God’s Grace For Every Race

Delivered October 13, 2002 by Jill M.,
Missions Coordinator for CPC.

Theme: Jesus isn’t just my savior, but savior for the whole world, all races, all people. God is drawing people from every tribe, language, people and nation to himself. We can be willing and ready for God to use us cross culturally, whether that’s here in Baltimore or around the world, to go and tell someone about his grace.

Sermon Text:
Acts 8-10

When I was growing up I lived in a small town in Indiana, which means that I lived in a predominantly white middle class Protestant-farming community. We had a few token black families in town and a few token Catholic families, but pretty much we were pretty vanilla. Actually I found out in college that the KKK headquarters used to be a couple of towns up from our town so now I understand why there wasn’t much diversity, but I didn’t know that growing up. I became a Christian in high school and I began to learn what it meant that Jesus was my savior, but I was a long way from understanding what it meant that Jesus was the savior of the world. Then I went away to college in Chicago and got quite an education in my freshman year. I don’t think the housing officials had any idea the life changing impact that they were making by putting our little hall of gals together. I moved in a little naive southern Indiana girl with my roommate, Nalini Matai who was from Guiana. She was Hindu and Indian by nationality. Next door to us was Kim, a Jewish gal from New York City who couldn’t believe that there were cornfields half hour from where we lived. Across the hall from us was Sara, a Moslem gal from a Filipino background from New Jersey and next door to here was Sherry, a black girl from the south side of Chicago who was rooming with Betsy, a very white Catholic girl from the far north side of Chicago. We were something else. But the six of us actually became very very good friends and did everything together our freshman year and including talking about our different religious beliefs and how they influenced our lives, especially when it came to ordering pizza, which we did often, because based on who was ordering, you know Sarah couldn’t have certain things on it and Kim could have this, but not this and Nalini could have certain things and we did pretty well with cheese, but it did influence how we ordered pizza. We had a lot of interesting discussions about what we believed and it continued to expand my heart for what it meant, that Jesus wasn’t only my savior, but wanted to be the savior of the world and I realized that everything that people said about, well they are just different religions with different paths reaching to God wasn’t true, because everything that my friends believed was radically, radically different from what I believed. By the end of the year, my Bible study leader and I had shared the gospel message with each one of my friends and sadly not one of them trusted in Christ. In fact, my friend Sarah shared with me that her father, who is Moslem, had kept since he was a young man a diary where on the right hand page he would write down all of the good things that he could remember that he had done each day and on the left hand page all of the bad things that he could remember that he had done that day, knowing that on judgment day the angel on his right shoulder would give an account of all of the good things that he had done and the angel on his left shoulder would give an account of all of the bad things that he had done and if the good outweighed the bad, then he would get to go to heaven. She thought, she was 17, she thought it was probably a good idea that she started keeping a similar journal so that she would know if that good list was outweighing the bad and I thought, what a way to live at 17 years of age. Not the way I want to live. I will take God’s grace any day. Thank you very much.

Today we are going to be looking at three different interactions that God has with three different people in Acts, Chapter 8 through 10. We are not going to be reading all of them, but three pretty big chunks, to give you three accounts of three different interactions that God has with three different people. In Chapter 8, we will be looking at the Ethiopian eunuch, in Chapter 9 at the Jewish leader Saul and in Chapter 10 at Cornelius, the Italian centurion. If you want to read along in the pew Bibles, we are on page 777, otherwise you are free to follow along with the screen. Let’s start in Chapter 8, Verse 26. This is God’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch.

“Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, go south to the desert road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. So he started out and on his way he met a Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury at Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The spirit told Philip, go to that chariot and stay near it. Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. Do you understand what you are reading? Philip asked. How can I unless someone explains it to me, so he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. The eunuch was reading this passage of scripture and it’s from Isaiah 53, 7 and 8. The eunuch asked Philip, tell me please who is the prophet talking about? Himself or someone else. Then Philip began with that very passage of scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, look here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized and he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down in to the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.”

Now there are several differences we are going to see between the Ethiopian, Saul and Cornelius. Racially, culturally, socia-economically and spiritually, they are quite different. First, the Ethiopian is black, being from Africa. Culturally, he is Ethiopian and he is also a eunuch, which means that as part of the queen’s service, there was a group of men who were eunuchs, who were in a unique culture, just that group of people who had special responsibilities and a unique service to the queen. Socia-economically, he was quite powerful, being one of the queen’s highest officials, but he was still a servant and spiritually he was confused. He knew that there was something in Jerusalem that was special, and there was something in this book that was special, but he was confused. He didn’t know the answers.

In Acts 9, we meet quite a different person in Saul. We will be reading Acts 9, 1 through 20 and right from the beginning we see that he is a very different person than the Ethiopian.

“Meanwhile Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lords disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the way, which were the followers of Jesus, whether men or women he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, Saul, Saul why do you persecute me? Who are you Lord? Saul asked. I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting he replied. Now get up and go in to the city and you will be told what you must do. The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless. They heard this sound, but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes, he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand in to Damascus. For three days he was blind and did not eat or drink anything. In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, Ananias. Yes Lord, he answered. The Lord told him go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he had seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

Now you have to understand that Ananias knew who is Saul of Tarsus was. He was the one who was persecuting the Christians, so just in case God had forgotten that, Ananias takes a minute here to remind God, just to make sure he’s got the right person here.

“Lord, Ananias answered. I have heard many reports about this man, just in case you have forgotten who he is and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. You sure you got the right guy here? And he has come here with authority from the chief priest to arrest all who call on your name. You sure you got the right guy? You sure you want to send me to him? But the Lord said to Ananias, go. This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name. Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul he said, Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here, has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.”

And so we look at the differences between the Ethiopian and Saul. Racially, Saul is Jewish. Culturally, he is also Jewish, but he is a Pharisee as well. He is a particular kind of Jewish person. That means that he was well schooled in the law and he was strong adherent to it, making sure that he legalistically followed everything that was in the law. Socia-economically, he was also a Pharisee. He was one of the rulers. We know that he was well educated and that he was wealthy, that he spoke at least three languages, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek and spiritually he was dogmatic. He was zealous.

And then there is one last interaction. God’s interaction with Cornelius. And this one is especially important for all of us if we haven’t grown up in a Jewish background. Just like I had to go through a transition from realizing that Jesus isn’t just my Savior, but he is the savior of the world, Peter and the disciples had to go through a similar transformation of realizing that Jesus wasn’t just their Messiah as Jews, but that he was the Messiah of the whole world. And although Cornelius is a Caucasian or a European, he is really all of our model in this situation in that, he is a Gentile. So whether we are black or white or Asian or Indian, this is the situation where Peter and the disciples began to realize that no matter who they were, if they were Gentiles, God didn’t show any favoritism and was welcoming them in to the family of God. So we are going to read Acts 10, 1 through 8 and then skipping down to 19 and then skipping down to 34. It’s a long passage, but boy this is where we get included, recognized as being included in to the family of God, so it’s an important one for us.

“At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian regiment. He and all of his family were devout and God fearing. He gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon, he had a vision. He distinctively 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 Simon, who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea. When the angel that spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who is one of his attendants and he told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.”

Then there are a few verses here that tell us about Peter’s vision and his vision was that God had come to him and put clean and unclean animals before him and told him to eat both and that would have been unthinkable to him as a Jewish person to eat unclean animals, but God commands him to in his dream, in his vision and he is not quite sure what to do about that, but he wants to be obedient to his Lord. So then in Verse 19:

“While Peter is still thinking about the vision, the spirit said to him, Simon three men are downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them for I have sent them. Peter went down and said to the men, I am the one you are 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 have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say. Then Peter invited the men in to the house to be his guest. The next day Peter started out with them and some of the brothers 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. Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people.”

Can you imagine what an evangelistic appointment. You show up thinking you are going to talk to one man and here is a whole room full of all of his friends and family.

“He said to them, you are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him, but God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask you why you sent for me?” And then Cornelius retells about the angel’s visit from the beginning of the chapter. “Then Peter begins to speak. I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what it right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ who is Lord of all. You know what has happened through Judaea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached, how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power. 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 tree, 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 and 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.” Not a bad gospel presentation there. “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished, although they should not have been, but they were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.”

And so the differences here with Cornelius to highlight, racially he is Caucasian. He is Italian, European. Culturally, he is Roman, but he is also part of the military culture. Socia-economically, he is a centurion, which means that he was a commander over one hundred men and spiritually, he is seeking. He is a God fearer. He was doing everything that he knew to do to follow the Jewish God and yet he was still at a distance.

So these are some of their differences. They are three very, very different people from very different backgrounds and yet God relates to them in his grace in a very, very similar way.

First, God’s grace exposes a sin problem. All three of these men are very successful in their own right. Either successful in the queen’s service, successful as a persecuting Pharisee, or successful in the military. They are trying in their own ways to get to God through their own works, by what they are doing, by reading the word, by going to worship in Jerusalem, by persecuting Christians, by trying to keep true to their understanding of the law, by being generous and giving to others, by doing good deeds, but their works aren’t getting them to the Lord. His grace exposes a sin problem and they can’t get their on their own.

His grace also creates a hunger for him. Each one of them knows that there is something more. The Ethiopian eunuch travels to Jerusalem to worship. He knows that there is something there that he needs, even though he hasn’t seemed to have found it. Cornelius and his family are trying to get as close as they can to this Jewish God, but something is still keeping them at a distance. In each situation, before a disciple is sent to tell them about Jesus, it’s evident that God’s hand is already at work in their lives. The spirit has gone ahead and created a hunger in them to know Jesus.

And then third, God’s grace provides the answer in Jesus. It’s not until they meet him, for Saul literally on the road to Damascus, but for the other two through the disciple as they hear the truth about Jesus, then the hunger in their souls is finally met. And then fourth, God’s grace sends someone to them. Someone to go and tell, to tell them the truth about him. In each situation, we hear those words, Go. Philip go to the eunuch. Go to the chariot. Go to the road. And he gets there not knowing exactly what’s going to happen and oh, here is this chariot with a person reading a book about Isaiah. Ananias, go to Saul of Tarsus. Excuse me, yeah. That guy is the one I want you to go to. Peter, I want you to go to this Gentiles home, but we are not supposed to go to their homes. Remember that, that is against your law. No, I want you to go to him and his family. They are included in my family too. For each one of the three disciples it was a risk. Philip had to be available for the angel to send him. He was going his own way and he had to be rerouted. Ananias had to recognize his expendability. He went at risk of his life. And Peter had to be flexible and to risk his reputation, to realize that the other disciples might not believe his vision, that they might question him. But he went in risk of his own reputation.

And finally, God’s grace leads to praise or proclamation. Each one of them in the end, either went away rejoicing, went to go on to proclaim that Jesus is the son of God, or to praise him. And what an amazing thing that God lets us be a part of this. I don’t know about your stories, but this is the exact thing that happened with me. I grew up in a family and going to a church where being a Christian meant being a good person and so that’s what I did. I worked really hard to be a good person, but the more I did that, the more frustrated that I became, that I couldn’t be the person that I knew a Holy God required, which was perfect and I knew that I wasn’t perfect and at the same time, God was creating a hunger in me to know the truth. I just didn’t know what it was. Thankfully, he sent a couple of friends and a Campus Life director who told me about Jesus and once I heard the truth, it was like that’s it. That’s so simple. Why didn’t anybody tell me that and maybe someone had, but I just didn’t have ears to hear it, but that it wasn’t about me making my way to God, but it was about Jesus having made his way to me and dying for me. And then it became easy to want to tell my friends about Jesus. I was scared out of my mind, yes, but it made me want to tell them. God’s grace for every race.

If you read the News and Views last week you know that I spent a summer in the Soviet Union on a missions trip in college and I was hooked. Two years later, I went back for two years after the coup, much to my parents dismay and helped to establish a campus ministry with some of the students there who had become believers, while it was still a closed country of the Soviet Union. One of the gals that I met there was named Tasha. I met her through one of the summer projects or through one of her history classes. We had gone to speak in the history class and I was talking a little bit about American student life and culture and shared a little bit about Christianity and a little bit about my own faith story and she was very adamant in class that Christianity and academia had nothing to do with each other and shouldn’t be talked about in class and there I was standing up in front of her class. Okay. Then at the end of class she came running up to me and she so wanted to talk about Christianity and Jesus. I thought, are you the same girl that was just… okay. We got together afterward and she so wanted to hear about Jesus and we talked for a little bit and then I gave her a Bible and I encouraged her to read the Gospel of John and we got together a few days later and she had read the Gospel of John and written down loads of questions and why did Jesus say this and what does this mean and why did he tell this person this because that doesn’t seem very nice and what does this mean and well why did he say this, I mean long list of questions and then she had also read, Matthew, Mark and Luke and done the same thing and she talked to her mom about Jesus and she talked to several of her friends and could they come to our discussion the next time we met. Okay. That would be fine. Needless to say, she became a Christian a few weeks later. I didn’t by any means answer all of her questions. She continues to ask many, that theologians have been pondering for years. It is now well over ten years later and she is studying for a master’s degree in Christian education at Dallas Theological Seminary, so that she can go back and continue to be a teacher among her people in Russia.

There is another gal that I met, another Natasha, several years later at the ministry there in St. Petersburg had been turned over to all Russian staff and they were having a summer project, their own mission trip, taking students from the campus down to the Black Sea, where a lot of the students vacation during the summer and this was by no means an American mission trip. It was very rustic and I was going partly because some of my friends were going, that’s one of the reasons you go on mission trips because your friends are going and it’s going to be fun, and on the beach the Black sea is beautiful and I thought this would be a great time to hang out with my friend Irma along the beach and we hadn’t seen each other for a few years and I thought this was going to be wonderful. We will be roommates and we will get to stay up late and talk and I got there and no, I was going to room with Natasha. It came to find out that Natasha was the most obnoxious girl that was there and the reason they were putting me with her is that none of them liked her, and she hardly spoke any English. They weren’t sure she was a Christian. In fact, they were pretty convinced that she wasn’t and the only reason she had come on the trip is because she wanted to go on vacation. But she had been hanging out with them for about a year and the Christian group up in St. Petersburg and she assured them that she was a Christian, even though none of them believed her. They thought she just told them that because she wanted to go on the trip. She was from a Moslem area of Russia and they were still convinced that she was still a Moslem. So we kind of got to be friends and she would ask me all of these deep theological questions in Russian and I would look at her with this “I want to understand what you are saying, but I have no idea what you are asking me” look on my face and smile and nod and then go get someone to translate for us. So finally one afternoon I asked one of the staff gals who did understand English very well, if she would translate for us so we could get this over and done with and she rolled her eyes and was like, it’s not going to make any difference. She has been asking us the same questions all year and you are not going to tell her anything differently from what we have all told her. I said, “I know, I know, but we have to have this conversation.” So we went out and we were floating in the Black Sea, not a bad place to have an evangelistic appointment, and talked for a couple of hours and Natasha would ask her questions of Olga and Olga would roll her eyes and ask me and then she would translate back and we went back and forth like this for about two hours. And she would ask things like, if you believe in God and I believe in Allah, and God and Allah are the same person, then why am I not okay? And I would say things like, well because my God, the God of the Bible and the God of the Koran, Allah are not the same. They are different. They are described differently. They have different character qualities. They are different and they are not the same. So if I am believing A and you are believing B, then A and B aren’t equal, like a math equation. We went round and round like this for two hours. And finally at the end she said, okay. I said Olga, what does that mean? She said, I don’t know. I said, well ask her what that means. She asked her and she says that she believes. She was really a willing translator here. And I was like, does she really? Like not the emotional decision kind of note here. A very intellectual decision. She says, yeah she says she believes, but I don’t believe her. And I said, okay. Ask her what’s changed. And Olga said that nothing you have said is what we haven’t said to her all year, and I said all right but ask her what changed. And she said, I finally believe. You have convinced me. I thought, there is nothing in me that has convinced her. It’s just that they were tilling the soil and tilling the soil and tilling the soil in her hardened heart all year and for whatever reason in God’s grace, he took me from Virginia to St. Petersburg on planes, trains and automobiles literally down to the Black Sea so that I got to pick the fruit off. She was that ready. God did it. It was not me. There was nothing about me that made me special. I do not have the gift of evangelism, I promise you. But it was really fun. It was really really fun and later that day she was out on the beach telling other people about Jesus. God’s grace for every race.

What does this mean for us. First, it means that we can assume that God is drawing people from every tribe, language, people and nation to himself. God is true to his word and he is drawing people from every tribe, language, people and nation to himself. Second, it means that we can pray for our missionaries and for the mission field in light of this. When our missionaries are discouraged, when they are not seeing a lot of fruit, when they are out there day after day after day and progress is slow, we can encourage them and we can pray for them in light of this, that God is drawing people to himself. Third, it means that we can pray for those who persecute Christians and are our enemies in light of this. It means that we can pray for Saddam Hussein to come to Christ, as unbelievable at that seems, he is not beyond God’s reach. It means that we can pray for those in communist China who are persecuting Christians to come to Christ. It means that we can pray for those who are in positions of leadership throughout the Middle East who are persecuting Christians or who are keeping the word from going forth, to come to Christ. It also means more locally that because God welcomes people of all races and nationalities in to his family, that we can be people who welcome all races and personalities in to our fellowship here at Central.

You know it’s always been very ironic to me that well since becoming a Christian, that some of the groups in our nation who are so committed to white supremacy and who think that they are going to get to heaven and it’s going to be all white people, are going to be really surprised when they get up there and find out that white people are the minority, because God’s family is very, very, very diverse and it’s going to be beautiful and when he talks about all of us reflecting him and his bride, it’s a beautiful bride and she’s made up of all different nationalities and all different people and all different colors and all of us together reflect his beauty and his creation. So we can get used to that now, so that heaven won’t be such a shock.

And finally, it means that we can be willing and ready for God to use us cross culturally, whether that’s again here in Baltimore or around the world, to go and tell someone about his grace. When I was getting ready for the missions celebration I was photo copying some things at Kinkos and the man that was helping me was from Kenya and so we got talking and he asked me if I had been to Kenya and I said no but that I had some friends who had gone and was talking about their trip and experiences and how much they enjoyed it and how much I would like to go someday and I thought he’s from Kenya and he’s working at our Kinko’s down here. The world is not so far away. It’s right here in our neighborhood.

Last week I had the opportunity to talk to the guy who cuts my hair about Christ. It was a shock for me. We have spoken about spiritual things for the last five years, but this was the first time that we really got in to the gospel. We did fine until we started talking about Jesus and sin, then he got a little nervous and that’s okay. That is where he should get nervous. It’s never easy to look at our sin and at the end he said, so Jill do you really believe, this is how I knew he understood, he said, do you really believe that these millions and millions of people around the world that don’t know Jesus are going to hell? I said, well if the Bible is true and Jesus is who he said he was, then that’s what the Bible teaches, but it teaches even more than that. It teaches that those people right now are living apart from God’s love and forgiveness. That’s why I do what I do. That’s why I am committed to talking to people about Jesus right now. I said, you may not believe me, you may not believe the Bible, but if I had the cure to cancer and I didn’t tell anybody and you don’t have to believe me that I have the cure the cancer, but if I did, if I thought I did and I didn’t tell anybody, what would you think of me? We have the spiritual cure to cancer, to people’s spiritual cancer. And we don’t have to tell anybody. God will not love us anymore than he does, we can’t make him love us anymore or any less. We don’t have to tell anybody and he won’t love us anymore. WE don’t have to tell anybody and he won’t love us any less, but gosh what an amazing thing, that he let’s us, that he invites us to be a part of what he is doing around the world. Let’s pray.

Jesus, thank you for your abundant and amazing grace in our lives. Thank you that you have showered that down upon us and in an amazing, amazing way you ask us to go and to tell. Thank you that your family is so wide, that you are accepting of all races, of all people, of all nations, that you don’t show favoritism, you only ask us to come and follow you. Thank you for having mercy on me. Thank you for sending someone to come and tell me and thank you for using me to help Tasha and Natasha come to know you. I know it’s not me Lord, thank you for just using this little girl from Indiana to help a few people around the world come in to your family. We love you God. Amen.