Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 12, 2020
Acts 10:34-43 Commentary
On this Sunday on which the RCL invites us to contemplate Jesus’ baptism, it omits the account of Cornelius’ baptism from its Epistolary Lesson. That may at least imply that the RCL is less interested in the Romans or even Jesus’s baptism than with the baptized Jesus (and his Church’s) mission. A mission that has much to do with Epiphany’s emphasis on Jesus the Light of the world bringing light to a spiritually darkened world.
Peter and his Jewish contemporaries seemed to have assumed that Jesus’ light was largely for Jews like themselves. After all, they recognized that God might show occasional love to a few Gentiles. However, they also insisted that God’s favoritism dictated that those outsiders had to act like Jews in order to qualify for God’s mercy.
In today’s Epistolary Lesson, 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.” They’re signs that God has convinced Peter that Jesus is the Light not just of faithful Jews like himself, but also of gentiles.
Yet Peter’s message of God’s favor toward the Gentiles could not have been an easy one for even his Christian Jewish contemporaries to hear. It’s not, after all, as though had Peter said God favors Candiens fans as much as Maple Leaf fans. No, it’s more like he says God loves murderers, rapists and child abusers as much as God loves nice people like us.
Perhaps, however, this wide love 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. Acts shows how God nudges God’s people 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 basically shoves one of God’s Israelite sons up against a Roman soldier named Cornelius. This gentile 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.
However, Acts 10:2 describes Cornelius’s 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 outsider. However, unlike those men from the east, God has already drawn him to the edge of the God-fearing community. In fact, Cornelius shows that he’s already willing to have God and people teach and guide him.
However, it’s also clear that Cornelius doesn’t choose to be taught and guided. He doesn’t make some heroic decision to buck the odds to follow Jesus Christ. No, Luke portrays this Roman soldier as more of a passive actor in a cosmic drama that Someone Else directs.
At least some of Acts 10’s preachers and teachers, like Cornelius also have great responsibility and authority. We tell our children, students 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 send for Peter. 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.
After all, just as Cornelius had a strange vision, Peter also had a dream that also confused him. As he was praying, someone lowered a big sheet that was full of all sorts of animals. A voice then commanded him to kill and eat what was in the sheet, including food no faithful Jew ever ate.
As Will Willimon notes, the strict dietary laws Peter followed shaped Jewish faithfulness in the midst of immense pressure to abandon the faith and just become a good Roman citizen. However, 21st century Christians who make many little spiritual compromises can hardly understand Peter’s reluctance to break such laws. How, after all, could it hurt him just to take a bite of pork? So it’s hard to even imagine how difficult it was for Peter to go with 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 both keep kosher and avoid Gentiles precisely like this soldier to whom he’s going.
God, however, drags this leader of the Jewish Christian church, to the home of a Gentile leader of the Roman army. God also empowers Peter to recognize that his mysterious trip has something to do with his strange dream about pure and impure food. After all, God is gradually revealing to Peter a potentially frightening implication of Jesus’s ministry: God does not show favoritism!
In response, Peter quickly breaks at least one hallowed law. He enters the Gentile Cornelius’ home. Yet once God breaks down that wall, we see God take a sledgehammer to a whole series of old walls. When, after all, Peter enters his home, the Roman soldier falls at his feet to worship him. It shows that the mighty Gentile soldier is not too powerful to kneel before a humble Jewish former fisherman. What’s more, eventually Peter stays with his Gentile hosts for a few days. So he also probably ate things that were unkosher.
Earlier Acts tells us that God converts, in one sense, both Saul and Ananias. We recognize Saul’s need for conversion. He, after all, was a relentless persecutor of Christians whom God gave the gift of Christian faith. However, Ananias’s need for conversion may have been less obvious. Yet he also needed God’s transformation from one who avoided Saul to one who ministered to Paul. In a similar way, both Peter and Cornelius needed to be “converted.”
So who 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 God’s adopted sons and daughters also need daily conversion away from our sinful ways and toward Christ likeness.
When converted Cornelius tells his story, converted Peter can draw only one conclusion: God does not show favoritism but accepts people from every nation who fear the Lord and do what’s right. God had, after all, as Peter says, sent Jesus to do “good” and heal “all who were under the power of the devil.” However, those captives of Satan included all sorts of Jews and outsiders.
Eventually, Peter recalls, Satan’s allies succeeded in convincing 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 must feel as though he’s not just standing at the very end of the earth, but perhaps even on another galaxy.
The Spirit then shatters any lingering doubts Peter may have about the scope of his mission right before his eyes. As if to confirm that God is moving this process, the Holy Spirit 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 or their hospitality? The Spirit, after all, already lives in them. Peter and Christ’s church can only respond in faithful obedience.
This offers Acts 10’s proclaimers an opportunity to explore where the Spirit may be nudging 21st century Christians and their churches. Some people may seem hopelessly beyond the reach of God’s amazing grace. Perhaps they’ve deeply embedded themselves in a religious system that completely rejects Christianity. Or they’ve been part of the church but consciously decided to reject it.
Yet the church always remembers that people’s rejection of God doesn’t sidetrack God’s longing for them to 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. So the first Sunday after the Epiphany may be a good time for preachers and teachers who serve the Light of the world to challenge our hearers to pray for those who don’t yet join us in serving him.
Those who proclaim Acts 10 may also want to look for ways to invite churches to corporately show that God shows no favoritism. Certainly greater prayerful and financial support of missionaries can be part of that. Encouraging people to both talk about God’s love for them in the risen Christ and show them that love is part, as well, of Jesus’ ongoing ministry.
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 that produces 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 everybody else as mere “barbarians.”
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