Spirit of Love: Loving Neighbor

Acts 10:1-48

This summer in the season after Pentecost we are exploring the movement of the Spirit in the life of Christians. As followers of the resurrected and ascended Jesus, we are alive in the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit empowers the Church (capital-C) to keep reinterpreting the story of Jesus in each new place and each new time. That’s what the Holy Spirit does for us. We are beginning this series on how we can be alive in God’s Spirit with a mini-series on the Spirit of Love. Last week we talked about loving God, and this week we are going to talk about loving neighbor. 

The foundation for loving, the one thing we have to have solid in our minds, is that people are “neighbors” and not “others.” The Bible begins with the affirmation that all humans are created in God’s image because it is so easy for us to separate ourselves from people we don’t like. We don’t like what they *do*, and so we allow ourselves to assume that they are different than we are. Whether we would admit it or not, and usually we would not admit it, we make them less human. We assume that there is something about them that is inherently worse than us, that they somehow deserve our rejection. Now we don’t have to approve of everything that people do, but is is spiritual death for us to assume that we don’t have anything in common, that there’s nothing good about that, or that in the same situation we wouldn’t make the same choices. In our fundamental nature, we are all the same. If we are going too love our neighbor, we must start with that conviction.

We are still following the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren. And I’m so thrilled because the story that McLaren has chosen for this chapter on loving neighbor is in my opinion one of the most important stories in the whole Bible, and it’s one I’m not sure I ever heard growing up. It is from the book of Acts chapter 10, and it’s decently long, but it’s so good.

Let me remind you of the context: at this point, the followers of Jesus have had the experience of being filled with the Spirit such that they spoke in languages they didn’t know. And then the community began to grow and expand, out of Jerusalem, into the rest of Judea, then the Samaria, and then into the rest of the ancient world. 

Here’s the key: being filled with the Spirit and speaking in tongues as described in the book of Acts is always about two things – boldness and inclusion.

First: It’s about receiving a new sense of boldness when it comes to living out the gospel. I’m not talking about arrogance; I’m talking about confidence. I’m talking about comfortable in your own skin, excited about your own experience of Jesus Christ, and able to speak authentically and powerfully about it. The historic Christian word for that is testimony, in Greek it’s martyria. When we are filled with the Spirit we live and speak authentically about our allegiance to Jesus as Lord. We are bold.

Secondly, speaking in tongues is evidence that former outsiders are now insiders. In Acts chapter 8 Samaritans begin speaking in tongues and the Jesus-following Jews are like, “What?!” Remember the Jews looked down on Samaritans because although the Samaritans also worshipped God they didn’t have the right bloodlines and they didn’t worship in the right place or the right way. So when the Samaritans start speaking in tongues, the Jesus-following Jews are like, “Well, we know what that experience means, so I guess they’re in.”

Which brings us to chapter 10. Listen in the reading of scripture for the boldness and inclusion and the word and wisdom of God. 

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 

<This is a Gentile man and a Gentile household. They love and worship the one true God, but are not ethnically Jewish, they don’t follow all the Jewish customs, and they can’t participate fully in worship.> 

One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”

Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.

The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”

When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

<The Old Testament, which was Peter’s holy scripture, is very clear about which animals are acceptable for human food. Peter is having a personal experience of God in which God is telling Peter to disobey clearly written scripture.>

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.

While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”

Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”

The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.

The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along. The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”

While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. <Notice that Peter has received wisdom from the Holy Spirit, to fully understand what his vision was about. It wasn’t about kosher eating. It was about people.> So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”

Cornelius told Peter his own experience and said: “So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation those who revere him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us 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 whom God appointed 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.”

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers <the Jesus-following Jews> who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

This is a story that requires no further interpretation from me. It’s all right there in the text.

God has shown me that I must not call anyone impure or unclean.”

No one is unclean

There is no one who is not made in God’s image.

No one is unclean

There is no one who deserves to be shut out of God’s beloved community.

No one is unclean

There is no one who is beyond God’s forgiveness and redemption.

No one is unclean

There is no one God gives us permission to hate.

No one is unclean

There is no one who does not carry within themselves the inherent goodness spoken over all of humanity by God on the sixth day of creation. 

No one is unclean

The thing about the true gospel of Jesus Christ is that it challenges and judges us all equally. And it forgives and liberates us all equally. There’s no outside of it. It has been twisted and misused and I believe we, us, this congregation, are being called by God to try to untwist it and use it for the healing of the world. Which means all of it has to apply to everyone equally. It can’t only challenge the people I challenge, and only forgive the people I forgive, because God doesn’t show favoritism. No one is unclean. Jesus demands that his followers love our neighbors and forgive our enemies. No one is unclean.

In closing I want you to listen again to some of the verses we read this morning:

God does not show favoritism but accepts all who revere God and do what is right. The Resurrected Christ is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead and everyone who trusts in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. No one is unclean.


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