Jesus was baptized. He came to John at the Jordan like all the others who had come to be baptized, confessing their sins and repenting in light of the nearness of God’s reign. John was even more perplexed than we are about the thought of Jesus standing in line with us sinners near the bank of the river, and he asked, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” And Jesus told him that this was how it had to be for righteousness to be fulfilled. We see him submitting to John’s ritual of repentance and renewal not out of his own need, but because he lived his whole life in complete solidarity with us. He let himself be fully immersed in our lives – our hopes, our regrets, our broken promises and old wounds, our best thoughts and our selfish obsessions – all of it. He let himself be fully immersed and when he emerged – and he did emerge rather than drown and be washed away in the river of our sins – when he came up from the water, the Spirit descended and a voice from heaven called him “my son, my beloved.” Because of him, because of the life he lived and the death he died and the resurrection life into which he has drawn us, because of him we believe that “my beloved” will always be part of the name by which God calls us, the part of our name that defines our identity more than anything else. My beloved, God says, singular and plural, each of you and all of you. Why is this beautiful truth so hard for us to remember?
You have heard about the infamous Facebook live-stream. I haven’t seen the video. I don’t want to see it. Four people have been charged with hate crimes for allegedly carrying out an assault, live-streamed online, in which a man was tied up, hit and cut with a knife by several assailants.
I haven’t seen the video. I don’t want to see it. I read that it showed multiple people taunting, threatening and hitting a man who is tied up in a corner. At a news conference, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson highlighted the “brazenness” of the assailants, for not just carrying out the attack but broadcasting it “for all to see.”
“It’s sickening,” he said. “It makes you wonder what would make individuals treat somebody like that. I’ve been a cop for 28 years — I’ve seen things that you shouldn’t see in a lifetime — but it still amazes me how you still see things that you just shouldn’t [see].”
I haven’t seen the video and I don’t want to see it. Watching it would fill my heart with pain, terror, grief and fear, but it wouldn’t help me see with any more clarity what makes a group of young people broadcast their torture of another young person. Just like watching a video of a young man murdering a whole group of people who invited him to join their Bible study would not help me understand why he went to Mother Emanuel church with weapons in his backpack and hatred in his heart. Watching is at once too much and not enough; it doesn’t help us see, it only adds to the distortion of reality.
The reading from Acts for this Sunday is part of a longer story. It tells us in a series of short scenes about a tectonic shift in the life of the early church. A central theme is the church learning to see how God is moving and finding the courage to follow.
In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, an officer of the Roman army. He was a devout man who feared God, gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.”
He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?”
“Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” When the angel had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and sent them to Joppa.
About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and while some food was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large 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 of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”
“By no means, Lord,” he replied; “for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were standing by the gate, calling out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. Peter was still thinking about the vision, but the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” So Peter went down and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?”
They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging; the next day he got up and went with them to Caesarea.
Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. Peter said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?” Cornelius told him the whole story again and said, “So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”
What would Peter say? He was in the house of an officer in the Roman army, which was already quite a stretch for a Jewish fisherman from Galilee. And that house stood in Caesarea by the Sea, a coastal city that King Herod had built for his Roman lords; it was the capital of the Roman province of Judea with a grand temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus and the goddess Roma perched on a hill overlooking the harbor. Peter was farther removed from his Jewish environs than he had ever been and I imagine he was just as far from comfortable. But he had begun to see what God was up to and he followed the Spirit’s lead. He said, “I am just now truly grasping that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how 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.”
The story of Peter and Cornelius reflects a seismic shift in the life and mission of the early church. The risen Christ had told the disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Neither geographical limits, nor social boundaries, nor ethnic differences would constrain the gospel, and when Peter came down from the roof of the house at the Spirit’s prodding to meet the three men, he took the first steps to the ends of the earth. He entered into the life and space of the other, the stranger, the Gentile, not to remake him in his own image, but to be remade together with him in the image of Christ.
There is significant pressure in our society and around the world to let ourselves be shaped by tribal identities, to seek the comfort of being with people who think like us and look like us. But God is moving in a different direction. We are called to live as witnesses of Christ in this fragmented world. We are called, just like Peter, to be attentive to what God is doing and to let God use our lives, broken as they are, to accomplish God’s healing work. We are called to live, pray, work, serve, and suffer in the name of him in whose name we were baptized. He made our lives his own so that his life would be ours.
My beloved, God calls us, singular and plural, each of you and all of you.