How can we ever forget the celebration in Chicago's Grant Park the evening that Barack Obama was elected our forty-fourth president?
The crowds were overflowing. The excitement was palpable. There before our eyes, we watched Oprah Winfrey and Jesse Jackson with tears of joy streaming down their cheeks.
What were the crowds so overjoyed about? Among other things, they were celebrating the fact that a malignant barrier in our culture had been broken down. The barrier between black and white in this country had experienced a major ripping apart.
Today's text, placed in context, should produce no less joy!
The text is part of a much larger story, told in Acts 10:1-11:18, that tells of the Spirit-infused breaking down of barriers between Jews and Gentiles.
It begins with Cornelius a Gentile, "a devout man who feared God" (Acts 10:2). And it ends with the incredible announcement by the church officials in Jerusalem that "God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life" (Acts 11:18). Incredible. An ages old racial barrier has been broken. Somewhere in your service this Sunday you ought to lead your people in a Grant-Park-like-celebration of this barrier breaking text.
As I pointed out last week, Acts 10-11 are part of Luke's arc of storytelling that fulfills Jesus' promise in Acts 1:8. The Spirit-empowered disciples will lead a mission that begins in Jerusalem, moves out to Judea and Samaria, and on to the ends of the earth. Today's text deals with the moving out of the church in to the hearts and lands of the Gentiles.
This entire story, Acts 10:1 - 11:18, cries out to be told. Few of our people know this story. Tell it today! Tell this whole story. That's my sermon advice for this week.
Let me give you two quite different ways of telling this story.
The first is what I have called "alternating" the story. In his commentary on Acts, Gerhard Krodel breaks the story down into seven scenes.1
Tell, don't read, each scene. Act some of them out if possible. Share one or two of the scenes with the children gathered around you. If you have the capacity to do so, project pictures for the scenes. There is a real drama here!
After each scene you may wish to make a point about that scene. Alternate from scene to idea, scene to idea. This is a typical approach to preaching in the African American community. Make what points seem most relevant to your community.
Please note: I often point out to pastors my belief that the Biblical story is almost always more important than the points we make about them!
The seven scenes of the story are as follows:
1. Acts 10:1-8 - The introduction of a Roman citizen and soldier: Cornelius. A devout man. God is at work in Cornelius long before Peter shows up! Clearly it is God who takes the initiative to break down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles.
2. Acts 10:9-16 - God has the hard work of convincing Peter to break the Gentile barrier. Note that it takes three visions to get through to Peter. His life as a faithful Jew has meant that Peter cannot conceive of eating common meat or evangelizing common people (like Gentiles). We're talking real miracles here.
3. Acts 10:17-23a - The messengers of Cornelius arrive at Peter's house. The Spirit works overtime on Peter!
4. Acts 10:23b-33 - An unprecedented meeting between church representatives and Gentiles. Imagine what it was like for Peter to set foot for the first time in his life in a Gentile house! Barriers are falling indeed.
5. Acts 10:34-43 - The horizontal miracle of barrier breaking is the horizontal implementation of the vertical dimension of Peter's message of salvation.
6. Acts 10:44-48 - This week's text. The word of Jesus is preached. The Spirit works. Tongues are spoken. Gentiles are baptized. This is the heart of the matter.
7. Acts 11:1-18 - Will the Church receive these Gentile Christians? Circumcision presented a serious obstacle. But Peter ate with the uncircumcised! How dare he. And Peter gives his defense. It's almost pathetic in its pleading. Thankfully, the church officials recognize in the event of the Spirit that "...God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life" (Acts 11:18). The barrier has been broken down. Celebrations begin!
A second approach is to tell the story just as it is. Your hearers ought to be amazed by it! Follow the story with a word of gospel proclamation to the Gentiles of today, to those on the outside, to those beyond the barrier. It might go something like this:
God is saying to all who live beyond the barrier of separation from God: I have come to life in Jesus Christ and in the presence of the Holy Spirit to break down all that separates you from me. As with Cornelius, I have heard your prayers. I have come to visit your house no matter how humble it might be. I pour out my spirit of life upon you. I break down the barriers of sin, Satan, and death that have kept you from me. Even to you this day I give the possibility of repentance unto life.
In these words, or similar words, the congregation has heard you speak the gospel to all humankind. That's a cause for celebration!
1Gerhard Krodel, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1986).
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