Monday, February 11, 2013

The Graciousness of God: Naaman and Elisha, Cornelius and Peter

Preached at Silverton Friends Church
Feb. 10, 2013

Before I get to the actual sermon, I want to share with you some of my own story.  Growing up Christian, as I did, and as perhaps some of you did, resulted in my getting the Gospel message mixed up with the Christian culture variation I grew up in.  I made God like my parents and other adults I was around, the negative as well as the positive.  I did not have much understanding of the enduring love of God, and how that is a part of God's character, nor of God's grace.  I lived in fear of the Rapture catching me in an imperfect state.  I feared God would abandon me for mysterious reasons.  

Because God is love, God began tutoring me about how God loves when I was in my teens, a rebellious and sincere spiritual seeker.  God met me at various times, never insisting I be all perfect first.  And a few years ago, when I was so angry at God for messing up my life, I was in church during our time of silent waiting, and I heard God say, "Look at me." Just like a little kid, I kept my head down in sulky anger.  I felt God take my chin and tip up my head and God looked into my eyes, and I saw nothing in God's eyes except love.  This is what I want everyone I know to experience.  God loves me, God loves you, even if or when we don't like it. 

When I took this denominational job, God placed these words of Jesus in front of me: "Come to me, all you who labor and are carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke on you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in my spirit, and your souls will find rest.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." When I have found the load heavy, I try to off-load it onto Jesus because of this promise of partnership and because Jesus is strong and smart. Jesus wants to partner with each one of us.

The two stories that caught me as I prepared for today’s sermon were the story of Naaman and Elisha and the story of Cornelius and Peter.  One from the Old Testament, one from the New.  Listen to the stories in a slightly free-range version, and then later you can read them in 2 Kings 5 and Acts 10.  To be sure, there are some differences, but those seem minor compared to the liberating and grace-filled similarities.

Naaman was the commander of the Syrian forces, which at this time were successful in battle against Israel.  He took prisoners, and one of those, a young girl, became a slave in his house.  Naaman also had the skin disease the Bible calls leprosy, which is different from what we call leprosy today.  It was a disease that disfigured people by turning parts of their skin white and was believed by Israelites to be an outward sign of a failure to care for others’ needs and share their hurts—gossip, murder, stinginess, theft, pride.  The little Israelite girl said to Naaman’s wife, “If the master were in Israel, he could go to the prophet Elisha and be healed of his leprosy.”  Naaman’s wife told Naaman, he told the king of Syria, and the king said, “Go to Israel and tell their king I want you to be healed.”

Naaman took some gifts with him, entered Israel and told the king there that the king of Syria wanted Naaman healed.  The king of Israel was scared and suspicious: “He just wants to pick a fight with us so he can invade us again.”  He was so upset he tore his clothes apart.

But Elisha, the prophet of God, heard about the problem and sent a message to the king of Israel.  “Send Naaman on over to me.  He’ll find out there is indeed a God to be respected in Israel.”

Naaman journeyed to where Elisha lived.  Elisha sent his servant out to meet the Syrian captain.  “My master Elisha says that you should go wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River and you will be healed.”

Naaman was so offended.  “The prophet won’t even come talk to me himself?  The nerve!  And to wash in the Jordan?  That river is filthy, not like the sparkling waters of my rivers back home in Syria.”  He turned around and started home, angry and disappointed.

Some of his followers came to him, probably cautiously, and said, “Sir, if the prophet had asked you to undertake a dangerous and difficult quest in order to be healed, wouldn’t you have tried it?  Why not try this easy thing?  What could it hurt?”

Naaman saw the sense of this.  He drove to the Jordan River, walked into the water, and washed himself seven times.  When he came up after the seventh, his skin was clear of leprosy, as unblemished as a baby’s.  “Now I know that there is no other God in all the world except Israel’s God,” he said.  “I will never worship any other God.” He went back to thank Elisha, who came out to meet him this time.  “Let me give you a thank you gift,” he said.  “No need,” said Elisha.  “Then do me one more kindness,” said Naaman.  “Let me take dirt from Israel so that I can build an altar to your God on it and worship only your God from this day on.  But please ask the Lord to forgive me for my duty to my king—entering the temple of the Syrian god Rimmon and bowing down; I will have to bow down also.  May God forgive me for this.”  “Go in peace,” replied Elisha.

Notice these things:  Naaman was a political enemy of Israel, and a Gentile.  His healing came about as he was able to humble himself to do a simple task prescribed by one of the lowly Israelites.  The healing was free—an example of God’s graciousness. Naaman was convinced on the spot of the supremacy of God and declared himself a convert from that moment on.  He went home to his job and family and resumed his duties, again covered by the graciousness of God.  He is a sign of the inclusive mission of God to reconcile the whole world to God’s self, and implicitly a rebuke to those who wanted to keep God local and confined.  As Jesus points out in Luke 4:27, “there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” This comment maddened the Nazareth folks to the point where they wanted to kill Jesus.

This story focuses on Naaman, the foreigner.  We don’t see much of what Elisha was thinking or how God prepared him for the encounter.

In the New Testament, we do see this preparation in the story of Cornelius the Roman and Peter, Jesus’s disciple.  Acts 10 tells this story, and it is so important, it is retold several times.  I’ll tell it just once.

Once again, the foreigner is a political enemy of Israel, a Roman military officer, part of the occupation forces.  But Cornelius reverenced God, gave to the needy, and prayed regularly. One day he saw an angelic messenger from God, who told him to send for Peter from Joppa.  The angel even gave Cornelius Peter’s street address.  So Cornelius sent three of his people to get Peter.

The next day in Joppa, around noon, Peter went up on the roof to pray.  He became hungry and asked someone for something to eat, but while he was waiting, he too had a message from God.  He saw a sheet full of animals, reptiles, and birds coming down from heaven, and he heard a voice tell him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!”

Peter was horrified.  “You know I have never eaten anything unclean.  I can’t do this!”  The voice replied, “Do not call anything unclean that God has made clean.”

This happened three times.  Peter was amazed and wondering what it meant when God’s spirit said to him, “Go downstairs and find the three men who are looking for you.  Don’t hesitate to go with them, for I sent them to you.”

Peter went downstairs and found Cornelius’s messengers.  “I’m the one you’re looking for.  Why have you come?”

They told him about Cornelius and his message from God.  Peter invited them in for the night.  (This was a big deal, by the way, since at least one of these folks was a Roman soldier.)

The next day, Peter and some other believers went to see Cornelius.  The whole family met them along with close friends.  When Peter entered the house, Cornelius bowed down to him, but Peter made him stand up.  “I am only a human,” Peter said.

He addressed the crowd.  “You all know 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 person unclean or impure.  So when I was sent for, I came willingly.  Why am I here?”

Cornelius told him again the story of the heavenly messenger, and how glad he was to see Peter in person.  “Now we are all here in the presence of God to hear what God has to say to us.”

So Peter spoke:  “I now realize how true it is that God doesn’t have favorites.  Instead, if you revere and respect God and do what God says is right, God accepts and welcomes you. So I’ll share what I know about God.  God sent to Israel the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who owns everything. God set Jesus apart and filled him with the Holy Spirit and power to do good and defeat the devil.  God was with him.  I know because I saw this myself.  I also saw Jesus murdered—crucified—and then I saw how God raised Jesus out of death.  Many of us saw the risen Jesus, who sent us out to tell this story and preach that Jesus is appointed and ordained by God to judge the living and the dead.  All the prophets point to him and bear witness that everyone who trusts in Jesus and relies on Him receives forgiveness of sins.  That is the nature and character of Jesus.”

While Peter spoke, the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles and they spoke in unknown tongues, just like the Jews earlier at Pentecost. 

Peter’s Jewish companions were surprised by this.  Then Peter asked, “Can anyone forbid taking these folks into full fellowship with us through the ceremony of baptism, seeing that God has graced them just as God graced us with the Holy Spirit?” And no one could.

When Peter went home, he was in trouble with the other Jewish believers, so he told the whole story again (see Acts 11).  “The voice spoke from heaven, ‘Do not call anything unclean that God has made clean.’ So who was I to think I could oppose God.”

Then Jewish believers started preaching to Gentiles, and Gentiles believed, and Barnabas went and got Saul, who became an apostle to the Gentiles, and even later, in Acts 15, Peter stood and again told the story of Cornelius being graced with the gift of the Holy Spirit even prior to baptizing him. Peter said, “God, who knows the heart—the will, the emotions, the imagination—bore witness to their faith by giving them the same Holy Spirit we received.  God made no difference between us and them.  God cleansed them by faith, by their conviction that Jesus came from God, and that by means of Jesus, we are saved for eternity and welcomed into God’s kingdom. Now then, why do you test God’s patience by requiring Gentile believers to come under the law of Moses which neither we nor our ancestors have been able to obey.  We Jews are saved through the grace of our Master and Owner Jesus just as the Gentiles are.”

James stood in agreement and quoted some prophets who pointed to the inclusion of Gentiles. He concluded, “We should not put obstacles in the way of Gentiles who turn to God.  We will ask them to refrain from sexual immorality, from eating food sacrificed to idols, from eating or drinking blood, and from practicing strangulation (a puzzle that may refer to the common practice of infanticide, see David Instone-Brewer's sermons on the web). These four behaviors scandalize Jews, and we want to reach them, too.“

Notice these things:  Cornelius was a political enemy of Israel, and a Gentile.  Unlike Naaman, he was able to humble himself, even bowing to one of the lowly Jews.  The gift of God’s Holy Spirit was free, not requiring any kind of ritual—an example of God’s graciousness. Peter was convinced on the spot of the graciousness of God to all human beings, and declared himself a convert from that moment on.  Peter went home to his fellow Jewish believers and taught them about the graciousness of God.  Cornelius and Peter are signs of the inclusive mission of God to reconcile the whole world to God’s self, and they are an implicit rebuke to those who want to keep God local and confined.  As Jesus points out in John 10:16, “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I am commissioned by God to bring with me to God, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one flock, one shepherd.”

We don’t read in the history that the conversion of Naaman had any far-reaching effect on ancient Syria, but we do read that the conversion of Cornelius, and because of him, the convincement of Peter, had an enormous effect.  Christians now understand God through the work God did in the heart of Peter.  Salvation is not through rules but through the graciousness of God.  The law of God’s kingdom is the law of love.  As Micah puts it, “What does God require of us but to do the right thing, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.” And as Paul says, “The secret is this, Jesus Christ in, beside, and with you, your hope and expectation of glory.”

Some queries to think about:
How can I exemplify to those inside and outside the church the character and nature of God’s graciousness? 
How have I cleared away barriers so that others can trust and love Jesus?
 How have I imposed my rules on others in ways that are hurtful and ungracious?