But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Easter 7 – 2024

Easter 7 – Acts 11:1-18
Please listen with me to a reading from the 11th chapter of the Book of Acts, beginning at the 1st verse:

Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” But Peter began and explained it to them in order: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

So far our text.

In the Great Commission that Jesus gave to his church before his ascension, he told his disciples that they were to bring his saving gospel to all people in all nations. He makes the same basic point in the three different forms that this Great Commission took – in Matthew, Mark, and Luke:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”

“Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things.”

Jesus gave his disciples this commission in more than one way, because this was something that was really important to him. And he wanted to make sure his disciples got it.

And this was a new thing for Jews to hear, since previously – under the Old Testament dispensation – they were supposed to remain separate from the Gentile nations. So, the changes in thinking and in living that the Great Commission required, would need to be emphasized, so that it would all sink in deeply.

As far as Jesus’ earthly ministry was concerned, during the time he walked the earth, his own focus was more limited. He said on one occasion: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But Jesus was also always thinking about what his church would do in his name in the future, after his resurrection and ascension.

During the course of his ministry, in a way that reminds us of a seminary field work exercise, he brought his disciples on at least a couple occasions to Gentile lands that were adjacent to the land of Israel – to the territory of the Syro-Phoenicians north of Israel, and to the territory of the Gadarenes east of Israel – to give them a taste for what their future ministries in the pagan world would be like.

And, in an important sense, their ministries would be a continuation of his ministry. In the version of the Great Commission that we see in Matthew, Jesus promised: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

He was mystically going to go to the Gentile world with them, to bring his gospel of forgiveness, life, and salvation to the Gentile world through them.

What was not clear to the disciples, however, was exactly how all of this was to be done.

The Jews had a tradition of receiving Gentile converts into Judaism. A Gentile family that was converting to Judaism underwent a special kind of baptism – administered to men, women, and children of all ages – which was said to be their “new birth” as Jews.

Then after this, the male members of the converting family were circumcised, and the family was from that day forward bound to observe all the moral and ritual obligations of the Mosaic Law.

It seems as if the original interpretation of the Great Commission, on the part of the disciples, was that making disciples of all nations would probably mean converting a select number of people from all nations to a Messianic form of observant Judaism.

This would have involved not only a faith in Jesus as the Savior, but also an adherence to all the ceremonial requirements of the Old Testament, including the kosher dietary regulations, the rules for Sabbath observance, and everything else.

If this was what they were thinking, then anyone who would have refused to submit to the Law of Moses, would continue to be seen and treated as an unclean person, and would not to be welcomed into the fellowship of the Jewish Christians.

But that is not what God had in mind, for what the Christian Church was supposed to look like. And so God supernaturally pushed through a “course correction” for his young and still-learning church, through the events that are recounted in today’s text.

This happened in two steps. First, the apostle Peter had a vision in which he was commanded by the Lord three times to eat an assortment of unkosher animals. Peter’s response was:

“By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”

It was hard for Peter to break out of his old way of thinking, which had been ingrained in him over a lifetime. The real point of the vision was not, however, to coax Peter to eat unkosher food.

The imagery of this vision had a deeper symbolic meaning: to show Peter the new kind of relationship he should now have with “unkosher” people. And in the second step, God did then bring Peter to the unkosher home of an unkosher Gentile family, so that he could preach the gospel to them, and welcome them into the fellowship of the Christian church as Gentiles.

This universal scope of the gospel is so well-established today, that many people may not realize that the first controversy that took place in the church was over the question of whether the Christian faith was really for the Gentiles, or if it was only for Jews – and for those few Gentiles who were willing to become Jews.

Many Jewish people today think that Christianity is only for Gentiles, and that Jews who believe in Jesus as the Savior in some sense cease to be Jews. How sadly ironic.

The ethnic and racial divisions that tend to trouble our society have very little in common with this first controversy within Christianity. In the first century, Jewish people did not think of themselves as “white” and as having a lot in common with other “white” people.

To them, all who were not Jewish were together in the same broad category, as Goyim. It made no difference whether they were European, Asian, or African. If they were Gentiles, then they were not children of Abraham, and they were unclean.

But what the Great Commission did – especially once God had clarified to Peter exactly what the Great Commission means – was to remind the early Christian church of something that the patriarch Abraham was very much aware of.

We see in the Book of Genesis that after the Lord had revealed to Abraham his plan to destroy Sodom, Abraham asked:

“Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

Indeed, the God of Abraham was not only the God and the judge of Abraham and the Hebrews. He was – or should have been – the God and the judge of all people and all nations, even though most nations had already fallen into idolatry.

But God always had a long-term plan to cleanse them of this idolatry, to forgive their sins, and to bring them back. In Psalm 86, the Lord inspired David to offer this prayer:

“There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours. All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name. For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.”

And what God planned, God accomplished. He sent his Son into human flesh to live under the Law of Moses among the people of Israel. But in the death and resurrection of that divine Son, God redeemed the world.

Jesus was and is – as Simeon the Prophet announced – not only the glory of the Lord’s people Israel, but also “a light to lighten the Gentiles.”

Many if not most of the people of Israel, since the coming of Christ, have, however, refused to see his glory. And many if not most of the Gentiles have closed their eyes, and their hearts, to his light.

But Jesus is there for them. He’s there for all of them in the means of grace: in the open invitation of the gospel that Jesus proclaims through the ministry of his church; and in the open pathway to baptism, and to fellowship among his people, that Jesus lays out through the mission of his church.

With St. John in his First Epistle, we confess from within our Trinitarian baptismal faith that we abide in God, and he in us, “because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.”

Because Jesus is the Savior of the world, that means that he is your Savior. You might say, “Well, of course he is,” because you have been well-catechized to believe that – or at least to say that you believe that.

But if you ever have a crisis of conscience, when you might be overwhelmed by guilt, by a feeling of personal unworthiness, or by a crushing fear of damnation, God wants you, in your repentance, truly to believe then, that Jesus is your Savior.

No failure is too embarrassing to be pardoned. No transgression is too egregious to be forgiven. No sin is too shameful to be absolved.

And if you ever feel out of place or uncomfortable in a congregation comprised of people who are in some ways not like you – in terms of their economic status, their ethnicity, or their personal histories – God wants you, in your devotion to his Word, truly to believe then, that Jesus is your Savior.

If it is his church, then it is your church, too. There are no unkosher or unclean people among those who have turned away from their sins, and who have turned to Christ and confess him as Lord.

Jesus is also the Savior of everyone you know: from as many cultural backgrounds as are represented in your circle of relatives, friends, coworkers, and neighbors. This means that everyone you know likewise has a place in God’s house and family.

And if they are not already connected to a Christian congregation where God’s Word is faithfully proclaimed, and where God is reverently worshiped, everyone you know has a place in your church – right here, in one of these empty pews.

In the name of God, invite them to come with you. Tell them why you come. Tell them why Jesus is your Savior, so that they can hear in your story, the reasons why he is also their Savior. And Jesus is the Savior of people you will likely never know in person, during your lifetime in this world, on every continent of the globe. Yet there are ways for you to help even them to know that God wants them in his house and family.

Social media can be a way, in terms of what you post, and what you forward. I know that people from various states, and from some other countries, often watch the videorecordings of our services which we post online. Some of those people click through to these recordings when I link to them from my Facebook page.

It’s also always interesting to see who “likes” the sermons or sermon excerpts that I also occasionally post, and to see who forwards those posts.

The financial mechanisms and overseas mission relationships of our church body can be a way. Your donations enter into a pipeline of compassion that opens up, at the other end, in places of need: in South America, in Eastern Europe, and in India.

We also have access to a special fund managed by a sister congregation in Wisconsin, through which we can support pastoral education efforts for our sister church in Kenya.

The world in which we live seems not to be coming together in greater unity, but seems instead to be characterized by an ever-increasing disunity. And many of these sad human divisions follow national and ethnic lines.

But we, as members of the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church that Jesus established, are marching to the beat of a different drummer, and are moving in the opposite direction.

As the unbelieving world is pulling itself apart through anger, pride, and fear, Jesus is pulling his church together, more and more, in faith and love: faith in him, love for him, and love for one another because of him.

The forgiveness and justification that are conferred by the gospel overcome sin and rebellion – even the sin and rebellion that may still infect you.

The truth and light that are revealed by his gospel overcome error and darkness – even the error and darkness that may still lurk within you.

The healing and reconciling power that is in his gospel overcome despair and hopelessness – even the despair and hopelessness that may still cast a pall over you.

St. Paul – previously a very proud and zealous Jew – writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians that with the coming of Christ, and with the new revelation of God’s will for humanity that accompanied his coming, we now know “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

As Christ, by means of his gospel, now lives and works in you, he also lives and works through you.

He is generous and helpful toward others through your generosity and helpfulness. He is patient and encouraging with others through your patience and encouragement. He is the friend and companion of others through your friendship and companionship.

In Christ, everyone, everywhere, is invited joyfully to sing, in the words of William Kethe:

All people that on earth do dwell, Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;
Him serve with fear, His praise forthtell, Come ye before Him and rejoice.

For why? The Lord our God is good: His mercy is forever sure;
His truth at all times firmly stood, And shall from age to age endure.