Sermon for Sunday, January 12th, 2020, the First Sunday after Epiphany
The Lessons: Psalm 29; Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
The Text: Acts 10:34-43
The Topic: The Gospel St. Peter preached to Cornelius, his family and his friends
The English Channel tunnel connecting England with France, later called the Chunnel, is an example of how seemingly irreconcilable differences were overcome, and an engineering achievement emerged. But from the start the project seemed like a two-headed beast. Two mammoth firms were heading the project – one charged with finance and operation, the other responsible for building the Chunnel. Each of these companies was also two-headed – equally French and British.
No one was allowed to take charge. Leadership, more often than not, was reduced to the management of conflict. Said a high-ranking executive, “The project…created a lot of tension because it [was] not geared to solving problems; it was geared to placing blame.” The English yelled at the French, and the French yelled at the English. Said another executive, “There were nervous breakdowns galore.”
The problems were primarily due to a lack of shared standards. The two countries had a different word for everything. The French had their accounting system; so did the English. The French ran on 380 volts; the British on 420. Instruction manuals were bilingual. There were even two different standards used to measure sea level.
“When you have people coming from two different nations,” said one of the engineers, “each believes that only their regulations are right.”
– Robert Lewis with Rob Wilkins, The Church of Irresistible Influence (Zondervan, 2001)
At the time when the Lord spoke to St. Peter through a vision of creatures let down in a sheet from heaven to earth (Acts 10:9-20), and then commanded him to go with three Gentiles to Cornelius’ home, the Jews believed that the Law of God forbad them to associate with Gentiles. Through this vision, in which God told him not to call any creature unclean which God counted clean, St. Peter’s conviction on this issue was changed, and he could become an instrument in the salvation of people of other nations besides his own.
A Roman centurion had been praying at home, when suddenly an angel appeared to him, assuring him that God had heard his prayer and his almsgiving, and telling him to summon Simon Peter to his home, so that he might hear a message from God. Our Lesson appointed for the Epistle is that message which St. Peter brought to Cornelius, his household, family and friends, a message which completely changed their lives, for we read in the verse following our Lesson (Acts 10:44), that while St. Peter was still delivering this sermon, the Holy Spirit came on all who had gathered for this meeting. The coming of the Holy Spirit upon them all was shown in their spontaneous speaking in tongues and magnifying God (Acts 10:46). When St. Peter saw these signs that everyone in attendance had received the Holy Spirit, he commanded them all to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. The Jewish believers who had come with St. Peter to the home of Cornelius were amazed that the free gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on people who were not Jews, but Gentiles (Acts 10:45). What is amazing to us, who read and listen to this account almost two millennia after the events that it records, is how the sovereign love of God answers the prayers of a devout centurion by bringing the Apostle Peter right into his home to preach the Gospel by which he, his friends and his family are saved.
THE GOSPEL MESSAGE THAT ST. PETER PREACHED IN CORNELIUS’S HOME
What then was the message of the Gospel that St. Peter preached to such great effect?
He began by acknowledging what God had so recently taught him by revelation. This is the truth that God is impartial, and accepts people of all nations who fear him and do what is right (Acts 10:35). This statement gave his listeners hope, for they were not being condemned because they weren’t Jews, but were being assured that if they feared God and did righteous deeds, God would accept them. After this assurance, the rest of St. Peter’s message sets out what they must believe about Jesus, and what they must do to receive forgiveness of sins.
St. Peter describes the message, or word, that Jesus preached to the people of Israel as a message of peace, given a firm foundation, from which the message derives its authority, this foundation being that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. His listeners would have known about the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, that prevailed with the beginning of the reign of the Emperor Octavian (or Augustus) in 27 B.C., but continued until 180 A.D. Now St. Peter is telling them not only that God gave this word of peace to the world through Jesus Christ, but that Jesus Christ is Lord of all.
Now this word, or Gospel, was preached throughout Judea, but began from Galilee, after the baptism which John the Baptist had preached, and Jesus Christ preached it, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit, and with power (Acts 10:38), so that he went about doing good and healing all whom the Devil had oppressed, for God was with him. The Gospel of repentance that Jesus preached was not just a matter of words, but demonstrated in works done in the power of the Holy Spirit. Now this story of what Jesus did, preached and taught was not without witnesses. St. Peter emphasizes that he and the Apostles are witnesses of all Jesus Christ’s deeds in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem (Acts 10:39), including his death on the cross, his resurrection on the third day, and his appearance thereafter to his chosen witnesses (Acts 10:41). The conclusion of St. Peter’s sermon highlights the command of Jesus Christ to proclaim the word that God has appointed him judge of the living and the dead, and the witness of all the prophets that whoever believes in the Lord Jesus Christ receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10:43).
The essence of the Gospel in St. Peter’s sermon is that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all and designated by God as Judge of the living and the dead, and that everyone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ receives forgiveness of sins through his name, and that God accepts everyone – no matter their racial or national origin – who fears him and does what is right.
WHY THE SERMON IN CORNELIUS’ HOME WAS SO EFFECTIVE
The sermon was so effective, probably because there had been such prayerful preparation for it on the part of Cornelius and all whom he gathered together in his home to listen to it. This prayerfulness led to an eagerness to hear and receive the fullness of God’s word. They wanted the whole counsel of the Gospel of God, as is recorded in the words of Cornelius in the verse preceding our Lesson:
Now therefore are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God.
(Acts 10:33b, KJV)
Not only was there this eagerness, but St. Peter, in the first verse of this passage, demolished a spiritual stronghold in the minds of his listeners, the idea that God had rejected them because they were not Jews. Instead, St. Peter tells them that God is “no respecter of persons” (KJV), and that He accepts in every nation, the one who fears Him and does what is right. In saying this, St. Peter showed that in Christ, there is no more division between Jew and Gentile, but all people can be reconciled to God through repentance from sin (doing what is right), and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
If we are to share the Gospel effectively today, we cannot simultaneously cling to an emphasis of divisions and differences that have nothing to do with the kingdom of God. We must rather bring the Gospel message that God receives all who do what is right and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Even divisions to which we have long been accustomed, between rich and poor, employed and unemployed, between one nation or race and another, between young and old, or between one political view and another, must not cause us to share a Gospel with conditions imposed that do not come from God, but from human ideologies or philosophies. The Gospel that we share is the Gospel of hope, the Gospel of Christ, who is our Hope.
 p. 329, Craig Brian Larson & Phyllis Ten Elshof (General Editors): 1001 Illustrations that Connect. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, Christianity Today International, 2008.