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No Partiality

Listen to the audio recording of this sermon as originally delivered by the Reverend Donald Ng

Acts 10:34-43

January 12, 2010

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

I am a grandfather blessed with 6 beautiful grandchildren-3 granddaughters and 3 grandsons! When any of them may ask me if he or she was my favorite, I always say, “You’re the best!” I am expected to show no favorites but do I have any? I probably do!

As human beings, we are wired to have preferences, likes and dislikes, favorites. When it comes to a scoop of ice cream, I usually get the cappuccino mocha. It’s my favorite. When it comes to ice cream, one can’t be impartial!

And when it comes to American politics, nothing seems to be impartial anymore but everything is partial. It’s one side or the other. Whatever happened to bipartisanship?

Cornelius and Peter

The incidents that happened before Acts 10 are important to interpreting the lesson for us today.

As Luke tells the story of Peter and Cornelius, it is clear that it took a lot of pressure to get Peter to speak the words we read this morning. Turn to Acts 10 to see this.

It all began when Cornelius had a vision of an angel. Then Peter had a vision that what he first thought was unclean is also acceptable in God’s sight. Then Cornelius sent emissaries to Peter to persuade him to make the journey to see him. Then the Spirit told Peter to “get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation” (10:20). Then Cornelius told Peter his vision. Finally, Peter began to speak to them which is our passage for today.

What is going on here?

Peter, the Rock on which Christ proclaimed the church is built, was limited in seeing the Good News as a hope to Israel. When the Holy Spirit moved Peter to meet Cornelius, a Gentile who also experienced a vision from God, Peter began to see that the prophetic hope of Israel would be the “light to the nations.”

With Jesus’ care for foreigners and his mandate to his disciples to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and “to the ends of the earth,” Peter was converted and transformed to believe that God was not partial only to Israel. While through Israel, God was made known in the world, it will no longer be God’s favorite.

In Acts 10:34-43, Peter speaks to Gentiles in his final missionary sermon preparing the way for Paul’s mission to the nations.

Peter’s Sermon

Peter’s sermon in Acts 10:34-43 is noticeably different from his others. The focus is on verse 34: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” In his process of discovery, Peter had first not understood this truth. He held to strict distinction between clean and unclean foods. Like his peers, he interpreted this distinction as excluding association with Gentiles. He first responded with confusion to the divine announcement that God had cleansed the unclean before the course of events that led him to say, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” Only because God intervened did Peter comprehend that no human being can be called unclean.

This story is about the conversion, not only of Cornelius, but of Peter as well.

The truth that “God shows no partiality” is rooted in Scripture. According to the law in Deuteronomy 10:17, God “is not partial and takes no bribe” in executing justice for the orphan and the widow.

Peter’s new discovery is that God’s impartiality extends to people “in every nation…who fear God and do what is right” (v.35). Peter reinforces this emphasis on the universality of God’s invitation, concluding that “everyone who believes in Christ receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (v.43).

The salvation of Israel becomes universal salvation, because God’s impartiality extends to the whole world. Just as Peter’s previous speeches have challenged listeners within Israel to repent, he now extends that call to the people of every nationality. Peter’s discovery indicates the universality of God’s offer of salvation.

God’s blessings are not limited to those who belong to a particular nation or keep to specific laws, but to those who believe and do what is right. The door is now open for the inclusion into the people of God of those who had previously been excluded.

Read Related Sermon  Big Rocks

Partiality

The issues that Cornelius and Peter were struggling with are issues deeply rooted in the human experience. People isolate themselves from others. People find their identity within a group, and fear that they will lose that identity if they don’t guard their separateness. People find it difficult to relate and associate with those who are different from themselves. People have a sense that they will lose their status within their own group if they dare to reach out to those outside.

All of us share in such ideas and feelings, which are part of our fundamental perspective on who we are and how we should live. If the ways in which we deal with and relate to others are challenged, it is no simple matter to change our mind and to act in a different way. Prejudice runs deep within us. It is hard to overestimate the importance to us of being a part of our own group. The way in which we have always done things often seems to us to be the only right way, and any change would be a violation of the fundamental convictions that have shaped our lives.

All of this is simply saying, “I am partial.”

We can empathize with Peter when he confronted a challenge to his deeply held convictions. As a good Jew, it was unlawful for him to associate with a Gentile or to visit a Gentile. As a good Jew, it was unlawful for him to eat anything that is profane or unclean. It took visions and the power of the Spirit to move him to go to Cornelius, and it took the plea of Cornelius for Peter to speak all that the Lord has commanded him to say.

Today we are comfortable with the category of Asian Americans or Asian Pacific Americans. But not too long ago about 50 years ago, this nomenclature was not in existence. Countries in Asia were historical enemies like even today so that any association with other people of Asian ancestry outside of your own group would not be permitted.

My mother would often reflect on her fear and hardship of running up into the hills whenever invading Japanese soldiers would come into the village. She would tell us about atrocities done to her neighbors. So when I was dating, I would kid with her who would be acceptable as her daughter-in-law. I had this list of possibilities just to rile her. It was obvious that she would want a Toisanese daughter-in-law. She didn’t want a Japanese one. But when Joy came home and was willing to learn to speak Toisanese, she was acceptable with loving arms!

In our own human experience and particularly here at First Chinese, we find our identity in the fellowship groups in which we belong. We tend to guard our separateness by the primary language we speak in the fear that we may lose our identity. We create parallel systems to maintain status quo in an attempt to ensure power, control and representation.

We are steep in partiality.

When Peter did speak, he said, “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.” Peter offered a new perspective on his relationship with Gentiles and on the promise of God to them manifest in Jesus Christ. This was his true understanding about God and God’s relationship to persons. No one is beyond the care and concern of God for God shows no partiality. In every nation, anyone can be acceptable to him. Jesus Christ is Lord of all. Jesus healed all who were oppressed by the devil. Peter says, “everyone who believes in him, Jesus Christ, receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Forgiveness

If God knows no partiality, what should we do? We must strive to do likewise.

This story of the radical transformation of Peter’s perspective and action informs the way in which we can be enabled to transcend the limitations of our relationships with others. Our prejudices are deeply ingrained. We are not impartial. Our perspective on what is right and proper in how we deal with others has permeated our whole understanding of who we are. While this reality is the case, we can be opened to new understandings and new perspectives as we confront again and again the ways of God in Jesus Christ.

Read Related Sermon  Let God Be God

As Peter came to his new convictions about God’s care for all, and his new conviction about how he should relate to those he had previously shunned, he continued to stress what God has done and is doing. We can do likewise.

God is willing to accept all who turn to him. God sent the message of peace through Jesus Christ. God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power. God continued to be with Jesus throughout his ministry. God raised Jesus after the people had put him to death. God enabled Jesus to appear to those whom God had chosen as witnesses. God commanded those whom Jesus appeared to preach to the people. God ordained Jesus to be judge of the living and the dead.

Peter’s words to Cornelius and all who gathered focused on the life, the work, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. It offers the promises of peace and forgiveness and fulfillment of life to those who hear and respond to the one whom God sent as Lord.

Are we, are you ready to recognize that we have favorites, prejudices, partiality that cause divisiveness in the fellowship of this community? Are we willing to forgive and to receive forgiveness?

In 2020, the church theme is “Unity in Christ.” This is a worthwhile and pertinent theme for our life together. We need this theme because we tend to be partial when God knows no partiality. Being unified in Christ means that we forgive one another and become one in Christ.

Peter preached about the peace of Jesus Christ beginning in Galilee, spreading throughout Judea and today God is calling us to proclaim this same Good News to the ends of the earth. Peter said, “Christ commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.” And as today’s prophets, we are called to “testify about Jesus Christ so that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Are we ready to do this? Are we ready to put aside our partiality and become like Christ and to act on behalf of God who shows no partiality? The world is still in need of hearing the Good News and desperately in need to receive forgiveness of sins through Christ’s name.

We can be opened to new understandings of who we are. We can be opened to new understandings and new perspectives as we confront again and again the ways of God in Jesus Christ. It is a difficult matter indeed for us to break through the limitations of how we see and deal with others. Our only hope is to be open to the Spirit and to seek ever new understanding of the God who “shows no partiality.”

But when it comes to ice cream, I am partial to cappuccino mocha.

Let us pray.

Lord God, grant us the grace and forgiveness when we have been partial to one group or one position when you have taught us that you showed no partiality. Lead us to step out of our own comfort zones to reach across to meet and relate and to have fellowship with others who may not just be like me. Empower us to be more loving than we now love, more patient than we are now patient, more honest than we are now honest in order for the true unity in Christ that we seek to be in this community. In Christ we pray. Amen. 

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