediterranean world, announcing the Good News of Jesus and planting little communities of new Christians. But it wasn’t just apostles who spread the gospel. Acts 8 tells us about a severe persecution that broke out against the Christians in Jerusalem; many of them scattered around the countryside to escape with their lives. But verse 4 says, ‘Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word’.
I can imagine how that happened. These early Christians moved out to new communities and set up businesses there. They got involved in their communities and made friends. And in the context of those friendships, from time to time conversations would take place about faith and spirituality. Just like today, spirituality was a hot topic in the ancient world! And those ordinary Christians were excited about Jesus; they believed he was alive and was living in them by his Spirit, and they were finding joy and hope and strength in him. It was natural for them – as natural as breathing – to tell others about him and to invite them to follow him too.
But there was a barrier they had to cross. And Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, is very interested in that barrier. He’s so interested, in fact, that he takes several chapters to tell the story of how it was crossed.
You see, the early Christians were all practising Jews. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the fulfilment of all the promises God had made to his ancient people. It was quite obvious to them that his message needed to go out to all Israel, so that God’s people could hear about their Messiah and pledge their allegiance to him. They didn’t need persuading about this. When the Holy Spirit fell on them on the day of Pentecost, it led to an explosion of witness, as Jewish Christians went to other Jews and told them the good news.
But they took a little more persuading to go beyond the borders of ethnic Israel. Samaritans were the first outsiders they reached out to; in Acts chapter eight we read of how Philip was the first to proclaim the gospel to the people of Samaria, and a phenomenally successful mission took place there.
But the Samaritans had some connection with ancient Israel. They were worshippers of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and they had their own version of the ancient scriptures of Israel. Gentiles were an entirely different story. It made no sense to many Jewish Christians to take the message of Jesus to Gentiles. Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the fulfilment of God’s promises to his ancient people. Yes, of course Gentiles could become Christians – but they needed to become Jewish first. So the men would have to be circumcised, and then men and women would have to be taught to obey the laws of Moses, keep a kosher kitchen, observe the sabbath and all the Jewish holidays. Have you ever tried to seriously live by all the laws of the Old Testament? Believe me, you have to really want to do it! And all of that was before they could be baptized and become Christians!
But apparently God had other plans. Acts chapters ten and eleven tell the amazing story of Cornelius, the Roman army officer who was curious about the God of Israel. Our first lesson today told the second half of the story, but let me fill you in on the first half too.
Cornelius was a centurion living in the coastal town of Caesarea. Acts 10 says he was ‘a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God’ (10:2). This is extraordinary. Here is a man who presumably was raised to worship Jupiter and Mars and Venus and all the other ancient gods of Rome. But somehow he’s turned from all that and become a worshipper of the one God of Israel. He’s begun to practice at least two of the three spiritual disciplines of godly Jews – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Clearly, God is already at work in his life. He hasn’t been circumcised or become fully Jewish, but he’s certainly on the fringe.
Apparently this was not an unfamiliar story in the ancient world. Here and there, the early Christian missionaries ran across Gentiles who were curious about Israel’s God. Apparently they’d become dissatisfied with the old pagan gods; they’d been attracted to the idea of monotheism and the ethical standards of the Ten Commandments. There were enough of these people that they had a name; they were called ‘the god-fearers’. And Cornelius was one of them.
So Acts 10 tells of how Cornelius was praying one day when he had a vision of an angel telling him that his prayers had been heard. He was to send to Joppa to the house of Simon the Tanner, where a man called Simon Peter was staying; Simon Peter would tell him what he needed to know. So Cornelius immediately sent his messengers on their way.
Simon Peter was indeed staying with Simon the Tanner, as we read in last week’s reading from Acts. The next day, as the messengers were getting close, he went up to the roof of the house to pray and there he too had a vision. It was a sheet being let down from heaven full of all sorts of non-kosher animals. “Up, Peter!” said the voice; “Kill and eat!” “Never, Lord; I’ve never eaten anything unclean!” “Don’t call unclean what God has cleansed!” The vision was repeated three times, and then, as Peter was reflecting on it, the messengers arrived. We can imagine the penny dropping in Peter’s mind. “Ah! Unclean food – unclean Gentiles – maybe there’s a connection, perhaps?”
So he went back to Caesarea with the messengers, and they came to Cornelius’ house. There they found a good-sized group, because Cornelius had called his relatives and close friends together to hear the message; see what happens when you follow the leading of God in evangelism, instead of trying to make it happen by your own plans and efforts? Cornelius told Peter what the angel had said, and Peter immediately began to speak to the group about the story of Jesus and what it meant: that he is Lord of all, and that all who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins through his name.
But Peter didn’t get to finish his sermon, because the Holy Spirit fell on the hearers just like on the day of Pentecost, and they started to speak in unknown languages, praising and worshiping God. The Jewish Christians who had come with Peter were absolutely amazed that this was happening to Gentiles, and Peter said, “Well, since God has obviously given them the same Spirit he gave to us, I guess we’d better baptize them! Any objections?” Hearing none, they all proceeded to get wet!
But a few days later, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was challenged about his activities. “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” This was reprehensible behaviour for a faithful Jew; in a world where Romans were assimilating people left and right, the only way Judaism would survive would be for Jewish people to stick strictly to their laws and customs.
So Peter explained himself. He told how the whole thing had been God’s initiative: God had sent an angel to speak to Cornelius; God had spoken to Peter in the dream about the unclean animals, and when they got to Caesarea, God was the one who had poured out the Holy Spirit in a supernatural way on these unclean Gentiles.
‘“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them as it had on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’. If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!”’ (Acts 11:16-18).
So in this story we can see two conversions taking place, and both of them are the will of God.
First, there’s the conversion of Cornelius. In chapter ten, after he hears Cornelius’ story, Peter says, “I truly understand that God knows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34-35). This sounds very good and tolerant, and as good pluralistic Canadians we’d all be cheering for Peter at this point.
But Peter doesn’t mean that God’s okay leaving Cornelius where he is. Peter doesn’t say, ‘Carry on with your prayers and almsgiving, you’re fine as you are’. This man has already been on a spiritual journey; he’s left the false gods of ancient Rome behind, and begun to worship the God of Israel. And God wants him to move further now; God wants him to believe in Jesus, who is not only the Messiah of Israel but the Saviour of the whole world.
This is the consistent message of the whole New Testament. Jesus did not say to his first disciples, “Go into all the world and tell them that they’re fine the way they are”. He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). The New Testament tells us that it is God’s will for people to turn from their previous allegiances and become disciples of Jesus, and that it’s our job as a church to take part in that process. We’re to be witnesses, and the way we’re to do that is not to wait for them to come to us. Jesus didn’t say, “Wait”; he said “Go”.
This is the second conversion. The first conversion is for people who have not yet become followers of Jesus to turn to him and begin to follow him. We assume these days that they don’t want to do that. In fact, Jesus is not an unsympathetic figure. Many people don’t know much about him, but when they hear about him, they tend to like him. But they need help learning about him, and learning what it would mean to be his followers.
That’s the second conversion. You and I are the ones who need to be converted. We need to be converted from our preoccupation with what goes on inside the doors of the church. We need to be converted from our reluctance to open our mouths and say anything about Jesus to other people. We need to be converted from our tendency to put barriers in the way of people who might be interested in Jesus.
What barriers? One of the biggest ones is our refusal to talk about Jesus outside the doors of the church. Why do we do that? Maybe we’re afraid people will think we’re fanatical or intolerant. Maybe we’re afraid our friends will reject us. But whatever the reason, most Christians won’t open their mouths. And that means that non-Christian people have to come to church to hear about Jesus.
Do you know how hard that is? We don’t think it’s hard, because we’ve been doing it for a long time, but for most Canadians, especially young Canadians, it’s totally unfamiliar territory. Hymns, pews, service books, eating someone’s body and drinking his blood – this all looks and sounds weird to them! I’ve had non-Christian friends who I’ve invited to church tell me how difficult it was for them to step across the threshold. You may not think it’s a barrier, but it is.
Why do we make them cross that barrier before they can hear about Jesus? After all, they’re our friends, our family members. We have good, trusting relationships with them. Why would we not listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, trust that he’s been at work in their hearts already, and then look for opportunities to have some natural conversations with them about Jesus and what he means to us?
This is the second conversion. To Luke, the author of Acts, it’s a huge thing. It means that those early Jewish Christians left their comfort zone, crossed the barrier and went to the outsiders, and discovered there, to their amazement, that Jesus had been there before them. The Holy Spirit had already been at work in Cornelius’ heart, preparing him to hear the gospel message. All Peter had to do was show up and open his mouth, and God did the rest.
Will you give God permission to do that through you? Will I? That’s the challenge God is giving us in this story today.
Over to us!