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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Returning the Favor: Cornelius, the Jews, and the Church

This is a sermon I preached Sunday, April 30, 2006, at a church in Pasadena, California, where Mark Kinzer and I had visited the week before, and Mark had taught a class on the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm. The sermon in part speaks of the kind of relationship of mutual respect we advocate between Christians and Jews. The text is the tenth chapter of the Book of Acts, the story of Peter and Cornelius.

Last Sunday, I sat in your balcony and cried.

I was here with my friend Mark Kinzer, who taught Dr. Bruce Wear’s class that morning. We stayed afterward for the service. You may remember it was a baptismal service.

What moved me about that service was the way Pastors Lori Cornell and Barbara Pettit exuded the warm, unambiguous, welcoming and accepting love of Christ and His church to the two children baptized that day. As I sat up there in the balcony, strangely moved, I realized this: “I’ve been looking for that kind of warm, unambiguous, welcoming and accepting love all my life.”

I’ll bet it’s that way with you too. I’ll bet deep inside you too long to be fully embraced by a love that will not let you go, fully accepted, fully affirmed, fully welcomed . . .and for once in your life really safe.

Today, we are examining together the story of how that kind of love found a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. There are lessons here for every one of us, because all of us are meant to be both recipients . . .and messengers . . . of this kind of love—the love of God.

Cornelius was a centurion, a member of the Italian Cohort. A centurion was a Roman army officer in charge of a hundred men. We read that this particular centurion was a God-fearer--that is to say, he was a monotheist, a Gentile who worshipped the One True God, the God of Israel, and followed the paths of Jewish piety, although stopping short of conversion. In New Testament times, an estimated ten per cent of the population of the Roman Empire consisted of God-fearers.

We read of Cornelius that “2He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3One afternoon at about three o'clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, 'Cornelius.'" Cornelius was praying at 3:00 PM, a time when Jews prayed because it was a time of Temple sacrifice. He also was a man who gave generously to the poor among the people—something called in Jewish life, “ts’dakkah.” More than charity, ts’dakkah is sharing with others what you have yourself, even if you too are needy.

There are so many lessons here for us, and many sermons. But what I want us to notice first is that Cornelius, who is not yet a believer in Jesus, already has a reputation in heaven. The angel calls him by name, and then says to him in “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.”

Let us fast forward to our own lives for a moment. Aren’t there other people you know, people like Cornelius, who are not Christians, who have not accepted baptism as those two boys did last week, but whose lives demonstrate their regard for the true and living God? Such people seek him in prayer, and they serve him in how they treat others.

Can we not hear afresh the message of this text? Are we prepared to believe that such persons who seek the True and Living God, and who seek to serve him in their relationships with others, are already known and valued in heaven—even if it is true that God would like them to receive the blessings of the gospel message, perhaps through our lips. as did Cornelius?

So my first big question for us all is this: “How do we as people of God treat such 'others' who are not of our own fold, but whom God considers to be seekers of Himself?”

This story explores these issues further as it tells us of Peter. Who is given a vision that repeats the same images three times in succession. Peter does not at first understand what he has seen.

11He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13Then he heard a voice saying, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat." 14But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean." 15The voice said to him again, a second time, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." 16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.


We read as well that “Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen.”

And many Christians to this day do not rightly understand this vision either.

Many people think this is a vision about how Peter was liberated from Jewish kosher laws—that the Lord is telling him, “Peter, nice Jewish boy. I’ve just changed the rules! Have a ham sandwich! Enjoy!”

I won’t ask how many of you think this is vision about what Peter ought to eat. But, as we find out later, that’s not what the vision is about at all! In common with just about every other vision in the Bible, the vision comes first, and the interpretation comes later. Peter goes through a process of coming to understand, and doesn’t discover fully what the vision is about until he gets to the home of Cornelius three days later. During the three days between his vision and his arrival at Cornelius’ house he was thinking about the vision. We don’t know when the interpretation fell into place for him, but probably it was in stages, and finalized at Cornelius' house.

As a faithful Jew, all of his life Peter had thought of Gentiles as categorically idol-worshippers, ritually unclean. Off-limits untouchables. Now God has taught him differently. That’s why Peter says “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” So the vision wasn’t about food at all—it was about people.

My second big question then for all of us is this: ∫Please don’t say, “Well, no one really Rabbi! I love everyone and am comfortable with everyone!” I see. You’re comfortable with homosexuals. Transsexuals. Cross-dressers. Undocumented aliens. Muslims. Satanists. Abortion providers. Democrats.

I hope I have demonstrated here that ALL of us have groups that are categorically out of bounds, permanent untouchables. Now it is not that God has no standards. But he is much more quick to change people’s untouchable status than we are. We are the ones who find it almost impossible to believe that such people can be reached, changed, and loved by God. For us, such people are permanently “other.”

We ought not to underestimate the extraordinary worldview change that Peter went through in those three days. It was a revolution: a spiritual and ideological earthquake. But the Holy Spirit reached him and got through to him so that he could say these revolutionary words, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” What a remarkable change. What a revolution. What an earthquake. What a great day.

Hear that fantastic text once more.

God shows NO partiality, but in EVERY nation ANYONE who fears him and does what is right is ACCEPTABLE to him. Muslim Iranians Lord? Yes. Militant Iraquis Lord? Yes. Palestinians Lord? Yes. Israeli Jews, Lord? Yes. Democrats Lord? Lord?

This doesn’t mean that the gospel is superfluous by the way. This is not a story about unbounded pluralism. Remember, God sent Peter to Cornelius to preach the gospel to him, to his household and to his friends. But it DOES mean that we all have boundaries within us that are not the same as God’s. So my third big question is this: Could it be that there are people He is willing to accept whom you are not yet ready for?

I am reminded of the story of Albert B. Simpson, a Canadian born Presbyterian Minister who was called to a posh Manhattan Church in the second half of the 19th century. He had a restless evangelistic spirit, and took to going down to the docks and preaching to the Italian immigrants there. When some of these began to embrace the gospel he was preaching, Simpson wanted to bring them back to the Church. The elders told him that he was welcome to have some sort of afternoon service for the immigrants, but that they were not welcome in the morning service with the proper members of this church. Simpson took that as his cue to leave, and left to eventually found the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

What are the lessons for us here?

The first lesson is the extraordinary love of God—a love that reaches out even to those considered by others or even themselves to be untouchable and unlovable. This story speaks of a love that seeks us out and will not let us go.

The second lesson is that we all likely still have much to learn about God and his ways, and the heights, the depths, the length, the breadth of his sovereign love. Peter had been an Apostle for years when this story takes place, yet it was only in this context of his encounter with Cornelius years after Pentecost that he learned that he should not call any person profane or unclean, and that “God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him’” Some of us may think we know God and his ways very well: but we all still have much growing to do and must learn to be humble about what we know of who God really is and eager and receptive to learning more.

The third lesson is this one: it is time to return the favor.

I speak to you as a Jew. At one time all religious Jews, including the Apostles of Jesus, thought that Gentiles were categorically unclean, and more likely untouchable idolaters if anything. Then came this Pentecost for the Gentiles—when Cornelius became the first of many millions of non- Jews who would be filled with the Spirit and immersed in the waters of holy baptism. Now the shoe is on the other foot. Once it was the pious Cornelius who had a reputation in heaven, whose gifts and prayers had ascended as a memorial offering before God. Now it is time for the Church to return the favor—to recognize that there are religious Jews, myriads of them throughout history, like Cornelius, known by name in heaven, whose prayers and gifts to the poor have ascended as a memorial offering before God. It is good right and proper to show such people what the Angel showed Cornelius: respect. And it is always time to do as Peter did, to share the gospel with them, but always respectfully, recognizing that “God shows NO partiality, but in EVERY nation ANYONE who fears him and does what is right is ACCEPTABLE to him.” Treat pious Jews as acceptable to God, and they just might treat as acceptable the gospel that comes from your lips as Cornelius did from Peter.

The key to deeply learning all these lessons is this. It is not a doctrine. Not a teaching. It is the Being of God. Ultimately our greatest hope, our only hope is who God truly is. As God told Moses, He is “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and compassionate, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Our only hope is to be fully embraced by a love that will not let you go, fully accepted, fully affirmed, fully welcomed . . .and for once our life, really safe.

When you truly know Him this way, you will realize without a problem, without a stretch, and without a doubt that his love is big enough for just about everybody—even your own personal untouchables.

The Lord says: Even Maxine Waters. Even George Bush. Even Barbara Boxer. Even Donald Rumsfeld. And maybe even Democrats.

Shalom.

At 5/02/2006 7:27 AM, Anonymous Tyler Watson said...

Thanks for this great sermon. My wife, friends, and I discussed it for a long time after the worship service on Sunday. Blessings.

 
At 5/02/2006 12:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Treat pious Jews as acceptable to God, and they just might treat as acceptable the gospel that comes from your lips as Cornelius did from Peter."

Can you elaborate on this? On the face of your statement, you seem to be saying:

"Even though you don't believe those religious Jews are going to heaven, try this as an evangelistic strategy--treat them as if they are saved. Then if you earn their trust, they might just actually listen to the one true way to get saved."

You do a good job of drawing very firm lines when you post to your blog, but it seemed that you did a bit of backpedaling. I'm sure you know that your unadulterated message would be too much for that particular audience, but why, oh why, did you give the impression that pious Jews aren't saved unless they hear the christian gospel?

 
At 5/02/2006 7:58 PM, Blogger Stuart Dauermann said...

Dear Mr. Watson,.

Good question. I am saying NOTHING about Jews "getting saved." The eternal destiny of people is entirely in the hands of God, and in my view, is always a consequence of the work of Messiah on our behalf. which God applies to whomever He wills however He wills. I DO believe that it is appropriate to share the good news of Messiah with Jewish people, not because we are convinced they are needy, lost, or spiritually vacant without our message, but because it glorifies God for us to do so and for His chosen people to believe in the One whom He has sent, and because there are spiritual dynamics made available to those who know Yeshua as Messiah which are not otherwise experienced [what the Letter to the Hebrews calls "a foretaste of the age to come."

One of my watchwords is this "Proclaim the Name of Yeshua, not the neediness of Jews," Our Message to the jewish people is this: "The Messiah has come, His Nam,e is Yeshua, and this is the best possible news for all Israel."

I hope this helps. Thanks again for your question.

 
At 5/03/2006 7:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know what you think, and I find it admirable. But your listeners are not attuned to your finely tuned nuances. Haven't they been immersed in the standard Jewish missions paradigm? Of course they have been. You think they are up to speed on your emerging paradigm? Of course you don't.
Be honest, you carefully worded your sermon so that you could say something in line with your new thinking, knowing full well that it would be understood in a totally different way.

I understand that you are on the cutting edge of Jewish missions. I can also appreciate that you were in a church and the context was not one of trying to change presuppositions.

But couldn't you have achieved your goal by saying something along the following:

"There is a growing understanding among Evangelical Christians that God applies the work of Christ with much more grace than our traditional theology has previously contemplated. Whether or not this is true, can't we all agree that confrontational evangelism has historically made it more difficult to share the love of God in Christ Jesus? I know that is true among my people. May I suggest that we learn to treat Jews, especially pious Jews who clearly fit the pattern established by Cornelius,as acceptable to God. If we do change our stance toward God's chosen, even slightly to allow for the possibility of their having a relationship with our Father in heaven, then they just might treat as acceptable the gospel that comes from your lips as Cornelius did from Peter. And if nothing less, won't this lead all of us to being better disciples, showing love and treating the gospel of love with the tenderness that it deserves?

Just something to think about.

 
At 5/03/2006 10:39 PM, Blogger jon cline said...

Thanks Dr. D for your thoughts here. I am so grateful for your attention to detail and your love of the Scriptures for their every nuance and in this case, clear and oft overlooked statement.

I do think it inappropriate to tell a teacher how they should deliver their message. Interacting with the message is one thing, but haggling over semantics and syntax seems evasive and sadly often misses the point of the message.

I found this section compelling as it ruffles the feathers of my historical understanding of God as on who adheres to clear guidelines of which most are clearly understood by the theological establishment:

>>>

"I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."

...

Can we not hear afresh the message of this text? Are we prepared to believe that such persons who seek the True and Living God, and who seek to serve him in their relationships with others, are already known and valued in heaven—even if it is true that God would like them to receive the blessings of the gospel message, perhaps through our lips. as did Cornelius?

So my first big question for us all is this: “How do we as people of God treat such 'others' who are not of our own fold, but whom God considers to be seekers of Himself?”

>>>

In my mind, I am coming to see our God in a much larger capacity. If all truth is God's, regardless of who cites it, writes it, or benefits from it, then it would seem that there are more resources to communicate the truth of God then the Scriptures alone - maybe even some Pagan poems...

If this is true in regards to truth, could it be true that God is honored in many ways by many people outside the boundaries I have setup as orthodox, pure, or otherwise acceptable. It seems that all our good works are not actually filthy rags after all - but acceptable to God.

Wow, imagine the relationships we could build by affirming the God owned truth spoken and the acceptable good works done by those not claiming to follow our Messiah.

We might just become salt and light and some of us might just find some unbelieving friends...

 

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