Peter in Caesarea with Cornelius

A couple of years ago, my husband and I visited the wonderful St Peter’s Church in Rome, and we had applied for special permission to visit the Scavi Excavation site, way down two levels way beneath the main altar, a place where remains of a body had been discovered in 1950.

The bones found were those of a powerfully built man, who had been 65/70 years of age at the time of death.

Also because of the tomb’s situation, its position and the coins and purple cloth they found there, the excavators were almost certain that the remains were those of the apostle Peter.

It was eerie and awesome to be only a few metres away from that little box in the niche containing his bones, all present and correct, apart from his skull and feet.

(the bones were not complete, the feet of Peter were missing due to the fact that Peter was crucified upside down, and soldiers would probably have removed the body by severing the feet at the ankles.)

Ironically, Peter was one of the first of those disciples who had turned an entire empire ‘upside down’ within a single generation!

When we turned away to enter the chapel, in order to allow more pilgrims into the tomb, we found ourselves in a chapel, its walls and pillars completely covered with very expensive golf leaf.

What a contrast there between that chapel, and the remains of a man who once said to a cripple, ‘Silver and gold have I none!’

Peter in his lifetime was so human, that’s why we warm to him. He got things wrong, and needed to think again, yet he was given a position of leadership by Jesus, and through his ministry after Pentecost, great chasms were bridged, and massive barriers of division began to crumble.

We see it happening in our reading from Acts this morning.

Peter had put his mistakes behind him, and became fearless and bold in proclaiming the good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

He also grew confident in the authority given to him to heal, teach and preach in the name of Jesus, for which he was brought before the authorities and threatened with death, but that didn’t stop him.

When a great persecution later occurred, many followers of Jesus, left Jerusalem, but it all worked out for the good, because the believers spread the message of the gospel further still.

Only the disciples remained in the city, until Peter along with John, were sent for by Philip who needed help ministering in Samaria.

Jews had always labelled the people of Samaria as’ half –Jews, foreigners and heretics’,

yet Peter (& John) went there without hesitation, even though Samaritans had been enemies of the Jews for a thousand years.

Walls were beginning to come down.

From there Peter went to Lydda, where he healed a man named Aeneas; and from there he went to Joppa, where he raised a woman from the dead whose name was Dorcas, and many doors of opportunity opened as a result to preach the good news.

But it was while Peter was IN Joppa, staying at the house of Simon the Tanner, that today’s story takes place.

There Peter had a vision whilst at prayer, which came to him like some horrific dream, but it was also a powerful revelation.

Peter saw a tablecloth lowered from heaven, containing unclean animals. Then he heard a voice saying,

‘Get up Peter, kill and eat!

Peter protested and the voice replied, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean!’

This all happened three times.

At this very moment Cornelius’s servants knocked at the door. It was then that the Holy Spirit urged him to go with them, and not hesitate.

When he discovered they were asking for him to go with them to Caesarea, to the home of a non- Jew, a Gentile, he went without question.

In this day and age, in our culture, we can’t possibly realise the enormity of this task for Peter. For to even enter a room in which there was a Gentile, was absolutely forbidden by law, least of all preach to him and offer him the word of life!

So Peter went with them, to Cornelius’ household in Caesarea, and found that Cornelius had sent for him as a result of a vision too! And as Peter was preaching to them about the Lordship of Jesus and how forgiveness was given to those who repented of their sin and believed, the Holy Spirit fell upon those who believed, just as has happened to them on the Day of Pentecost!

Those who had gone there with Peter were amazed to find that this Cornelius, a Roman soldier, along with all his household and his friends, were also speaking in tongues and praising God just as they had done! So the whole household was baptized.

Peter was slowly being transformed, as he saw barrier after barrier coming down; but he knew and he would have a lot of explaining to do when he got back to Jerusalem.

In fact when he did return, word had already got around, and the circumcised believers criticised him saying,

“You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them!’

So Peter explained it all to them and they were won over by his story.

First Samaria, now here in Joppa another massive wall was coming down. Holy and treasured traditions were being challenged to the utmost!

But the sad fact is that over the years the more that walls fall down, the more we humans seem to want to erect them!

…And each day in our newspapers we’re confronted with the mighty chasms between US AND THEM, gaps between denominations; sexuality, between different faiths, between whole nations; and the saddest gap of all; between rich and poor!

Every effort seems to be made to separate and divide, rather than to bring reconciliation and healing.

Why is that?

Is it our need to feel superior? Is it self-preservation or tribalism? Greed?

Or is it that our prejudices are so firmly entrenched we know no better? It was the evangelist J John who said…

‘Some minds are like concrete, thoroughly mixed up and permanently set.’

All this reminds me of a very famous sketch which appeared on TV many years ago featuring three great comedians, many of you will not remember this, John Cleese, Ronnies ‘Barker and Corbett’ represented members of different social classes in Great Britain. Some of you may remember it!

The sketch ended like this

Barker(middle class): We all know our place, but what do we get out of it?

Cleese(upper class) I get a feeling of superiority over them.

Barker: I get a feeling of inferiority from him, (Cleese), but a feeling of superiority over him (Corbett).

Corbett: I get a pain in the back of my neck.

What about GOD’s pain as he looks on the world today?

Prejudice and discrimination had to be broken down in Peter and the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, and ought to be broken down in us if WE are to be of any use today in attracting others to faith, and living together in harmony.

John Stott once wrote,

Discrimination is inexcusable even in non Christian society; but in Christianity it is both an obscenity (offensive to human dignity) and a blasphemy (offensive to God who accepts without discrimination all who repent and believe)

But thank goodness for Peter’s vision and for this story, which can still teach us today.

What do we learn from him?

We need to exercise RESPECT:

Firstly Peter treated Cornelius with great respect by actually entering his house; a thing a strict Jew should not have done, something even Peter himself may not have done had it not been for his vision.

We need true HUMILITY:

When Cornelius fell at his feet in reverence, Peter told him to get up, saying,

‘I am only a man myself!’ In other words I’m human just like you.

Why this need for superiority?

Then there’s ACCEPTANCE:

And when Peter saw that the Holy Spirit had fallen on Cornelius and his household too, he had this to say...

“Now I realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism, but accepts people from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

To top it all we need to practise LOVING COMMUNICATION:

Peter stayed with them for a few days and shared fellowship with them, got to know them better, and taught them all they needed to know, so they too could share the good news.

‘May they be One, as we Father are one’, was Jesus’ fervent prayer... and I believe it still is his fervent prayer.

‘Surely as Christians the purpose of all our praying, the purpose of all our ministry, the purpose of our whole life should be nothing other than God’s glory!

So says Morris Maddocks:-in a book called ‘Healing House of Prayer,

Let us pray...

Lord forgive us if we come across as hypocritical at times;

Forgive us if we’ve ever sought our own glory rather than yours;

Forgive us if we have put people off knowing you, through our self-righteous attitudes and spiritual smugness.

Help us get real, like Peter, and like him be just one thirsty person helping another thirsty person to find water in the desert.

Help us be more humble and be more willing to come alongside others in their loneliness, their pain; in their striving, their struggling and in their search for you.

Grant us a truly authentic faith..

O Lord hear our prayer and let our cry come to thee.

‘Break down the walls I have built keeping you distant.

See through the smile that I wear when we meet,

Break through the ‘pride that hi-des’ the tr-uth of my condition,

Break down the walls around my heart, make me real.

Break down the walls around my heart, make me real.

© Northumberland Community

Baptism Talk to follow at a separate service

Our bible reading today is all about two separate visions which happened at roughly the same time in history!

In the first vision an angel commanded a Roman centurion, called Cornelius, to send for Peter the apostle to come to his house and speak to him. He was a god-fearing man; good at giving, kind and prayerful, and God had heard his prayers.

A few days later the second vision appeared to the apostle Peter when he was on a rooftop praying; in it a voice commanded him to eat unclean food which was lowered from heaven before him, all spread out in a tablecloth. When he protested, the voice told him not to call anything unclean that God had made clean.

Now to Jews, all non- Jews or Gentiles are UNCLEAN, people to be avoided! So then, when the servants arrived at the door, to invite him to the Cornelius’ home…he realized he had to go with them…unclean or not!

So off he went, and as he was preaching to Cornelius and his entire household and friends, Peter was shocked to find that the Holy Spirit fell upon them all the listeners, just as had happened to the disciples on the Day of Pentecost!

Those who had gone there with Peter were amazed to find that the people there, all of them non-Jews, were also speaking in different languages and praising God just as they had done!

What did Peter say to them that was so powerful? We’re not told in our short extract this morning, so let me tell you what he said to them...

He began by admitting that he now knew without any doubt that

Ø ‘God had no favourites.’ God longs for all people everywhere to come to him; none will be rejected. No matter how sinful we are, no matter how far away we feel from him. He knows the longing in our hearts!

Ø You know the rumours that are going round about Jesus, from his baptism onwards, how he was anointed, and how he went round doing good and healing all who were oppressed. Well these stories are true, we are witnesses!

Ø He was executed, but was raised to life, again we are witnesses along with many others chosen by God.

Ø We have been commanded to preach that this Jesus is the One appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. Everyone, whether they like it or not, will be answerable to him and have to give account for the lives they have chosen to live.

Ø The prophets in scripture testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins, through his name. When Jesus returned from the dead, he taught the disciples from the ancient scriptures, and showed them which parts applied to him. Many ancient prophecies had actually come true, the majority of these in the last week of his life!

So the whole household was baptized, and Peter stayed for a few days to instruct them.

Now there may well have been children in Cornelius’s household who were baptised along with their parents, and who were brought up in the faith. And from this moment it’s almost certain that this household would have prayed together, sung hymns of praise together, studied scriptures together and had fellowship with other Christians in the area, reaching out to the community to help those in need. They would have supported and encouraged each other, protected one another in what would become very dangerous times.

Let me tell you about my son who became a fire fighter when he was about 22/23. We were so proud of him and we all thought it was really funny when he came home and told us what had happened on his first day at work.

He had heard the alarm, so he ran to the pole and slid down, only to find all the other fire fighters holding buckets of cold water.

He got soaked, as a brand new recruit, and felt a proper fool, but he laughed along with the others, and got on really well with them after that...practising skills and learning more, finding out how to work as part of a team, and working together for the common good, saving lives and property; protecting one another in dangerous situations.

This is rather like the Christian journey after baptism.T

But what if, since that first day, he hadn’t been back to work and if he had sat all day at home idling his time away could he really call himself a Fire fighter?

After all he was qualified, he passed the right tests, was given a certificate and he got soaked with water as a welcome?

I for one wouldn’t want him to put a dangerous fire out for me having had no practice, I would want the local fire fighting team, because they’re the ones ones fully trained and knowledgeable and fit enough to do the job that needs doing!

I’m so pleased that Paul and Camelia wish to bring up Sophie as a Christian, and guide her support her as she learns about the Christian faith.

But it’s not only their responsibility; it is also something which Sophie’s god-parents and this church family will also commit themselves to doing.

If we seek God and put his kingdom first, and his goodness, everything falls into place.

Like this piece of glass, with its many facts, we’re not perfect, any of us, but we can always keep on trying to be like Jesus, the best role model we could possibly have; for he is the Light of the world…and as his light enters in at baptism, so we begin to reflect that light…his life to others…

Imperfect yes, but here there is great potential for good!

Morris Maddocks:-in a book called ‘Healing House of Prayer, has this to say...

‘As Christians the purpose of all our praying, the purpose of all our ministry, the purpose of our whole life should be nothing other than God’s glory.

Lord take charge of our lives, and renew us by your Spirit this day; let these vows and promises we’re about to say, be ours again, and stir our faith up for you, to know you more closely and serve you more faithfully in this world.

Amen