Acts 10:30-43 ~ If Someone Asked You, What Would You Say?
When Peter walked into the house of Cornelius, he crossed several barriers. Peter was a Jewish Galilean fisherman. Cornelius was a Gentile Roman centurion. Between them were barriers of race, class, religion, and power. The barrier of power was the fact that Peter was one of the occupied peoples, and Cornelius was one of the occupiers. When Peter walked across the threshold into Cornelius’ home, that is when the gospel really started spreading beyond the Jewish people to all the peoples of the world.
What might this have to do with our church today? Where is God calling us to cross barriers? One answer is our Wednesday night ministries. More and more children who live in the houses around this church have discovered our Wednesday activities, including our delicious dinners. They cannot pay for dinner, but we don’t turn any child away. But it’s not just the food that draws them. They can tell that the Bible study leaders here care about them. Many of our leaders are mission trip veterans. They’ve been on mission trips around the world, where they have seen places of profound need. But when they returned to Wilson, they saw the same needs right here, around this church. So they teach our Wednesday children with a sense of mission.
Responding to these children has not always been easy. There have been barriers, not just racial, but also barriers of poverty, and culture, and differing family values. Like all children, our Wednesday children can be sweet and loving one minute, and totally exasperating the next. It is not unusual to have to send a child or a youth home for a few weeks. Some nights I’ve been amused to watch the children who have been coming for a while, who have learned our expectations, now enforcing those expectations on newcomers. “Hey! You don’t do that here! Uh UH!”
There are moments when we realize that God is at work here on Wednesday nights. Recently I saw a new video by Wilson CHEW, the ministry that provides backpacks of food for children who go home on weekends to homes with no food. More than one out of every four children in Wilson are in that situation. I think about that when I see them lining up for hot dogs on Wednesday nights.
Officer Amanda Escamilla visited us to tell us about gangs in Wilson. She told us how there are around 300 children and youth involved in gangs in this county. Those children and youth are desperate for caring relationships. Officer Escamilla was fascinated by what happens here on Wednesday nights. “I had no idea you were doing this. This is wonderful,” she said. “You have no idea how important this is, how God is working through you.”
And then one day Gay Gulick was walking through the parking lot, and saw a child who comes on Wednesday nights, and said “Hi.” Now Gay is still getting to know the children, and they her, but this child came over to her and hugged Gay right there in the parking lot, and said, “I feel safe here.” Those of you who work with our Wednesday children and youth, those of you who bring your children and your grandchildren, I hope you realize how God is working around you.
And to those of you who might be sensing a call to be part of that: there’s always a place to help, whether it is serving the milk and tea, or sitting with children at the dinner tables, or helping lead the Bible studies or crafts or recreation. Oh, there will be some nights when you’ll want to just shake them, but there will also be nights when you’ll see the light of understanding come on in a kid’s eyes as he exclaims, “Did the Bible really say that? Did Jesus really do THAT?” On Wednesday nights around here, God’s Spirit is at work to cross barriers and to tell who Jesus is.
THE GREATEST BARRIER
But perhaps the greatest barrier that you and I face is the barrier of silence: the barrier of silence when it comes to speaking up and sharing who Jesus is for you. The story of Peter and Cornelius is not a story about crossing barriers just to cross barriers. It’s about crossing barriers IN ORDER TO share the good news of Jesus. When it comes to sharing our trust in Jesus with neighbors and friends, we too often feel dwarfed by a wall of silence between us and those friends and neighbors.
Now you might say, “I don’t have the right to impose my faith on anybody.” And you are kind to be sensitive to that. But remember that in the passage we read from Acts, Peter was not imposing on Cornelius. Cornelius had asked Peter to come and tell. The Centurion Cornelius had even sent a few of his men to fetch and bring Peter to him. They escorted him up the beach from Joppa to the seaport of Caesarea Maritima, center for Roman rule of the district. The smell of the sea and the roar of the surf were in the air as Peter came into the centurion’s house and said, “Now may I ask why you sent for me?” (Acts 10:29)
Cornelius told him, “When I was praying, a man in dazzling clothes appeared and told me to send for you. So I did, and you have been kind enough to come.” “So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.” (Acts 10:33) Imagine, a Roman centurion speaking about the presence of God, referring to the Lord, a Lord who is not Caesar!
“Peter fairly exploded with his good news.” (The Message, Acts 10:34) He summarized for them what most people already knew about Jesus. And then he added his own personal experience with Jesus. Peter was not imposing. He was invited, sent for, ushered into Cornelius’ house.
I’m always fascinated by how the Holy Spirit worked on Peter and Cornelius simultaneously to prepare them for their barrier-breaking meeting. I believe God’s Spirit still does that kind of thing: working both ends of a relationship in order to draw people together, so that one will ask the other to tell who Jesus is to them.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?
If someone said to you: “I’m here, in the presence of the Lord, to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say to me,” then what would you say? You might tell me, “No one has ever said that to me.” Maybe not in so many words, but surely you’ve known someone to say something like:
I’ve been feeling like God is trying to tell me something. I know you’re a believer. What does all this mean to you? Who is Jesus to you?
What would you say?
Peter, a grizzled fisherman who was no trained public speaker, gave Cornelius one of the earliest summaries of who Jesus was. Peter told the core of the gospel story: how Jesus came in the power of God; how he used God’s power to go about doing good; how he healed those who were overpowered by evil. And Peter told how he himself had become part of the gospel story: how he was a witness to all that Jesus did; how he was a witness to Jesus being crucified on a cross, how Jesus was raised from the dead, how Jesus then appeared to Peter and others. And then Peter concluded with how he was called to go and tell everyone, for everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ name.
What Peter said was short, and simple, and personal. He hadn’t been talking long when God’s presence filled the house of Cornelius. That Roman centurion and his household believed and were baptized.
WHAT WOULD I SAY?
If someone asked you what Cornelius asked Peter, what would you say? You might answer me, “Well I don’t know, what would YOU say?” That’s a fair question:
I would say that Jesus is the one who has rescued me from the trap of trying to be good all by myself. I grew up in a home in which I’d always known about the love of God, always known about Jesus. I was in church all the time and thought that my job was to be good. And that’s how I tried to meet every chapter of my life since I left home: I would try to succeed in every situation by being good. But in every phase of my life, that strategy has failed. One of two things would happen: either I would wear myself out and be no good to anybody, or I would learn that no matter how hard I tried, I would still mess up in some way. Sometimes I would even mess up on purpose.
I’ve learned by rude experience that no matter how hard I try to be good, I can’t save myself. It just doesn’t work. When I try to do it by myself, I burn out, or act out, and always fall short.
But, in every stage and chapter of my life, when I have pulled back from trying to do it all, when I have asked for the help of the God revealed in Jesus, then I have been relieved to know God carrying me through every situation. In other words, I’ve tried saving myself, and it has never worked. Only when I’ve let God work in me, only when I’ve followed Jesus’ lead as the boss of my life, has anything worked.
If someone asked me who Jesus is to me, that’s what I would say. But what would YOU say? What is the story of Jesus and you? No one can say that but you. In fact, when it comes to your own experience of Jesus, no one can say it quite like you.
Allow me to send you out today with a little bit of homework. Sometime this week, find a quiet place and think about the story of your experience of Jesus. Write it down. Don’t write long; be simple and brief. Just a couple of paragraphs will do.
Or if that doesn’t come easily, then do this: draw a time line of your life. As you trace that line, when you come to a time when you felt close to God, then draw the line going up. Whenever you come to a time when you felt far from God, then let the line go down. Draw all the spiritual ups and downs of your life across time. Then look at it. As you trace that line, you will be tracing the story of your experience with Jesus.
I would count it a privilege if sometime you sent that to me, either your brief story or your time line. It’s your unique and sacred story of your experience of Jesus. No one else has one quite like it.
And the next time someone asks you what Jesus means to you, all you will have to do is tell that story.
There’s no barrier in the world that can stop it.
– Douglas E. Murray