A time for……..transformed boundaries
Sermon date: 19th May
Readings: Acts 11 v. 1-18
Consider and share with each other
How do you understand the term 'boundaries'? Is it a positive word for you?
Are there any boundaries you would like to ignore or see broken down? Why?
Definition of 'boundary':
A line which marks the limits of an area; a dividing line
Definition of 'transcend':
To go beyond, rise above or cut across usual limits
Please do not feel you have to use all this material, use what is helpful
Please read together Acts 11: 1-18
Setting the context: Peter is retelling the story of Cornelius's conversion, explaining the part he played in it and justifying why he was there in a Gentile household. (You might like to read Acts Chapter 10 so you can see where our reading begins and how it fits in.)
Q.1 Why do you think some scholars might have called this section of scripture?
(Acts 10-11: 18) the conversion of Peter?
There's no doubt that Peter does go through quite a transformation, but this story is about more than just the modern-day idea of toleration to those who are different to us. It's also about God's mission and how playing our part in that mission is not always easy and can take us into areas of discomfort, struggle to understand, the need for discernment, and then a need to respond to God's call even though we may not understand quite what we are being called into and the boundaries we are being called to cross. But ultimately we trust that God is the one in control bringing all things together.
Please re-read Acts 11: 1-3
Peter is called to explain why he was in a Gentile household (Acts 11: 1-3). "The apostles and believers heard the Gentiles had accepted the word of God" - we might think they would be celebrating this good news, but instead they criticise Peter for his action of eating with them (11: 2). It was the social interaction they objected to.
Q.2 Sometimes in the church we are told to be 'in the world but not of the world'. Are there any people in your life you try and keep a distance from socially because you are worried about their behaviour or life choices affecting or influencing you?
Q.3 Do you think this social distance makes it more or less likely you'll be able to share the gospel with them?
Please re-read Acts 11: 4-10
This is an almost identical retelling of Acts 10: 10-16 but in the first person now from Peter's perspective. The account in Acts 10:17 says that after this revelation from God "Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of this vision that he had seen". Peter doesn't mention his puzzlement in Acts 11 but perhaps it is because by this point he already has the benefit of hindsight!
The list of animals in Acts 11: 6 encompasses a variety of animals. But only some of these would have been considered clean - others would have been prohibited under Jewish dietary laws (you might like to refer back to Leviticus 11 for more detail on such laws). Peter's protest to the messenger that "nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth" is a key moment. Peter (and all the apostles) have lived according to the Jewish purity laws - set apart as God's holy people from the idolatrous world. Jesus himself would have been brought up to live according to these purity laws. No wonder Peter is puzzled about what the vision could possibly mean. Abandoning these laws would be a radical change of living from what believers felt God had called them to do until now.
Q.4 What do you think the vision means? What is God trying to tell Peter?
God is now removing these purity laws so his divine mission can be continued to the world without a barrier preventing it. In the gospels of Mark, Chapter 7: 1-23, (and Matthew 15: 1-20) Jesus directly addresses the purity laws, explaining to his disciples: 'Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?' (Thus he declared all foods clean.)" (Mark 7: 18-20)
But verse 9: "What God has made clean, you must not call profane" may also be an instruction not to condemn outsiders/Gentiles who are believers of Jesus Christ as unclean for not following the same Jewish laws. If God has bought their salvation ("what God has made clean") through Jesus Christ then no one should claim otherwise or impose human laws on them under the guise of maintaining purity.
Even while Peter is puzzling over the meaning of the vision, three men sent by Cornelius appear.
The timing of this is extraordinary and shows us (and Peter) that God is ultimately in control - it is his mission to the world. God has gone ahead of Peter to Cornelius and given him a vision also (Acts 10: 3-6). Cornelius calls others to him (10: 7-8) to tell them what has happened in his vision, then sends them out to look for Peter just as he was instructed by the angel. There is a coming together of God's action and things start to make sense. There's something powerful about the fact that in this account even the missionary himself (Peter) is in receipt of God's mission and his transforming power.
Q.5 Have you ever felt God was asking you to do something you didn't understand at the time? What did you do?
Q.6 Do you have the benefit of hindsight yet (seeing what God's purpose was) or are you still waiting to find out?
Sometimes we may feel God is telling us something or asking us to do something that we don't immediately understand, and these promptings need sharing with others and testing before action or understanding is possible. Other times it's clear what God is saying.
The result of Cornelius's trust and obedience to his heavenly messenger is that his men arrive with Peter just as Peter is puzzling over his own recent vision. The timing enables Peter to make the connection between the instruction in his vision: "What God has called clean, you must not call profane" (11:9) and the prompting from the Spirit in Acts 11: 12 "The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us." In essence not to create superficial human boundaries that would limit God's purposes. Peter trusts the Spirit's prompting and goes to Cornelius's household.
Please re-read Acts 11: 13-14
Q.7 How do you think Peter would have felt having just arrived to share the Christian message, to hear what Cornelius shared in verses 13-14?
At this point, Peter shares the gospel and "the Holy Spirit fell upon them" (11:15). Peter realises God has given them the same gift he gave the apostles when they first believed. The usual boundaries of Jew and Gentile have been transcended and God's gift of salvation is the same for all believers.
This story is one of profound discovery and transformation for all involved:
Cornelius's God-given clarity about why the missionaries should come (Acts 11: 13) means the 'missionized' have something to share with the missionaries and it's powerful to realise that the Spirit of God was already at work in Caesarea before Peter even arrived with the Christian message.
The Spirit of God falls upon the Gentiles just as it had fallen on Peter and the apostles when they first believed in Jesus Christ. God's love and salvation is therefore a gift intended for all, not just for a select, 'set apart,' holy nation.
Read Acts 11: 17 again. Peter realises it is not for him to put up boundaries to separate him from others. God's love and salvation is freely given to all and Peter does not want to hinder that mission. Boundaries are transcended in God's mission to the world.
Q.8 Have you ever been in a position of sharing the gospel, leading, working for God in some way only to discover that God was working in you too through the people you were trying to reach or help?
Thank God that his spirit goes before us and there are no boundaries that his love cannot cross.
trust that God is already at work in the world, even in situations or people we think may never have heard the Christian message
God to use us to bring his purposes to bear in the world
the breaking down of social boundaries that prevent God's love being shared
justice and peace to prevail so that no one is subject to exclusion or discrimination on grounds of race, gender, sexuality or any other human difference.
Leah Perona-Wright, 14/05/2019