Sermon Outline On Acts 10:44-48 (NRSV)
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
Those who came with Peter to this scene described in today’s scripture reading were astounded. They were astounded! Why? Because in their minds God did the unexpected. They were astounded by God’s grace.
In today’s passage you could say that those who were with Peter thought the Jewish Christians, God’s chosen, are recipients of God’s grace. Gentiles, especially Roman gentiles, are excluded from God’s grace.
Both of these ideas, while considered true by some people, are not scriptural. The prophet Isaiah expressed it well:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9 (NRSV)
Some see these words as a description of the harshness of God, but listen to the verse just prior to these:
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. Isaiah 55:6-7 (NRSV)
God’s way is a way of mercy and pardon. God’s way is a way of grace.
The gift of the Holy Spirit was given to these Gentiles present’“ to these who heard the word. Who were these people? Peter was in the home of Cornelius in Caesarea. The people there according to Acts 10:24 were the family and close friends of Cornelius. Cornelius was a centurion in the Italian cohort. He is described by Luke as ‘a devout man who feared God.’ Acts 10:2
It seems that Cornelius while praying had the vision of an angel God who told him to send for Peter. He was hold where Peter could be found. Cornelius obediently sent soldiers to Joppa to ask Peter to come.
Just about the time that these soldiers reached Joppa, Peter went to pray. Peter, too, had a vision. In his vision he saw something like a large sheet descending from heaven and on the sheet were all sorts of four footed animals, reptiles and birds. A voice told Peter to kill and eat. Peter refused to eat the unclean meat. Three times Peter was told and three times he refused the profane and unclean. The voice then said, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’
It was immediately after this vision that the soldiers came asking Peter to go to Caesarea to meet Cornelius. Peter explained that is was against the Jewish law for him to go into the home of a Gentile. It would make him spiritually unclean, but Peter went. Peter understood his vision to be the message that Gentiles should not be considered unclean.
Peter goes to the home of Cornelius and shares the gospel message. He told the group about the ministry of Jesus’“how he healed and cast out demons. He tells of Jesus dying for our sins, being buried, and on the third day rising from the dead. It is in the middle of this telling that we begin our reading for today.
Those gathered at the home of Cornelius experience the presence of the Holy Spirit. We are told that the spirit caused them to utter in tongues extolling God. They experienced God’s power in their lives.
John Wesley is the father of Methodism. While Wesley never intended to start a new church, he did set forth important theological ideas. Wesley believed that human experience was important to our understanding of God. He taught that human experience complemented scripture, tradition, and reason as ways of getting a grasp on our understanding of God.
Wesleyan theology is structured around the concept of God’s grace. He preached and taught grace. He offered the most comprehensive theologies of grace. Grace, God’s unique love, God’s unmerited, unconditional love.
Wesley spoke of prevenient grace, that grace that goes before, that grace that enters our lives before we even know that we are experiencing that grace. In this story of Cornelius and Peter, the vision of Cornelius occurred when he was praying. This vision could be considered ‘prevenient grace.’ It was this vision that would lead to the experience of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, Peter’s vision prepared him for accepting the invitation to meet Cornelius. I would consider Peter’s vision as God’s prevenient grace which prepared the way.
You notice that Peter, too, was praying when the vision came. John Wesley in his development of grace spoke and wrote about the ‘Means of grace’’“those ordinary means by which we experience the grace of God. One of the chief means of grace according to Wesley was prayer.
The Holy Spirit came to those who heard the word that day. They experienced the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peter said they had been baptized by the Holy Spirit and should be baptized with water. The apostle Paul would say they were justified by faith. They came to believe. Wesley would say this was an experience of God’s justifying grace.
Cornelius and his guests then asked Peter to stay a few days. You see baptism is only the beginning. We spend the rest of our lives growing in our knowledge of God. These who had such a marvelous experience now wanted instruction. It is the responsibility of the church who baptizes to nurture those baptized in the knowledge and love of God through Jesus Christ. Paul called this growing process, sanctification. Wesley called God’s grace that works in us to bring about this growth, sanctifying grace. Cornelius and his household immediately experienced sanctifying grace through Peter’s instruction.
Sanctifying grace was present in another way that day. The Jewish Christians with Peter experienced sanctifying grace. The commentator tells us that Luke stresses the role of the Holy Spirit in enabling these Jewish Christians to transcend their own narrow vision of the kingdom. They learned that day that God’s grace was not just for them, but for everyone. They learned that their ways were not God’s ways. They grew in their understanding of God.
Peter said, ‘How can we withhold the water of baptism from these who have experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit.’ This baptism of the Holy Spirit is God’s act of grace. The baptism of ‘the church’ with water is a ritual. We call it a sacrament. It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual change. It is a way the church recognizes God’s work, God’s grace in the life of an individual.
Little Betsy had faithfully attended baptism classes. Her mother, wanting to be sure her daughter understood its significance, asked, “Honey, what does baptism mean?”
“Well, it isn’t the water that makes you clean …” she began.
Smiling, Mother thought, Yes, she understands,
“… it’s the soap.”
It ain’t the water. It ain’t the soap. It’s the grace.
What is this thing we call grace? While John Wesley may have given names to various manifestations of God’s grace, there is only one grace. Philip Yancey puts it this way:
Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.
A ‘mover and shaker’ is a person who wields power and influence. It is said they can be the ‘shaker’ of traditional beliefs. Who is the mover and shaker in today’s story? Well, the Holy Spirit is certainly the shaker of traditional beliefs of these Jewish Christians. I would say from a scriptural stand point the mover and shaker is the one who wields grace.
Fredrick Buechner said of Paul, ‘Grace is the best he can wish [others] because grace is the best he himself ever received.’