Sunday, May 17, 2009

Preaching like Peter

Acts 10:44-48
44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

You know the line in “There is a balm in Gilead” where it says “If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the life of Jesus and say he died for all.”?

THIS is the preaching they’re talking about! This is every preachers dream! The Spirit broke in while Peter was preaching, poured out on even the Gentiles and they started speaking in tongues. Everyone was converted and convicted in the Spirit. Everyone in the household wanted to be baptized! So, what is it he said that had such a powerful effect?

Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

This is it. This is the entire Gospel – all of the Good News. That God sent Jesus to preach peace, to do good and to heal those oppressed by evil. That Jesus died on the cross and God resurrected him so he could teach those closest to him, who were then sent out to preach that Jesus is judge of the living and the dead, and to testify to the forgiveness available to all who ask it in Jesus’ name.

There’s no complicated list of things people had to believe. No doctrine of the Trinity, no virgin birth, no creed, no statement of required beliefs, behaviors or actions necessary to receive God’s forgiveness. All of those things would become part of Christian belief hundreds of years in the future. In the early days of the church it was just this, that God sent Jesus to teach and to heal and to tell everyone about God’s love and willingness to forgive. The apostles and disciples preached this same thing over and over, in all kinds of places and situations. They began with the assumption that the people they were preaching to knew about God – the creator and sustainer of the universe who had chosen Abraham as his own many centuries before, and who had been guiding the descendents of Abraham through prophets and messengers ever since. The people of Cornelius’ household, although Gentiles, were believers who worshipped in the temple but had not yet been circumcised. Like the Ethiopian eunuch we heard about last Sunday, they weren't allowed all the way into the Temple, they weren’t fully accepted in the Assembly of God, but they did know about God, the Law and the Prophets.

Later Paul and some others would go out to preach among the Gentiles who had no prior knowledge of God, but that won’t happen for a little while yet. This event, the baptism of Cornelius and his household, would pave the way for Paul’s ministry.

Did you notice? Last week the Ethiopian eunuch listened to Philip preach the very same Good News and asked “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” This week Peter preaches the Good News, the listeners are filled with the Holy Spirit, and Peter asks “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” In these two events, separated by time and distance and with entirely different people involved the same thing happened.

So, what is it in this preaching that is so powerful that a houseful of people were filled with the Spirit. It was like Pentecost all over again – powerful preaching and conversion and amazement by those who were listening that God’s word was being spoken so that everyone could understand it. At Pentecost thousands were baptized. Here the number was smaller but what happened was the same. God’s word filled the hearts and souls of everyone who heard Peter speak.

To anyone who took classes in Homiletics (preaching) Peter’s sermon doesn’t sound like all that. For that matter, it probably doesn’t sound all that impressive to folks who have been listening to sermons for years. There are no examples, no stories, no moral instructions. Peter doesn’t tell any jokes suitable for church or pull illustrations from contemporary life. He doesn’t refer to a book or TV show or movie or the internet even once. He doesn’t tell the congregation how they should behave, or what they ought to feel guilty over. He doesn’t tell them what they need to do to make the world a better place, to bring God’s kingdom to earth as it is on heaven. He just talks about God’s power and God’s love. What’s up with that?

Sometimes we really need to just hear a simple message. What Cornelius and his household heard is this:

God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You don’t have to earn God’s love – you can’t earn God’s love. It’s already there, no matter who you are or what you’ve done, whether you believe that or not.

Forgiveness is waiting for you, all you have to do is ask. You don’t have to earn forgiveness – you can’t earn forgiveness. It is available to anyone and everyone who repents and asks to be forgiven.

And we don’t get to judge. We don’t get to judge other people. We don’t even get to judge ourselves. Jesus is the one and only person ordained to be the judge of the living and the dead.

Is it any wonder that Peter’s preaching was so effective? He didn’t depend on rhetoric to persuade his listeners. He didn’t have to. He just spoke the simple, basic truth of our faith. God loves us. God forgives us. God sent Jesus to teach us and heal us, and to show us the way to be faithful. And after his death on the cross, God resurrected Jesus into new life, just as we enter into new life when we give up our old ways.

I remember when I first heard those things. I remember when I began to believe that they were true. I remember how overwhelming it was to realize that God loves me – even me. That I was forgiven by God and because of that I needed to forgive myself for everything I felt guilty about, and forgive those who hurt me. If God forgives me, after all, who am I to withhold forgiveness? I remember when I began to believe that I am good enough just the way I am, because if I am good enough to be loved by God, who can judge me as anything less?

There are days when I forget the simple stuff – the basics of faith. There are days when preaching like Peter becomes really important because I let everything get all complicated. I forget to keep it simple and let the Spirit in. I let the business of the church take precedence over God’s business. I start giving more attention to theology – to the study of God – than I give to God. I start letting my education in pastoral counseling and preaching and church history and Bible and theology and hymnody and worship design get in the way of remembering to tell folks “God loves you. No matter what.”

God didn’t care that Cornelius and his household weren’t circumcised, that they hadn’t undergone all the rituals that would grant them full membership in the Temple. God filled them with the Holy Spirit, giving them full membership in the family of God in Christ.
And Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” The answer, of course, was no. Cornelius and his household were baptized immediately.

Surely the presence of the Lord was in that place, and just as surely it is present whenever we pray and worship our God with simple faith in God’s forgiveness and God’s love. Let us go out from this place, remembering keep it simple in our faith and in our study of God’s Word so that there may always be room for the Spirit in our lives, in whatever place we may be.

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