Over the past two weeks, we have talked about love. We have talked about how love is not the destruction of yourself, that love requires boundaries that permit the relationship to continue. Last week, we talked about how “love,” as the word is used in scripture, is not about a feeling, it is not just an extension or superlative of “like,” but begins in how we treat other people, especially those people who we do not like, those who we do not want to love.
Last week, we talked about this in terms of the greatest commandment: love God, love your neighbor. In the section of the First Letter of John we read last week, the writer tells us that: “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
Today’s Gospel reading reinforces that command as Jesus tells the disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
And, perhaps, for some of you, that is all you need to always work to love all people, but for those who want a bit more, who want to know why Jesus made this commandment, we can turn to this week’s passage in Acts.
The lectionary passage is: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘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. Then they invited him to stay for several days.”
I am going to try to break apart a key sentence and provide some context along the way.
“The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.”
First: “The circumcised believers” This tells us that Peter is not alone, but that there are others who are already members of the early church, who were also Jewish—either from birth or as converts.
Next: “who had come with Peter”
We need to back up a little. Starting in Chapter 9 of Acts, Peter had been travelling and healing, visiting other disciples, other early Christians, along the way, most recently, healing a man who had been paralyzed for eight years in Lydda and then going to Joppa, where he raised a woman from the dead. While Peter was in Joppa, a Roman Centurion named Cornelius had a vision in which God told Cornelius to send for Peter. Cornelius was a God-fearing man. Cornelius was neither Jewish nor Christian, but he honored God, and so he obeyed this vision and sent three men, two servants and a soldier to find Peter.
We need to understand a few things. A Centurion was not a soldier, but an officer. He did not just send two servants to find and fetch Peter, but a soldier also. We need to remember that many in the early church, possibly including Peter, who once cut off a soldier’s ear, viewed the Romans as a hostile, foreign, occupying army. Peter was unlikely to consider being summoned by a soldier to see a Roman officer as a friendly act. Peter, as well as the other early-Christians who were around him, may well have thought these men were summoning Peter to trial, imprisonment, or even execution despite their assurances that Cornelius was a god-fearing man.
This also explains the next part of the sentence: “were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.”
They were astounded because they were expecting to witness something awful. They were astounded because they were ready for conflict, because they were coming to see what people they hated were about to do next and what they saw was that God was already ahead of them. That however much they did not want to extend their community to include officers and soldiers whose job was oppression, God had already welcomed them so that when they arrive, Cornelius falls to Peter’s feet. Peter tells Cornelius to stand up because Peter is “merely mortal,” and then Peter begins to describe a vision he had as Cornelius men were approaching the day before.
In this vision, Peter sees “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.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; 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.”
Usually, when I hear people talk about this vision, they cite it as the moment that early Christians were given permission to break the Jewish dietary laws. We limit this vision to food, but Peter recognizes that it has greater meaning, and so, when Peter describes the vision to Cornelius, the assembled Romans, as well as the early-Christians who had come with Peter, he says this: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
Peter immediately understands that his vision cannot be confined to animals and food but must be extended to people. Peter understands what we still struggle to accept whenever we name a person or group an enemy.
We had another baptism story last week. Phillip was also travelling, and came across an Ethiopian Eunuch, the treasurer for Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians. This Ethiopian Eunuch may or may not have been a member of the Ethiopian Jewish community, but the Holy Spirit directed Phillip to him, and while they were travelling together, they studied the scriptures and the Ethiopian asked what prevented him from being baptized. The Ethiopian is expecting to be turned away, but Phillip recognized that this is why the Spirit directed him to travel with the Ethiopian, and so performed the baptism as they went their separate ways. There was no further induction or teaching in the ways of the church. Phillip did not teach this Ethiopian any more about what it meant to be a Christian because the baptism was made in recognition of what God had already done. God had already welcomed the Ethiopian into the church, Phillip merely recognized what God had already done.
So now, two chapters later, no longer with a single Ethiopian, but with a group of Roman soldiers, officers, and officials, Peter, and the other Jewish-Christians with him baptize these Romans not because of anything they did, but in recognition of what God had already done.
The significance of our story from Acts today is not that Peter went and preached to a group of Roman soldiers and officers. It is not even that Peter then chose to baptize those Romans, to formally welcome them into the early church. No, Peter did not say that he should extend baptism to the Romans, “Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’”
The significance of this story is that Peter’s act of baptism was a response to what God had already done. Peter is not baptizing everyone he comes across. Peter and the other early-Christians with him seem reluctant to even be there, to even be talking to these Romans, much less bringing them into the community. These are not the kinds of people Peter and the other early-Christians want to be associated with, much less love. When Peter returns to Jerusalem, the other early-Christians there, those who had not been present with him in Caesarea with Cornelius criticized him, asking “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
Too often, when the church has tried to grow or expand, we have done so by trying to make other people fit what we expect. We have followed the example of the early-Christians of Jerusalem, and we have limited our evangelism and our outreach to people who already match our social locations, to people who already look, think, and act mostly like we do. Too often, churches say they want to grow, but then they refuse to accept anyone who might bring change, anyone who the church cannot teach and train to speak, act, and think like those already present. We have worked to obstruct the Peters in our midst, who see what we try to obscure, who see that God has already brought in those we want to keep out.
The good news is this: God is always working, is always teaching, is always ready to bring new people into the beloved community. As the Gospel says, the disciples did not choose Jesus, Jesus chose them. As last week’s Epistle lesson says, “We love because he first loved us.” As good Presbyterians, we affirm that we do not choose God, God chooses us, but we shy away from the corollary: God also chooses other people without regard for our social, economic, or political conflicts. God sent Peter, who, the night of Jesus’ arrest, attacked and injured a soldier, to baptize Cornelius and these other Roman soldiers not so that Peter could convert them and bring them into the church, but because Peter needed to see that God had already done so.
We need to learn to love those we do not like, not just because God commands it, but because God already loves them just as God already loves us.