Scripture Readings: Acts 10:24-48
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
There was once a little boy who took piano lessons. Every week, the wee boy would cycle to his teacher’s house for his lesson, and leave his bike propped up against the garden fence. And every week, as the wee boy pushed open the garden gate, he would feel the butterflies in his stomach, for the old man was a strict teacher of the old school. But as the wee boy grew up, he came to love the old man, for that wee boy grew up to be a fine musician, and, indeed, a much-respected piano teacher himself. But then he heard that his old teacher was gravely ill, confined to his bed, and certainly could no longer play the piano- in word, the old man was dying. And so the pianist who had once been the old man’s student went to visit his old teacher one last time. This time he drove to that familiar old house, and parked in the street outside. A student no more, he had become a friend, and after all, he was an adult, a musician, a teacher himself. But as he pushed open the garden gate, he felt, once more, the butterflies in his stomach!
The teacher/student relationship is sometimes a strange one. It’s sometimes hard to become truly friendly with someone who has been your teacher. You will always feel a sense that they are superior to you- they were the master when you were the student. Like many great rabbis, Jesus had pupils or students. For that’s what the word ‘disciple’ means- people who had attached themselves to a great teacher because they wanted to learn from him. He was the teacher, and they the students; he was the Master, and they were his disciples.
But on the last meeting that Master and Disciples met together, with his betrayal and death just a few hours ahead, Jesus their relationship onto a new level:
I do not call you servants any longer, because servants do not know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
This is a most remarkable statement. Jesus is inviting his pupils- his servants- into a new sort of relationship with him. The Master and his disciples are to be friends- close, intimate friends. Because he has told them what he has heard from his father, because he has shared with them the truth about God; because they have shared all this, they are now, he says, his friends.
Jesus’ disciples were a mixed bunch of people, who were by no means perfect. But Master and Disciples had shared so much together, and so now he calls them his friends- intimate, close friends, friends between whom there are no secrets. And through them, Christ makes this offer of friendship to us all.
Maybe you think of God as a heavenly piano teacher. Just approaching God gives you butterflies in your stomach (and no wonder, for it is the creator of the universe we are speaking of when we mention God!). But Jesus calls us his friends, which means we can be (if we want to be) friends of God, no matter who we are.
For the Christian Gospel is Good News for the world- that there is a God, that and everyone is invited to be a friend of God. Now that was, and is, a very radical, some would say even a dangerous, idea. And today’s reading from the Book of Acts reminds us how radical that idea was in the earliest years of Christianity.
The background to this is a story told from the beginning of this chapter. The story is set in the city of Caesarea, which was the Roman headquarters of Palestine. It tells of a senior Roman solider, Cornelius. Cornelius is part of the Roman military force occupying Israel. We are told he was a captain- perhaps better translated as ‘centurion’ in ‘The Italian Regiment’- a Roman from the land of Rome, a foreigner. Yet although he would have been brought up as someone who worshipped the gods of Rome, he was one of those people at that time who became very interested on the God of Israel. He has, were are told, become a worshipper of the God of the Jews, and were are told that he ‘did much to help the Jewish poor people and was constantly praying to God’. Cornelius was what was known as a ‘god-fearer’- a man who, in an age of of religious turmoil, when many people had grown weary of the old gods of their ancestral faiths, honoured the Jewish God and tried to live by Judaism’s moral code, although he was not himself a circumcised Jew.
Cornelius, this outsider to Judaism is surprised to find an angel at his door one day. The vision caused him to send his servants to Joppa, to find Simon Peter, the leader of the new reform movement in Judaism, based on the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Rome had crucified.
But Peter has also had a vision, in which God seems to tell him that there are now, no longer, any clean and unclean foods- in other words, that the old Jewish laws- for example, that you can’t eat pork- are no longer valid. It looked as if the old rules, saying that Jews could not share a meal with Gentiles, had been cancelled by God. While Peter is still troubled by his vision, Cornelius’ servant appears and asks him to come back to his master with him.
When Peter arrives at the house, Cornelius comes out to meet him, and invites him in, where they find a large and expectant crowd has gathered. And as he enters, Peter comments to those gathered there,
‘You yourselves know very well that a Jew is not allowed by his religion to visit or associate with Gentiles. But God has shown me that I must not consider any person ritually unclean or defiled. And so when you sent for me, I came without any objection’.
This is one of the great moment in the history of the Church. Peter had been the chief among Jesus’ disciples- now he was the most important person in the post-Easter Church. But, as this story puts it, Peter realises that one of the most important things about Christ is that he breaks down barriers between people. The Good News about Christ is good news for everyone, regardless of their nationality, or their previous religion. Peter, the Jewish fisherman, recognises in Cornelius- a pagan and a Roman- a fellow-believer in Christ. He says,
‘I now realize [because perhaps he hadn’t really realized if before] that it is true that God treats everyone on the same basis. Those who worship him and do what is right are acceptable to him, no matter what race they belong to’.
When an Italian, ex-pagan like Centurion Cornelius wants to follow Christ, then the Jesus movement starts to move in a new direction. From now on, Christianity is going to change from being merely a Jewish sect into a world religion. For the Gospel is for all humanity, regardless of race or nationality or anything else. Peter and his Jewish Christian friends realise that the Spirit of God is at work beyond the confines of Judaism- so even a Gentile like Cornelius ought to be baptised. This was controversial- weren’t the Jews the chosen race? But God was making friends, not just of the original chosen people- the Jews- but also of those who were ‘beyond the pale’, those who didn’t even keep God’s law. Now pagans, Gentiles- anyone could become a friend of Jesus, and be baptized in his name.
Jesus wants to call us his friends. This is an invitation to an intimate relationship with God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe- what an amazing invitation! And it doesn’t matter who you are. Even if you don’t think you have been a good person, or a religious person, even if you are ashamed of what is in your past- all that doesn’t matter. For the Gospel is for everyone.
‘God treates everyone on the same basis’, said Peter- but we often forget that. It is surprisingly easy for religious people to get judgmental about others who are very different from us. We sometimes are tempted to think that God’s influence is limited. The Jewish believers from Joppa couldn’t believe it when God’s Spirit came down on mere Gentiles, on people who disgusting habits like eating pigs. But that was never Jesus’ attitude. Christ is not concerned about our religion, our background, what we did in the past. He says to us still today: ‘I don’t call you servants, or pupils, inadequate, sinners… instead, I call you my friends’. As the old hymn says, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’.
Christ has many friends, and Christ’s Spirit is at work in many different people. Some of them are people whom I am not sure I would like to call my friends, if it were up to me, because they are so very different from me. But since Christ has called them his friends, I have to call them brothers and sisters. And if sometimes I am uneasy about some of the people Christ calls his friends, then I have stop and remember that he calls me his friend.
Christians have to constantly beware of thinking that the Church is only for people like us. Yet in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, congregations and denominations find ways of putting up barriers, making it clear that they don’t regard some classes of people as second class. The first Christians had to learn that the Church is not just for Jewish people like them. And through the centuries, Christians have had to learn that they cannot restrict who is part of the Church, or to make people second-class citizens in the Church. For example, in our reading, Peter makes it clear that racism of any kind is completely beyond the pale in the Church:
Those who worship [God] and do what is right are acceptable to him, no matter what race they belong to’.
And yet we persist in thinking, perhaps unconsciously, that the Church- or the leadership of the Church- can be restricted to a certain sort of people. We bring into the Church our divisions of social class, of race, of nationality- things which do not matter to God, but which we continue, even within the Body of Christ, to treat as important.
This year, the Church of Scotland will mark 50 years since the General Assembly voted (with remarkably little opposition) to admit women to be Ministers of Word and Sacrament. A few years earlier, we had opened to the eldership of the Church to women. This is certainly something to celebrate- I can’t imagine where I would be without women members, elders and ministers who have nurtured and loved me within the Church. But it had taken the churches almost 2,000 years since Christ to the Holy Spirit was calling women, and not just men, to leadership in the Church (and some churches have not got there yet!).
More recently, we have been made to face up to the fact that gay and lesbian people have not only been called into the Church, but have also been called by the Spirit of God to ministry and leadership within the Church. Again, I can think of gay and lesbian clergy and others who have nurtured my faith, and I give thanks that God called them into ministry. It won’t do for us to oppose the Spirit of God and to try to make second class citizens in the Body of Christ.
Acts tells us that, ‘the Jewish believers who had come from Joppa with Peter were amazed that God had poured out his gift of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles also’. And it is amazing that God pours out his Spirit not just on people like us, but on those who are not like us- for Jesus calls all kinds of people his friends: regardless of race, background, social class, sexual orientation or gender.
None of us really deserves the friendship of Christ, but Christ’s friendship is open to all people: for God treats everyone the same. Anyone can me a disciple and friend of Jesus. But when we think that God’s grace is limited only to some, or try to make some groups second class citizens in the church (as people once thought God’s grace was only for the Jews) then we are opposing the work of the Spirit. We have to believe that God can work with all kinds of people, and that the Gospel is not just for some people. Those whom Christ calls his friends are a diverse bunch of people!
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo
 John 15:15
 Acts 10.2
 Acts 10.28-29
 Acts 10.35
 Acts 10.35