1.12.14 Good News Everyone!
1 Epiphany A
January 12, 2014
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Who’d-a-thunk it? Our Second Reading--this little, unprepossessing passage from Acts that we have before us this morning--is one of the most important little stories in the history of the Christian Church. Follow along with me . . . Peter is telling the story of Jesus to a Roman Centurion named Cornelius and members of his household.
Peter witnesses to the power of the life and death and resurrection-life of Jesus. He tells the story about how Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power at his baptism—that’s what we commemorate today, of course. That Baptism was the “official inauguration” of Jesus’ public life and ministry. It was God’s way of starting Jesus’ ministry off with a clear statement of his identity and an endorsement of his mission.
Jesus was named as God’s chosen one as he stood wet in the river—God’s Son, the Beloved. He was given power and sent out to his fellow Jews to do the work of God. And work he did. After his death and resurrection he handed over the work he started to his followers.
Peter is merely telling what he knows to be true and what he’s seen to be true. He’s not doing any fancy explanation—no theological lecturing here—just telling what he has seen and what he knows. He is being a witness to Jesus.
But what’s the context for his little speech here in Acts? Why is this story so central in the history of the church?
Well I must thank our own Dan Heller for helping me touch once again the importance of the story. Put concisely, this story of Peter and Cornelius and his household marks the deep realization by Peter that the Good News is for all people, not just for the Jews. It’s a significant turning point in the early Church. It means there’s no turning back—no change of course. The gospel must go out into the world because God showed that it was the right thing to do.
OK so let’s back up a little bit and talk about the back-story of this episode in the Book of Acts. What was going on so as to result in this course-changing event?
Remember that Peter was a good Jew, observant and prayerful. He also lived for years alongside Jesus and knew in his heart that he was the Messiah promised to Israel. Peter was dedicated to sharing the stories of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, with his fellow Jews. And he did so in Jerusalem and in other parts of the Roman Province called Palestine.
Now, as an observant Jew Peter knew that there were things forbidden to him by the Law of Moses, and this included certain foods—things that we would say weren’t “kosher.” It also included touching or being near certain substances that were unclean. Impurity was a big concern in ancient Israel. You avoided it at all costs, for to become clean again was an ordeal.
And so the Book of Acts tells us that Peter found lodging in the town of Joppa, on the Mediterranean seacoast, in the house of a man named Simon. Simon was a tanner—a man who treated and processed animal hides for use as leather. It’s interesting to note that tanning back then involved the use of urine to treat the hides—its acids and ammonia were chemically well suited to the process of turning dead animal hide into good leather.
So already Peter is a little outside the bounds of good kosher behavior here, associating with a man who routinely used a very unclean substance in his daily work.
Now, Peter was on the roof of the tanner’s house one day and had a waking dream—a vision. Three times he saw something like a sheet lowered from heaven in which there were several unclean animals, off-limits to a good Jew. And a voice said each time, “Peter, kill and eat.” And Peter: good, observant Jew that he was, argued back, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”
And finally, after 3 repetitions of the vision, Peter understood that things formerly unclean or off limits were no longer unclean or off limits. All things, formed by the Creator of all things were good. It was an epiphany for him—the light bulb went on over his head—and he understood that things that were forbidden were now allowed.
The story continues. Peter was summoned by messengers to the house of Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army. Cornelius was a Gentile—someone outside the Jewish religion. All the members of his household were Gentiles, as today’s text makes plain. They called him there in response to an angel who told Cornelius to send for Peter, who was staying with Simon the tanner.
So Peter speaks the passage we have this morning to Cornelius and his household. And while he was speaking, the Holy Spirit came upon them with power and they began speaking in tongues and praising God.
And so Peter thinks, well, who am I to withhold water baptism from these people, given that I’ve just seen the Holy Spirit anoint them with this power? Who am I to keep these people out of God’s church?
And so Peter baptized them all.
Later Peter took the story of Cornelius and his household back to the other disciples in Jerusalem. Cornelius and his household became “Exhibit A” in the early Church’s decision to open up their mission to the whole world—not just to the children of Israel who may have been scattered over the world.
And that missionary pulse continued to be the engine driving the Church to baptize and teach in Jesus’ name throughout the world. That missionary pulse is directly responsible for our own conversions to Christ, either in this life now or in the lives of our ancestors many centuries ago.
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Now, here’s an interesting thing to ponder. It’s Peter’s veryprofound change of heart. Peter, a man of deep conviction and principles. A man of faith doing what he had previously been taught was right.
God converted Peter to a wider way of thinking about people, a wider vision of who was acceptable in the eyes of God.
He was changed to his core.
God showed him that what he previously held as truth was no longer valid. God gave him an epiphany.
It seems to me that part of the process of coming to Christian maturity is our submission to God’s action to bring us out of the cozy and comfortable box that we’ve put ourselves in—or that we’ve put God in.
So, how has each of us changed already in our lives, casting off old notions and prejudices? How are we different now than we were 20 years ago? Or 1 year ago? And how might God be calling us to mature and to break out of our own current boxes?
It takes courage and maturity to confront these kinds of challenges, because change is almost never welcome to any human being.
May God supply us with what we need in order to change as GOD would have us change.