Acts 11:1-18 : God is Always Greater

This Sermon was delivered at St John the Baptist, Bressingham on the morning of the 19th May 2019. Readings: Acts 11:1-18.

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Before I came to the Diss Team Ministry to be the curate, I spent some time in Durham for my ordination training. I studied an MA in Theology and Ministry at Cranmer Hall, which is part of St John’s College. The college has a special place within the University. It’s a core part of Durham university but it is also one of two recognised colleges which have a more distinct identity and history. One of the ways in which this distinctiveness is shown is through its latin motto which could be found throughout the college. The motto is Fides Nostra Victoria. Which means Our Faith is our Victory.

St John’s isn’t the only institution with a latin motto. Eton, that well known and prestigious school, has two mottos associated with it. The first is Floreat Etona, may Eton Flourish, and the second is  Esto perpetua, may it last forever. There are some other interesting examples.

Amsterdam Zoo: Natura Artis Magistra (Nature is the teacher of art).

The New York Police Department: Fidelis ad Mortem (Faithful unto death)

The Olympic games: Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, higher, stronger)

These mottoes all seek to express a core idea which is at the heart of the organisation. It’s not so much a mission statement or even a goal, but rather an underlying principle which permeates everything they do. For St John’s College, the motto Our Faith is our Victory reminds us both of its history of training people for ordained ministry, as well as reminding us that although we are studying and grappling with academia our success is not found in our abilities and achievements but in our faith. For the New York Police Department, the motto is a very real declaration of honourable intentions. It’s both a standard to live up to, and a recognition that the life of a police officer serving the public can be a dangerous one. As for the Olympics, Faster, Higher Stronger is a fantastic summary of the competitive nature of athletes in every sport striving to do both their best and to be the best at what they do.

Life mottoes don’t have to be in Latin, but I suspect that there’s a tendency to think that something is more profound or historic if it’s presented in Latin.

I am unashamedly going to present to you one such concept which I think is both profound and at the heart of the message we’ve encountered in Acts today.

Deus Semper Maior.

Deus Semper Maior.

It means God is always greater.

It’s a theological phrase which often goes on to say “God is always greater than our human understanding”, but it gets shortened down to God is always greater.

This is the central theme of Acts 11. You’ll remember that last week we spent some time reflecting on Peter healing first Aeneas and then Tabitha. We made a point of saying that the ministry which came to Lydda also came to Joppa, just as the ministry which happens in Diss comes out to Bressingham. Well in Acts 11 we find Peter retelling the events of chapter 10.

He’s having to explain himself to the believers in Jerusalem because they couldn’t understand why he had been spending time with non-Jewish believers. That is, those who were uncircumcised.

In these early days of the Christian faith, we have to remember that nearly all of those who believed in Jesus were people who had grown up as Jews. Indeed, they still thought of themselves as Jews following God as best they could, believing that Jesus truly was from God. However, while there have always been converts to Judaism, perhaps most noticeably Rahab and her family when Joshua and the Israelites had conquered Jericho, the Jewish faith has never been an evangelising faith. Even today converts to Judaism are relatively rare and, to an extent, discouraged. This stems from their identity being found not so much in “what” they believe and “do”, though this is important. but rather in “who” they are; namely, the people of God.

This then meant that there was no real expectation for the disciples of Jesus to try and share the Gospel of Jesus with uncircumcised, non-Jewish people. Why, then, has Peter been eating with uncircumcised men?

Luke writes that Peter began to explain it to them “step by step”. He couldn’t say “just because”, he had to explain himself thoroughly. Not just to defend himself, but also so that they might understand and do the same!

So Peter recounts the vision he say in a trance while praying. There was a large sheet which came down from heaven and he saw all kinds of unclean animals, that is animals which it was forbidden for Jews to eat. God tells him to get up, kill and eat. Peter is flabbergasted. What? No way! I have never eaten anything which is profane or unclean. The voice responds by saying “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” This happened three times.

It’s interesting that it happens three times, similarly to how Peter earlier denied Christ three times and was then asked by Christ “Do you love me?” Three times.

Personally I find this reassuring. We don’t always have to understand and act straight away. God is gracious to us and often repeats himself to us to make sure that we’ve understood.

As soon as the vision ends, three men arrive asking for Peter.  Peter says “The Holy Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction them and us”. Peter didn’t go alone, but went with six brothers and when they arrived they found a man who seen an angel who told them Peter would have a message for them by which they would be saved.

I wonder how Peter would have felt at that point? It’s one thing to say to others who believe in the same God “God has done this thing” but it must have felt quite odd to have to try and explain things to people who don’t have the same background or conceptual framework. He begins to speak to them of this man Jesus and how he died but was resurrected. As he does so, the Holy Spirit falls upon these uncircumcised men just as it had on Peter and the disciples on Pentecost.

He continues, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I should hinder God?”

They were stunned into silence.

How could they possibly respond?

They responded by praising God for he “has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life”.

Deus Semper MaiorGod is always greater: than we can understand, greater than we can expect. More than this, God is not limited by our ideas of him.

This moment in Acts 11 is a tremendously exciting one for us here today. It’s here that the scope of the Gospel, of who could know Jesus and, by repenting, receive eternal life, is revealed to be far wider than previously imagined. Indeed, if God hadn’t acted outside of Peter and his fellow Jewish believer’s expectations then the not only would the shape of European and British history be drastically different but we wouldn’t be here in this Church which has stood for centuries as a testimony to what God has done for us in Jesus.

We should never take our faith for granted because as non-Jews we are the gentiles who were not assumed to be part of the People of the God of Israel. Our salvation rests and depends upon the choice of God to give to us the same Holy Spirit which he gave to those first Jewish believers at Pentecost.

It’s striking that after our passage ends, the rest of Acts 11 continues to consolidate this shared faith in Jesus as a new thing. Rather than simply being Jews who believe in Jesus, we encounter a church which is increasingly made up of both Jews and Gentiles and it was at Antioch in verse 26 that the believers were first called “Christians”; those who follow Christ.

This is the same church which we Christians find ourselves a part of now. We don’t need a Latin motto to give us a sense of historical grounding. The acts of the apostles was nearly 2000 years ago. The Jewish faith before that was some three to four thousand years ago. We gather today in a church which has itself been here for centuries. No, we don’t need a Latin motto for any grandiose sense of historicity.

But I suggest that this particular motto both expresses the sense of our passage and gives us hope today.

Deus Semper MaiorGod is always greater.

There’s two ways in which this helps us today.

The first is to remind us that God reached outside of the Jews, outside of the Church, to bring new people in. Not so that there would be more members, but so that more people might know him and have life. God is greater than the churches within the Diss Team Ministry, and greater than the Church here in Bressingham. He’s not just for those of us who gather on a Sunday morning, but he’s here for our whole community.

The second is to remind us that he is greater than our understanding, our expectations, perceptions and strengths. We have our role to play, but the success of God here in Bressingham is God’s success not ours. We have two options. We can embrace the pessimism of decline and lament that congregations are shrinking while letting the Church dwindle into a closed building, a mausoleum to a faith which used to matter. Or we can proclaim that God is always greater, and we can remind ourselves that the Holy Spirit is with us when we go out into our lives and speak with our friends, neighbours and strangers and that God desires to give them the repentance which gives life, just as he has given it first to us.

So let us hold on to  and be encouraged by this motto, in the Latin or the English:

Deus Semper MaiorGod is always greater!

Amen.