Acts 10:1-17, 34-48
In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, ‘Cornelius.’ He stared at him in terror and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’ He answered, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.’ When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.
About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate.
Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about an elderly lady who, after many years of not going to church, decided to go to her local service. Although very poor and with worn-out clothing, she dressed in her best and headed out. As she approached the church, she saw all the people dressed in such splendor. Not a stain, not a rip or tear on any of their clothes. The preacher and deacons stood and welcomed people as they entered. She began to walk up the stairs when one of the men stopped her and explained that they had a dress code. He explained that clothes must be pristine and sharp to show respect to the Lord and turned her away. Dejected and embarrassed, she left and sat on a nearby bench, crying and composing herself, wondering why a church of God wouldn’t accept her. As she sat, God sat down next to her. He put a comforting hand on her shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, they won’t let me in, either.”
And so it is with many churches who put up obstacles for receiving God’s free and generous gift of grace. In that lady’s church, it was the dress code that kept people from receiving God’s grace. In other churches, it could be a variety of different obstacles: a person’s age, a person’s giving, a person’s membership status, a person’s confession, and a person’s marital status could all be potential obstacles someone might encounter in hoping to receive God’s good grace. In today’s reading, it was the dietary restrictions that kept Peter from sharing God’s grace to the Gentiles. The four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air were considered unclean animals and unfit for consumption by the devout Jewish people. As a devout Jewish person himself, Peter felt the food being presented to him in vision just wasn’t good enough to receive and partake of. So what if he had a mighty hunger that needed to be satisfied. Jewish tradition forbade him from eating the gifts God had presented to him. But God, in his endless mercy and compassion, corrected Peter of his misbelief: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Jewish tradition had it wrong with their food restrictions. Not that the restrictions themselves were bad but the Jewish understanding of them and their purpose was perhaps a little misguided. I think God intended food restrictions to help the Jewish people honor God and live more disciplined lives. I don’t think they were intended to keep the Jewish people unsatisfied and unfed. Alas, Peter allowed them to keep himself from being fed and satisfied. More importantly, Peter allowed the restrictions to deny himself of God’s grace. It is a foolish thing to deny God’s grace. Sure, God is generous in his grace and not all forms of grace are meant for everyone. Yes, God’s grace is tailored to each of us, each in our own life situations. But that doesn’t mean we ought to deny his grace when it has the potential to help us. Peter had a hunger and God sought to satisfy that hunger. Peter was a fool not to receive God’s gracious gift of food regardless of the food restrictions.
Indeed, we can all be fools at times for not being open to receive God’s gifts of grace. We get caught up in our lives, believing everything must be earned. Because we have to work for everything, or so we believe, we leave little room for the gifts of God’s grace. We shut ourselves up from receiving his gifts…”there’s no such thing as a free lunch” we tell ourselves over and over. But believe it or not, there is a lot of grace in this world. Not everything has a price tag on it. In fact, oftentimes it is the free gifts of life that matter the most, gifts like time or love or forgiveness or life itself. It is the free gift of God’s grace that matters the most!
God’s grace has always been and will always be free. Nothing we do can earn God’s grace, God simply provides it free of charge. And not only does God give it for free but He gives it for all. All of us are meant to receive his good grace and we’d be fools to restrict anyone from receiving it. It’s one thing to appreciate his grace and keep it special, it’s another thing to restrict it and withhold it. We can appreciate it and hold it special without restricting it. Just because we share it with everyone doesn’t mean we cheapen it. God’s grace is meant for all and is always special. And what better show of grace is there than the grace shown in the resurrection?! Jesus died and brought with him all our sins and doubts and fears. As if that wasn’t a gift enough, Jesus came back to us to show us there is life after death. Freed from sin and doubt and fear, we can live lives that God intends for us to live. We can live new, better lives!
In our reading, Peter offered a bold revelation, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” What a powerful statement to make! All can receive his grace by simply fearing him and doing what is right. All can receive his grace simply through faith. Paul tells us, “because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confessed with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘no one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (10:9-13) Fearing God and doing what is right comes from simply calling on God…trusting in God, believing in God.
In just a few moments, we will welcome little Olivia to God’s family. We will call on God to claim her as one of his beloved children. And God will graciously accept her as one his own. God’s grace is for all who call on him and love him and trust him. Let us tear down anything that keeps us and others from receiving his good and generous grace. God IS good and for that we give thanks. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.