Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them and praising God. Then Peter said,“Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days. (NIV)
Grace to you and peace from God our creator, from Jesus the Christ, our redeemer and friend and from the Holy Spirit, our sustainer and guide.
Today, we celebrate The Baptism of Jesus Sunday. It is always the first Sunday after Epiphany. It is part of every year because the Baptism of Jesus is important, though the controversy has raged through the years. Why did Jesus need to be baptized? He was without sin. He did not need the cleansing power of the baptismal waters. He did not need to be baptized. But WE needed Jesus to be baptized. The Christ came to us and became human that we would know in no uncertain terms that God is FOR us; that God understands human life, our needs, our frailties, our temptations. John was baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins. John knew very well Jesus didn’t need to be baptized and told him so. John got it. Him baptizing Jesus was a little bit backwards. But it is no more backwards than God setting aside the ineffable, transcendent divinity to take on human flesh and be a divinity among and within the most complicated being in creation.
The baptism of Jesus is important, but the real turning point is this; the baptisms of Cornelius and his family and guests. We have before us today the sermon Peter gave them and how it got interrupted by the Holy Spirit. Why is it important? Let me tell you.
First, I have to tell you some of the back story. The Feast of Pentecost was the Jewish holy day that comes 50 days after the Passover. It is one of the big celebrations; one of the pilgrimage holy days. Each man is expected to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship in the temple for this festival at least once in their lifetime, and every year if he lives close enough to do so. It was the Feast of Pentecost when the disciples were gathered in the upper room and the Holy Spirit came upon them and they were able to speak with the faithful from all over the world who had gathered for the festival. They, these undereducated disciples… these untraveled men… these were the ones who were telling each pilgrim about Jesus in his own language.
Since then the disciples and their converts had been busy spreading the good news. They were telling everyone in Jerusalem, so much so that the officials got wound up by all this talk of Jesus. They had thought they were done with this problem when they crucified him, but no. They were far from done. That was just the beginning. More and more people were turning to believe in Jesus’ message and his power and this was disruptive. The status quo was being upended all over town. The officials decided once again they would have to put a stop to all this ‘God talk’ and stirred up false accusations against one of their more faithful members, Stephen and had him killed by dragging him outside the city walls and stoning him.
At this, the followers of Jesus knew it was no longer safe and they had to get out of town. They scattered all over the region, throughout Judea and Samaria. The officials in Jerusalem were relieved. Things had quieted down a great deal. But what they didn’t know is that the disciples talked about Jesus wherever they went and communities of believers sprang up all over the place!
A lot of other things happened but for our purpose, we are going to skip all that and focus on Peter. As one of Jesus’ closest disciples, he was in great demand. He was invited to come various places. Now he was in Joppa on the Mediterranean coast. But just a bit north of there, in Caesarea, Cornelius had a vision from God to send for Peter. Now, Cornelius is not a Jew. He is a Roman Soldier. He is a man of faith. He prayed daily and was very sympathetic to the Jews, but he was not a Jew. Peter, as a good Jewish man, would have known that he should respect Cornelius’s faith and devotion, but still not mingle with him. He certainly should not eat at his house or stay there with him. But God tells Cornelius to send for Peter and he puts a team of his people on it. They leave to go get him and when they are getting close to town, Peter has a vision of his own.
In this vision, Peter sees the great sheet with all the animals, reptiles and birds; all the things that are forbidden for Jews to eat. The command comes to him to eat them. He knows better. He knows they are unclean animals and not meant for food. Three times this is presented to him with the command to eat. Three times he refuses. This vision is confusing and he ponders it in his heart. While he is thinking about it, the delegation from Cornelius arrives. They tell Peter their mission and he invites them in. Caesarea is a two day journey so they can’t go until the next day. Peter shows them hospitality, but is still trying to figure out what this vision means. It hasn’t all come together yet, but he has an inkling these visitors are connected somehow, that it all fits, so he agrees to go.
When they arrive, he reminds them it is highly irregular for him to be there, in their home, as Cornelius would have known. Jews just don’t go to the homes of Gentiles, but Peter is convinced this is of God so he is trusting that he is supposed to be there with them. He asks why they have sent for him. Cornelius tells him the story of his vision and it all falls into place for Peter. It is suddenly clear. God’s purpose is for ALL people to have faith, not just the Jews.
And that is where we pick up today’s reading from Acts 10:34. Peter gives them one of his best sermons telling them all about Jesus and how much good he had done. But before he can even finish and give them his final evangelistic pitch, the one that thousands have responded to already, the Holy Spirit comes upon the whole assembly and it is just like the Day of Pentecost all over again! These Gentiles are speaking in tongues and praising God.
Peter realizes that the door separating the Jews from the Gentiles has been blown off its hinges.
It is important because we would not be sitting here today, Gentiles each and every one of us, if it weren’t for the obedience of Cornelius and if it weren’t for the willingness of Peter to do a new thing. This had to be hard for Peter to unlearn all he had ever known about the separation of Jews and Gentiles. His whole life he had practiced that separation, but now, he put it all behind him.
But do you see the most interesting thing of all… God had to use an outsider to get the insider to see it. It is no different today. We are used to how things are done… We know the customs and traditions. We know how it has been and we recognize that it has been good. But this is grace. Grace breaks down the barriers between insider and outsider. Grace flings open the door and says ‘Come on in!’ Grace helps us unlearn what we have always known so we can know a new thing. Grace propels us outside of our comfort zone. Grace take us into new territory. Grace separates the past from the future.
Human beings can rarely see how it might be without a kick in the pants, or a visit from God in a vision.
We are at a turning point in our life and faith here at Gethsemane. This is the beginning of our 60th year as a congregation. We can see how it has been. What is keeping us from seeing how it might be? Maybe we need a Peter and Cornelius moment for our day. Who might be the outsider who has a word from God for us? What might be the new thing that makes all the difference?
In these next few moments of silence, pray for our vision. Pray that God’s grace will break into our lives in a moment of clarity and show us what we might become.
(some silence for reflection)
Holy God, come into our hearts and increase our faith. Inspire us in serving your people and being the church for the good of the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Blessings to you,
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.