“If then God gave the same gift to them as He gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this mission festival, the fifth Sunday of Easter, comes from the First Lesson read a few moments ago from the eleventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Dear friends in Christ, the Jews were special. They were set apart, chosen by God Himself. Out of all the nations of this earth, the One who created all things appointed them as His own people. The entire Old Testament is a narrative of God choosing a people for Himself and then protecting that choice. He chose Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, and from Jacob He built a nation, Israel, forged in the fires of slavery and deliverance. He brought them out from Egypt with a mighty outstretched hand, and in the wilderness He made them His own, establishing His covenant with them. He set them apart, and despite their sin, despite their constant rebellion and running after other gods, the Lord stood by His choice. In their temple He dwelt with the cloud of His presence; He accepted their sacrifices and cleansed them from their sin. Moses spoke to Him face to face, and Israel’s prophets heard His Word and proclaimed it in her streets. There was no nation on earth like Israel, nor will there ever be, for only Israel was elected by the God of heaven and earth to be His own.
If the Jews were special, if they were God’s unique and chosen people, then all other peoples on this earth are common, ordinary, even unclean. The Old Testament divides the world into two groups: the Jews, God’s chosen people Israel, and the Gentiles, literally everyone else. The Jews were chosen; the Gentiles were not. The Jews were clean; the Gentiles were unclean. The Jews were special; the Gentiles were common. There was nothing special about them. They worshipped idols and false gods; they bowed down to almost anything but the true God. Their temples were empty shells; God was not there to meet with them. They ate common food and lived common lives; they practiced wickedness and reveled in it. Every time that the chosen and unique Jews mingled with the common and corrupted Gentiles, it was like putting food coloring in pure, clean water. God’s people were overwhelmed and corrupted, and the Lord had to purify them again and again with great acts of judgment.
To remain special, to remain unique, the Jews were to shun the common. They were to stay away from common foods and from common people. They were to maintain their purity at all costs. Read Leviticus sometime; that entire book is all about God’s people remaining holy and chosen, set apart for God from every other nation on this earth. They were set apart by how they worshipped, by what they ate, who they associated with, even by what they touched. No wonder Peter was perplexed by the command of the Lord in his vision: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” That strange sheet that had come down from heaven was filled with creatures that he quite simply wasn’t supposed to eat. With this strange command, God was asking him to set aside the dietary laws of the Old Testament, the restrictions, that set His people apart to be His own. Peter had to object: “By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
The Lord’s response is firm, and it is clear: “What God has made clean, do not call common.” With the power of His Word, the Word which always does what it says, God Himself does away with the dietary restrictions of the Old Testament. It’s easy for us today to underestimate how significant these words from God are. With this declaration, He has removed the barrier between Jew and Gentile; He has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility with the power of His Word. The Jews are no longer His unique, special, set apart nation; a new reality has replaced what had stood from the days when God first choose Abraham; the Gentiles were no longer common and unclean. Why? The answer should’ve been clear to Peter and to the other early Christians, for they traveled around Judea preaching about it: the cross and the empty tomb. Good Friday and Easter. These twin events have brought this new reality; they have changed everything.
God had set His people aside as a chosen nation for this very moment. He set them apart not so that they could be a blessing for themselves, but so that they could be a blessing for all people. As God Himself told Abraham, “In you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” Israel was set apart to bless the nations, to bring a blessing to all who lived on this earth, indeed to bless and renew even this earth itself. The Jews were God’s special people because through them God would bring forth the Messiah. And when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a Jewish girl, born under the Law to redeem those under the Law, both Jew and Gentile. With the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the nation of Israel was completed; its purpose was finished, fulfilled. In Christ, God was establishing a new reality.
When did God make all foods and all people clean? Look to the cross. There the blood of Jesus Christ was shed, a blessed flood that cleanses all things, that cleanses all people, that cleanses all creation. Look to the empty tomb. There the grave cloths declare that all things are now different. Easter changes everything. In Christ, all are made clean, all things are made new, for Christ’s death erases every stain. The cross is for all people, Jew and Gentile, yes, it is even for you and me. Most, if not all of us here this morning are not Jews; thanks be to God that Christ’s death is also for Gentiles like us. That is the glorious Gospel message of our text: Christ’s cross is for all people, even you and me! The Jews were set apart so that salvation could come through them; we Gentiles rejoice that God used Israel to bring us Jesus, to deliver us from sin, death, and hell. But now that salvation has come in the death and resurrection of Christ, there is no longer Jew or Gentile, but only the Church. And this Church is to give the gifts of Christ to all. “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning.”
When the Holy Spirit comes upon the Gentiles, Peter finally gets it; he understands that Easter has altered all things, even the most fundamental realities that he held dear. “I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as He gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” Peter has learned what Philip learned when he baptized the Ethiopian, what Paul learned as Christ sent him as the apostle to the Gentiles, what the Church would learn through them: the cross is for all; the resurrection is for all; Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean, common and special. In fact, those distinctions no longer have any meaning. Far be it for Peter, Paul, Philip, or anyone else to stand in the way of the Gospel; it is Christ’s Church, not theirs, and Christ died for all, He rose for all, His Gospel is for all.
Our text begins with the criticisms of the Jewish Christians that Peter was associating with unclean Gentiles; even after this account, the problems aren’t finished, and the Church will still struggle to incorporate those who are common, who are different, into their fellowship. Those struggles still persist to this day; the modern Church, you and me, struggle to bring the Gospel to those who are different than us. Who are the common, the unclean in our community, in our country, in our world? Are they those who aren’t like us by language, by race, by lifestyle? Are they those we don’t see with our own eyes, but only hear about in far off places like Asia or Africa? Our text declares that there is no person on this planet for whom Christ has not died; there is no person who is not in desperate need of the message that we bring, no matter how like or unlike they are to us.
Do we welcome the disabled, the dirty, the homeless? What about the drug addict, the desperate single mother? Peter learned in dramatic fashion that the Church is called to show compassion to all. All need the Gospel, all need to hear what we have to say. So often in the history of the Church and in our own individual lives, the story of our text is repeated: Christ’s people are reluctant to speak the Gospel to those who are different, who are common or unclean in our eyes. We disdain overseas missions because we think that there are more needs here at home, and then here at home we struggle to bring the Gospel to those who aren’t like us. Our Lord calls on us to repent as He called on Peter to repent; to repent for our selfishness, for wanting to keep the Gospel to ourselves, for forgetting that we too were once Gentiles, unclean and common.
The cross and the empty tomb have changed everything for us. We were Gentiles, now we are Christians; cleansed not through dietary laws but by the blood of Christ. At the foot of the cross, at the entrance to the empty tomb, there is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is no longer rich or poor, no longer dirty or clean, no longer American or African, but only the Church. And this Church is for all, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but have been justified freely by His grace. Christ’s shed blood covered Peter’s sin of thinking the gifts of Christ were only for the Jews; Christ’s shed blood covers our sin of thinking that the gifts of Christ are only for us. Christ’s blood covers every sin. Christ’s blood covers every person. Together all Christians, Jew and Gentile, from every land and every century, will stand before the throne of the Lamb in the new heavens and the new earth together as the Church, with no distinction, for we have all been redeemed by His blood. The Gospel is for all; for the people who are served by the graduates of Lutheran Theological Seminary-Tshwane in Pretoria, South Africa, and for the people of Sanborn, Iowa. The Gospel is for you, and it is for me. “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” From Jews and Gentiles Christ has made one Church: Easter has changed everything, for Peter and Cornelius, for you, me, and all people. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! Amen.