Monday, May 23, 2016

Accepting: Breaking Down Barriers

My Life Group lesson for May 22, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

It has been said that “good fences make good neighbors,” which goes back to a Robert Frost poem called “Mending Wall.”

Question - Do you spend most of your time on your front porch welcoming the world, or in your backyard in isolation?

Do you feel like you spend less time getting to know your neighbors today than when you were growing up?

Why do you think we are less likely to hang out with our neighbors nowadays?

We may build a fence for privacy, for protection or just decoration.

But some walls of separation become barriers that keep us from people and things we don’t like.

North and South Korea are separated by two miles of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and 60 years of history following the Korean War.

Because of the freedoms enjoyed by the South and the poverty and repression in the North, North Koreans are up to three inches shorter than those in the South. The average South Korean woman is now about the same height as the average North Korean man.

East and West Berlin, Germany, were separated for nearly 40 years by the Berlin Wall. During that time the West flourished economically while ten feet away the people in the East were under the boot of communism.

25 years later there are still differences. Of the 500 richest Germans, only 21 are in the east and, of those, 14 are in Berlin. Of the 20 most prosperous cities, only one is in the east.

It has even affected their spiritual lives. Communism does not allow for real religion, and three-quarters of East Germans do not belong to a religious community, while three-quarters of West Germans do.

Today’s lesson deals with God helping Peter overcome a barrier to reach more people to Christ.

We have to tear down some walls to share the gospel to different cultures and backgrounds.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Acts 10:1–11:30

*** The apostles had broken down the barriers with Samaritans, and now in order for The Great Commission to truly extend beyond Judea, Jewish believers had to understand God’s will for the inclusion of Gentiles in the church.

*** In Acts 10:1-8 we meet a Roman centurion named Cornelius who is said to be god-fearing and generous .

--- Cornelius has a vision from the Lord telling him to send messengers to Joppa to get Peter.

*** Peter’s been spending time in Joppa after bringing Tabitha/Dorcas back from the dead.

--- We’ll see today that Peter also receives a vision from God.

*** When Peter and Cornelius get together it would change the shift of Christianity and break down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles.

THE VISION (Acts 10:9-15)

9 The next day, as they were traveling and nearing the city, Peter went up to pray on the housetop about noon. 10 Then he became hungry and wanted to eat, but while they were preparing something, he went into a visionary state. 11 He saw heaven opened and an object that resembled a large sheet coming down, being lowered by its four corners to the earth. 12 In it were all the four-footed animals and reptiles of the earth, and the birds of the sky. 13 Then a voice said to him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat!” 14 “No, Lord!” Peter said. “For I have never eaten anything common and ritually unclean!” 15 Again, a second time, a voice said to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call common.”

*** The Hunger Games.

--- Peter was hungry, both physically and spiritually.

--- How many of us, when we’re super hungry, go pray instead of hovering in the kitchen asking when it will be done?

--- While he was praying, Peter had a vision from God.

*** Eat your veggies!

--- We have trouble breaking down barriers to eat foods we don’t like (fish heads, anyone?).

--- For Peter it was even more serious, and he was unwilling to violate the Old Testament laws that prohibited eating unclean animals.

--- These ceremonial laws had been set up to show their holiness and fulfilling them meant salvation.

--- There were different types of laws. The moral laws of God found in the Mosaic Law were unchangeable, such as those dealing with sexual morality, speaking truth, and honoring parents. They are rooted in the nature of God that does not change.

--- But the ceremonial laws about food were a major reason Jews and Gentiles were set apart. Jews wouldn’t go into a Gentile’s home because they considered them unclean.

--- This would be a sticking point when it came to getting Jewish and Gentile Christians to break down that wall and find fellowship in the early church.

--- God’s telling Peter here that the old ways are gone.

--- In the new era, both Jews and Gentiles are declared “clean” through Christ, not by their works.

--- Jesus had already indicated as much in Mark 7:14-23: “Nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” such as “evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess,[d] blasphemy, pride, and foolishness.” (Mark 7:21-22)

--- Just as the dietary laws no longer apply, there’s no reason to reject anyone who seeks to be part of the family in Christ. ALL are welcome.

--- Peter protested at first, maybe because he did not understand these distinctions at the time of his vision, but he would soon learn the radical implications of what he saw and heard.

--- Of course, he also just touched an unclean dead Tabitha to raise her from the dead, so he was already on the right road.

(As a Gentile I'm thankful that Peter no doubt discovered the awesomeness that is ham and bacon, he also discovered the value of Gentiles in the new Christian world.)

*** Question - In what way might the early church have been impacted if God had allowed Peter to dismiss the heavenly vision?

THE DECLARATION (Acts 10:43-46a)

43 All the prophets testify about Him that through His name everyone who believes in Him will receive forgiveness of sins.” 44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came down on all those who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46a For they heard them speaking in other languages and declaring the greatness of God.

*** The Odd Couple.

--- Immediately after Peter’s vision, the messengers sent by Cornelius arrived at the house where Peter was staying and urged him to accompany them to Caesarea.

--- Peter finally understands the vision he received.

--- Peter knew that the Holy Spirit wanted him to share the gospel with Cornelius and to embrace Gentiles like Cornelius who believed in Jesus as Savior.

*** "The Gentile Pentecost."

--- Peter’s sermon to those with Cornelius was his first chance to preach to a primarily Gentile audience.

--- Peter made clear that the Old Testament prophets all pointed to Jesus as the savior for everyone, not just Jews and works.

--- Amazingly and supernaturally, the Holy Spirit descends on those in the room, just as at Pentecost, and the Gentiles begin speaking other languages.

--- The Jews who had come with Peter and still had doubts about welcoming these “Gentile believers” were flabbergasted and couldn’t doubt any longer that this is what God wanted.

--- Mentioning that these were "circumcised" believers foreshadows an equally major barrier in the early church, since the Gentiles were uncircumcised.

--- Circumcision served as the symbol of God's covenant with Abraham and his descendants, and for Jewish Christians was difficult to accept this change.

--- God can even change those who are not culturally like us, despite our prejudices and expectations.

THE ACCEPTANCE (Acts 10:46b-48)

46b Then Peter responded, 47 “Can anyone withhold water and prevent these people from being baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay for a few days.

*** (“I put my hand upon your hip”) When you dip I dip we dip. (With apologies to Freak Nasty. “)

--- After Peter's vision and now the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentile believers, Peter had all the proof he needed to treat them equally as brothers in Christ.

--- Peter then calls for them to be baptized, a mark of entrance into the church community.

--- It's not required for salvation but it is an outward sign of God’s work in their hearts and their personal faith in Jesus Christ.

*** The walls came down.

--- Cornelius’s conversion was the launching pad of the expansion of the gospel from the Jew to the Gentile.

--- This opened the door even further for the church’s growth and demonstrated God’s love that is freely offered to all.

*** Question – Who in our world might we exclude from sharing the gospel?

--- The walls that exist today may be different, but they are nonetheless real. These walls might be based on race, education, social position, or cultural background.

SUMMARY

Have you ever changed your opinion on an issue you felt strongly about?

In the news lately, the owners of a vegan restaurant in Northern California have received death threats and faced a boycott after angry customers learned the owners started eating meat again.

Matthew and Terces Engelhart were vegetarians for nearly 40 years, but decided to return to eating meat after leaving San Francisco and starting a farm about 55 miles away in Vacaville. They started with eggs and cheese from the farm's chickens and cows. Then, after one old cow had to be put down, they decided it made sense to incorporate meat into their diets as well.

The couple is now being inundated with messages on social media forums criticizing them as "flesh eaters" and calling them hypocrites for owning vegan restaurants but eating meat at home.

In today’s lesson the issue was about far more than diet. God meant for Peter to learn an important lesson about acceptance.

In a similar way, there were people in Peter’s day who didn’t think the gospel should be shared with the Gentiles.

Acts 11:1-18 provides an epilogue to the story.

When Peter returned to Jerusalem, Jewish believers were miffed. They weren’t happy that Peter was associating with Cornelius and Gentiles.

Peter explained his vision from God and the Gentile Pentecost.

The evidence convinced the Jewish Christians that God had accepted the Gentiles, and their faith results in everlasting life the same as they had.

The issue wasn’t over, but it was clear that God was tearing down the walls separating Jewish and Gentile believers.

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

*** (1) Jesus saves all. Romans 10:13 - For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

*** (2) To reach everyone who needs to hear the Word we have to go beyond our cultural comfort zone and be open to all who believe.

*** (3) Take the initiative to expand your relationships at church and through your group. Reach out to those who may feel excluded.

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