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Posts Tagged ‘Cornelius’

The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church, St. Louis on January 12, 2014.  The message was based on Baptism of Our Lord texts, Acts 10:34-43  and Matthew 3:13-17. 

Every year, we encounter the baptism of Jesus early in the season of Epiphany, which means “manifestation” or “striking appearance.”  It is in this season between now and Ash Wednesday where our lessons will have a strong emphasis on the striking appearance of Christ in human flesh, revealing the various ways that God is indeed with us.

magi1Last week, had weather permitted, we would have gathered together to retell the feast day of Epiphany, where the magi encounter the manifested baby Jesus.  That day is celebrated on January 6th, and is affectionately referred to as Twelfth Night.

I have a little confession to make.  Before my church work days began, I was a children’s librarian in Northeast Ohio.  During that time I fell under the spell of a great occupational hazard – I became an avid Shakespeare buff.

Shakespeare wrote a play entitled “Twelfth Night,” and every year between Christmas and Epiphany, I pull out my well-loved copy and re-read the story.  My all-time favorite work from Shakespeare, this comedy is a complicated love story where duplicity is the name of the game.  The play’s setting is during a carnival-style celebration of the Epiphany.

When reading Peter’s affirmation of faith in today’s reading from Acts, I was reminded of one of my favorite “Twelfth Night” quotes:

In nature there’s no blemish but the mind; None can be called deformed but the unkind.[1]

Our second lesson is one of those examples in Scripture where context adds a great deal to the message.   Peter is at the home of Cornelius, a Roman officer.  It just so happens that Cornelius’ home is in a very pagan city, dedicated to Augustus Caesar.  Up to this point in Luke and Acts, neither Jesus nor his followers had taken their ministry to such a pagan location.  Jesus had even healed the centurion’s servant from Capernaum outside the city because of the dangers associated with entering Gentile territory.[2]  Before Peter came to Cornelius’ house, he and the other disciples traveled quite a bit.  They baptized Jews and Samaritans, but no Gentiles.

peter_vision1One day while Peter was praying he became very hungry and fell into a trance where he experienced a vision.  In the trance, the heavens open up and a four legged creature appeared.  This creature looked like the reptiles and birds that were considered to be unclean by Jewish custom.   A voice from the heavens told Peter to kill the creature and eat it.  Peter replied that he would never eat something so profane or unclean.  The voice returned, saying three times, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”[3]

When Peter awoke from his trance, he went back to the other disciples, where he learned that a man named Cornelius had sent three men to bring Peter to him.  Now Peter was still experiencing that blemish of the mind Shakespeare wrote about.  He hadn’t unraveled the vision of the four-legged creature and wanted to ignore Cornelius’ request.  The Spirit came to him saying, “Look Peter, I was the one who sent these three men to come get you.  Go to Cornelius house.”

So Peter went to Cornelius’ house, but still didn’t understand why he was there.  He listened as Cornelius shared how the Spirit came to Cornelius in a vision and told him to call on Peter, for Peter would bring him a great message.

Finally, things clicked in place for Peter, and we join his story this morning at this Oprah-esque “ah-hah” moment.  Here, Peter realizes the fulfillment found in Jesus is for all people – Jew, Samaritan, Gentile – everyone.  What had been considered profane had been made clean by God.  The light-bulb over Peter’s head has finally lit.

Now that Peter gets the picture, he says “I truly understand that God shows no impartiality.”  A more accurate translation reads, “By truth I understand.”  By the truth of God’s inclusive love, Peter understands that Jesus’ official ministry began when Jesus was anointed by the Spirit in the river Jordan.  In God’s truth, Peter recognizes the unique testimony that comes from witnessing Jesus’ death and resurrection first hand.  Peter acknowledges the responsibility that comes from having known Jesus, and responds to the call to preach and teach the good news of Christ to all people.

peter_baptizing_gentilesThrough Peter’s own baptism, he was called to serve others and expand the church.  The Spirit continued to call to him throughout his ministry, guiding his steps to Cornelius’ door, leading him to a moment of understanding that deepened his faith and that of the Gentiles.

In the verses that immediately follow today’s message, we read that while Peter was recalling the ministry and resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell upon those who were gathered.  As Peter baptized the Gentiles, the Spirit was set upon them, forever connecting them with manifested Christ.

In our own baptism, we are connected to Jesus and have had the Spirit set upon us.  Through baptism, we enter the water as profane four-legged creatures awaiting slaughter, and leave the waters cleaned, whole and alive.  We enter the water as victims of the blemishes of our mind, inflicting unkindness to our surrounding.  We leave the water as proclaimers of the peace and mercy found in Christ, healing the hurt found in this world through the authority that has been anointed unto us by the Spirit.

The transformation we receive in baptismal waters is not something we can bring to ourselves.  This transformation comes to us because God continues to manifest God’s self in our sacraments.

Jesus was baptized in the river not because Jesus needed to be absolved of sin.  Jesus entered the waters without blemish – clean, whole, and holy.  Jesus entered for us, to demonstrate his connection to humanity.

jesus_baptismWhen the Spirit set upon Jesus in the Jordan, it was a moment similar to the anointing of David and other leaders.  Being anointed and partaking in John’s baptismal ministry, Jesus affirms that God is indeed incarnate, humbly sharing in the breadth of our faith heritage.  Just as these actions assert Jesus’ humanity, the dove appearing in the sky asserts his divinity.  His divinity is emphasized as God the Parent’s voice claims Jesus as his beloved Son.  Through his humility in the river, Jesus unites humanity with the privilege of being claimed as God’s own child.

There, in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus changes baptismal waters from being merely a cleansing rite into a way for us to experience God manifested within our midst –present in, with and under the element of water.  This presence comes to us as we celebrate baptism.  When water meets the Word of God, when we recount the times throughout generations God has saved humanity through the water, Christ becomes present in, with, and under the water.

jesus_baptism2This manifestation is what happened with Peter and Cornelius after Peter’s amazing “ah-hah” moment.  The Spirit worked through the water and the Word claiming the Gentiles as God’s chosen people, just as the Spirit claims us in our baptism.

Peter speaks of the privilege and responsibility that comes with having been a witness to Jesus.  He understood that God calls those who have experienced the presence of Christ to serve others and proclaim how the fulfillment found in Jesus is for all.  He understood that the Spirit his ministry to grow into something new at Cornelius’ house.

Through our baptism, we too are called to serve others and proclaim the goodness in Christ. Like Peter, the Spirit calls us to explore new ministries we had never imagined.  God has equipped us to follow when the Spirit calls us because we experience the presence of Jesus through our sacraments.

Every time we gather at the table to share in Holy Communion, we experience Christ manifested in, with and under the elements of bread and wine.  In that sacred meal, the hunger that comes from the brokenness of our sin is sated and the Spirit nourishes us to go out into the world and serve others.

jesus_baptism3Every time we witness the baptism of another, remember our own baptism, or confess our sins, God returns us to the moment where we were anointed by the Spirit in our baptism.  Luther said that we return to the blessings of our baptism every time we wash our face.

Jesus humbled himself to unite our Triune God to the whole of our human existence.  Jesus was anointed as our ancestors were, and as we continue to be today.  Jesus was washed, cleaning the stains of former generations, and giving us a clean slate to strive to bring Christ’s peace to a weary world.  Just as we share in the blessings and ministry opportunities of Jesus’ baptism, we share in Jesus’ resurrection.

Through baptism we have been united to Christ and anointed by the Spirit.

Amen.


[1] William Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night”, Act 3

[2] Luke 7:6 – 7

[3] Acts 10:15

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