The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 12, 2020
Often, we have to wait on God.
More often, God has to wait on us!
The Son of God leads us forward in the adventure of life with Him. Frequently, He has to wait to see if they will follow and catch up to Him.
Jesus always goes before us to show the way onward and upward. He goes ahead of us to take us somewhere better, but not so far ahead that we lose sight of Him and thereby lose nerve about entering unknown territory.
At the point in history at which the events described in today’s scripture took place, the church of Christ was less than a year old, and the followers of Jesus were just starting to grasp how different their life was to become. For example, they were still getting their minds around how much their character and conduct were to change, and still learning what all that involved by closely watching those more experienced in the new life and by avoiding the bad influences who might pull them back into their old ways. Thus, to pursue purity in their faith commitment, they had to figure out who was “in” God’s kingdom and who was yet outside it. They had to discover appropriate lines of distinction and determine who really was a member of the true church.
Yet, they were well aware that God wanted them to reach out beyond the cocoon of their community and welcome even the worst people into their circle of acceptance. They remembered that Jesus, in His last messages, had commanded them to “go and make disciples of all nations” and had sent them out to bear witness “to the ends of the earth”. The church was feeling its way into the right balance between inclusivity and exclusivity – that is, between being open to all and recognizing the real and decisive difference between those born a second time and those not.
They soon came to think that God was showing where to draw the line by whom He was baptizing with His Holy Spirit – that is, immersing in His own life. And it seemed as if God kept drawing a circle wider than they expected of who belonged within His family. At Pentecost, though God baptized with the Spirit only Jews, most were Jews of different national and cultural identity than that of Christ’s first followers. Then God baptized some Samaritans, who were only half-Jews. Then God baptized a non-Jew from a different continent, Africa, whose sexual identity had never been accepted within the household of Israel.
Now, Peter had by the hand of God been brought into a Gentile’s home, the kind of place he had been told from his youth to stay out of. And this Gentile was not just a non-Jew, but a leader in the foreign occupying army oppressing the Jews.
When Peter began to make his formal remarks to the household of this Roman soldier named Cornelius, the Apostle opened up with a statement that expressed both exclusion and inclusion. The remark was exclusionary in that it said only those who fear God and do what is right are God’s people. It was inclusionary in that it was prefaced by the comment that “God shows no partiality” and asserted that “anyone” might become one of God’s people. Then, upon concluding his opening words, Peter summed up his message by declaring that “everyone” who “believes in” Jesus receives His grace.
So it turns out there are still distinctions to be made, but not along the same lines that the first disciples had been drawing. There are people on the inside and others on the outside of God’s redemption, but markers such as national heritage, cultural style or the company one keeps have nothing to do with the difference. What has everything to do with it is believing in the basics of what Jesus accomplished in His life, death and resurrection, and putting one’s life in His hands. Right after Peter gave his brief sermon, and while he was “still speaking”, the Spirit cut him off and came down upon all those pagan foreigners, filling them with His life and moving them to speak in tongues to extol the Lord. And Peter, seeing that God was baptizing them with the Spirit, knew He should baptize them with the water of the ritual that signaled they belonged, as full-fledged members, in the family of God.
Peter was just trying to keep up with God and keep pace with the Lord who was reaching out to – and blessing to the utmost! – those Peter had been taught to shun. Peter was just trying to follow His Lord’s lead – as God was giving Himself to those Peter would have otherwise turned his back on!
Please note the Lord brought these people into His church before He had brought them to full sanctification. They hadn’t yet confessed any doctrinal statement, made amends for the wrongs they’d done, or established a proven track record of reformed conduct and character.
Noting that, however does not suggest that such reformation is of no importance. It is in fact of vital importance, just not of first importance. For until the life of the resurrected Christ is in the Spirit put into people, nothing else about their life can be put right. Ultimately, the only thing that can set in order people’s convictions and conduct is a personal connection with Christ.
To keep pace with Christ is to follow His lead, and to follow His lead is to make the most of what He makes the most of. What He makes the most of is having an intimate, interactive relationship with Him.
Of course, standards of behavior and belief matter. Jesus Himself said He came, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. And Jesus was adamant that His followers believe what He said and do what He taught.
But when we emphasize right behavior and right belief before getting into, and living out of, a friendship with Jesus, we are getting the cart before the horse. For we can’t get correct in our convictions and conduct apart from close contact with Christ. But, if He lives in us by the Spirit and we live in Him by the Spirit, we’ll keep getting better and better in behavior and belief.
But it all begins with Him, and depends on Him from start to finish.
So who’s in His true church? Whoever is in a relationship with Jesus, a relationship whose interactions are so deep and transformative that it can truly be said that the person is immersed, or baptized, in God’s own Spirit – the Spirit who over time and the long journey of obedience makes everything right in a person’s life.
So let us, as we come to walk with Jesus in love, come to walk with all His people in love. After all, we all are in the process together, and we all keep pace with God as a family!