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January 13, 2002
We all have a smell organ. We call it a nose, a proboscis, a schnozzle, a honker.
For Dr. Septimus Piesse, a French chemist, the Smell Organ was something else. He believed that simply listening to the enrapturing tones of a church organ was not enough. Much more inspiring and thrilling, he felt, was to experience an entirely new organ: One that translates an opus into odor, a sound into a smell.
Dr. Piesse carefully plotted a range of notes, and assigned heavier odors to the low notes and sharp, pungent odors to the high notes. A bass clef D would smell like vanilla, while a treble clef B smell like peppermint. He hoped that the odors would blend harmoniously in soft, dreamy compositions, while the smells would be disagreeable in more discordant works.
I suppose that you could say that Dr. Piesse's smell organ gave a whole new meaning to the expression, "This music stinks."
Another innovative instrument was developed in Brussels back in 1549, and was designed to be played by a bear. Called the Cat Piano and played by a musical bear, this instrument had 20 cats, each with a cord tied to its tail. As the bear pounded the keys, the cords were pulled, yanking the cats' tails and making the felines meow and yowl. Obviously no Brussels chapter of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals existed in 1549.
These are a couple of old examples of a contemporary phenomenon: Cool junk that fascinates us for a while and then fades. A new research group called The Dead Media Project is studying this stuff and posting their findings on the Internet. It appears that we are now living in the "Golden Age" of Cool Junk, and the Guggenheim Museum is even looking into the phenomenon.
Not all this cool junk is so obviously insane. Some examples actually worked for a while. Think of the "golf-ball" typewriter, the IBM Selectric, or the ultra-wide Cinerama movie. or the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 computer, the world's first laptop. It looked like an oversized calculator with a keyboard, but it was simple and rugged. Newspaper reporters loved it, and some still do. If an elephant steps on it, it still works. It runs on four AA batteries, and has been just about everywhere, even on space shuttles, U2 spy planes and oil rigs.
Cool junk fascinates us for a while, and then it typically gets tossed. Right now, inventors are dabbling in areas that look like they are on the fast track toward the junk pile of the future. For instance, are efforts to link the TV and the Internet going to be a brilliant move, or a bomb? Some see this marriage as doomed, saying that it's like merging a motorcycle and a car, simply because they both use wheels.
Visions and Speeches
Go back now to Acts, and remember Peter catching some sun and a nap on the rooftop in Joppa. Remember his vision, and his reaction to a cool idea God was sharing with him: God's love and salvation were for everyone. While we do not find this news too shattering, it was, to an observant Jew like Peter, radical stuff.
But during his encounter with Cornelius, Peter came to understand that the unconditional and expansive nature of the love of God would not go the way of cool junk. Gods love is here to stay.
The story of Cornelius covers all of Acts 10. Let us review some of the earlier scenes.
In the beginning of chapter 10, we are introduced to this Roman Centurion. Cornelius has three strikes against him: he is a Gentile, a Roman citizen and a member of the army that occupies Judah. However, he also has his good points. Cornelius reverenced God, gave support to the poor, and prayed to God (10:2).
As the story progresses, we discover that Cornelius is not drawn to Christ by a discerning mind, or by a conscious decision. Cornelius is called in a vision to send for Peter who will act as his spiritual mentor. The scene then shifts from Caesarea to Joppa, where Peter is staying, and Peter, too, has a vision (10:9-16). Peter sees many clean and unclean animals of the earth and sky and hears the command to kill and eat them. Three times Peter is commanded to do this. He is confused about the meaning of the vision and the command to ignore the Old Testament dietary laws.
Then Cornelius' messengers (10:17-23a) visit Peter, tell the story of Cornelius' vision and his desire for Peter to come and instruct him. Not knowing what is happening, but knowing that God leads him, Peter is prepared to go.
When Peter arrives at Cornelius house, Cornelius tells of his vision, for the benefit of not only Peter, but also for the audience that has gathered around Peter. Peter then explains that he has violated Jewish law by entering a Gentile home because of a vision from God and God's instruction. Cornelius again recounts his vision and the scene is set for Peter's response in vs34-43. This story is like a game of tennis, where the ball goes back and forth between the two players.
Cornelius has a vision then Peter has a vision
Cornelius makes a speech, then Peter makes a speech.
Two questions arise: Is God converting a Gentile to the gospel, or is God converting Peter to a new vision of the gospel? I suspect the answer is both. In Acts 10, God is converting both Cornelius and Peter to a new understanding of how he manifests his power among us. Thus in v34, Peter says: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality." This is a complete reversal for an orthodox Jew, most of whom regarded themselves as the "favored" of God. Peter says that all people are the favored of God. God loves everyone.
Another question is: Was Peter's vision of clean and unclean animals about food or about people?
The vision was about food. It reminds us that in the new revelation of Christ, food is not spiritually clean or unclean. The OT dietary laws are no longer in force. The coming of Christ forever changed all that so that what we eat or what we drint is not a matter of salvation. As Jesus said, it is not what goes in the mouth of a person that defile a person. It is what comes out of the mouth.
But Peter's vision is even more about people than food. It is not what is on the table, but who sits at the table. God introduces Peter to a shocking possibility. God shows no partiality. Peter continues in v35, "but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."
And Peter now understands why God shows no partiality. He tells us in v36--because Jesus is "Lord of all." Peter is expanding what the faith community has already affirmed: that Jesus Christ is Lord! The Lordship of Jesus is over all of creation. Peter had a narrow view of Christ and of Gods action. Now he realizes that Christ is not just the Messiah of the Jews, but a cosmic savior of the world, and that God is not just the God of the Jews, but the God of all that exists.
The conversions of Cornelius and Peter defy the contemporary idea that conversion is an instantaneous occurrence. The conversions in Acts 10 have visions that are told and retold. Perhaps the lesson is that we are never skilled enough or experienced enough in living the life of faith to not need constant conversion. In this story, we are reminded that conversion is a process, and that Peter's new understanding about the impartiality of the gospel comes not from his personal discernment, but from God.
This is a story about beginnings: the beginning of a new life for Cornelius and a new understanding for Peter, and a new movement in the church. It is also about vocation: Cornelius and Peter, as well as the entire church, are being called to engage in godly work. Perhaps most importantly, this is a story about how God works among us. All of the details are the acts of God. God is guiding these conversions and beginnings. They come about not as a result of competent leadership, scriptural interpretation, or persuasive preaching. Peter, Cornelius and the church are dragged along by the hand of God. There are no calculating efforts by the Jerusalem church, no strategic planning by Peter, no manipulation of the scriptural witness by Cornelius and the Gentiles. Conversion is an astonishing, unanticipated act of God's grace.
The church's new understanding is based upon a new understanding of Jesus. Jesus is "the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead," says Peter, and "everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name" (vv. 42-43).
In JH14:27, Jesus said, "My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you." What kind of peace does Jesus give? He gives an inner peace that comes from believing in him and following him and receiving the forgiveness he offers. This inner peace will sustain us in the midst of hardship, distress, misfortune, misery, and disgrace. Through this peace we become not sunshine soldiers for the cause of Christ, but tough warriors who are patient and cheerful amid tribulation.
This inner peace in Christ is available to everyone. Well, not exactly to everyone, That is not what Peter says. He says that life in Christ is available to everyone who believes. We cannot come to the spiritual life, by thinking or reasoning., nor by reading and studying, nor by earning advanced academic degrees. Christ himself spoke about this saying, MT 16:24 "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." and MT10:37-38 "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.". What Jesus means is that a person who does not let go of and relinquish the things of the world can never truly know life in Christ. When Peter says believe on Christ to receive forgiveness of sins, he does not mean believe on Christ as one among many things. He does not believe in Jesus and believe in this and believe in that and so on. As long as we love Jesus in part and something else in part and ourselves most of all, we remain blind to Gods forgiveness in Christ. But when we believe in Jesus as the main force and figure of our life, when we are centered in Christ, when we look upon Christ with a single eye, then we are forgiven and we are accepted by God.
Everyone who believes is accepted. That was a radical message for Peter. He was a pious Jewish Christian who scrupulously avoided both unclean foods and unclean people. But now a voice from heaven is saying to him, "What God has made clean, you must not call unclean" (v. 15).
This was a hard jump for Peter, but it probably is not any tougher than the leap we have to make when we try to reach those beyond our cultural and religious walls with the Good News of Jesus Christ. In a world increasingly overwhelmed by information, insights and innovations, the challenge for us is to avoid sitting at a Cat Piano, when we could be playing an 88-key synthesizer.
Yet, the Smell Organ mentality still lingers on. We are still locked into useless and futile ways of thinking. We think:
That church consists of four walls and a steeple.
That God reads from the King James Version.
That stained glass, a pulpit, choir robes and a pipe organ are necessary for worship.
That the minister is the person up front preaching the sermon.
That people are not interested in their relationship with God like they used to be.
That people do not want to study theology.
That it does not matter if the coffee for fellowship hour is stale.
A lesson from Peter is that we can not sit back and play the Smell Organ or the Cat Piano if we are going to deliver the gospel to the world.
God is at work in unexpected places, inviting us to step in and share the gospel. In companies across the country, as paper wealth from a declining stock market has evaporated, business leaders are reevaluating their achievements and their career direction. Start-up churches, Bible studies, and a growing network of prayer groups are having an impact even in Silicon Valley--bringing biblical values into what has long been a Mecca of Mammon.
A group called The Silicon Valley Fellowship has emerged as a network of Christian high-tech leaders. Members meet together to discuss their struggles, support one another and work for lasting change. The group is an important antidote for the sense of isolation that so many business people feel. Greg Slayton, the CEO of ClickAction.com, describes this condition as "the curse of 10,000 acquaintances. You find no one to talk to when things go really bad."
We need to provide an island of community in a sea of isolated individuals. We ought to be a place where people can talk "when things go really bad," and where people can find direction when they are struggling with difficult decisions. One new member of The Silicon Valley Fellowship recently recounted his challenge of winding down a company, admitting that he was not prepared by business school to make ethical decisions while in catastrophe. "There is such ugliness and not much charity," he said. (Tony Carnes, "The Silicon Valley saints," Christianity Today, August 6, 2001, 34-36).
People today need to see that the "next new thing" is Jesus Christ. Christ is a divine innovation, not a fascinating but fading phenomenon. If we deliver anything else, in worship or in Bible studies, we are simply giving people cool junk--smell organs and cat pianos and typewriters.
So let us do what we can to share the gospel with a world that is hungry for salvation. The Nasdaq can not save us - it lost over half its value in 18 months. High-tech innovations can not save us - they have their moment in the sun, but then they get replaced by new models and relegated to a junk pile.
Only Jesus Christ can save us. That is what Peter discovered in the first century, and what is still true in the 21st century. And it is still a cool idea.
So let's spread the news in worship that touches all senses, in Bible study that deepens our understanding, in fellowship that creates community in the middle of isolation. We are fortunate to be able to reach out today using so many wonderful media, from e-mail to cell phones to voicemail to Web sites. No longer are we limited to the homing pigeons and runners and stagecoaches and telegraphs that were the cool junk of yesteryear.
Methods of communication are bound to change. That is progress.
But one Word will stand forever. That is Jesus. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 2/27/02