1Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
5Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. 9See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
It’s not totally clear how common baptism type ceremonies were in Jesus’ time. The mainstream Jewish community had certain kinds of ritual washings, as many religions do, they weren’t really tied to joining the community. Some sects within Judaism used a ritual washing as a sign of entering their community, but there isn’t a certain link between these rituals and communities and John the baptist.
John appeared in classic prophet’s clothes preaching and baptizing on the banks of the Jordan River. All the Gospels agree that John’s ministry of baptism had a lot to do with inviting people to repent and turn back to God. They also agree that John’s ministry was about preparing the way for Jesus, God’s Messiah.
So to get people ready for the new thing God was doing in Jesus, John baptized people to symbolize repentance and new faithfulness. Jesus started his ministry by being baptized by John. He didn’t need to repent, but he knew that this symbol of new life and faithfulness was the appropriate way to start his ministry.
Jesus spent his short ministry also calling people back to God, seeking out the poor and oppressed, seeking out the outcast and the lost, healing and comforting and forgiving. In his great commission to the disciples he commanded them to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all his commands. From the very beginning, the church has been called to share the message of God’s love with others.
Since the beginning, baptism has been important in the Christian life. It symbolizes not only cleansing from sin, but also dying with Christ. In baptism we die to the world’s expectations and loyalties and rise from the water as newborn children of God. We rise as members of Christ’s body, people whose entire lives are centered in following Jesus as part of a new family.
We’ve lost some of the radical nature of that symbol because the modern church has lost some of the radical sense of belonging that so defined the early church. In those first days it was often a crime to baptize a new Christian or to be baptized. In stepping into the water people knew they were taking a huge risk.
Being part of the church also carried an expectation of truly being a family. We still use family language, we still talk about being brothers and sisters, but the early church experienced that in a deeper way. We’re told that in the early days the church owned all property together. People sold what they had and offered it to the church to be distributed for everyone’s needs. People who had larger houses opened them up to the church as places to meet. Many people hosted traveling evangelists or other Christians into their homes. The church truly was one body growing by welcoming people in, sharing fellowship around the table and sharing the precious word of grace.
Christianity wasn’t a religion in those early days, it was a movement within Judaism. To preserve their identity under Roman rule many Jews were careful to separate themselves from their pagan neighbors. Jewish law not only told the faithful what they could and couldn’t eat, but also prohibited them from eating with gentiles.
The fear was that the pressure of being surrounded by more powerful and numerous pagans would corrupt the faith of the Jewish community, which was a reasonable fear since worshiping foreign gods was what led to the fall of the kingdom of Israel in the first place. We don’t know how many Jews grew weaker in the faith and tried to blend in with their neighbors, but we can imagine that the temptation was strong.
The influence between Jews and gentiles wasn’t just one way, though. Often gentiles were impressed by the strong community and dedication to God they saw in their Jewish neighbors. Some started spending time at the temple and learned more about God. A few even took the radical step of being circumcised and joining the community completely.
While there was room in the community for people coming to know God and even converting, for many Jews the separation between themselves and their neighbors was very important to keep their faith alive. As a movement in Judaism, early Christians inherited all that tension between welcome and separation.
So we come to one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Cornelius was a centurion in the Italian cohort. That means he was a Roman citizen and commander of a hundred soldiers. During his time in Jewish areas he had come to know and love the God of Israel. One day he was praying in the afternoon when an angel appeared in his room. The angel said, “Cornelius, your offerings and prayers have gone up before God as a sweet scent. Now send messengers to Joppa, to the home of Simon the tanner and ask for Simon, known as Peter who is staying there.” Right away Cornelius called two of his servants and one of his soldiers who also knew God, told them the whole story and sent them to Joppa.
The next day about noon, as Cornelius’s men were on the road, Peter was on the roof of Simon’s house praying. He was hungry, so he asked for some food to be prepared. While he was waiting for it he fell into a trance. In a vision he saw a huge sheet being lowered from heaven. On the sheet were all kinds of animals, clean and unclean. A voice from heaven said, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” But Peter replied, “No way, Lord, I’ve never eaten anything unclean.” The voice said to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” The same thing happened three times and the sheet was lifted back into heaven.
While Peter was still thinking about the vision he heard men at the gate of the house asking for him. The voice said to him, “There are men looking for you. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them. Peter went to the door and asked them who they were looking for. They told him they were looking for Simon, known as Peter and told him about Cornelius’s vision. He welcomed them in to eat and stay the night. The next day he and some of the believers from Joppa set out on the road to see Cornelius.
When they got there Cornelius came out of the house and fell at Peter’s feet. Peter had him get up saying, “I’m only a man like you are.” He went in to the house and saw that Cornelius had gathered all his friends and family. Peter said, “You know that it is against our religious law for a Jew to eat with a gentile or even to go and visit one. But God has shown me that I must not call any person unclean, so as soon as your messengers arrived, I went with them. Now, may I ask why you called me?”
Cornelius told him about his vision and said, “Now you have been good enough to come to us. We are all waiting to hear what you have to say.” Our New Testament reading for today picks up with Acts 10:34-43:
34Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ-he is Lord of all.
37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."
Jesus spent his life breaking down barriers and reaching out to people the respectable, religious people wanted nothing to do with. In the early days of the church it was a live question whether the church was going to follow their Lord in the same way. We have a hard time imagining how important the division between Jew and gentile was for observant Jews like Peter. Even in Christ’s lifetime, he didn’t spend much time with gentiles.
But here God clearly calls Peter to put aside this division he has grown up with. I guess it shouldn’t surprise us that God pushed Peter out of his comfort zone, since that seems to be one of God’s favorite things to do. Maybe the miracle is that Peter got it so quickly and followed. He could tell what God was calling him to do. When he arrived, the message became even more obvious. God was reaching even beyond the borders of Israel, even beyond the covenant with Abraham. God declared that no one was unclean; no one was outside the call of God’s love.
If things weren’t obvious enough, God sealed the deal by pouring the Holy Spirit out on these gentiles, even before they were baptized. John told the crowds that his baptism with water merely prepared the way for the baptism in the Holy Spirit the Messiah would bring. Here that Spirit baptism fell on gentiles. God’s plan was obvious for all the Jewish Christians there. Who were they to get in the way of welcoming people God was clearly calling?
Jesus began his ministry by being baptized, and we begin our ministries in the same way. In baptism everything that divides us is washed away and we become brothers and sisters in Christ. This story teaches us that the divisions we think are important, even the divisions Jesus seemed to think were important during his lifetime, mean nothing to God. God invites everyone into the crazy adventure of Christian discipleship.
There’s a whole world out there like Cornelius, wanting to have a relationship with God but needing guidance along the way. There are many people out there who are hungry for relationship and hungry for something more in their lives, people who might not even know the story of Jesus. You might be just the person to share the story with someone who wants to belong, but doesn’t know how.
We follow Christ in baptism; we follow Christ in ministry; we follow Christ in welcoming others, especially those society ignores. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, Jew or gentile, male or female, experienced or brand new to the faith, gay or straight. In baptism and at the table we are all one family, all members of Christ’s body, diverse and united. We are all one in love, one in mission, one in service. Christ welcomes us all; come and follow; come and be changed.
Thanks be to God.