READ – Acts 10+11
As people from all different backgrounds came to faith in Jesus, one of the biggest and hardest issues in the early church was how people formerly divided by cultural and ethnic walls could now live as brothers, sisters, friends and family in the church. The story of Cornelius in Acts 10 and 11 tells the foundational story that opened up the door of the church to those who were considered “outsiders”. Because the church sought to apply the lessons of this story - one of the biggest draws of early Christianity was how people who were naturally divided by cultural and ethnic walls worked through hard issues and found a way to live as brothers, sisters, friends and family. There was nothing like this in the ancient world. As the blueprint for how Jesus built and builds the church, Acts shows us that the church is meant to be a place where there are no outsiders - a place where no one feels less than, unwelcome, unwanted, or they don’t belong because of race, ethnicity or culture. A place where everyone feels included, valued, that they can belong, their voices heard, and their gifts needed. How is this possible? It takes the 3 conversions of Acts 10 and 11.
1. CORNELIUS’ CONVERSION
The first conversion in the story is Cornelius’. Cornelius was a Gentile - a captain in the Roman army. We are told he was a devout man who feared God with his whole household. He gave to charity and prayed regularly. He was a good person. As a “god-fearer”, he was willing to take on the beliefs and practices of the Jewish faith, but he wasn’t willing to fully convert to Judaism (by undergoing circumcision and observing the food laws). So, even though Cornelius was as good a person as someone could be, he was still considered unclean. He couldn’t eat with faithful Jewish people. He was not welcome into a Jewish home or into the temple in Jerusalem for worship. He was an outsider because of his ethnicity. He was good but not good enough.
But God arranges for Peter to come to Cornelius through angelic visits, visions and the assurance of the Holy Spirit. When Peter arrives at Cornelius’ home (10:25-33), what does he say? Why did God go through so much trouble to bring Peter to Cornelius? Was it to tell Cornelius, “If you want to truly be in, you need to do more good”? No! Peter wasn’t sent to tell Cornelius what more to do to get in; he was sent to tell him all that Jesus did so he could get in. Peter preached the gospel (10:36-43) – Everyone can be forgiven because of all Jesus has done! It clicked for Cornelius - being good doesn’t make me an insider. Only Jesus does. When Cornelius heard this, he repented (11:18), believed and the Holy Spirit confirmed something that Peter was slow to believe – because of Cornelius’ faith in Jesus, this Gentile Roman solider is no longer an outsider. He was baptized into the church. Now he was just as much an insider as Peter.
This is the first conversion necessary for God to build a “no outsiders” church: It’s not Jesus + my goodness that gets me in. It’s Jesus + nothing that gets me in. The gospel equally humbles all (no one is in because of their race, culture or goodness) and equally elevates all (everyone who comes in by faith is equally “in”, equally valued and loved).
2. PETER’S CONVERSION
But a second conversion is needed. Scholar John Stott argues that it’s this conversion that is the main subject of these two chapters. He writes, “How would God succeed in breaking down Peter’s deep seated racial intolerance? The principle subject in this chapter is not so much the conversion of Cornelius as the conversion of Peter”. God chose one of the hardest people for Peter to accept – a Roman captain. The Romans had subjugated and oppressed his people for years.
In order for Peter to experience his conversion, it took a vision of God directly speaking to him three times (10:16), a visit from Cornelius’ messengers to share his vision (10:22) and the direct assurance of the Holy Spirit (10:20) for Peter to go inside a Gentile home. God could have directly proclaimed the gospel to Cornelius Himself! But clearly, he wanted Peter to do it. Why? So Peter could experience his conversion and a “no outsiders” church could be built.
Peter had to realize he was adding to the gospel. By adding race and culture to what was needed to be right and fully acceptable before God, he was denying the gospel of grace. Peter speaks as one experiencing repentance - “God has shown me (10:28)”, “now I truly understand” (10:34). It was Peter’s repentance from his racial and cultural self-righteousness that opened up the door of the gospel to all nations, race and peoples.
Peter realized the implications of the gospel he proclaimed in Cornelius’ home. The cross shows the world there is only one insider. There is only one person good enough, only one person clean enough, only one person pure enough. There is only one insider yet he’s the One on the cross (“the tree”, 10:39). The tree was the place where the bad, the impure, and the unclean belong. The tree is the place of curse – outside of God’s blessing. Why is Jesus there? On the cross, He took our place on the outside (what we deserve) and he gave us his goodness, his cleanness, his purity so we can be on the inside. Everyone who gets in says, “I’m only in because of him! This was Peter’s conversion - being Jewish or being (_insert anything here_ ) doesn’t make me an insider. Only Jesus does.
3. THE CHURCH’S CONVERSION (AND OURS)
When Peter shared his report of the conversion of Cornelius and his household with the church in Judea (“the Gentiles had also received the word of God”, 11:1), there should have been a celebration of epic proportions! The Gentiles (ie, all non-Jewish nations, ethnic groups) receiving the word of God (the gospel) is the heartbeat and promise of the whole bible! It’s what Jesus’ Great Commission is all about (Matt. 28:18-20). It’s what he said would happen before he ascended (they would be his witness to the “ends of the earth”, Acts 1:8). But instead of celebration, there’s criticism and disgust – “You went to non-Jewish people and ate with them!”. What’s going on? The church needed to experience Peter’s conversion as a community. They needed to see - we are all only in because of Jesus, so there are no outsiders!
This communal conversion into a church where there are no outsiders happened in at least 4 ways:
Us vs. Them – Us vs. them thinking had to be exposed by God and dissolved by the gospel. Peter later reminded the church, “God made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9). The “us vs them” thinking and distinctions we hold on to need to be honestly admitted and repented of.
Step by Step – Just as Peter needed to be taken step by step by God through a process of repentance from his prejudice, so he took the church in Jerusalem through the same process (11:4). In his commentary on this passage, Ajith Fernando, a Sri Lankan minister wrote, “living in a land of ethnic strife and struggling with the question of feelings of one’s race and the other’s race in a time of conflict, I have come to realize that prejudice is often one of the last things that is touched by the process of sanctification”. Prejudices are deeply held, very slowly recognized, reluctantly admitted and often slowly changed. We should be patient as we and others take steps toward repentance. Yet we should be firmly resolved to keep growing and calling others to grow since this is matter of great importance to God, his mission and our sanctification.
Face to Face – In order for Peter to experience his conversion, he needed more than a proper theology of the gospel applied to race and culture. He needed to enter into the home of a Gentile. He needed to stay with them and eat with them. It took face to face interaction with someone “other” for Peter to truly change. It’s the same for us. Personal study and disembodied controversies on social media can only get you so far. We need to sit down and eat with someone “other” than us in order to grow in our ability to be “no outsider” people and churches.
Book by Book – Diversity is not to be pursued in the church because it happens to be the socially progressive thing to do or is accepted in the circles we have. It’s not pursued for the personal benefits of enjoying cultures and learning about other people. It is to be pursued because it is God’s mission and heart in all of Scripture. It is the truth of the gospel lived out in the church. When Peter slipped into his old prejudices (Galatians 2:11-21), what did Paul say to him? He didn’t say, “Peter, you’re being a racist! a bigot!” He said, “Peter, Cephas, brother, you are denying the truth of the gospel.” If we don’t see this, we need to spend time book by book in the Scriptures until we are convinced it is a matter of gospel truth.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?
2. Why is that some people think the message of Christianity is “to get in you need to be a good person”, “to stay in you need to be good enough”, or “to get in to heaven you need to be a good person”? How does the story of Cornelius’ conversion show us that a complete misunderstanding of Christianity?
3. Do you see race, ethnicity and culture dividing people? in our country? in your community? in the church? How is the message of salvation (“getting in”) by grace connected to issues of race?
4. Have you ever had an experience of feeling like an outsider because of your race, ethnicity or culture? What was this like? How have you learned to welcome people different than you when you are the insider?
5. How does the cross address all our insider thinking and insider/outsider divisions?
6. In the sermon, 4 aspects to the church’s conversion were discussed – As a group, pick 1 or more of the following questions:
a. Us vs them – Where do you see us vs them thinking still at work in your heart and life?
b. Step by Step – Where do you feel you are in the step by step journey of sanctification in areas of prejudice?
c. Face to Face – What face to face interactions have you had with people who were “other” changed how you saw other groups, races or cultures?
d. Book by Book – Are you convinced that a church where there are insiders/outsiders because of race or culture is a matter of denying the truth of the gospel (2:14)? Why or why not?
7. Acts shows us that the church is meant to be a place where there are no outsiders - a place where no one feels less than, unwelcome, unwanted, or they don’t belong because of race, ethnicity or culture. A place where everyone feels included, valued, that they can belong, their voices heard, and their gifts needed.
How is Trinity doing here? What can we do better? How can we become a church like this? Pray that we would.