Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 27, 2016
Acts 10:34-43 Commentary
I sometimes wonder if Peter almost choked on the words: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism…” (34) In fact, with one biblical scholar, I sometimes wonder how he justified this profession to himself, much less Jerusalem’s church, as he does later.
His family and synagogue had, after all, raised him to believe that God does show favoritism. Peter had always believed that the Jews were somehow special to God. Sure, they recognized that God might show occasional love to a few Gentiles. However, the Jews also always maintained that God’s favoritism dictated that those outsiders had to act like Jews in order to fully experience God’s mercy.
In the “Old Testament” lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, however, Peter stands up and admits to some of those Gentiles, “God does not show favoritism.” Later he’ll even tell his fellow Jewish Christians, “God gave [the Gentiles] the same gift as he gave us.” Clearly God has convinced Peter that God doesn’t look at faces. God doesn’t play favorites. God has convinced Peter that God shows no partiality.
Yet Peter’s message of God’s favor toward the Gentiles could not have been an easy word for even his Christian Jewish contemporaries to hear. It’s not, after all, as though Peter told us God favors Cowboys’ fans just as much as Redskins’ fans. No, it’s more as if Peter says God loves murderers, rapists and child abusers as much as God loves nice people like us.
Perhaps, however, this wide embrace should not have surprised Peter, the early church or us. God’s Spirit is, after all, on the move throughout the first part of the book of Acts, steadily edging the church out of Jerusalem and into Samaria. Acts shows how God nudges us through Joppa, and past the converted Samaritans and Ethiopian. God even introduces us to the Jewish persecutor of Christians, Saul, whom God has turned into God’s missionary, Paul.
Now, however, God shoves one of God’s sons and us up against a Gentile, a Roman soldier named Cornelius. This man is completely involved in an oppressive political system. In fact, he makes his living off Rome’s sometimes-brutal military occupation of Peter’s country. God, however, is clearly working in the Gentile Cornelius’ life. Acts 10:2, after all, describes his family and him as “devout and God-fearing.” It also reports that this Roman soldier “gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.”
So Cornelius is, like the Magi who worshiped the newborn Jesus, a racial, religious and vocational outsider. However, unlike those men from the east, God has already drawn him to the edge of the God-fearing community. In fact, this Roman soldier shows he’s already willing to have God and people teach and guide him. However, it’s also clear that Cornelius hasn’t yet chosen to become part of Christ’s church by being baptized.
So Acts’ narrator portrays this Roman soldier as more of a passive actor in a cosmic drama that Someone Else directs. This man who usually gives orders to others now finds God giving him orders. Does that sound familiar? Some of us, like Cornelius, after all, also have great responsibility and authority. We usually tell our children or students, employees or people we supervise what to do. However, even the most powerful Christians also take our commands for faith and life from the Lord.
In a similar way, God through an angel, prompts mighty Cornelius to order a man named Peter to come to him. Yet while Peter accepts his “invitation,” (after all, who can turn down a Roman soldier’s “request?”), he’s clearly no more in charge than the Gentile is. Just as Cornelius had a strange vision, so Peter has a dream that also confuses him. As he’s praying, someone lowers a big sheet that’s full of all sorts of animals. A voice then commands him to kill and eat what’s in the sheet, including food no faithful Jew ever ate.
It’s hard for 21st century Christians to imagine how hard it was for Peter to accompany Cornelius’ messengers. Sure, the Spirit’s message and the Roman soldier’s story of the angel’s visit emphasizes God’s directing role. Yet Peter’s synagogue had raised him to avoid Gentiles like this soldier to whom he’s going. God, however, drags Peter, a leader of the Jewish Christian church, to the home of a Gentile. God empowers him to recognize that his mysterious trip to Cornelius’ home even has something to do with that strange dream about pure and impure food.
After all, God is gradually revealing to Peter a full and, to Jews, a frightening implication of the gospel: God does not show favoritism! In response, Peter breaks at least one cherished law. He enters the Gentile Cornelius’ home. Yet once God breaks down that wall, we see God crumble a whole series of old walls. When, after all, Peter enters his home, the Roman soldier falls at his feet to worship him. While this rightly embarrasses Peter, it shows that the mighty Gentile soldier is not too powerful to kneel before a Jewish former fisherman. What’s more, eventually Peter stays with his Gentile hosts for a few days. So we can imagine that he also probably ate things that were unkosher.
So who needs conversion in this story? Is it the mighty Gentile soldier or the ordinary Jewish missionary? The answer is: both. Peter and Cornelius each need God to change them if God’s mission is to go forward. Who, then, needs God’s conversion in our world today? Those who aren’t Christians certainly need God to convert them to the faith. However, we profess that we also need daily conversion away from our sinful ways and toward Christ-likeness.
When converted Cornelius tells his remarkable story, converted Peter can draw only one conclusion. “God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (34-35). After all, God had, as Peter says, sent Jesus to Israel. Jesus went around “doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil.” However, those captives of Satan included all sorts of Jews and outsiders and outcasts.
Eventually, Peter recalls, Satan’s allies convinced the Romans, for whom Cornelius works, to crucify Jesus. God, however, Peter announces, raised this Jesus back to life and sent him back throughout Palestine. Eventually this same Jesus, whom Peter now recognizes is Lord not just of the Jews, but also the Gentiles, ascended back to the heavenly realm. However, he didn’t do so before sending his followers to witness “to the ends of the earth.”
Now one of those followers, Peter, must feel as though he’s not just standing at the very end of the earth, but perhaps even on another planet. He’s, after all, standing in a Gentile’s home, admitting that God does not show favoritism.
If Peter has any lingering doubts about God’s gracious impartiality, the Spirit shatters them right before his eyes. As if to confirm that our impartial God is directing this process, the Holy Spirit somehow descends on everyone who has just heard Peter speak. Just, in fact, as Luke earlier reported the Spirit earlier descended on Jesus.
How, then, can Peter refuse to baptize these outsiders whom God has drawn into God’s family? How can Peter also refuse these Gentiles’ hospitality? The Spirit, after all, already lives in them. The Spirit has blown where it pleases. Peter and Christ’s church can only respond in faithful obedience.
After all, that’s the way it is with Christian faith. It’s far more than a decision that you and I make. Our Christian faith is far more than something we offer to God. It’s our glad response, our joyful reception of God’s gracious offer of himself to us.
Faith is quite simply a gift from God that we can’t make, but can only gladly receive. So God equips all those the Spirit moves to respond in faith. Both Jews and Gentiles, both virtuous pagans like Cornelius and religiously zealous persecutors like Saul may faithfully receive God’s grace.
This offers Acts 10’s preachers and teachers an on opportunity to explore where the Spirit might be nudging the 21st century church. Are there, for instance, people that seem hopelessly beyond the reach of God’s amazing grace? Perhaps they’ve embedded themselves in a religious system that rejects Christianity. Maybe they’ve been part of the church but consciously decided to reject it. Such people may seem to us hopelessly lost.
Yet God knows no partiality. God doesn’t play favorites. Of course, all people, both Jew and Gentile, must receive God’s grace with their faith. However, people’s rejection of God does not derail God’s longing that they faithfully respond to God’s work. As long as they live, God longs to send God’s Spirit on those outsiders, just as God sent the Holy Spirit on the Cornelius.
During Eastertide the Revised Common Lectionary appoints readings from Acts in place of Old Testament readings and so the sermon commentaries during Eastertide will center on those texts.
In his book, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, David M. Kennedy writes about how during WWII Americans and Japanese hated and vilified each other based on racial stereotypes and thus fought a “war without mercy.” The Japanese thought Americans were “decadent” and “self-indulgent.” Americans had no stomach for war, the Japanese believed, and would, after Pearl Harbor, “immediately sue for peace” to Japan’s great advantage.
Besides, the Japanese thought of themselves as racially pure and of one will. Americans, by contrast, were in the eyes of Japanese “a contemptibly polyglot and divided people . . . riven by ethnic and racial conflict, labor violence, and political strife, incapable of self-sacrifice or submission to the public weal.” All because Americans were infected with the “detestable Western virus of individualism.”
Americans, for their part, thought the Japanese were “servile automatons devoid of individual identity.” Meanwhile, “wartime cartoons and posters routinely pictured the Japanese as murderous savages, immature children, wild beasts, or bucktoothed, bespectacled lunatics.”
Kennedy observes that national pride issuing in stereotypes of the “other” and war-making on this basis is an ancient phenomenon seen, for example, among ancient Greeks, who thought of themselves as cultured aristocrats and thought of everybody else as mere “barbarians.”
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