Here is the sermon that I preached on January 12th, 2014.
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”
Simon Peter speaks these words to Cornelius the Centurion and his household in Caesarea, a port city on the coast of the Mediterranean. He’s not supposed to be here. He’s not supposed to be in the house of a Roman citizen. As a first century-Jew, he’s not supposed to be rubbing shoulders with anyone who isn’t Jewish, or even anyone who isn’t the “right kind” of Jewish. But here he is as a result of a strange chain of events that began four days before the delivery of the sermon that we heard in today’s reading from the Book of Acts.
The story doesn’t actually begin with Peter. It begins, like everything, with God. It begins with God and Cornelius, the gentile. Although he wasn’t Jewish, Cornelius gave generously to the poor and prayed constantly to God. He is described as a devout and God-fearing man. And God took special notice of this, and sent an angel to tell him to send for Simon Peter. Cornelius, being a God-fearing man, sent for Simon Peter right away.
Meanwhile, about 60km away in Joppa, Peter is hungry. He is praying on the rooftop at the seaside home of Simon the tanner. He has a vision. The sky opens up and a blanket comes out of the sky and settles on the ground. On the blanket is every kind of animal and reptile and bird you can imagine. And a voice tells Peter to “kill and eat”. But Peter is Jewish and believes in special dietary laws that forbid the eating of animals except those that chew the cud and have cloven hoofs. And many of the animals in this vision do not fit the description of what Peter had been taught was acceptable food. So Peter says “I can’t eat these animals -- I’ve never eaten anything before that wasn’t kosher”. But the voice says “if God says it’s okay, it’s okay”, and this happens three times before the blanket covered in animals disappears, and Peter sits there trying to figure out what it all means.
That’s when Cornelius’ servants show up, and they tell Peter about the angel that came to Cornelius the Centurion. The next day they all set off together to Caesarea.
GoogleMaps says that to travel from Tel Aviv (modern day Joppa) to Caesarea it would be a twelve hour walk or an hour and a half by public transit. Peter and the other men didn’t have the option of public transit so it takes them another full day to get to Cornelius’ house. When they get there, they find a house full of people. Cornelius had invited over a bunch of his friends and relatives because he knew that something important was about to happen. When Peter shows up Cornelius falls on his face and worships him. Peter insists that he stand up, saying “I am only a mortal”.
So Peter and Cornelius swap stories about how God brought them together, then Cornelius says “now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”
And Peter says: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality”.
This was a remarkable thing for a 1st century Jew to say to a group of Gentiles. This was a dangerous thing for a Jew to say at that time. In fact, when Peter returned to Jerusalem after this incident, he faced serious criticism from the Jerusalem Jews about eating with Gentiles. Little did they know that not only did he eat with them, he preached that God’s saving grace was for Gentiles and Jews alike.
Upon his return to Jerusalem Peter defended himself against the Jews who said he shouldn’t have eaten with Gentiles by telling them his dream about the blanket and the animals. It’s easy to think that this dream is what inspired Peter’s message about the universality of God’s saving grace that he preached to the household of Cornelius. Certainly, God had intervened very directly, giving Peter a vision and sending an angel to Cornelius. This dream was a message from God to Peter telling him that indeed, God shows no partiality and that the community of Jesus-following Jews at that time should cease to discriminate against people who did not follow Jewish law. The Jews in Jerusalem understood this when Peter told them about his dream. They, who had criticized him, were speechless, and when they had let the meaning of this sink in, they praised God, realizing that God’s saving grace is open to everyone.
Truly, God shows no partiality.
Peter really understood what those words meant. He knew them to be true not just because of the vision he had seen, but the life he had lived. Peter lived a life that prepared him to understand the vision that God gave to him on the rooftop in Joppa. Peter was living proof that God shows no partiality.
From our first introduction to Peter, who was then called Simon, in the scriptures, we have a description of what the Book of Acts refers to as an “uneducated and ordinary” man. He was a fisherman. This ordinary and uneducated man was called by Jesus to be one of his chosen twelve disciples. Some versions of this story tell us that Jesus says to Simon and his brother “follow me and I will make you fish for people”, or the more familiar wording “I will make you fishers of men”. In this version, Simon and his brother Andrew leave their nets immediately to follow Jesus.
But the way this story is told in the Gospel of Luke is different. In Luke’s version, Jesus hops into Simon’s fishing boat and preaches from the boat to the crowd on the shore. When he’s finished, he gives Simon some fishing advice. He tells him to put down his nets in the deep water. Although Simon is doubtful because he hasn’t caught anything all day, he obeys and soon he is catching so many fish that his boat is about to sink under the weight of them. It’s a miracle, and Peter’s response is to say to Jesus:
“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”.
And Simon Peter may have been a sinful man, or he may have been a man racked with doubts about his own abilities. He may have been a cowardly man but none of these weaknesses stopped him from becoming a disciple.
Truly, God shows no partiality.
Simon Peter was by no means a model disciple. He often acted before thinking. He was rebuked by Jesus for a few things including cutting off the ear of the slave who had come to help with the arrest of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.
Simon Peter was the one who denied knowing Jesus three times after his arrest. Even when Jesus forewarned Simon Peter that he would disown him that night, Peter insisted that he wouldn’t. When Jesus’ prediction proves to be true, Simon Peter weeps bitterly.
This is the disciple that Jesus re-named Peter, which means “rock”. I’ve heard it suggested that Jesus might have been teasing Simon with this nickname. A rock symbolizes something firm and dependable. Simon Peter was often undependable. He was unpredictable. He was a self-professed sinful man, a mere mortal. A man who swore he would never deny Jesus, and a man who did deny Jesus. He was a man who wept bitterly in disappointment at his own weakness of character. He was the rock on which Jesus said he would build his church.
Truly, God shows no partiality.
Inspired by the vision from God and his own checkered past, Peter spoke these words to Cornelius and the other Gentiles. Our scripture reading today told us the full content of Peter’s sermon to the Gentiles that day, a sermon about forgiveness for all. Words about peace, doing good and healing and a message about Jesus’ triumph over the powers of death. What today’s reading left out was the Gentiles’ response to Peter’s sermon, to his message that God’s saving grace is for everyone, even them.
The Book of Acts tells us that hearing these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles and they praised God. And they were all baptized.
I had to make a decision this Sunday about which text to preach on. Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, so it would have made sense to focus on the text from Matthew, the account of Jesus’ baptism. But when I read this text I found that I, like John, was puzzled by Jesus’ need for baptism. When Jesus asks John to baptize him, John says that it’s Jesus who should be baptizing HIM, not the other way around. And I’m not sure that I understand Jesus’ answer, that having John baptize him “fulfills all righteousness”.
To understand Jesus’ baptism, I need to let go of the image of baptism as washing away sin. I need to focus on baptism as an affirmation of God’s community in Christ. This is the community of people that come together to recognize the work of God’s grace in their lives. For us, like for the Gentiles that Peter preached to in Acts, the natural response to the Good News of Jesus is to join together in community. We want to realize the full potential of God’s grace in our lives, and we commit to working towards this together. Baptism is the turning point in our lives where we join the community that gathers in the name of the one who continues to teach us the meaning of grace.
Just like our baptisms are pivotal moments in our own lives, Jesus’ baptism is also a turning point in his life story. It is the beginning of his ministry. Jesus Christ at his own baptism, recognized by God as his son is another proof that God shows no partiality. Jesus, the Messiah, did not fit the expectation of his time of what the Son of God would be. He was not a rich King with a large and powerful army. He was a Galilean peasant. God’s son, with whom he is “well-pleased” is not blessed with riches and an easy time while he is on Earth. He is persecuted and executed.
Conventional wisdom often leads us to believe that if we live a good life, or a life that is pleasing to God, we will have a pleasant life. This wasn’t true for Jesus. This wasn’t true for many great Christians.
Conversely, we might think that if we are not living “good” lives, if we are sinful, if we are the kind of people who are sometimes weeping bitterly in disappointment at our own weakness of character, God will punish us. That’s certainly NOT what happened to Simon Peter. Simon Peter, the ordinary, impulsive, sinful man became the rock of the church.
In the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us about his own struggles with having “a thorn in his flesh”. No one knows exactly what this personal struggle was. Some think it was temptation, or persecution, but the most likely theory is that it was some sort of physical ailment. It was illness, and he begged the Lord to take it from him. And the Lord responded: ““My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
The power of Christ is made perfect on the thirsting lips of the crucified Jesus. Power is made perfect in the bitterly weeping denier Simon Peter, the rock of the church. Power is made perfect in Paul who cries out to the Lord in his physical pain. Power is made perfect, and grace is sufficient.
And grace is available to all. Truly, God shows no partiality.