Acts 10, John 15:9-17
May 20, 2012
A couple of weeks ago we looked at another baptism story. That was the one about a couple of outsiders, Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch who tested the waters, so to speak, about what his followers were saying about Jesus. Was there actually going to be a place like for folk like them in the church or would they always be considered as outsiders?
Today’s baptism story the same question is being asked? Who actually gets to be a part of this thing that God is doing in Jesus? Is it just Jews or everyone? But this time it’s the insiders, people like Peter, who are asking the question. And, much to their surprise, they came up with the same answer that Philip and the Ethiopian did. Yes, this thing is for everyone. All are invited to dive in, to plunge into the living waters Jesus offers, and water the parched places of this world.
Do you know the story of Peter and Cornelius? It’s one of those pivotal stories in the New Testament. If Peter and his companions had answered no to the question of whether a gentile like Cornelius could be baptized, if not corrected down the road, the whole history of Christianity woould have turned out much differently, and you and I wouldn’t be sitting here this morning.
So how does the story go? It starts with Cornelius, this officer in the occupying Roman Army, at prayer. He may be a gentile and a pagan, but he respects the Jewish religion. While praying and angel speaks to him and tells him to send some of his people to fetch Peter.
Peter, it turns out, had been doing some praying of his own and he had this vision. Do you remember what it was? “The next day as the three travelers were approaching the town, Peter went out on the balcony to pray. It was about noon. Peter got hungry and started thinking about lunch. While lunch was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the skies open up. Something that looked like a huge blanket lowered by ropes at its four corners settled on the ground. Every kind of animal and reptile and bird you could think of was on it. Then a voice came: ‘Go to it, Peter—kill and eat.’
Peter said, ‘Oh, no, Lord. I’ve never so much as tasted food that was not kosher.’The voice came a second time: ‘If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.’ This happened three times, and then the blanket was pulled back up into the skies.”
While Peter was trying to figure out what this vision was about, the two servants and the soldier that Cornelius sent showed up on the front porch of the house where Peter was staying. They told him about Cornelius and how he wanted Peter to come to his home.
Then Peter gets it. Here’s how the story goes. “Talking things over, they went on into the house, where Cornelius introduced Peter to everyone who had come. Peter addressed them, ‘You know, I’m sure that this is highly irregular. Jews just don’t do this—visit and relax with people of another race. But God has just shown me that no race is better than any other. So the minute I was sent for, I came, no questions asked.’”
Then he preached the message we read earlier this morning and ended up baptizing Cornelius and all the folk with him. Suddenly everything was different. Even though there was still debate going on back in Jerusalem about whether the Gospel of Jesus was just for Jews, Peter had resolved the issue for himself, and ultimately for the church, right then and there. Jesus was serious about tearing down the walls that divided people, and his followers were going to have to be serious about tearing those walls down, too.
Remember, though, where Peter started. In that vision he had, he was horrified at the prospect of eating those unclean foods. Everything he had been taught told him that his faith was about what he was supposed to exclude from his life. Not only food, but also people. So that journey he made to Cornelius’s house may have been short, distance wise, but it was much longer spiritually.
The sad history of the church is that we have been slow to learn what Peter learned during that stay in Joppa. Much of the history and practice of the Church, and churches, to this very day, has centered around who and what is unclean, who shouldn’t be allowed into the waters. Somehow we have equated the call to love Jesus as a call to separate ourselves from others. But it was Henri Nouwen who wrote that we are called “to love Jesus, and love the way Jesus loved.”
This is what was happening with Peter and his traveling companions in Joppa. They were living out that thing Jesus talked about in John’s gospel where the greatest commandment God gives is for us to love one another. Just like Jesus loved us, and showed us God’s love for us. When Peter was standing in Cornelius’s home, he was tearing down those walls, and diving with Cornelius into the living waters that Jesus brings into this world.
Jacob Myers, a Ph.D. student at Emory University writes this. “Sometimes we, like Peter, are called to a ministry of proclamation and proximity. It is difficult to measure who received the greater blessing in this story: Cornelius or Peter. What we can be certain of is that God was at work through the Spirit to tear down barriers so that God’s very Word could be heard. This Word has the power to re-negotiate our preconceptions of others, about what they can or cannot do. Moreover, the Word has the power to transform our own character as well by leading us into proximity of the others whom God loves.”
A ministry of proclamation and proximity. We cannot proclaim the Word of God by distancing ourselves from others, by denying them permission to be baptized into the community of Jesus followers because of their race, culture, sexual orientation, gender, nationality, educational or economic accomplishments, or any of the other ways we divide ourselves from each other.
This month’s Sojourner’s Magazine has an interview with Rebecca Barrett-Fox who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. That’s Fred Phelps, the ‘God hates fags’ guy. They introduce the interview this way. “Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church takes in your face to a whole new level. The church is nothing if not an equal opportunity offender, from its burning of a Quaran and an American flag to its signs proclaiming God’s hatred for…well, pretty much everyone.”
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Let’s not turn the Gospel up on it’s head.
I just saw this story a couple of days ago about a nine year old boy in Topeka who decided to offer his own response to Rev. Phelps. He asked his Mom to take him down to the Westboro Baptist Church where, from across the street, he held up his own sign which read, “God doesn’t hate anybody.”
Philip learned that day in Joppa that Jesus was right about who God is. That little boy has learned it, too. Maybe Rev. Phelps can experience his own coming of the Spirit and realize that loving Jesus means loving the way Jesus loved.