24/97 3.8.97 Scripture: Act 10:1-48
WE judge other people, their culture and race by reference to our own. There is nothing wrong with that, so long as we realise our standard of judgement is culturally and racially conditioned.
We were quick to condemn apartheid in South Africa. It was right and just we did, but we must be reminded that apartheid is practised bureaucratically, emotionally and psychologically in Australia mostly against Asians and Aborigines. Barry Pittock, a sociologist, says, "Aborigines are well aware that individual and institutional racism is widespread in Australia. Wage discrimination, unemployment, poor health, poverty, dual standards of justice and administration are everyday experiences for Aboriginal people. Some are bitter. Some drown their bitterness in alcohol. Some hide it through fear, and others express the well-learned lesson of telling the white man what he wants to hear."
People from other lands know our racist attitudes. You hear it in the derisive references to them. You hear it intensely on the subject of unemployment and welfare payments. Reconciliation seeks people of different races to recognise our conflicting interests and seek justice for black Australians who still lack recognition, health care, education, employment opportunities, and who have to fight for security of tenure of land through more bureaucracies than any white community. Many of their problems are racially based, and many Australians do not realise how racist is their speech and attitude.
To grow in faith requires that every Christian overcomes racial prejudice.
The Apostle Peter had a racist background. His race was proud of their origin and religion. Peter expressed the behaviour and attitude of his people. He was a country fisherman. He had been told by the local Rabbi that the Jews are God's chosen people. So Peter looked down upon other races. But God was to open the church through Peter. God was also preparing another man, Cornelius, a sophisticated Roman army officer, a world traveller who had lived in countries unknown to Peter. Peter's prejudices were to be shaken to their roots. Six steps changed Peter from being a prejudiced racist to a man accepting of people of other cultures. These steps are for Australians also.
1. BE OPEN TO CHANGE
Peter faced his own prejudices. In order to be Christian, he had to change his attitude. If he continued to stay within his exclusive religious and racial background, never touching or having anything to do with people of other cultures, the church would never cross the boundaries that separate people.
Australians have practised racial hatred against the Aborigine, the Chinese, the Japanese, the German, Italian and European immigrants, and the Jews. Peter was like us. But God responded to the devotional life of Cornelius and his concern for others. "At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, `Cornelius!' Cornelius stared at him in fear. `What is it, Lord?' he asked. The angel answered, `Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.'"
Perhaps God is preparing someone in your own neighbourhood to receive you and to whom you should go. Note well this verse. "Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea." That is remarkable. Jews regarded some occupations with disdain, including the "tanner" of leather. Dead animals were regarded as unclean with unpleasant smells and sights. The tanner could not live in the town with other Jews. This tanner lived outside Joppa, beside the sea. Three times his lowly social status is indicated. Yet Simon the tanner became a Christian and Peter the Apostle crossed a great gulf of prejudice to go to his house.
Peter was opening up contact with Simon by ignoring his trade, and with Cornelius by ignoring his race. God prepares people for us to meet. Twenty five years ago a Chinese man knocked on my door and said, "Mr Minister, would you come and bury my sister? She is a Buddhist and we have no Buddhist priest." That doorway enabled our family to step into a wonderful friendship that is rich to this day with hundreds of Chinese families and led to my starting our Asian congregations. God prepares others for us, but we have to step over the threshold, through the open door.
2. ADMIT YOUR PREJUDICE
Peter was not only open to a multi-cultural contact, but he also admitted his own prejudices. This was not easy for the big fisherman. He was proud, but he was wrong! We must admit our prejudices. We absorb the culture of our environment. But we must question our culture. With Peter it was while he was in the house of Simon. "About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray."
Under the shade of a canvas sail he dozed. Was it a dream or a vision? Was he asleep or awake? "He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air." These were listed in the Old Testament as unclean. "Then a voice told him, `Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.' `Surely not, Lord!' Peter replied. `I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.' The voice spoke to him a second time, `Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.' This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon's house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there."
Still puzzling over his vision, Peter heard: "`Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.' Peter went down and said to the men, `I'm the one you're looking for. Why have you come?' The men replied, `We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.' Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests. The next day they set off for Caesarea; the servants of Cornelius, Peter, and some Christian believers." In responding to this invitation, Peter was adding to his associating with a tanner who was of a despised class, to associating with a soldier who was of a despised race.
This was a great step for all mankind. Peter was going to a Gentile family who were regarded as unclean. Jews were to have nothing to do with them, but God said, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." The church was born in Judaism. But God wanted the church to be inclusive, welcoming all regardless of race. The Jewish tradition was exclusive. The walls had to come down. Do you have walls of prejudices against people of other races?
3. RECOGNISE COMMON HUMANITY
Acknowledge other races share your common humanity. "The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa went along. The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. `Stand up,' he said, `I am only a man myself.'"
Standing with Cornelius Peter realised their common humanity: Roman and Jew; the officer and the fisherman; the sophisticated world traveller and the country fellow from a small town. They were men together. Racism is wrong because it denies others are made in the image of God. Racism is wrong because it denies the truth that Christ has broken down the walls which separate us. Racism is wrong because it uses a man's colour to deny him rights. It is as illogical to bar people because of the pigment of their skin as to bar them because of the size of their feet.
4. AFFIRM GOD MAKES CHANGES
Peter was changing and God was making the change. There was nothing wrong with Cornelius. It was Peter who had to change.
Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: "You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection." God was at work in him and He can work in you and change you, if you let Him.
5. ACKNOWLEDGE GOD IN OTHERS
Peter was learning! He was discovering that his God was also in Cornelius. It is a rich moment when we find spirituality in people from another race and God's Spirit in them. We then know them as brothers and sisters. Peter did not learn this easily. "`May I ask why you sent for me?' Cornelius answered: `Four days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, `Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.' So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.'"
This is a great moment in Christian history. It is like a small hinge that swings a huge door. It opened Christianity to every nation. At Pentecost Peter opened the door of the church to the Jews. Now, at Caesarea, he opens the door of the Church to people of every race. Peter does it so clearly .... "I now realise!" You can almost hear the apology in Peter's heart. "Peter began to speak: `I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.'"
They are the only two judgements we can use of others. Not race, education, money, social standing, or colour but those "Who fear Him", that is, believe in God and reverence Him, "and do what is right." That means their behaviour. We can only judge if they believe in God or not and whether they are good or bad. If they do not believe, they are non-believers. If they do not behave, they are wicked. God has no favoured races.
6. PRESENT THE GOSPEL
Cornelius asked Peter to say what was from the Lord. Peter presented the gospel. Peter told them of the words and work of Jesus who went everywhere doing good and healing, of how he was crucified but God had raised Him from the dead. Consequently they were commissioned to preach and to make disciples of people of all nations.
He then expected four responses to the Gospel. First, believe in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Second, seek forgiveness of sins. "All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." Third, receive the Holy Spirit. "While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message." Fourth, be baptised. Peter said "Can anyone keep these people from being baptised with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have." "So he ordered that they be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ." Baptism is the sign of reception into the family of God, the doorway into the church.
That day in the home of Cornelius, the church changed from an exclusive Jewish sect into being an all-inclusive Christian multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-national brotherhood. Australians must grow in faith if they are to overcome racism!
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