Forgiveness Meant to Change Us
BY REVEREND RYAN MASCHHOFF
April 3, 2016
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:“This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.” And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.
One of my favorite things about being a pastor is when someone begins to really contemplate the Bible and this 'God stuff' in relation to the real world. I don't mean engaging in high level debates or in-depth knowledge and memorization. What I mean is when someone looks at real problems in the world and tries to figure out what God would want us to do.
This happened recently when someone asked me about ISIS. How should they feel about ISIS? Is it acceptable to want to bomb them and remove them from the face of the earth? Is that a Christian thing to want to happen? How are you supposed to feel? This is a particularly good question because in situations like this it is soooooo easy to pick the hard line and run with it. It's almost like coasting downhill on a bike. Mentally there is no work to it at all. It's easy and straightforward.
But at the same time it is not that common to sit back and say, "Is it all right to think that way, and is that how God would want me to feel?" Before I answer this I want to state that it is perfectly understandable to want to eliminate that kind of evil. Not only are you in a sense holding them accountable for their heinous acts, but you are possibly preventing further suffering and pain of innocent people. And that is understandable and quite reasonable and rational. Do not ever look down on someone who feels that way.
My point is that it is good and always in our best interest, no matter the situation, to pull yourself back, try to eliminate any biases, and contemplate what God would want us to do. And my point is that the action of stepping back and truly trying to understand what God would want us to do is fairly rare. Most people don't do it.
So today we are going to do just that. We are going to step back and contemplate this Bible verse and a few others and try to make sense of how to feel about this whole ISIS thing. As we go through this remember we are not talking about what whole countries, governments, and multinational forces are doing to address the problem. What we are talking about is what do we as individual Christians need to consider when we decide for ourselves how to respond in our heads and in our hearts.
So let's start by looking at our Bible verse for today. The first part of it says this:
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.
So what do we see right off the bat? Whatever all the other priests were doing did not work to fully take away sins. Even though they may have tried hard, it did not work. It was only temporary. So this NEW PRIEST, Jesus, offered a sacrifice that was different. It worked once and for all. Here we begin to see why it worked.
For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.
With that one sacrifice, things were changed for those who were BEING MADE HOLY. God intended fully to make us into something new, something different. We in a sinful state must be changed to a holy state. We are to be made into something greater. And what happens when we begin to become something new? When we accept his forgiveness (again, which is meant to change us), sacrifice for sin is no longer needed. The act of changing our lives, along with the forgiveness, is enough to wipe us clean and make us holy in God's eyes.
In as short of explanation as possible, truly accepting God's forgiveness means we change and become something new. We change. Not Him. And then sacrifices due to being separated from God are no longer needed. We become more like Him, we follow Him, and emulate Him.
So how does this relate to ISIS and what we as Christians are to think about dealing with them? Or other people who wish us harm? Let's look at what Jesus did and said about the issue. Let's start with the most important one in Luke 23. When Jesus was dying on the cross, what did he pray for regarding the people who were killing him?
Father, forgive them because they don't know what they are doing.
What did Jesus want for the people who had just tortured him and nailed him to the cross to hang there until he died? Forgiveness. He wanted forgiveness for them. The same forgiveness from God that, if accepted by the people, would lead to changed lives. It would lead to them being holy. It would lead them to be a new creation and to be wiped clean, no longer separated from God. This is what Jesus prayed for while he was hanging on the cross.
This is very revolutionary. Jesus was wanting the people who were killing him to be saved. Not to kill them and hope they get saved somehow outside of what you are doing. But he himself was doing the work to save them.
In the book of Matthew chapter 5 we see Jesus teaching the people to be revolutionary. We see him teaching people the whole point of his coming is to lead us to a new life. And we cannot live a new life doing the same old things. That means we must live differently even when it is very hard to do so. This is what he said:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
To be honest, this is one of those verses that I almost don't like because of what it forces me to do. There is nothing vague about this teaching. I cannot honestly sit back and say, "I am not sure what he meant so I am going to do what I want anyway." In order for me to follow him, I need to change when it is the hardest time to change.
Let's stop for a moment and look at this carefully. "You have heard an eye for an eye, BUT I tell you do not resist an evil person.” What? Are you nuts, Jesus? Do not resist an evil person? If I get slapped on the cheek, I need to turn the other cheek, as well? If someone sues us for our shirt, we are to give them our shirt and also hand over our coat, too.
Is Jesus crazy? How many people do you know that truly live this way? How many of you could easily live this way? Anyone? If we take a step back, like a mile-high view of this teaching, what does it appear Jesus is trying to do with this message? Or rather, what would the world look like if his followers did this? Remember Jesus came to change the world, not just give us random rules or teachings. But like all of Jesus's teachings, they are meant to do something both to you and the people around you.
Jesus asked for forgiveness for the people who were killing him; while he was being killed, he asked for them to be forgiven and hopefully saved one day. So this seemingly crazy teaching from Jesus is meant for the same thing. If by our suffering (being hit in the face or sued, as examples) we can potentially save another person and bring them to salvation, we are to do it. Can there be any other conclusion? Honestly, is there any other reason for Jesus to teach this to us?
Let us continue. Matthew Chapter 5 (where this verse came from) is really quite extraordinary in its overall message. You could easily call it the Revolution Chapter because of what he is calling people to do, or, more accurately, how he is calling people to change. And that is what a revolution is. A revolution brings great change or upheaval. As an example, Matthew 5 contains the Beatitudes. Let's look at those.
Matthew 5:3-10 The Beatitudes
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus also talks in Matthew Chapter 5 about how he has come to fulfill the law, not abolish it. He talks about what divorce really is, murder (hating someone in your heart), adultery (looking at someone in lust also constitutes adultery). He is, in a sense, redefining the law and extending the fence out further. Then he lays this bit of heaviness on us.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This teaching says we are to love our enemies. Love them. So, as uncomfortable as this may be, how would we show love to members of ISIS? If we were to reach out to them, what might be one way we could do that? Don't worry about what the world or the media would say, but what action could you take to do just what Jesus said? Examples? Notice this isn't supposed to be easy, and Jesus never said it would be. Refusing to do it because it is hard would be a cop-out. And followers of Jesus have the ultimate goal that he set for us. Did he tell us to be average? Above average? Or perfect? He told us to be perfect. Why? Because then we fully appreciate the forgiveness we have been given and have the best chance of sharing that forgiveness with others.
Think of this another way. When Jesus was being nailed onto the wooden cross, he asked his Father to forgive his executioners. If God the Father forgave them, then that means He held back His wrath and His anger. Jesus was asking his Father to hold back His wrath and His punishment. Think about that for a moment. That act of asking for forgiveness for the people who are killing you, while they are killing you, is mindblowing.
I am not sure I would have the strength to do that. I am not sure I could do that. But Jesus said to be perfect just as your Father is perfect. Why? Because he was sent to save this world. Not to condemn it. And, as his disciples, we are called to do the same.
As I stated when I started this sermon, I understand anyone who wants to bomb ISIS and remove them from the face of the earth. That is rational and in no way makes anyone evil who thinks that is best. But we aren't in the position of asking God for permission to do things. God lays out the path for us to follow and it is up to us to follow it even when it seems impossible.
As we finish, I want to say a prayer, and I ask you to pray with me:
Father in heaven, today we ask for something that is very difficult for us to ask for. We ask for your forgiveness for ISIS and all the terrorists in this world. We do not ask this to let them off the hook but instead that they may see the light. That through your forgiveness and love they may change as we ourselves are called to change. May the love we feel from your Son Jesus rain down on them. Please hold back your anger and wrath and show them forgiveness. May they come to know the only name under heaven and on earth that saves, the name of Jesus Christ. Please use us as you see fit to accomplish this prayer. We are yours and we belong to you. Father, love them and forgive them the same way you love and forgive us. In Jesus's name we pray.
Conversion of Saul
by Reverend Ryan Maschhoff
April 10, 2016
Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God."
Today we are going to talk about an incredible, life-changing event for someone in the Bible. That person is the Apostle Paul, and he, because of his conversion to Christianity, which we will talk about today, ended up writing most of the books of our New Testament.
As our story begins, he is called Saul, and in his vision even Jesus calls him Saul, but later on in the Bible we see him also being called Paul. The reason is in Jesus's time it was not uncommon for someone to have two names, especially if they belonged to two different groups.
Saul or Paul was a Jew but also a Roman citizen. So Saul was how he was known in the Jewish communities, and Paul was how he was known in the Roman communities. Some people think God changed his name (similar to how Abram was changed to Abraham), but in Paul's case it was simply a local custom and also because he was part Jew and part Roman.
Now some other background on Paul/Saul is that he was a Pharisee. These were men who were trained extensively in the Jewish laws. They were not priests but still held high positions and advised the priests and the people on proper interpretation of the law. Remember, there were 613 Jewish laws so someone had to be very knowledgeable about the laws.
For example, one of the Jewish laws was that work was prohibited on the Sabbath.
Sounds simple and straightforward. No work. But what constitutes work? Does cooking dinner constitute work? Does gathering enough grain for one meal constitute work? What if one of your animals falls into a well or if one of your family members gets hurt? Is it work to help them out, or to fish your animal out of the well? Or what you have to let him die in there to avoid doing work? You know, what do I do?
So the Pharisees looked at these situations and many, many others and made decisions on what was within the law and what was not. For example, there is a great story in Mark 3 where Jesus is teaching on the Sabbath, and a group of Pharisees come up and try to find a way to accuse Jesus of breaking the law. The Pharisees saw a man with a shriveled-up hand present, and they watched from the edges of the crowd to see if Jesus would heal the man.
Jesus knows what they are up to, so he challenges them. He calls them out in front of the crowd. Jesus says, "What is lawful on the Sabbath, to do good or to do evil? Is it lawful to save a life or to kill?" These are good questions and they get to the heart of what NOT working on the Sabbath is about. Jesus asks these questions out loud, and guess who don't have the guts to stand up and answer him? The experts in the law. The very people whose job it is to tell people, "This is acceptable, and that is not acceptable," remain silent. They refuse to say anything.
The Bible says Jesus then gets angry at their stubborn hearts; he turns to the man with the shriveled hand and says, "Stretch out your hand". Which the man does. As soon as his hand is stretched our for all to see, it becomes healed. It is suddenly good as new. You would think the Pharisees would say, "Job well done," but instead they left the area and began to plot a way to kill Jesus.
The Pharisees completely lost sight of the law and what it was meant to do. Jesus was showing them literally that the law never intended to prevent them from helping others, even on the Sabbath.
Let''s get back to Paul for a moment. Paul was just a passionate as the Pharisees Jesus encountered when he healed the man's shriveled hand. But just like those Pharisees, Paul had become so focused on the law, he lost sight of why God gave the law. Paul had even lost sight of God. And because of his zeal and passion for the law, Paul took it upon himself to hunt down Christians (or, as they were known back then, followers of The Way.)
In fact, Paul was so good at hunting down these followers of Jesus he became known within Christian communities. His reputation preceded him; just the mention of his name brought fear. This is evidenced by the opening line of our Bible verse for today.
It starts off with this sentence:
Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Paul is described as breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus. Notice, he didn't just go around talking bad about the followers of Jesus. He also had them murdered. His specific purpose was to find them and bring them to justice. which in this case meant death. And to make sure this was all on the up and up, Paul got permission slips—similar to today's warrants--to arrest any and all Christians he found. Once Saul found Christians, he would bind them in chains and bring them back to Jerusalem, where they would be tried and executed. This was his job, his mission in life. And he felt he was doing God's work, so he was passionate about it.
In our story for today, Paul traveled from Jerusalem to Damascus (located in modern-day Syria). a distance of 135 miles. That's a long way to walk to track down Christians/ And remember, he was going to Damascus to arrest them and then bring them back to Jerusalem.
But on the way something unique happens, something that will change his life forever--and ours! Suddenly a bright light appears, so bright, in fact, that Paul falls to the ground in fear. And then he hears a voice that says, "Saul, why do you persecute me?" This is interesting because Jesus had already been crucified and ascended to heaven; Paul couldn't physically hurt Jesus because he was already gone.
But Jesus considers his followers all one body. We are part of him and he is part of us. So when one of us is harmed for our faith Jesus feels that persecution. That's why Jesus says. "Why do you persecute me?" Because Paul has been hurting the body of Christ, and Jesus himself feels it.
Paul then replies "Who are you, Lord?" and Jesus replies, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." I am the one you persecute. When you persecute my followers, you also persecute me."
Jesus then gives him “marching orders,” and this is really special. Paul has been arresting and killing as many Christians as he can find. And now the Messiah, the leader of the Christians. appears to him and tells him to do something. And you know what Paul does? He obeys Jesus. Paul, whose sole mission was to wipe out Christianity, now takes orders from Jesus Christ himself.
Jesus says to Paul, "Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." Even with this bit of direction from Jesus, Paul is not told everything. Just simply, "Get up, go into town, and once there you will be given further instruction." And so Paul gets up and goes. Only now there is a problem. He is blind. He is totally and completely blind. In fact, the men who are with him to help him arrest Christians have to help him get to Damascus. They have to lead him by the hand.
The Bible says that once in Damascus Paul did not eat or drink for three days. He was without his sight for three days and took no food or water. Can you imagine what was going through his mind at this time? Up to this point, he was so convinced he knew what God wanted. He had been gladly and passionately arresting people and leading them off to their deaths in God's name (or so he thought).
And now the false Messiah he was trying to stamp out from the face of the earth turns out to be real. His whole world is turned upside down. Everything he thought he ever knew is gone. His whole frame of reference for understanding the law, the temple, sacrifices, everything gone. He is alone in a room, 135 miles from home. No food. No water. And he is sitting in utter darkness with no way to help himself.
While Paul is sitting in the dark, Jesus begins to lay the groundwork for his redemption, his bringing back into the light. In another part of Damascus there is a follower of The Way, a believer in Jesus. This man gets a vision from God, and in this vision God says, "Ananias, I want you to go to a street called Straight. Go to the house of Judas [a different Judas from the one who betrayed Jesus], and there you will find a man named Saul. Go to him, lay your hands on him, and he will receive his sight." You know what Ananias says in response? "Are you sure God? I have heard about this Saul. I have heard about all the evil he has done to your followers. Are you sure this is the man?"
But God says, "Yes, he is the one. I have chosen him to take my message to the Gentiles (think New Testament and even us in this room). God also says, "I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." Notice God is not saying specifically that he punishing Paul. But rather, God is choosing him because of his passion and ability to reach the Gentiles. This mission will be very difficult. In fact, it will cost Paul his life.
But God is choosing him and also showing him what he will one day suffer. And here is why Paul was the right choice. Even with the knowledge of the suffering he will go through, Paul still goes. There is no retirement package at the end of this journey. There is no 401K to cash in. Just suffering and death. But Paul goes and he remains strong.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let's back up a bit. Ananias does what God asks and goes to find the one person whose mission has been to kill people like himself. Ananias finds Paul just where God said he would be. When Ananias enters the house, he walks up to Paul, lays his hands on him and says:
"Brother Saul [he calls him brother!], the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." The Messiah whom you persecuted is giving you back your sight AND is giving you the Holy Spirit. Why the Holy Spirit? Because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God. It is God living within him. It will be the one thing that changes all other things. Most importantly, it will be what changes him and leads him to convert others. Immediately when Ananias lands his hands on Paul, the Bible tells us that something like scales fell from his eyes. Something thick and opaque that took his vision falls away from his eyes, and he was able to see again.
Then he got up and was baptized by Ananias. A short time later, he took some food and water. regainomg his strength. The Bible says he then stayed with the disciples for a few days in Damascus and then ......
He immediately began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." Paul went from being known throughout the Middle East as the one who hunted down Christians to being one of the greatest Christian disciples in a matter of days. Here is what is so incredible. He knew the risks. He knew the penalty of being arrested for preaching in Jesus's name was frequently death. And yet he went. He went, not because he was crazy, or disillusioned, or even because it helped him financially in any way. He went because he was changed; he became something new. And he did this knowing he would one day pay with his life.
As I finish, I want to share one further story that really puts this whole story into perspective. A short time before Paul entered the picture, Peter and a few other disciples were arrested in Jerusalem for preaching that Jesus is the Messiah. When they were arrested, they were brought before the High Priests and Pharisees, who all wanted to have the disciples executed. All of the priests but one, that is. The Pharisee named Gamaliel stood up and said this:
Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
What is eerie about this statement is that Gamaliel was a very well known rabbi and esteemed teacher. Guess who one of his star pupils was? Paul. This statement by Gamaliel was profoundly prophetic. I bet he had no idea how right his words were going to be. One of his best pupils would become one of the greatest disciples this world has ever known. And Paul's own vision and transformation from Christian murderer to disciple of Jesus could only happen if God was behind it. Gamaliel said it best: if it was from God, they would not be able to stop it. And we know form history that they were not able to stop it. Word about Jesus spread throughout the world--as evidenced by us in this church 2,000 years later on the other side of the world.
I want to share with you one of the greatest things Paul ever wrote. And just by reading this you can tell he was truly changed by God. You can tell he truly became filled with the love God brings.
This is what he wrote:
1 Corinthians 13
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
God is Love.
And God is love.
Peter and the Four-Corner Blanket
by Reverend Ryan Maschhoff
April 24, 2016
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, `Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' But I replied, `By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' But a second time the voice answered from heaven, `What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, `Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, `John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
This Bible verse is actually about the first sign of denominationalism within the church. You see it all sounds great that Jesus said, "Go and make disciples of all nations." We have all heard that command, and it sounds wonderful and open to all. But in reality we humans prefer to stick with people within our group. We say, "Yes, make disciples of all nations. Baptize everybody. All are welcome." But, in reality, reaching out to others who are different from us is not something we do naturally.
And the early church, including the disciples, were no different. Notice how in the first sentence of our Bible verse we see that it says, “The apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.” Great. The first church of Jesus Christ, the very first believers in Jerusalem who were all Jews, heard that Gentiles began to believe. This is just what was supposed to happen. Right? Awesome. But there is more to the story. Let's continue.
“So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, 'Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?'”
Why did you eat with them? Wait, you didn't go into their house, did you? You didn't sit down on their unclean chair, did you? Please tell me you didn't eat their food? What? Are you nuts? Notice how it is acceptable to be happy that they believe in Jesus, but only if they are way over there and don't come anywhere near us. I mean, for any reason they shouldn't come near us.
Let me show you an example of what this looks like in real life. [Someone is asked to stand up at the back of the church and is told that God loves him, Jesus is the Messiah, but he can't come any closer.] Would this be a religion you would want to join? Would you really feel that God loved you, and you were a part of His kingdom? Maybe, kind of.
What if there was a walled off section in heaven where the non-Jews were kept? Where we had our own bathrooms, our own sections in the restaurant, our own schools. What does that sound uncomfortably like? The United States not too long ago. When Jesus said, "Go and make disciples of all nations," he meant all nations. But the very early church did not apply that teaching equally to all nations. Right at first. Just like our own country did not apply the Declaration of Independence to all people. This is what our Declaration of Independence actually says.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But did our founding fathers really mean all men are created equal? Or just white men of European descent? When they wrote this, it certainly didn't mean all men. We know for a fact black men were not included. And women were not included in that, either. In fact, until the 1950's, restaurants, drinking fountains, swimming pools, etc. were segregated into white and black sections. We like these grand, all-inclusive statements, but we are still human, full of our own biases and preferences. And the church, even the early church, was no different.
So, in reality, what we do with that command to make disciples of all nations--who we actually tell, who we invite to church, who our church services are geared to--tell us who we reach out to. Who we subconsciously and even consciously include in the group of all nations that Jesus was referring to. Usually what we do is direct that message to people who think, act, dress, and in general live like we do.
And as we shall see, the disciples and early church were no different. The disciples were literally with Jesus, they heard the very words from his mouth when he said, "Go and make disciples of all nations." Yet, what do we see happening in this Bible verse? There is a huge distinction between circumcised and uncircumcised. The members of the church in Jerusalem (remember they were Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah) were taken aback when they heard Peter went into the house of a non-Jew. They were upset about Peter getting too close to these non-Jews because they were considered unclean.
In fact, when the church in Jerusalem heard that Peter went into the house of family of non-Jews to preach to them, what did they say? "Why did you go see uncircumcised men? You didn't eat with them, did you? You did! What were you thinking?" You see there was this huge barrier between the Jews and everybody else. Everybody was still unclean and therefore off limits.
So this command from Jesus to "Go and make disciples of all nations" actually posed a bit of a problem for the early Jewish Christian church. There were Jewish laws that prevented them from being around unclean people (i.e. non-Jews) and that included eating with them, going into their houses, even touching them.
For example, how did the disciples baptize non-Jews? At first, they didn't. Getting that close to a non-Jew wasn't even an option. So how did the disciples preach to non-Jews very early on? They didn't. Or if they did, it was from a safe distance. In reality, the first preaching of the Gospel was contained within the Jewish community in Jerusalem. And for starters, there is nothing wrong with that. The disciples stuck within the groups they knew and preached and converted them. Which is a very good thing.
But at some point they needed to go beyond the Jewish people in Jerusalem, and here is where we come to our Bible verse for today. The event that started getting the disciples to reach out to non-Jews occurs in Acts 10. Our Bible verse for today comes from Acts 11. But if we go back to Chapter 10, we see Peter is up on a roof praying. And while praying he sees a vision of a blanket coming down from heaven. On this blanket he sees all kinds of animals, birds, and reptiles. Then he hears a voice that says: kill and eat. Peter responds by saying "I can't eat these unclean animals." The voice says in return, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." And this happens three times.
Now as Peter is contemplating this vision, the Holy Spirit says to him, "Men are coming to find you because I have sent them. Go with them." A short time later, men arrive asking for Peter. He goes with them and they take him to a man named Cornelius. When they arrive at Cornelius's house, Peter realizes that the vision he had was telling him the non-Jews are no longer unclean. They too have been made clean because of Jesus. So this barrier that has existed for quite some time between Jews and non-Jews is gone. Poof.
As Peter is at Cornelius's house, he realizes they are people who are after God's heart. They pray, they care the for needy, and they want to belong to God. So he sees and understands for the first time what "making disciples of all nations" truly means. It means, all people are part of the family. And, as family members, we eat together, we go to each other's houses, we worship together.
That day Peter baptizes Cornelius and all his family, and it is a good day. A truly good day. But now reality sets in. Peter knows he is going to have to go back to Jerusalem soon, and the church will want to know how his trip went. Was he successful at spreading the Gospel (to more Jews)? You see, it wasn't as though the Jews didn't want Gentiles to be kept out. It's more that they hadn't figured out how or who was going to preach to them. Because the Jewish law (as they understand stood it) prevented them from interacting with non-Jews.
Peter went back to Jerusalem and gave them a report of what he had done. And this is where our Bible verse for today picks up. We see Peter break through this barrier, and the main church back in Jerusalem is not all that happy about everything that went on. "You went into their house? You ate with them?"
But when Peter sees this pullback from his fellow Jews, he doesn't lay into them and tear them down for maintaining this wall. Rather, he speaks to them as a brother in Christ. Meaning, he takes it all back to Jesus and what he commanded. Peter tells them about the vision he had with the blanket and all the unclean animals on it. He tells them about his vision and Cornelius's vision.
And then he proceeds with the most important part that confirms he did the right thing. He tells them how the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles, as well. He saw the joy in their hearts, their desire for God, and how they wanted to follow in His ways. And then he told of how each one of Cornelius's family was baptized in the name of Jesus. Peter then finishes with a great bit of wisdom. He says,
“If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Then the church in Jerusalem realized that Jesus meant for all to be saved and most importantly that all people are one. There is no difference between Jew and non-Jew. No one is better than the other. We are all one in Christ. Can I get an Amen?
And you know what the Jews in Jerusalem did when they heard all Peter had to say? They praised God. They were happy in their hearts and were joyful that non-Jews were included.
This story is in the Bible so we can see how easy it is for good people, God-fearing people like the Jews in Jerusalem, to allow walls to remain between groups of people. The beauty if this message is that we are truly all one in Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, no longer white, black, man, or women, just followers of Jesus Christ, and we are all saved. No one can take that away from us. Not even the Devil himself.
May God be with each and every one of you, and may He continue to bless you all the days of your life.