You know, it’s a long way from here to Judea. It’s a long way back over all that time. A long distance between me and the Jesus who did so many things in Galilee. In a way it’s very much like the distance that Peter bridged between Jerusalem and Caesarea, between himself and Cornelius, between Jews and gentiles. And to tighten the comparisons, I am in the same camp as Cornelius the gentile. I am also a gentile and not a Jew. I am also far removed from the physical happenings of the story of Jesus. I also need to be told again and again what it is that Jesus has done because like people of any geography and any age I struggle with this: thinking that God should prefer me.
I mean, some version of it is present in the words that Peter speaks to Cornelius isn’t it, where he says, “he accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” Now those are two deep concepts but very simple words and the trouble is, I’m tempted to think about them on a very surface level most of the day. I’m tempted to think that I’m a Lutheran, a conservative one, and so of course, A) I fear the Lord, and B) I do what is right, and C) the Lord should prefer me. More, I’m a pastor so, you know, this moment that probably very few of you will ever do… and sacramental oversight… and other things you don’t have. And I know my own ways and the things that I choose to do and feel justified in that they are good and right. And I’m tempted to think that they help God to prefer me more than someone else.
And I think you know this trouble too. I think you understand what it’s like to watch the news and feel very separate and different from the Iranians and their religion or their regime. Or to stroll through Instagram and see all of the political opponents that you have, or the immoral operators in our society or in Hollywood, and to mark yourself as better than they. You know the 10 commandments, the moral will of God. You understand what it’s like to identify what God loves and to seek to do it. And to know at the same time that there are others, perhaps who are intimately related to you or people you work with or friends with whom you gather, who do not do those things – so that you sometimes consider that you do what is right and, thus, God accepts you.
We’re separated by centuries of time, miles and miles of space, but the situation for you and me is just like the situation for Peter and Cornelius. Peter was beginning to deal with the reality of being a 1st century Jewish Christian – what to do with all the ceremonial laws, religious rules, regulations. Remember, Jews who did what was right led a life that was pretty separate from anyone and anything that was unclean, foreign. And surely they’d have been tempted to think of themselves as God-preferred therefore. And now Peter had received a message from some Gentile gentleman, and a command from the Holy Spirit to go and see him. And along the way (ch.10 of Acts), he was graced with this vision that said basically: Peter, devout people of God can eat anything they like – there’s no clean or unclean anymore – those things pointed ahead as symbols of a coming Savior, but now Jesus has come. And it was really so that what we hear this morning could happen: that Peter, without fear, would enter the home of a non-Jewish man and preach the good news of Jesus and each could know that neither was, in and of himself, better than the other, but that one thing only set them apart.
As Peter says it, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” Peter was catching up with the truth of God – that God doesn’t show favoritism by race; that he doesn’t look at who people are or what they have; that God’s people are among every nation. But he doesn’t mean it in the way we’d like it by nature to read: that there are nice people in every nation, there are moral people in every place, and those who do what’s right are acceptable to God, or even that God prefers us because we do what’s right. No – to thoroughly shift our perspective we could flip Peter’s word – as one devotion writer put it: God does show favoritism – to his Son he absolutely does.
And why not? How could it be anything else? Has it happened for you ever like it happened for Jesus? That at some moment, over your cubicle at work, as you were blogging away, while you were shopping with a friend, or while I was preaching a sermon that the portal to heaven broke open above and God’s Spirit descended the pillar of light and the voice of God could not hold back and he praised you, “With Jim I am well pleased!” Or have you seen it from afar in the mall or in some other church? You haven’t, I guarantee. It wasn’t even with Cornelius who did lots of great stuff – God still sent the message Peter was going to preach. Because there is no man or woman who has ever “fulfilled all righteousness.” None whom God, the measure and maker of eternity, should accept. None other than this Jesus Peter speaks of. With him alone is God “well pleased.” Jesus alone “went around doing good”, doing what was right. As Peter said, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.” And “God was with him.” Jesus alone “God accepts”.
But Peter doesn’t come into Gentile territory today to tell us we’re lost. God did not prepare and put into play this Jesus in order to show favoritism to him, but to show favor to those who receive his Son’s favor-worthy work. In fact, this is the favor of which Peter speaks. Through Jesus Christ there is peace with God because he came as Isaiah prophesied. He was God’s chosen one, delightful to him because he brought justice – he did not snuff out the smoldering wick, the weak in faith; did not break off the bruised reed, the struggling Christian… He brought a covenant, a promise from God himself, that justice would be met as Jesus was broken and snuffed out as payment, that he would fall out of favor with his Father to set free the captives from sin, break open the dungeon of death, remove all our guilt. He would rest God’s favor on us!
Remember what we said at the beginning of the season? We’re delving into the mystery of Christ together for these eight weeks. We’re thinking about the intricacy of God’s chosen one and our relationship to God on the basis of the saving work he’s done. With Peter and Cornelius this morning we grasp on to the central truth of Christian faith and life: God does not look at you in any special way apart from this Jesus. And it’s fortunate, because by ourselves God would only see prideful, idolatrous sins and those bring judgment. But, as we heard in Advent, “His mercy extends to those who fear him.” His mercy supplies us with one who is baptized in the dirty Jordan at the hands of a sinner, not to wipe out his own sins, but so that everything God requires for sinners could be fulfilled, that he would identify in every single way with you who need baptism. Jesus’ work from baptism to healings to teaching to dying guarantees that you who are baptized like him, washed and reborn by his Spirit, you are pleasing in God’s sight – washed clean of sins and covered in the good he did. As Peter later says to Cornelius, as we watch again this Jesus make his way to the cross, we know that he died and was raised so that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” In this season we’ll explore that God’s favor is yours “not by works, so that no one can boast.” But, by Jesus’ good works, by his mighty salvation, you are at peace with God.
And that’s significant for our daily lives. This mystery of Christ – God’s mercy from heaven to sinners, it fills us with the joy to do and say what Peter said – Jesus is Lord of all – us included. We reflect it as we fear God – not that we are afraid – but that we are awed by this one who has sent his Son in this way, that by Jesus’ name God has shown us incredible mercy, and that there is no other name by which we come into a relationship with him, and that therefore this Jesus and God’s plan in him is everything of faith. We honor Jesus as Lord of all as we daily resolve to know that we have peace with God, not because of ourselves, not ever in our own deeds, but through Jesus Christ’s good deeds alone. We honor Jesus as Lord of all when we pore through his Word to see what he has done and we seek to do the same and recognize that holding to those things may throw us out of the world’s favor but it praises God’s holy name. And among the best of praises will be that we value this good news and share it in word and deed. Because there is no one who deserves to hear it any less that we do, no one who needs it less than we do, and no one for whom God hasn’t given it. But everyone needs to know what we have learned to love – that no one can serve God like Jesus has, but by his saving good he enables people of faith in every place to serve God in peace and joy and, with Peter or Cornelius and people of every nation, to say, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Amen.