Sunday, September 27, 2015

I Hear Jesus Calling

God is speaking.

Acts 10:1-8

New International Version (NIV)

Cornelius Calls for Peter

10 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.
The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”
When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.

 A little further up the coast from Joppa is a place called Caesarea.
Caesarea in the time of Jesus was a major port city build by King Herod in honor of his friend, the leader of the Roman Empire, Ceasar. At this time in our story in Acts, a centurion is stationed here. Last week we saw Peter coming through the areas of Lydda and Joppa. He heals people and then decides to rest in Joppa for awhile.

As we enter into Chap 10 of Acts the account will settle around the coming together of two cultures. We know from our earlier readings of Acts that there are Jewish people who have embraced the Greek culture as they have lived outside of the region of Israel. However, there hasn't been any sign that the Jews on the Hebraic side have in any way embraced their fellow Jews in the Hellenistic culture. There has always been this sense of tension. We saw it in Chap 6. The Jews on the Hellenistic side are squabbling about their widows being overlooked in the distribution of daily food. The Jewish people were long ago set apart as God's holy people. They have seen themselves as the ones through whom salvation would come. But, what they seemed to miss was that they were to be a light to the world around them. Jesus would push that emphasis. 

Matthew 5:14-16

New International Version (NIV)
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Cornelius is not a Jew. He is a centurion in the Italian Regiment.
Now, what is that? A centurion was a professional officer in the Roman army. Cornelius has command of a legion of soldiers, most likely from the region known as Italy. But, what seems out of place is there is specific reference given here that suggests he and his household are people who "
prayed to God regularly". How in the world would a man in the Roman army come to be a person who worships "God"? It makes me wonder what kind of influence was in his life. It makes me wonder who he has interacted with and who he has spoken with that would lead him and his family to become people who focus specifically on "God". That belief in God causes him to be very charitable. The way he and his family live their lives causes others to think of them as "devout" and "God-fearing". This man has a reputation and it is a good one. The kind of reputation you want to have. 

However, for all that "goodness" he seems to possess there is something missing.
Have you ever felt that? For all the good you have done, for all the charitable gestures you have done, for all the "good" that might be associated with you there is still something more. Cornelius doesn't know who Jesus is. He simply knows about "God". God is a pretty broad subject until we narrow it down to the person of Jesus Christ. There are all kinds of religions and groups in the world who make a reference to God. There are many people who believe in "God". The Arabic word "Allah" simply means "God". Those in the Islamic faith would like to take ownership of the word for their own specific religion. Fine. Take it. There's more to the subject and person of "God" than that. When we bring the subject of God to the person of Jesus Christ, then we are making a drastic statement. It is a statement that this man Cornelius needs to hear. 

God is taking the first steps in making sure that the Gospel goes forth and spreads.
That's what God does. He goes before us. Look at what God is doing. First he reaches out to the chief violator and persecutor of the faith bringing Saul to his knees and causes him to change his path in life. Now, God speaks out to a man on the other side of the cultural line. What does this mean? Why would God reach out to the guy on the outside? It really shouldn't seem like all that strange of an occurrence. God has been speaking through other people to Israel for centuries. Rising up a nation to punish them when they were not listening. Grafting in outsiders to the lineage of the very Messiah who would save all. 
Why wouldn't God go to Peter first and just tell him to go find Cornelius? Peter is the preacher here. Isn't it Peter's job to go preach the Gospel message to others? What we are seeing here is that God goes before us. God makes the message possible to be preached. John Wesley would speak of prevenient grace. It is the grace of God that goes before us before we even realize that God is present and working in our lives. The central focus here is not Cornelius or Peter. The central focus is God. Cornelius has been praying to God regularly and seems to be a devout person whose life is centered of God. Our passage today says that God sees all this. While I don't like the statement it seems to work here. "God helps those who help themselves" If those words hold any truth then think about this... If we are actually seeking God, if we want God in our lives, then God is going to show up. And, we we need to be ready. 

The thing is... we don't have any idea when God is going to move.
We pray. We seek. We ask. When God moves it is on God's time table. Not ours.
God sees a man here in Cornelius who is willing and receptive to the message. That is what God is looking for. People with hearts who are wide open to whatever will happen. There is a certain amount of surrender that is necessary for the Christian life to be possible. It is not just about believing that "God" exists. Then, we wander off and do whatever we want to do. If we are serious about our belief in God then be ready to hear God speak. God knows that there is more that Cornelius needs to hear. Is there more than we need to hear? Many times people who believe in God make it their business to tell other people what they need to believe and what they need to live their lives. Maybe we could learn a lesson from Cornelius. You don't get a reputation that is "devout" by simply telling others what to do. Leading others is what Cornelius does for a living. But, it is his charitable nature that gives him the notable character remembered by others.

Something else about Cornelius' character that seems to shine through in this rather short passage of scripture is that he is not someone who demands his own way. A person does not get a title hung on them such as "devout" if they are a person who has to have everything their own way. Listen to the definition of devout. 

Full Definition of DEVOUT

1:  devoted to religion or to religious duties or exercises
2:  expressing devotion or piety <a devout attitude>
3 a :  devoted to a pursuit, belief, or mode of behavior :  serious, earnest <a devout baseball fan> <born a devout coward — G. B. Shaw>
   b :  warmly sincere <a devout wish for peace>
Being devout means being dedicated to something higher and loftier than one's own ambitions and thoughts. Many a person who would like to classify themselves as a "Christian" should probably be labeled as a "good person". Cornelius is not a Christian yet. Jesus Christ is what makes a person a Christian. Cornelius doesn't know that name yet.  That's why Peter is needed here. There is a message that Peter needs to bring here so that these "good people" can come to know what salvation means. The good work and the devout life are not enough. Good people can be "warmly sincere", as the definition suggests. I used to work with a guy named Mike who hated that "warm" notion. Mike used to talk about some of those old ladies in the baptist church he grew up in who would always say that everything was "nice". "Oh, isn't that nice." "That's so nice" He noted this falseness in their responses. Mike would say, "If you're having a bad day, say you're having a bad day. Don't put on some fake face and walk around like everything is "nice". It's one thing to be devout, religious, ritualistic. We find out through following Jesus that there is more to this life. We can really know what "nice" actually is.
And, yet, I would like to think that what Cornelius has is better than what most "good people" in our society have going on. There was a day and time where I would have classified my dad as a very devout person. Very disciplined. Up every morning. Read his bible. Worked hard. Went to church. A "good man". But, it was after a week long event with one of Billy Graham's associates, John Wesley White, that I truly saw a change in my father. I saw a guy go from someone who did all the right religious things to actually become a person that is focused on what it means to walk with Jesus. There was a certain amount of surrender I noticed from that point forward. 

Surrender is what we need to see as central to our Christian lives.
How many times has God spoken and we have brushed it aside? Cornelius gets one of the billboard moments going down the interstate of life.Those moments are easy enough to brush aside. We can keep on driving and forget about the sign we saw or heard or witnessed. We can ignore the gifts and abilities that God gave us because we don't want to surrender to the call he has put on our lives. We can ignore the vision put squarely in front of us. If we answer it, though, we will find a blessing only God can give. Cornelius' household will find that blessing soon when Peter arrives. 

The blessing will only be realized when we answer.

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