“What God Wants from Us”Dr. Mike Massar Acts 10 Year B - Sixth Sunday of Easter
The Witness of Scripture:
This morning we come to one of the most important texts
in all of the Bible.
It marks the turning point in the early church
and most certainly the book of Acts.
Interestingly enough, we are not
as familiar with this text
as we are others.
Perhaps it’s because this experience
comes immediately after
Paul’s conversion experience
on the Damascus Road.
And that experience was so powerful
that it would almost dwarf anything
Nevertheless, we should pay close attention
to this story,
because it so much instructs and defines
and the story of the church.
The setting for this text is most important.
In the narrative of the book of Acts itself
this story is sandwiched in between
several stories of conversion.
And you might note
that each of these conversion experiences
is different –
God deals with each of us
in different ways.
This story is a conversion story,
a most unique one at that.
The geographical setting is also important.
The story begins in a place called Caesarea.
Caesarea was a city built on the Phoenician seacoast
23 miles south of Mt. Carmel.
It was one of Herod the Great’s masterpieces.
As you will remember, Herod was an incredible builder.
This city reflects his genius.
Initially, the city did not have a natural harbor –
Herod had to construct it.
Along with it
he created a coliseum, amphitheater, and a temple
to adorn the city.
It was indeed
one of the wonders of that time.
Because of its exquisite beauty
and the practicality of its harbor,
Caesarea became the capital of Palestine,
the place where the Roman procurators
Along with them
were Roman troops.
Cornelius was a centurion,
an officer of these troops
stationed in Caesarea.
The other setting of the story
is the place where Simon Peter had journeyed –
A curious relationship in this story
is that Joppa is the city
where Jonah fled
trying to avoid God’s call
You will remember
that Jonah did not want to minister
to the Gentiles.
That piece of knowledge
has a peculiar link with this morning’s story.
The setting is important,
but even more so
are the characters involved.
And the two major characters
provide a study in contrasts.
Cornelius was a professional soldier,
professional in every way.
Being a centurion, he would have been
an officer of valued importance
in the Roman army.
Scholars have declared
that the centurion
was the “backbone”
of the Roman army,
dedicated to courage
Cornelius was a man of the world,
trained in the best tradition
of military leadership.
While Cornelius would have been looked up to
in every other part of the world,
in Israel he was looked down upon
because he was a Gentile,
and the Jews hated Gentiles.
Why, their prejudice was so great
that it is said
that Jewish help would not be given
to any Gentile woman in childbirth,
because that would only cause
another Gentile to be brought into the world.[i]
However, it does seem that this officer in the Roman Army
had a spiritual curiosity about him.
The phrase used in this Scripture,
“a devout man who feared God,”
is actually a description of Gentile people
who accepted the truth of the Jewish religion
and had become loose adherents
of the synagogue,
without going to the extent of
being circumcised and becoming full proselytes.
(Barclay, William; Acts; p. 79).
Simon Peter on the other hand
was a bit of a country boy,
never having ventured too far
out of Israel.
He was proficient in managing a fishing business,
but he gave that up to follow Jesus.
But even in following Jesus
Simon Peter was a devout Jew,
one we would call Orthodox.
he kept the Jewish law
and abstained from eating foods
prohibited in the Torah.
This is at the heart of his dream in Joppa,
because Simon Peter was taught in a dream
that it was all right to eat food
that had not been considered kosher.
This discovery and declaration
was monumental to any Jew,
because it was the Law
and kosher practice
that made the Jews Jews.
You can also see evidence of this
in verse “28″ when
Simon Peter declared that
“it was unlawful for a Jewish man
to associate with a foreigner.”
The Hebrew Scriptures have no direct command
forbidding Jews from “associating” with Gentiles,
but food prescriptions made dinners difficult.
What’s more, The Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic oral teachings,
was much more limiting,
for it declared
that Gentiles who entered a home
rendered it ritually unclean.
(M. Tohoroth 7:6)
That is why the Jewish temple authorities
would not enter Pilate’s headquarters
during the trial of Jesus.
They wanted to avoid defilement
You see, this Jewish-Gentile conflict
was huge in first century Palestine
and a major issue for the church.
Simon Peter’s actions in this issue
were monumental in the work of the early church.
He, as much as Paul,
was an evangelist to the Gentiles,
it would seem,
eventually ending up
in the most Gentile of places,
However, I would want to point out to you
that it wasn’t Simon Peter’s idea.
It was God’s.
You can catch that
by listening to Simon Peter
when he comes to Cornelius’s house:
“I ask you then,
why was I sent for?”
Simon Peter and Cornelius
had not had a prior relationship.
It was a divinely arranged encounter.
I think that is a monumental understanding of conversion.
As much as we are involved,
God is always there first.
(That should, by the way,
grant us so much more confidence
in our witnessing.
God is always there first!)
Well, two other intriguing items
caught my attention this week.
The first is that as courageous a man
as Cornelius was,
when encountered by God’s angel
in this vision
(which, by the way,
took place in broad daylight,
around 3 p.m.)
it says that Cornelius
stared in terror.
Like the angelic visits during Christmastime,
this one seems to have evoked fear and trembling.
Even Cornelius was terrified
by the sight of the angel.
The other is the phrase
where Simon Peter is described
as having grasped the reality
that “God is not partial.”
The Greek word here, “katalambano”
literally means to “grasp the prize.”
Here, Simon Peter grabs hold of the reality
that God loves the world.
In Hebrew, “to be partial,”
literally means to “have a face ” . . .
that is, to be a person.
It is true
that God does love the world,
and God wants us to do the same.
To that end,
I invite you in to a most revealing
passage of Scripture
as if found in the 10th chapter
of the book of Acts,
beginning with the verse
Would you please stand
and give reverent attention
to the reading of God’s Word?
One of the most engaging ideas
that I have stumbled upon recently
is the realization
that the preaching in the early church
was preached in a secular setting.
Paul’s first congregations
were not people brought up
in the religious heritage of Judaism.
They were people
whose lives were driven
by secular values.
Therefore, Paul’s preaching
had to speak to their situations,
in hopes of yoking them up
with the ultimate reality
that comes in Jesus Christ.
With that understanding,
it would seem helpful for us
to listen to the early church
as they preached to the secular world
of their time
because it will help us
preach to the secular world
of our time.
And we do live in a secular society,
don’t you think?
Oh, there is a lot of God-talk in our country today,
but it is mostly white noise,
Politicians talk about God,
televangelists talk about God,
people in football stadiums
wear shirts talking about God,
but how many people
really do listen?
Oh, people are generally well-mannered
when encountering such conversation.
They will listen to folks talk about God
and kindly nod their heads,
but go on about their business
But there are those
who speak for God in this world,
who preach sermons to the world.
I think of Martin Luther King, Jr.,
who will be known as one of the great preachers
of the twentieth century.
He preached a lot in churches, sure enough,
but the sermons he will be remembered for
are the sermons he preached to America . . .
sermons about love overcoming hate,
sermons about being free . . .
I also think the example of Alexander Solzhenitsyn
speaks to this.
As you may remember,
Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in the Soviet Union’s
for his spiritual and political beliefs.
In the mid-seventies
Solzhenitsyn defected from the Soviet Union
and there was great rejoicing
all over our country
about this man who needed freedom
for a platform to speak the truth.
In 1978, Harvard University invited Solzhenitsyn
to give the commencement address
at its graduation ceremonies.
Thousands gathered to hopefully hear
this intellectual and spiritual giant
extol the virtues of Christian America.
What he said was quite startling,
One portion of the speech read as follows:
On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our
experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity
which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have
placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out
that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our
spiritual life. In the East, it is being destroyed by the dealings and
machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend
to suffocate it. This is the real crisis.
(Solzhenitsyn, Alexander, “A World Split Apart,”
an address given at Harvard University, June 8, 1978.)
The speech was not well received,
because it was spiritual.
You see, it is one thing to toss the name of God about;
it is another thing to rely on God.
So that we might redirect our reliance
and better listen for God’s Word in our time together,
let us pray . . .
O God forgive us
if we have promoted a time and place
where we talk about You
without talking to You.
Startle us with Your Presence
in such a way
that who we are comes into question
by considering Whose we are.
Speak to us,
so that we might speak Your truth to others.
Therefore, help us to be spiritually aware
in our time together,
and let the words of this mouth
and the meditations of these hearts
be acceptable in Thy Sight,
O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer.
You just have to love Simon Peter.
He lived so close to the surface.
Why, he was one of the original people
who seemed to have never had
an unspoken thought.
He was impulsive,
at times unbearably brusque,
but also undeniably honest
in his beliefs and feelings.
Simon Peter is such a great model
because we follow him through
the peaks and valleys of his life,
those spiritual highs and lows
that are part of the warp and woof
of human life.
From the first time we met him in Scripture,
Simon Peter captured our hearts
with his bumbling and fumbling devotion
From that anguished confession on board his boat –
“Lord, depart from me,
because I am a sinful man” –
to his amazing pronouncement at Caesarea Philippi –
“You are the Christ,
the Son of the Living God” –
to, in the next minute his total misunderstanding
of Jesus and Jesus’ painful condemnation –
“Get thee behind me, Satan” –
to his worshipful gasp of praise
at the transfiguration,
to his humiliating betrayals
in the garden and then in Herod’s courtyard –
to his affirming repentance –
“Lord, You know I love You –
to his unbelievable courage at Pentecost
where he publicly declared
the reality of the Risen Christ
to his lifting up the lame man –
“Silver and gold have I none,
but I give you what I have:
in the name of Jesus of Nazareth
get up and walk” –
to this morning’s incredible statement –
“Today I perceive that God shows no partiality” –
Simon Peter has blessed us
with his example.
And this morning I would want us to note
that one of the amazing things
that Simon Peter teaches us
is that we don’t have to know everything;
we don’t have to have everything
organized and well crafted
to be a witness for Christ.
All we need is to trust God.
A common misunderstanding in thinking about witnessing
is that we have to have our belief system
all worked out in advance
before we open our mouths.
We think we need to know it up here –
that we need to have our beliefs formulated
in our minds and hearts,
and that we have to have just the right words
to capture what is established.
Tom Long reminds us
that we don’t have to have everything nailed down
to be a witness for Christ.
In fact, when we speak for Christ
we take our words,
and then our words take us.
You see, putting things into words
is one of the ways we acquire knowledge,
passion, and conviction.
For example, when two people love each other,
they naturally speak to each other of their love.
But it is in the speaking
that they are discovering more about love
and their willingness to love.
(Long, Tom; Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian; p.6.)
Any good preacher worth his or her salt
will tell you that there are times
after disciplined work in the study
and hours of preparation,
in the middle of a sermon
a sentence pops out that wasn’t theirs.
It was something that God needed said,
and the preacher was merely the conduit.
When those happen
the preacher stands in amazement
that God does, in fact, provide.
One of the things said to those in the early church
was to give your life to Christ,
be prayed up,
and then speak,
because the Lord will give you
what you need.
Isn’t that the truth about Simon Peter?
So often, he just started speaking,
and when he did,
he made incredible declarations of faith
for everyone, including himself.
Why, I think at Caesarea Philippi
he was startled to hear himself say,
“You are the Christ.”
And in a sense, he was also startled at Pentecost
to stand up and speak to a world
that threatened to kill him,
but the more he spoke,
the more confidence he seemed
and the more profound
And wasn’t that precisely what happened
in this morning’s text?
Simon Peter ambles into Caesarea
with a bit of a confused purpose,
one that he doesn’t exactly comprehend,
or at least fully.
But he gets up and speaks of what he knows,
and then he is amazed
as he hears himself say things
he didn’t know beforehand.
Brothers and sisters,
God has called us to be witnesses,
and we don’t need to memorize a prescribed formula
as much as we simply need to trust God.
In a world where there is so much God-talk,
or should I say talk about God,
our callings are simply to take our talks with God
and make them public
in personal ways.
I think if we would give God our courage
God will give us everything else we need
to be His witness.
Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun,
has a ministry of caring for death row prisoners
at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
Her work was featured in the movie
Dead Man Walking.
Sister Helen uses words, faithful words,
to perform her ministry.
She spends much of her life talking,
speaking to hardened criminals,
giving them encouragement
and spiritual counsel;
she prays with them,
she has heard their stories,
listened on occasion to their confession,
spoken to them of God’s compassion and love;
and she has accompanied at least five of them
to the place of execution.
However, it was not her eloquence,
her ability to speak,
that first got her involved
in this kind of ministry.
It was first of all her feet.
She felt God calling her to the prison,
and as a follower of “the Way”
she picked up her feet
and got moving.
“Energy comes to us,”
“because we get involved
in something bigger than ourselves . . .
and we can’t remain neutral.
We say, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,
or what I am going to say,
but I’ve got to do and say something.’”
(Spencer, Aida Besacon; Lectionary Homiletics; January, 2005; p. 50.)
Sister Prejean has become a marvelous preacher of the Gospel
not so much because she was trained in rhetoric or homiletics,
but that she was willing to trust God
for the words to say.
This morning God is calling us,
Just as God called Simon Peter and Cornelius
to speak God’s word
to a world that needs the real thing.
If we would be faithful,
the Holy Spirit might bring a revival
to us and through us.
what do you have to say about that?
For, more than being a rhetorical question,
it is a spiritual command:
“What do you have to say about Jesus Christ?”
You may have heard about the Hasidic Jew
who showed up at a Christian book store
one morning before it even opened.
He knocked on the door,
and the woman who was working that morning
opened the door up
“May I help you?”
I want to know about Jesus of Nazareth.”
“Well, let me show you to the section
on Christian theology.”
“I didn’t come here to read it in a book,
I want to hear about Jesus
from someone who is a Christian.
Who is Jesus
who is this Jesus . . .
About the writer: Dr. Mike Massar grew up in west Texas, attended Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mansfield College at Oxford, the Graduate Theological Foundation and the Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. His ministerial journey has taken him from 7th and James Baptist Church in Waco, Texas to Wildewood Baptist Church in Spring, Texas, to the First Baptist Church of Clemson, South Carolina, to the First Baptist Church of Tyler, Texas, to the University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
He and Lisa have three children — Matt and his wife, Meredith, Patrick and his wife, Kendall, and Meredith and her husband, Chris Munson as well as two grandchildren — Luke and Mae. After over forty years of pastoring churches in Texas, South Carolina and Louisiana, Mike is completing his ministry at University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Gruene, Texas, where he and his wife, Lisa, will begin writing the next chapters in their life. Those chapters will include writing, traveling and enjoying their family, especially their grandchildren.
Scripture and Music:
1 John 5:1-6
In Christ There Is No East or West
Praise the Lord Who Reigns Above
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
For the Healing of the Nations
Help Us Accept Each Other
Blest Be the Tie That Binds
If Ye Love Me (Thomas Tallis)
Spirit of Faith, Come Down (Carlton Young)
O Sing Unto the Lord
No Greater Love
Sing A New Song Unto the Lord
Clap Your Hands (Allen Pote)
Here Is Water, Lord (Joseph Martin)
Love in Any Language
Shout to the Lord
They ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love
We Are Called Christians (David Danner)