Monday, January 13, 2014

Decision Overturned

Acts 10:34-43

            Talk about surprises. 

            Peter was a good Jew.  And good Jews had at least a five hundred, if not a thousand-year-old script for what to think about Gentiles.  We didn’t hear the background story today as Acts was being read, but it is worth recounting.   As Luke tells it, sometime after Jesus was raised from the dead, there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort. Cornelius had not adopted the Jewish religion, but worshiped the God of Israel.  One afternoon about three o’clock, Cornelius had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and calling him by name, “Cornelius.” 

            He looked at the being, terror-struck, and stammered, “What is it, Lord?” 

            The angel answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.   Here’s what you are to do.  Send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter, who is lodging with another Simon, a tanner.”  So Cornelius did just that.

            As they were journeying to Joppa, about noon the next day, Peter went up on the roof of Simon’s house to pray.  He became hungry, and food was being prepared for him.  As he waited for lunch, Peter fell into a trance.  He saw heaven opened and something like a large bed sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners.  In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds.  A voice said, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.”

            But Peter said, “No way, Lord.  I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”  Two more times this voice repeated the command, and then suddenly the sheet was taken up into heaven.  Peter had no idea of what to make of it.  About that time the men sent by Cornelius appeared, asking the whereabouts of Peter. 

            The Spirit said to Peter, “Three men are searching for you.  Get up, go down, and go with them without hesitating.  I have sent them.”  So after spending the night and inviting Cornelius’ party to do so, Peter journeyed to Caesarea, met Cornelius, found out about the vision the centurion had experienced several days before, and responded to Cornelius’s bidding that Peter share with him and his company, including family and close friends, what Peter had to say.

            That is where Peter begins to say what you heard in the second lesson a few minutes ago.  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  A case could be made for saying that that one sentence is perhaps the most important one ever spoken by a Christian tongue.  Do you have any idea what a huge change that signaled?  We speak of the conversion of Cornelius the Centurion, and the Church sets aside the 7th of February as a feast day to celebrate that.  But it could as easily be spoken of as the Conversion of Peter the Apostle.  This was truly a conversion, a transformative event.  And it pegs an enormous change in thinking, a radical shift in perceptions that is nearly impossible to describe.  The fledgling Church was to have a series of challenges and disputes about the incorporation of Gentiles into the Christian community before things got all ironed out, but the response of Peter to Cornelius was the beginning of the earthquake. 

            Now what Peter proceeds to tell Cornelius and his company is a synopsis of Jesus’ ministry.  Most scholars say that what Peter says and what we heard is the kerygmatic outline, a summation of the gospel that was preached from the earliest days of the Christian movement.  And what was the effect?  A rather surprising one, you might say.  For as Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.  The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.  And there you have it.  God simply does not follow the rules that people lay out neatly for God to follow.  It should have been little surprise to Peter’s colleagues, who might have known Jesus himself.  If they did, they must have had some inkling that God disobeyed many a rule, hard as that might be to swallow.  Ripping off grain from somebody else’s cornfield on the Sabbath; healing whomever, whenever, however, wherever; keeping table fellowship with those who were ritually unclean, not to mention categorically immoral; saying outrageous things about the wealthy and taking up unconscionably big chunks of time with the dispossessed and the poor; displaying concerns for those nobody else cared for; making despised Samaritans exemplary heroes of some of his stories:  none of that is standard religious stuff. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now.  Try flouting custom and authority in the average parish that has Jesus all boxed up in the Tabernacle with a candle glowing in his honor.  Try suggesting that Jesus, not to mention God, might not find disgusting what human beings often do.  Invite somebody smelling of stale urine and cheap wine into many a Christian congregation of whatever stripe.  You will find out fast how the example of Jesus is something that still does not quite register with hosts of people who are dead sure that they are going to “get to heaven” while whole nations and groups and non-conformists are headed to hell.  But, you’d think, Peter and his companions should have known.  Maybe they did.  Maybe they did.

            Peter, witnessing the marks of the Holy Spirit on these new Gentile converts, asked, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.  Too bad that our story today stopped before it got to that, which is in some ways the best part.  The infant Church had not yet regularized and institutionalized the order of Christian initiation.  Here is an example in Acts of the order being wrong by later standards.  First you are supposed to be baptized—that is the rule—and then you can get the Holy Spirit.  Whoever heard tell of an unbaptized person being full of God?  Imagine.  Later on there are other accounts of people who were baptized but who had not yet manifested the marks of the Spirit.  Again, very strange.  Not by the rules did they play.  And if there is one thing that drives human beings nuts it is to play without consistent rules.  “Not fair!” are two of the first words that at least English-speaking kids learn.  We want rules.  And as much as we would like to think that God just loves to give commandments and ordinances, apparently there are some (witness Jesus again) which we love a lot more than God appears to.

            Oh, this Holy Spirit that Jesus experienced descending upon him all dove-like as he came up out of that muddy Jordan, its water running out of his ears, is the Spirit that fell on Cornelius and company.  Was it real?  Apparently so.  What, then, might we expect to have happened?  I would argue that the biggest surprise might have been that Cornelius actually did not change all that much.  How do I know?  I don’t.  But the story tells us that he was already devout, that he prayed constantly, and that he gave generously to people.  In fact, the job of Peter was to facilitate a connection between what Cornelius had already been doing and the guts of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection.  It was not that Cornelius did not know anything about living a life of faith.  He simply did not know about Jesus.  It was not that he needed to be changed inside and out.  He simply needed to know not how to live but who was already living in him.  Perhaps some of Cornelius’s relatives and friends had some reforming to do, some radical changes to make.  And maybe Cornelius did too, on some levels.  Yet the issue is that the Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus is not for Jesus only but for all those, Jews, Gentiles, men, women, children, of all shapes, sizes, nations, and races who give their hearts to Jesus and make him their model, their pattern, and thus their Savior.

            Like a great many things, baptism got started as a simple thing, an outward sign of an inner change.  (That is why people have a hard time understanding why Jesus was baptized in the first place. Why should the sinless one come to Jordan to be baptized?  Matthew’s gospel depicts John the Baptizer as reluctant to baptize Jesus at all, but finally relenting in order to “fulfill all righteousness.”)  But baptism does not stay stuck as a simple ritual bath.  It takes on deeper and deeper significance.  It morphs into a ritual death and resurrection, as people go down under the water and come back up again, imitating, as it were, the journey of Jesus from cross to tomb to hell and back, and thence to exaltation.  Baptism becomes for generations after Cornelius and his cohort a way of life, the way of giving, the way of forgiving.

            The good news is that this surprising turn of events is not an ancient story that is at best an intriguing fable that might catch your fleeting attention.  It is as real today as it was for Peter that day in Joppa or two days later in Caesarea.  The Spirit who breaks into the lives of and rearranges the thinking of first century Jews, the Spirit who is at work in a Roman centurion is sniffing around your heels at this very instant.  The graceful, dove-like flight of that Spirit at Jesus’ baptism attesting that he is the Son of God is replicated in your life over and over again.  You but have to recognize it.  But not even your recognition is anything that makes that Spirit any more present or real than it already is.  If you have not already decided to open yourself to the Presence of that Spirit, you might be aware that, should you do so, you will likely find that Spirit overturning some of your best and most cherished ideas, plowing up and rearranging some of your best-laid schemes.   Some of your pet projects may turn out to be laughably inadequate when compared to divine creativity that can flow through you.  And some of your prejudices will no doubt bite the dust.

            Some lines from a song by Peter Yarrow run through my mind as once more the Paschal Candle burns, like the hearts warmed by Peter’s sermon.  It is oddly what this surprising thing called baptism boils down to.  The nubbin of it is that the Spirit descends for the sake of raising us to share the life of Christ.

A single flame fills all the earth
A single sun fills all the blue
A single death, a single birth
Suffice us not.  Let me with you
Discover if there be a way
Separate from that path, above
The plains of earth; the high gods say,
There is a way, the way of love.[1]

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014

[1] Peter Yarrow and E. Mezzetti, “Plato’s Song,” after Victor Neuberg, “Plato’s Love-Song,” online at, accessed January 11, 2014; cf. the original of Neuberg’s poem, “Plato’s Love-Song,” from Songs of The Groves, Records of the Ancient World, online at, accessed January 11, 2014.

No comments: