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Easter 6B Sermon
Acts 10: 44-48

May 9, 2021


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May the grace, mercy and peace of God be with us in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. So ends our first reading for this sixth Sunday of Easter; so also ends the entire story of Peter’s encounter with a man named Cornelius, and his entre household in Caesarea. We never really read this tale in its entirety in any single worship service, so let me give you a little synopsis of it.

Cornelius is a Roman Centurion who lives in Caesarea. As a Roman he is not a Jewish person, but we are told that he is a God-fearer who gives alms and believes in God. He would not have been welcomed into the Jewish community as a member with full rights and privileges, though, because he was not circumcised, nor did he observe the Jewish dietary laws. He sees a vision in which he is directed to send people to bring Simon Peter to his house. While he sends servants to Joppa to find Peter, Peter himself is having a vision of his own. He sees the heavens open, and a large sheet come down containing all sorts of creatures, mostly those which are profane or unclean, forbidden to be eaten by all Jews. A voice instructs him to eat and Peter refuses. Finally, the voice says that what God has made clean, you must not call profane. And this is repeated three times. Peter sort of understands the implications of the vision, but he is still confused.

Cornelius’ men find Peter and bring him to Caesarea, to Cornelius’ household. Cornelius wants to fall and worship Peter, but he tells Cornelius to get up and then describes the vision he had to him. Peter then preaches a sermon about how God shows no partiality, and how everyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him. He tells them about Jesus and how he was raised from the dead, and that all who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins through his name.

That is where our reading picks up today, with the Holy Spirit falling upon all in the household, even before they are baptized! Everyone is astounded - not only Cornelius and his household, but also Peter and the Jewish people who were there to witness it. After asking the rhetorical question, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” they are baptized, and they ask Peter to stay with him. Yes, I know. It is hard to believe, but these outsiders ask Peter to stay with them for several days and we assume that he accepts their invitation, as scandalous as it was to Peter’s Jewish brothers and sisters who watched.

What is so astounding and scandalous about this very hospitable invitation to stay with them? They had just shared a spiritual experience, and it only seems natural to abide in the glory of that gift! Jesus commands his disciples to abide in God’s love, after all, so this seems a natural result of this mass baptism. And hospitality is not only to be extended to all, but it is equally expected to be received as it is offered! It would be a slap in the face of this family to have been welcomed with open arms into Jesus’ family, and then, when asked to stay a while, say, “Oh gosh … I gotta go, maybe next time …”

The fact of the matter is that these two types of people just didn’t mix. Not only is Cornelius a member of the occupying force in Peter’s land, he is not an accepted person in the Jewish community. It was not only frowned upon, it was forbidden for someone like Peter to stay with someone like Cornelius.

In his commentary on this passage, Willie Jennings stresses that baptism accomplishes far more than an individual’s forgiveness of sins. It is far more than joining Jesus with a new disciple. Baptism and the outpouring of God’s spirit is about the joining of Jew and Gentile. That is not only a literal statement - it is also figurative. Anyone who we would leave out because of race or age, gender or orientation, nationality, religion, political affiliation, socio-economic class, or anything - baptism is about joining all of these into one family with the expectation to extend hospitality and to receive hospitality with each other as we abide in God’s love through Jesus Christ.

When we ask ourselves, “What difference does the resurrection make for our lives?” we must first confess that it opens us up to a beautiful - if not uncomfortable - set of disruptive possibilities in our relationships. The spirit interrupted Peter’s sermon in this story, and convicts all of us who have that desire for the normal, as we experience it. We know all about normal now, don’t we? Normal is so susceptible to change and being shook up that we must always be prayerfully seeking God’s guidance to love our neighbors in new and vital ways. Jennings says that, “In the home of a centurion, a rip in the fabric of space and time has occurred … that will open up endless new possibilities of life with others.”
This story challenges my own sense of what is “normal.” Peter knew a normal that was not Cornelius’ normal, and yet the Holy Spirit joined them into a new normal of giving and receiving hospitality. That closing phrase, “Then they invited him to stay for several days,” might seem insignificant, but it is as powerful a proof of the presence of the Holy Spirit as when the Gentiles in this story spoke in tongues and extolled God! I would say it is even more of a powerful because lives that would have never intersected had a profound impact on each other because of the risen Christ among them.

This year the Sixth Sunday of Easter is also the day when our nation celebrates Mother’s Day. Most of us have a “normal” view of how Moms are experienced, and we want to rejoice in that gift. For me, normal was a loving woman who lived into her 80s and loved all of her children as gifts from God. That is not the normal for everyone, though. As we welcome the presence of the spirit and want to share hospitality with each other we must acknowledge that some of you have experienced the untimely or tragic loss of a parent or child; some of you might have even suffered neglect, abuse or codependent relationships with your parents or children. We grieve all of those who have been abandoned by parents or children when they needed them most, and we mourn with those who are unable to have children. In the reality of these broken situations, we abide in the love of Jesus, and today we can give thanks for the normal that all of us have experienced, as different as it may be for each. And we give thanks for those who have stood in the gap for us, cared deeply for us, and especially taught us by their example to love. For many this was a parent - probably a mom. For others, this was a trusted adult, childhood friend, pastor, teacher, coach, neighbor, grandparent, aunt or uncle or other family member. This is as important a concept to celebrate today as we hear the power of the Holy Spirit to unite Jew and Gentile as is the promise to unite us despite race, gender or other descriptions. This is the gift of love which is Jesus abiding in us in ways that we might not expect, or that the world might not call, “normal.” This is the abundant life that brings us joy, forgiveness and hope as a gift of grace through our Lord who died on a cross, was raised again, and calls us to abide in love along with all of God’s family.

Today we join in hearing the commandment to abide in God’s love, and we remember those who lived out that wonderful hospitality that Cornelius’ household shared with Peter - a motherly love that sometimes comes from expected places, and sometimes from surprising places. May we abide in that love, and may we dare to love everyone with a motherly love, knowing that some need us to stand in that gap to care deeply for them as Jesus does for us; Amen.