God’s Bouncer or God’s Ambassador? / Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 11:1-18

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 I were to start a sentence with the words, there are two types of people in the world . . ., how would you finish that sentence? There are two types of people in the world . . . Somebody once said, there are two types of people in the world, those who divide the world into two types of people and those who do not.

I think if I were to divide people into two types, I would say, there are rule keepers and rule breakers. Some people just have an internal compulsion to follow the rules, even if those rules are questionable. There are others who seem only to enjoy life when they are breaking the rules.

There’s an old joke about a little boy named Johnny whose mother had just returned from the grocery story. Johnny pulled a box of animal crackers out of her grocery bag and spread those animal crackers all over the table. Mom asked What are you doing? I’m looking for the seal, it says not to eat them if the seal is broken. Little Johnny is definitely a rule-keeper. I can respect that. People like him keep society from descending into chaos. But sometimes we keep rules that no longer serve any purpose. Sometimes our rules only serve to put up walls between ourselves and others. For instance, how many Christians, consciously or unconsciously, make up rules to decide who is or is not acceptable to God?

A visitor to a church service had said to one of the deacons, your pastor is going to hell. And no this isn’t about me. The deacon replied, my pastor is going to hell. May I ask why? The man said, his hair is too long. Told you it wasn’t about me. The deacon thought he’d have a little fun with this guy, so he asked, and how long should his hair be? The man said, about like mine.

Isn’t that a coincidence? Hair that was the length of this man’s hair was acceptable. A hair longer, no pun intended, and he was headed toward hell. Some of you remember those absurd days just a few years ago when people would fight over the length of a man’s hair. This man obviously felt he had the perfect length of hair ordained by God. Holy hair. And any man who dared to let his hair grow longer was destined for Satan’s domain. Can anyone read the teachings of Jesus Christ and really believe such nonsense? Sometimes rules keep us from descending into chaos, but sometimes rules keep us from understanding the awesomeness of God. This insane rule falls into the second camp.

I suspect that all of us are guilty at times of passing judgment on people who are different from us. We even go as far as to create rules about who is or isn’t acceptable to God. As if we are God’s bouncers. We decide who comes in and who is left out.

Actually, that’s not a new problem. Our scripture lesson today is about the new and growing community of Jesus-followers that sprang up after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus’ apostles were leaders in this young community of faith. They were doing exactly what they thought Jesus called them to do: spread the good news of Jesus the Savior beginning with the nation of Israel first. But then somebody broke the rules. It was Simon Peter, the leader of the apostles. Simon Peter did a no-no. He actually went into a non-Jewish home, ate a meal with those uncircumcised heathen and shared with them the message of Jesus! What was he thinking? And when Peter got back to Jerusalem, he was in for a heap of criticism from the Jewish believers.

It reminds me of a time a famous Welch pastor, a woman from his church cornered him and just spew out a long list of criticisms at him. He just stood there and smiled at her. When she paused for a breath, he responded, yes, thank you, I’m quite well. I hope you are the same. The confused woman started over with her long list of criticisms, so he responded, yes, it does look like it’s going to rain. I think I had better be getting on. At this point, the woman just gave up. As she turned to walk away, she said, Bless the man! He’s deaf as a post. What’s the use storming at him?

I wish I had the confidence to respond like him when I’m facing a storm of criticism. Fortunately, Peter didn’t need to pretend that he was deaf when the circumcised believers criticized him. He only needed to tell them what God had done for him. While praying, Peter had a vision of a large sheet that came down from heaven. In that sheet were all kinds of animals, reptiles and birds, both clean and unclean. In Leviticus 11, we read that God commanded the Hebrew people not to eat certain animals, birds and reptiles as a sign of their holy relationship with God. Peter and the other circumcised believers would never consider breaking this rule. But in Peter’s vision, a voice from heaven commanded him, get up, Peter! Kill and eat.

Peter protested. Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth. The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.” Then, as soon as Peter saw this vision, he was approached by men from Caesarea and asked to come share the message of Jesus with a Gentile family. What was he to do? When Peter began preaching to the Gentile family, they received the Holy Spirit. Gentiles! Received the Holy Spirit! What will God think of next?!? And suddenly the walls that kept Gentiles out of the early church started tumbling down.

I want us to focus today on Peter’s response because it’s a powerful example of how to pivot our mindset from being God’s bouncer to being God’s ambassador. Peter ends his story by saying, So if God gave them the same gift, He gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way? He was referring, of course to the gift of the Holy Spirit. If God gave Gentiles the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter is saying, how could they be excluded from the church?

Here’s a powerful question: Are there times when you and I could be standing in God’s way? Are our beliefs, attitudes, prejudices or actions interfering with the work of God in our community? Are we withholding the love and truth of Jesus Christ from certain people or certain groups because we think they are unacceptable to God? Are we standing in God’s way or standing in God’s will? To answer this question, I want us to ask ourselves three questions.

The first question is, How big is your spiritual family? That is what Jesus came to do, to enlarge our spiritual family. What’s the central teaching of Jesus’ life, the central teaching of the Bible itself? It’s John 3:16, isn’t it? For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. God so loved the world, that’s a pretty big family.

Notice the accusation thrown at Peter at the beginning of our Bible passage: You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them. In those days, it was taboo for Jewish believers to eat with non-Jews. So, for Peter to go into a Gentile house and the word Gentile simply refers to a non-Jewish person, for Peter to go into a Gentile house and share a meal with the people there implied that Jews and Gentiles were equal in God’s eyes. It implied that Gentiles were fully acceptable to God.

That’s the whole reason Jesus came into this world, shared the message of God, and died on the cross, it was to gather all God’s “children” into the kingdom of God. And now that’s our job too. If you claim to be a follower of Jesus, that’s your calling, that’s your mission, that’s your life’s greatest goal and priority now: to bring as many people to the love and truth of Jesus Christ as possible. In order to do that, we have to ask ourselves the question, how big is my spiritual family?

The second question we need to ask ourselves is, “How great is God’s grace?” Remember in our Bible passage when Peter first had the vision of the sheet filled with animals, reptiles, and birds, and he backed away because some of them were designated as unclean for God’s people. Then the voice spoke from heaven and said, Do not call anything impure that God has made clean. Think about that for a moment.

We don’t have the power to make anything clean. We can’t even clean ourselves up enough to qualify for God’s approval. Only the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ is enough to make us clean in God’s eyes. So, who are we to stand in judgement of others? Read through the book of Acts and one message is abundantly clear: God’s love is greater than our limitations. God’s plan is greater than our prejudices.

The host of a religious talk show was interviewing a man who had lived a rough and reckless life until he became a follower of Jesus Christ. As he told the story of his spiritual journey, he continually thanked God for changing his life.

This caused the talk show host to make an interesting comment, you know what I’ve noticed? she said, people who have always been in the church, always done the right thing, always been prim and proper, don’t know how to give thanks to God. In fact, I’ve noticed that they are prone to complain because God hasn’t done even MORE for them. Only if you have experienced God’s grace can you know the joy of God’s peace.

The only reasonable response to grace, the unearned, undeserved love of God, is gratitude. Thank God for giving His one and only Son to take on the penalty of death for us and give us eternal life. And then make sure to tell everyone you know about the awesome greatness of God’s grace, so they can find salvation and eternal life too.

And that’s exactly what Peter and the apostles were called to do when they shared the message of God with the Gentiles. When we really understand the greatness of God’s grace, we realize that we can’t leave anybody out. Do you want to be in God’s way or in God’s will? The best way to ensure you are in God’s will is to ask yourself the questions, How big is my spiritual family? and How great is God’s grace?

And the final question we need to ask ourselves is, “How can I get in on the party?” Because when you finally realize the goodness of God, the greatness of God’s grace, and the wonder of God’s plan for humanity, you can’t help but celebrate. Let’s look again at the final verse in our Bible passage for today, Acts 11 verse 18: When they heard this, they referring to the Jewish believers, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, so then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life. They praised God. From accusations and division to praising God. That’s certainly reason for a party, isn’t it?

To sum up the message today, in God’s eyes, there’s only one type of person: greatly loved and worth dying for. In the book of Galatians 3:28, the apostle Paul writes, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. We aren’t God’s bouncers; we’re God’s ambassadors. It’s not our job to put limits on God’s love. It’s our job to share the love and the salvation of Jesus Christ with everyone we meet, so that all God’s children will be gathered into His kingdom.