Spread the Nets

Scripture: Acts 11:1-18

Title: Spread the Nets

Key Idea: Spread your nets to receive from God


  • Introduction
  • Receiving the vision
  • Receiving the Word & Spirit of God
  • Receiving the other
  • Conclusion


The headline for this year’s Tranzsend Prayer and Self Denial campaign is: ‘til the nets are full’

  • We have certainly known about the fullness of water this past week
  • Anyway, ‘til the nets are full’ is a reference to the story in Luke 5, where Jesus said to Peter…
  • ‘Now go out where it is deeper and let down your nets to catch some fish’
  • When Peter did this they caught so many fish their boats were on the verge of sinking. Afterwards Jesus says to Peter…
  • “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be a fisher of men.”
  • In other words, ‘Peter, I’m calling you to catch people for me – to bring men & women into the kingdom of God’

This story from Luke forms the back drop of Tranzsend’s Prayer & Self Denial campaign this year

  • Today’s sub heading is “Spread the Nets”

Please turn with me to Acts 11 – page 164 toward the back of your pew Bibles

  • 2000 years ago, when the Christian church first began it was comprised pretty much entirely of Jews
  • Over the past 2 weeks we have heard how the Spirit of God led Peter to spread the net of the gospel wider, among the Gentiles
  • On hearing this some of the Jewish Christians criticised Peter
  • Acts 11 describes how Peter responds to this criticism.
  • From verse 1 we read…

Read Acts 11:1-18


May the Spirit of Jesus help us to receive God’s Word

On the wall here we have a picture of four things…

  • A TV aerial, an ear, a net and a softball glove
  • Who can tell me what these four things have in common?
  • [Wait for people to respond]
  • Yes, that’s right. They are all used for catching or receiving things
  • A TV aerial receives a signal
  • An ear receives sound
  • A net receives fish
  • And a softball glove receives the ball


When we think of mission (and Christian service generally) we tend to think about giving and making sacrifices and going out into the world

  • And while giving & going out is certainly integral to the work of mission
  • Receiving is just as important
  • In fact, without first receiving, we find we have nothing to give

After being criticised by his own for spreading the net of the gospel wider (to include the Gentiles) Peter responds by retelling the facts of what happened

  • And what we notice in Peter’s retelling is there is lots of receiving going on in this mission
  • Peter receives a vision from God
  • The Gentiles receive the Word & Spirit of God
  • And the Jewish believers back in Jerusalem are faced with the challenge of receiving the other – that is, those different from them, the Gentiles

Receiving the vision:

From Peter’s perspective it started with receiving a vision from God

  • The vision was of a sheet containing all sorts of animals, both clean and unclean, both kosher for eating and not kosher
  • Some commentators reckon the sheet represents the church which will contain all races and classes without distinction [1]

This vision of an inclusive church is not entirely new

  • It actually goes back to the time of Noah

Richard Rohr observes how God tells Noah to bring into the ark all the opposites: the wild and the domestic, the crawling and the flying, the clean and the unclean, the male and the female of each animal…[2]

  • God puts all the opposites together and holds them together in one place
  • The ark is kind of a metaphor for the church where God brings opposites together: male & female, sinners & saints, conservatives & liberals, Jews & Gentiles, the socially acceptable & the outcastes
  • Perhaps God wants us to learn to live with dirt & difference

So Peter’s mission to the Gentiles begins with him (personally) receiving a vision from God

  • Interestingly none of the other believers receive this vision – just Peter
  • And Peter acts on this vision without consulting the wider Jewish church in Jerusalem
  • Yes, he takes six Jewish believers along with him as witnesses and helpers but essentially Peter doesn’t involve the church congregation or even the church leaders in the decision

This is quite different from the traditional Baptist way of doing things

  • We are highly consultative in our decision making process
  • We regularly find ways to listen to the congregation

And we do this for a number of reasons

  • Firstly, we believe God speaks through the congregation
  • We figure if God wants something to happen he won’t just speak to one individual – he will speak to many
  • Secondly, we are keen to bring the congregation along with us
  • We don’t want to alienate people if we can help it and so we discuss things (sometimes at length)
  • It is probably also fair to say we are influenced by our social & political environment and therefore we favour a democratic approach

But, if Peter had asked his congregation to vote on whether he should visit Cornelius they would have said ‘no’

  • God’s ways are not always our ways
  • God does not always speak through the congregation
  • God isn’t always democratic
  • Sometimes the majority are wrong
  • Sometimes God speaks in ways we may not be expecting

Peter certainly wasn’t expecting to receive the vision God gave him

  • Going to the home of a Roman Centurion was probably furthest from his mind – I imagine it made Peter feel really uncomfortable
  • But Peter obeyed God, in faith, and was criticised for his efforts by people from his own church
  • After hearing Peter’s minority report though, the Jerusalem Church recognised God’s hand at work
  • The Gentiles had received God’s Word & His Spirit so they were legit

Receiving the Word & Spirit of God:

On the wall here we have three pictures

  • One of a rain gauge attached to a post
  • Another of a man opening a door from the inside
  • And a third of a man hugging a tiger

The rain gauge receives water passively – as it falls from the sky

  • The rain gauge does not make a conscious decision to receive water
  • That just happens without the rain gauge’s awareness or consent

By contrast the man opening the door is actively receiving someone

  • Likewise the other man actively receives the tiger by hugging him

To receive the Word of God is an active thing, not a passive thing

  • For Cornelius, receiving the Word of God meant believing the message Peter was preaching – putting his faith in Jesus

Likewise to receive the Spirit is an active thing – like opening the door to let someone into your home, or like hugging a tiger

  • When Cornelius believed the gospel message he opened the door of his heart to the Spirit and the Spirit came on him
  • God’s Word and God’s Spirit go together

You may be wondering why I used a picture of a tiger hugging a man when talking about receiving the Spirit

  • Well, the Spirit is like a wild tiger in the sense that he is more powerful than us and we can’t tame him – he is free to roam where he pleases
  • However, the Spirit is not like a tiger in every respect – the Spirit would never force himself on a person much less maul them

The point is, receiving God’s Word and his Spirit is an active thing, not a passive thing

If we read the Bible passively, without really letting it in – so the words roll off our soul like water off a ducks back – then we aren’t really receiving God’s Word in any meaningful sense

  • Or if we study the Bible as if it was just another historical artefact or an interesting piece of literature, without connecting the words to our own experience or situation – then we are missing the point

God’s word and God’s Spirit go together

  • The door of our heart may be closed when reading the Bible or listening to a sermon but the Spirit can still knock on the door

Receiving the other:

In verse 18 we read how, after hearing Peter’s account of what had happened in Caesarea, the Jewish believers stopped their criticism and praised God saying…

  • God has given the Gentiles also the opportunity to repent and live

This strikes me as a little ironic really

  • Repentance is about transformation and conversion
  • It means a change of mind and a change of behaviour
  • The first Jewish Christians would not associate with Gentiles – now the Spirit was knocking on the door of their heart with an invitation to receive the other – which in their case meant the Gentiles
  • It seems the Spirit was also giving the Jewish believers the opportunity to repent and live (even if they weren’t quite ready to admit it)

Emmanuel Levinas (a 20th Century Jewish philosopher) notes how the Biblical tradition says that truth is not found in abstract concepts, but in an encounter with otherness

  • According to Levinas it is “the face of the other” that transforms us, converts us and gives us our deepest identity [3]

For example, Moses’ life was changed through an encounter with Yahweh

  • As was David’s through an encounter with Goliath
  • Jonah was confronted with the truth about himself through an encounter with the people of Nineveh (his enemies)
  • Jesus’ deepest identity (as God’s Son) was revealed through his encounter with Satan in the wilderness
  • Peter (a Jew) realised the broader more universal truth of the gospel through his encounter with Cornelius (a Gentile)
  • And the apostle Paul experienced conversion through his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus

We are not changed by being in a room with people who are the same as us

  • We are transformed and come to know our true selves through encounter with others who are different from us
  • What this means is that true religion isn’t really about arguing over ideas and abstract concepts
  • Nor is evangelism & Christian mission simply about communicating four spiritual laws which people must know (in their head) to be saved
  • True religion, real evangelism (the kind that brings authentic change for the better) is about encounter and presence and relationship

When I look around this room I don’t see everyone being the same

  • This is a room full of people who are different from each other
  • God designed the church that way
  • Christianity isn’t just a good idea
  • Christianity is face to face encounter, it is felt presence – it is relationship
  • That is why we gather – that is why coming to church on a Sunday and meeting each other during the week is important

Perhaps the best way to get this across is by telling a story

  • Oscar Wilde wrote a piece of short fiction called the ‘Selfish Giant’
  • I’m not sure what meaning Oscar Wilde intended but to me this is a salvation story
  • It’s about being transformed and coming to know our true self in the face of the other
  • We don’t have the time to read the whole story this morning so I’ll give you an edited version…

Every afternoon, as they were coming from school, the children used to go and play in the Giant’s garden.

     It was a large lovely garden, with soft green grass. Here and there over the grass stood beautiful flowers like stars, and there were twelve peach-trees that in the spring-time broke out into delicate blossoms of pink and pearl, and in the autumn bore rich fruit…

     One day the Giant came back. He had been to visit his friend the Cornish ogre, and had stayed with him for seven years. When he arrived [home] he saw the children playing in the garden.

     ‘What are you doing here?’ he cried in a very gruff voice, and the children ran away.

     ‘My own garden is my own garden,’ said the Giant; ‘any one can understand that, and I will allow nobody to play in it but myself.’ So he built a high wall all round it, and put up a notice-board.




He was a very selfish Giant. The poor children now had nowhere to play…


     Then the Spring came, and all over the country there were little blossoms and little birds. Only, in the garden of the Selfish Giant, it was still Winter. The birds did not care to sing in it as there were no children, and the trees forgot to blossom.

The only people who were pleased were the Snow and the Frost. ‘Spring has forgotten this garden,’ they cried, ‘so we will live here all the year round.’…


     ‘I cannot understand why the Spring is so late in coming,’ said the Selfish Giant, as he sat at the window and looked out at his cold white garden; ‘I hope there will be a change in the weather.’

     But the Spring never came, nor the Summer. The Autumn gave golden fruit to every garden, but to the Giant’s garden she gave none. ‘He is too selfish,’ she said. So it was always Winter there…


     One morning the Giant was lying awake in bed when he heard some lovely music… It was only a little linnet singing outside his window, but it was so long since he had heard a bird sing in his garden that it seemed to him to be the most beautiful music in the world. Then… a delicious perfume came to him through the open casement.

‘I believe the Spring has come at last,’ said the Giant; and he jumped out of bed and looked out.

          What did he see? He saw a most wonderful sight. Through a little hole in the wall the children had crept in, and they were sitting in the branches of the trees. In every tree that he could see there was a little child. And the trees were so glad to have the children back again that they had covered themselves with blossoms, and were waving their arms gently above the children’s heads…


It was a lovely scene, [except] in one corner it was still Winter. It was the farthest corner of the garden, and in it was standing a little boy. He was so small that he could not reach up to the branches of the tree, and he was wandering all round it, crying bitterly…

     The Giant’s heart melted as he looked out. ‘How selfish I have been!’ he said; ‘now I know why the Spring would not come here. I will put that poor little boy in the tree, and then I will knock down the wall, and my garden shall be the children’s playground for ever and ever.’ He was really very sorry for what he had done.

     So he crept downstairs and opened the front door quite softly, and went out into the garden. But when the children saw him they were so frightened that they all ran away, and the garden became Winter again.


The little boy did not run [though], for his eyes were so full of tears that he did not see the Giant coming. The Giant stole up behind him and took him gently in his hand, and put him up into the tree. And the tree broke at once into blossom, and the birds came and sang in it, and the little boy stretched out his two arms and flung them round the Giant’s neck, and kissed him.


When the other children saw that the Giant was not wicked any longer, they came running back, and with them came the Spring.

‘It is your garden now, little children,’ said the Giant, and he took a great axe and knocked down the wall…

     All day long the [children] played, and in the evening they came to the Giant to bid him good-bye.

     ‘But where is your little companion?’ he said: ‘the boy I put into the tree.’…

     ‘We don’t know,’ answered the children; ‘he has gone away.’ …

     The Giant was kind to all the children, yet he longed for his first little friend, and often spoke of him…


     Years went over, and the Giant grew very old and feeble. He could not play about any more, so he sat in a huge armchair, and watched the children at their games, and admired his garden.

‘I have many beautiful flowers,’ he said; ‘but the children are the most beautiful flowers of all.’


One winter morning he looked out of his window as he was dressing. He did not hate the Winter now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting.

     Suddenly he rubbed his eyes in wonder, and looked and looked. It certainly was a marvellous sight. In the farthest corner of the garden was a tree covered with lovely white blossoms. Its branches were all golden, and silver fruit hung down from them, and underneath it stood the little boy he had loved.


Downstairs ran the Giant in great joy, and out into the garden. He hastened across the grass… [toward] the child. But when he came close his face grew red with anger… For on the palms of the child’s hands were the prints of two nails, and the prints of two nails were on the little feet also.

     ‘Who hath dared to wound thee?’ cried the Giant; ‘tell me, that I may take my big sword and slay him.’

     ‘Nay!’ answered the child; ‘but these are the wounds of Love.’

     ‘Who art thou?’ said the Giant, and a strange awe fell on him, and he knelt before the little child.

     The child smiled on the Giant, and said to him, ‘You let me play once in your garden, to-day you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise.’

     And when the children ran in that afternoon, they found the Giant lying dead under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.

We are changed and come to be our true selves through encounter with Christ

  • Funny thing is, Christ is often present to us in the face of the other

[1] Rackman, cited in John Stott’s commentary on Acts, page 194.

[2] Richard Rohr, ‘Things Hidden’, page 36.

[3] Refer Richard Rohr, ‘Things Hidden’, page 61.