Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 24, 2016 Year C
THE RESURRECTED LORD MAKES CLEAN THAT WHICH IS COMMON.
Text: Acts 11:1–18
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
The old wine skins of the Mosaic Covenant cannot contain the new wine of the redemption of the world accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Under the old covenant, God’s people were to be set apart from the world. They were to be a peculiar people with rituals and a complete way of life that distinguished them from the rest of the world.
Two of the most notable ways that the Israelites were set apart from their neighbors were their dietary laws and the manner in which they were to keep themselves separate from the other nations. In a world where different groups strengthened their relationships through feasting, worship, and marriage, the Israelites were forbidden to join the nations in these common practices. They were to follow the dietary guidelines set forth by God through Moses. Even today most people are familiar with the notion that the Jews do not eat pork or shellfish, but God also gave His Old Testament people rules about cooking and serving food, when yeast could be in the house and when it all had to be removed, and how any animals were butchered before being eaten. In addition to their dietary restrictions, the Israelites were to remain distinct. They were not to intermarry with any of the nations whom they were to drive out of Canaan when they settled in the Promised Land. And of course they could not worship the false gods of the gentiles.
The Bible calls God’s people a peculiar people. They were to be uncommon. From the beginning God set apart His people by removing from them much of what is common in the world. Every Israelite man bore the mark of this peculiarity in his circumcision. It has been pointed out that every time an Israelite man ate or went to the bathroom he was reminded that God had set him apart.
Now this does not mean that God did not care about the other nations of the earth. Quite the contrary, the Israelites were to be set apart specifically for the purpose of reminding the world that God’s ways are not the world’s ways. That God has chosen this small and weak nation of slaves and was working through them to accomplish the salvation of the world. The very existence of the nation of Israel was to remind everyone of the coming Savior, and until that Savior came in the flesh of Jesus Christ it was necessary for the Israelites to remain distinct from the other nations so that the hereditary promises given to Abraham, Isaac, Judah, and David could be traced through the centuries to their fulfillment. The nation’s peculiar way of life ultimately served an evangelistic task. The strange dietary laws, the mark of circumcision, the exclusion of foreigners from certain roles in society was all for the sake of making known God’s promises.
But when the Savior does come, these outward forms of ceremonial righteousness are no longer needed. When Jesus dies and rises from the dead, there is no longer a need to know who is descended from Abraham or David according to the flesh. All that matters now is who shares the faith of Abraham and the heart of David. God’s people no longer need food laws to keep them distinct from others. Thus Jesus declares that all foods are clean. But the old ways are deeply ingrained in the Hebrew way of thinking.
Cornelius was a gentile. Under the Old Covenant he was an outsider. The newly remodeled temple in Jerusalem had limits as to how far he could enter. He could sojourn among the Israelites, but he had no inheritance, no clan or tribe. When the circumcision party heard that Peter went to Cornelius with the Gospel, they were critical. It’s not exactly as though they meant to deny that Jesus had saved Gentiles, they just couldn’t yet comprehend that the shadow of things to come presented in the Old Covenant fell so far short of the fullness of God’s Kingdom, that the old distinctions were now meaningless. You can hardly blame them. Yes, they were wrong. Yes, they should have known better even from the Old Testament that God desired to include the gentiles in His coming salvation. But even Peter, who had been told to take the Gospel to the Gentiles needed to be reminded by a vision repeated three times that this meant actually entering gentile houses and welcoming the faithful Gentiles as brothers, not sojourners.
Peter’s vision addresses the lesser issue. It deals not with people but with food. But Jesus had already declared all food clean long ago as well (Mark 7). Still, it seems Peter needed a reminder. A lifetime of avoiding pork and shellfish, along with reptiles and all sorts of other critters, rendered them unappetizing to the point where even though Jesus had once told them he could eat them, he still looked at them as inferior and unclean or common. Common was fine for the gentiles, but Peter was a Hebrew, he wasn’t supposed to be common, he was supposed to be set apart. But Jesus says, “What God has called clean do not call common.” By extension, the Holy Spirit makes it clear that this applies to people as well as food.
When Christ sheds His blood on the cross, He atones for all the uncleanness of the world. Those who look to Him in faith are no longer part of the common world, but they are set apart, made holy, by the holy, precious blood of Jesus.
The New Wine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ requires new wineskins. The old form of the Law can point ahead to Christ, but it is inadequate for declaring the accomplished work of Jesus. The Holy Spirit leads the Church into a new way of holiness, a holiness not of customs and dietary practices, but a holiness poured out in Baptism. The Holy Spirit leads Cornelius to where he needs to look. He leads Peter to go with those he has considered common and to make them holy through the preaching of Jesus’ saving work and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire given by Jesus to those who are brought to Him.
But do not forget this: The old wineskins were given for the purpose of evangelism. The nation of Israel was set apart so that the nations would know that YHWH is God. But the new wineskins are also given for the purpose of evangelism. The Church of God is sent into the world to break down the barriers that have kept the nations apart and bring them all to the flock of the Good Shepherd. The Church’s freedom should be used to make known the Good News of salvation just as much as the Old Testament people of Israel were to be a beacon of God’s presence to the nations.
But how does this look among us today? Do we rejoice in our Lord’s salvation and delight to bring it to others? Or do you look upon others as common and unclean?
It is common in the world to separate from those who seem to be different. Maybe it is those who look different, but sometimes we treat worst of all those who are close to us, but who, we are convinced, have a different view, different values or different objectives. Congregations can be torn apart when one group wants to take on a project that others are opposed to. Communities can be divided when one group thinks that water pipes need to be replaced and another thinks the streets need to be repaired. Families can be torn apart when parents want a child to take over a family business but their children all enter other fields.
The list can go on and on. Undoubtedly you have someone in your life with whom you disagree. That disagreement easily turns into a grudge. That grudge can harden your heart so that instead of loving your neighbor, you hold on to hatred for one you perceive to be an enemy. You look on your neighbor as the circumcision party looked on Cornelius and other gentiles. They aren’t as good, they aren’t as clean, as holy, as righteous as you. But doesn’t the Holy Spirit say otherwise? Every person is redeemed by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Spirit makes it clear that no one who calls on the name of the Lord will be ignored or rejected by God. Then who are you to reject one for whom Christ died, even one whom He has called clean in the water of Baptism? When you reject God’s grace for them, you are acting like a common man of the world yourself. You are placing yourself outside of the peculiar people of God.
Only the God who raised Jesus from the dead can make you who are common, clean.
He does so for Jesus sake.
That is why we say:
Alleluia, Christ is Risen!
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria