Many of the stories in the New Testament’s book of Acts all seem to end the same way.
After either witnessing an amazing miracle or hearing a passionate sermon, people’s souls and spirits are so deeply touched that scads and scores of them come to faith in Jesus Christ. And they’re all welcomed into this unique community of faith and belief that the Holy Spirit is assembling in the months and years after Jesus walks straight and tall from Easter’s empty tomb.
This morning’s stunning moment of spiritual resurrection comes as the book of Acts revisions the world with the eyes of heaven. And here’s what Acts chapter 10 uncovers: God in Christ is re-writing the definition of “neighbor” – who it is that we’re supposed to regard as a neighbor and, more importantly, what it is that God expects us to do for a neighbor.
The Lord’s new definition of “neighbor,” which intends to untangle the ties that bind you and me, is intimately linked to our attitudes, decisions, and behaviors. When human attitudes, decisions, and behaviors start aligning with God’s steadfast love and infinite mercy, there’s no limit to the great things that can happen!
In a few moments you’ll experience that truth in the story of the apostle Peter’s daring visit to the household of Cornelius, a Roman military officer, a feared and dreaded enemy, an armed occupier and puppet of a foreign government. Two people more diametrically opposed to one another than Peter and Cornelius you’ll never meet.
Yet God parts the deep waters of division separating the two men, and Peter and Cornelius become spiritual brothers. And the community of faith is blessed and far better off because of their newfound relationship with one another in Christ.
This Lent, the Word of the Lord – Jesus Christ – is speaking to the community of faith and belief about our relationships with one another. The Holy Spirit is focusing our Lenten repentance on those human connections where time and the elements have taken their toll.
And God, well – thanks be to God, heaven’s gameplan for Creation remains unchanged: Fixing life’s brokenness, repairing its breaches, and conquering its fears. Grace is turning dreaded enemies into fast friends; darkness is becoming light, and death is giving way to life!
In both word and image, may the Holy Spirit allow the voice and hand of God to reach out and touch your heart and mind in this moving scene from Acts 10. Listen for the Word of the Lord.
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. They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.”
So Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.”
So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging. The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. But Peter made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.”
And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?”
Cornelius replied, “Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. He said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea’
“Therefore I sent for you immediately, 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.”
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. (Acts 10:1-35)
The incredible faith and courage that fill Peter’s heart, for me anyway, is the scene-stealer of this dreamy, angel-filled episode.
Peter’s heartfelt commitment to following the Lord’s orders to the letter surely trumps what Peter is thinking and feeling. Being sent by God to engage with a military leader is definite cause for fear and loathing. Remember, Cornelius is an officer not of a defensive army whose mission is to protect Peter and his neighbors but an occupying army whose mission is to suppress any and all resistance against the Roman Empire – a maniacal government that routinely uses crucifixion to silence those “woke” voices who rock the boat and raise objection.
Officers of the Roman army are powerful, intimating men whose paths you don’t want to cross, and to be summoned to one’s home would be an occasion for trembling and gnashing of teeth for even the most faithful of Christ’s followers. Think about Peter’s going to Cornelius in terms of how you would feel if you were Ukrainian and God told you to go visit the home of an officer in the invading Russian army. If you can get yourself into that place of empathy, then you start to get a sense for how much calm the Holy Spirit brings to moments of overwhelming dread and white-knuckle terror.
What’s even more striking is this new revelation of truth that suddenly overtakes Peter.
His strange vision of an animal-filled sheet coming down from heaven gives Peter the new understanding that God shows no partiality or favoritism. God in Christ has come for all who worship him. The Lord has come not just the Jews but for everyone – Jews, gentiles – even Roman officers and their troops!
In Christ, they’re all one – no longer aliens and strangers but close neighbors – sisters and brothers together in the peace and grace of community. The Holy Spirit is moving freely with absolutely no regard to national borders, cultural boundaries, or social divisions to extend God’s extravagant, arms-wide-open hospitality that invites everyone to enter the holy tent that Jesus pitches smack-dab in the middle of the new neighborhood.
That good news is comforting and assuring – no question about it, but that good news arrives with a challenge that’s oftentimes awkward and uncomfortable: The challenge of learning to love and care for people we never really expected or wanted to have as neighbors. And even more challenging and discomforting: What are we willing to do for these former outsiders now that God has moved them next door from the other side of the tracks and converted these strangers and enemies into friends and family?
I could share with you any number of heart-warming stories that illustrate how God would have us serve and care for our neighbors.
You probably have a story or two of your own about how you’ve helped a neighbor in a time of trouble or how a neighbor has come to your aid and done something nice for you – all good stories that reflect the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit.
But the story I’ve decided to share goes way beyond so-called “Iowa nice,” far above the zany social-media challenges designed to help people we likely don’t know and probably will never meet. The story I’m about to share is a story of extravagant, face-to-face, risk-taking hospitality that – like God’s – shows no partiality or favoritism and – like the Spirit’s – shows no regard to national borders, cultural boundaries, or social divisions.
The story I’m about to share starts with this man, Luis Lopez-Acabal.
Luis grew up in Guatemala, and when he turned 16, a local gang began trying to strongarm him into joining up. Luis avoided the thugs for several weeks, but they eventually cornered him and gave him an ultimatum: He had 24 hours to either join up or be killed. Within hours, his family put him on a northbound bus. Luis entered the U.S. in 2007 and got a job as a night janitor and maintenance worker at a school. It was there where he met his wife, a legal resident from Mexico.
Driving home from work one day, Luis got pulled over by the police and quickly found himself facing deportation. He applied for asylum, saying that he could meet the legal requirement of “credible fear” of returning to his home country. But his bid for asylum was rejected, and he was given 45 days to leave the country. His wife tried to sponsor him for residency, but that effort failed, too.
Then along came University Presbyterian Church and an offer of sanctuary.
Luiz spent 100 days living in a small, windowless, wood-paneled room in the Tempe, Arizona, church. The church’s decision to provide sanctuary for Luiz was neither easy nor unanimous. The reaction from the surrounding city was a similar mix of opposition and support.
Nevertheless, members of the congregation began signing up to provide Luiz the things he needed – food, soap, toothpaste, clean towels and sheets – and something even more valuable: friendship and companionship. Community: a sense of belonging, a place of shelter. During his time at the church, other folks signed up simply to spend time with their new neighbor and unexpected guest so he didn’t feel lost and alone. Here’s what one woman says about her visits with Luis:
“My God says we’re all brothers and sisters. So, I’m visiting my brother here. Visiting is an attempt to somehow say, ‘You’re not walking this road alone. I can’t understand it, because I’ll never have to go through it, but I can sit here and visit with you.’ It’s kind of cool to see the other side of it, the people side. It’s one thing to hear, ‘Another immigrant is being deported’ but seeing someone’s face, having them smile and laugh with you. It’s different.”
As for Luis, the government ended up deferring his deportation. “I have faith in God that my case will be resolved so I can be by my family’s side,” he said. “I know that with God, nothing is impossible. That’s why I came to a church.”
Do I struggle with what University Church did for Luiz? Yes, I do. It challenges me on a number of fronts. I even wrestled for much of this week whether I should share this story with you this morning. There certainly are lots of other, safer, less controversial ways to illustrate the message of this morning’s texts.
But since the scene from Acts challenges our thinking and our behavior, I decided to climb back out on the preaching limb with a story that’s equally challenging.
Am I suggesting that we do the same thing here? No, not necessarily. But Peter, Cornelius, Luiz and my Presbyterian brothers and sisters in Arizona challenge me with edgy questions: “Who is my neighbor, and what am I prepared to do for him or her?”
Who is my neighbor? For whom am I willing to go to bat? Whose suffering am I willing to bear?
For whom am I willing to risk arrest or even lay down my life? With whom will I dare to laugh or cry? Who is it that the Lord would have me learn to love?
Are you my neighbor? Would you loan me a loaf of bread at midnight? Would you dig through a tall grain bin to rescue me if I fell in and got sucked under?
Would you wade through waist-high grass looking for my lost child? Some would, but would you? Would I?
Our times are such that we all could use a good neighbor and a safe place of sanctuary. After all, there’s always room for one more in God’s house and in the Kingdom of Heaven.
To the ancient church at Ephesus, the apostle Paul writes with his trademark vigor about the kinds of hospitality and risk-taking that Peter and Cornelius embody, the kinds reconciliation and reunion that reflect our oneness, thanks to the person and work of Christ. Continue listening for the Word of the Lord!
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” – a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands –
Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.
So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2:11-22)
Ancient words, made ever true by the Cross of Jesus and the Resurrection of Christ: “Never call anyone profane or unclean.” Never call anyone profane or unclean whom God has cleansed! For the Spirit invites and enables each of us to be built together spiritually into a resilient dwelling place for God.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, March 26, 2023, the fifth Sunday of Lent at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa. It is the fourth of his Lenten series, “Called to Repentance: Working on Our Relationships.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Scott Hoezee and L.T. Johnson inform the message.