"Catch up Faith"
January 10, 1999
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Acts 10
Life often seems like a game of catch up. I can only speak for myself in this regard, but itís rare that I feel "on-top" of things. When I was a child, I looked forward to the winter storms of January as a chance to get out in the snow and enjoy playing in it. Now, I look forward to the possibilities of getting snowed in so I can catch up on things Iíve put on the back-burner amid everyday busy-ness. Of course, do I ever get caught-up? No.
There are those amazing folks who seem to be on-top of things, gifted (I guess) with great organizational skills for getting things done. I wonder, however, if those folks donít feel the same as I do - just on a different scale. Is there anyone in this room who thinks they have it all together, that theyíre fully on top of things?... If anything, itís only a momentary feeling, for there are so many unpredictables in life. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?
No, it often seems like Iím constantly trying to catch up. If youíre like me, weíre in good company. It seems like most of the human race is in the same predicament. When we turn to the Bible, we find the characters in there share the same space. Oh, we may try to make the prophets and apostles out to be larger than life, but they were cut out of the same fabric that we were.
As Iíve said many times before, the disciple Peter appeals to me so much because his human side is so visible. This person whom our Lord once called the "rock" upon which he would build his church was often a pretty shaky character. Most of the time he was way behind Jesus, trying to catch up. Yes, he went on to become quite a preacher in the early church. His leadership was essential. He was a rock of a guy. We dare not put him up on a pedestal, though, for he was no hero. He was just a man, just trying to catch up with where God wanted him to be - just like you and me.
We have before us this morning one of the stories about Peter, and another character by the name of Cornelius. In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, this episode is pivotal in the ongoing story of the church of Jesus Christ. Like an earthquake that causes the ground beneath our feet to shift, what happened in Caesaria when those two men met sent shock waves through the followers of Christ which changed the terrain around them in very significant ways. The path they saw ahead of them was altered. The church needed a rock of a guy at the helm when the mountains moved. Do remember, though, that Peter was just as shaken as everyone else, trying to catch up with what God was doing.
In Caesaria, there was a military officer by the name of Cornelius. The God of Abraham and Moses was at work in this fellow, just like God is at work in everyone, or so we believe. What made Cornelius so unusual was not that he was a pretty good guy, trying to do whatís right by everyone. No, whatís peculiar about this fellow was that he wasnít a Jew, a son of Abraham. That shouldnít be too surprising for anyone acquainted with this book, though. Abraham wasnít a Jew, either. Other outsiders played significant roles in the biblical story as well, perhaps the most obvious being a woman by the name of Ruth.
Cornelius, however, was more than your typical outsider. He was a part of the foreign army that occupied Israel. Furthermore, he wasnít a "grunt," your average fighting Joe. He was a commander. The Jewish zealots of his day wouldíve loved to plant a knife in his back, so hated were his kind. Now, we can look at his good works and ask why anyone would despise such a man, but face it - he also lived in a town most associated with everything not Jewish. Caesaria was a city built by King Herod in honor of Caesar. Lavish palaces, a great place on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea for the rich and powerful in Israel to come and play, to pretend they were Roman citizens and not Palestine trash.
Cornelius was based in Caesaria, and God was at work even there, even in him, of all people. One day he had a dream. An angel came to him telling him to seek out Peter, who was visiting a friend down the coast about 35 miles in the town of Joppa. Cornelius sent 2 of his servants and one of his soldiers, a man in whom God was also at work, to go and get Peter, asking him to come for a visit. The road between Caesaria and Joppa would be traveled several years later when the Roman army under General Vespasian conquered this hotbed of rebellion, which proved to be the beginning of the end for Israel, leading eventually to the destruction of Jerusalem.
The soldier sent by Cornelius, however, came seeking the prince of peace. Meanwhile, in Joppa, Peter himself had a dream. In it a large tablecloth descended from heaven full of all sorts of food that Jews were not supposed to eat, according to the Law of Moses. In this lunchtime vision, a voice from heaven told Peter to eat it. To Peter, the dream must have seemed a nightmare. Peter was no fool, though he had done some pretty stupid things in his life, just like the rest of us. This dream was not just about cuisine. When he turned up his nose 3 times at the same request, it wasnít a matter of saying "I donít like that" to supper without even trying a bite, like my 4 year old does.
No, living by the law of Moses, even its somewhat strange culinary instructions, was what set Godís people apart from everyone else. To step over the line and eat what others did would be to become indistinguishable from everyone else. Once that line is crossed, youíve accommodated to the morals of the day, whatever is currently in vogue. "You are what you eat," is no mindless motto. Perhaps better stated, "you are who you eat with." That was really the issue for Peter, as it became clear to him very soon.
"If God says itís okay, itís okay," a voice told him as the dream ended. As Peter puzzled over it all, trying to catch up with what on earth God was doing, he heard some men at the entryway asking for him. Something within him, Godís Spirit, told Peter to go with these strangers. He invited them in and listened to their story of Corneliusí dream, and their request for him to come with them to Caesaria. Had you been Peter, what would you have done? Remember, Peter doesnít belong up on some pedestal, like (to give Websterís definition of a hero) some "mythological or legendary figure of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability." Peter was no Hercules. Now, a case could be made for the "divine descent" and "endowed with great strength or ability" part, but such could be said of anyone who seeks to follow Jesus Christ - not just Peter - even you or I, even as we are constantly trying to catch up to where God wants us to be.
What would you have done had you had been Peter? Would you have gone? The ground was shaking beneath his feet as he made up his mind. "Where will all this end up? What is God doing here?" Such are faith questions, things we need to be pondering much more than we do. Faith is a question mark as much as it is an exclamation point. William Willimon writes that "Faith, when it comes down to it, is our often breathless attempt to keep up with the redemptive activity of God, to keep asking ourselves, "What is God doing, where on earth is God going now?" Did you hear that, those of you who, like me, feel always behind, who seem to live in the "catch up" mode? Our life in Christ is lived on that very territory, only itís redeemed ground.
The good news is that, like Peter and Cornelius, weíre not the main characters in the story of our lives. This episode in the Acts of the Apostles is not about the heroic escapades of the early believers as much as itís about the Acts of God, who is always on the move whether we perceive his work or not. Make no mistake. We play a significant role in it all, just like Peter and Cornelius. However, it doesnít all depend upon us. Weíll never, in this life, catch up to where God wants us to be, but thatís okay. The fun comes in the catching-up.
Itís sort of like the first good snow that you longed for as a child, once the air turned cold in late fall. On your sled at the top of the hill you experience the sheer terror and absolute joy of catching up with the others who have already gone down the slope. Do you ever catch up? No, as soon as youíre finished, you head back up the hill, again and again, until the last possible moment when your Mom calls you home.
Now, Iím not saying that faith is merely an exhilarating experience. We donít live for the momentary pleasure of it. However, faith as catching up to what God is doing is also not drudge work. Unlike our usual approach to the daily grind, we are not behind the 8-ball, we are following a living Lord, driven by an inexhaustible power-source. That makes all the difference in the world.
Back to our story. Instead of doing what Jonah did from that very same seaport, Peter (this disciple who made a career of catching up to Jesus) followed the leading of that inner voice and headed to Caesaria where he and Cornelius met. The church forever changed on that day. No longer would it be limited to one particular race of people. The answer to his question that Peter heard that day was this: "God plays no favorites. It makes no difference who you are or where youíre from - if you want God and are ready to do as he says, the door is open." Of course, there are all sorts of questions behind that answer. How open is that door? How do we keep open without losing our identity? Where will it all lead? The church has been asking these questions ever since, in every generation. Remember, faith is just as much a question mark as it is an exclamation point. Weíre still trying to catch up to what God is doing.
A funny thing happened after Peter preached his little sermon to Cornelius and his friends and family. God was at work. While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit literally blew through the room - right there in Caesaria, of all places, among those folks, of all people. Just like what happened back in Jerusalem. Only the order was reversed. Repentance and water baptism are supposed to come first, arenít they? Mute question. You see, God is going to do what God is going to do. God doesnít fit into a neat little box. The Lord isnít locked into a nifty program. Itís up to us to Live with it, to catch up with what God is doing.
Well, friends, weíve some catching up to do. The Lord invites us to his table. "You are what you eat," the old adage goes, or the corollary, "you are who you eat with." As we approach the table, we keep in mind some aspects of the meal that we enjoy at other times during the year. The humility of washing someone elseís feet, or having them wash our own... The heartwarming fellowship of sitting together around an actual table sharing a meal and catching up with whatís happening in each otherís lives... These traditional elements of our Brethren Love Feast can be lived out today in other ways, canít they?
Just now we come to the table, spread with the bread and the cup, remembering, as Peter told Cornelius, how Jesus was put to death by being hung "on a tree," so to speak, and how "God raised him up on the third day," and that "everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins." ... You are invited to eat with him, with us just now, to be caught up in his wondrous love.
"All who are in love and fellowship in the family of God, who do truly and earnestly repent of our sins, who humbly put our trust in Christ, and who desire his help that we might walk in newness of life, are invited to draw near to God and receive this holy communion to our comfort, through Jesus Christ our Lord."
Will the deacons come forward to serve as we sing.
©1999Peter L. Haynes
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