9th MAY 2021
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
“What is to prevent these people from being baptized…?”
According to those who keep track of such things, our first Reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles is arguably among the shortest texts in the entire so-called Revised Common Lectionary, that is, the official church list or catalogue of Scriptural readings assigned for the Sundays and weekdays of the Church Year. I have not taken the time to check if this is actually so; but short or not, the story told in these mere five verses of Scripture marks a milestone or perhaps a turning-point in the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles and in the life of the early Church as well.
To this point in the Acts of the Apostles -- we are in Chapter Ten by the way -- the message of the Gospel has indeed been spreading, but fairly close to home; in and around Jerusalem, in neighbouring Samaria, along the Road to Damascus; and as we saw last week in the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch, into the wilderness near Gaza, a kind of borderland between Israel and the rest of the world. And predictably so far in the narrative, the message has been addressed primarily to those who might well be expected to accept its truth and believe; for the most part, that is, devout Jews.
But now Peter has made his way to Caesarea, a predominantly Gentile city named rather obviously for the Roman Emperor or Caesar; and specifically to the home of one Cornelius, himself a Gentile and a Roman Centurion no less, a well-placed military official. Those in Cornelius’s family and circle of friends and associates assemble and hear the words of Peter and the message of the Gospel which he proclaims. And, “while Peter was still speaking,” as the text tells us, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word;” upon all who heard; in other words upon Gentile and Jew alike. And the Holy Spirit came upon them all, as it seems, much to the astonishment of the circumcised Jews among them, probably including Peter himself. For all we know, the Gentiles themselves may have been equally astonished.
Now, keep in mind that one of the earliest conflicts or debates in the Church of the first century was one centered around the issue of belonging. Who was in and who was out. Who exactly was the Gospel meant for…? Was Jesus to be Messiah of the Jewish people only…? Was his message meant for them alone and those like them…? Or was it intended for all the peoples of the earth…? And, if it was addressed to the Gentiles also, must they then first accept Jewish law and all it demands before becoming disciples of Christ, before belonging to Christ…? We of course know the answers to such questions -- at least we think we do -- or we would not be here today as disciples of our Lord some two thousand years later.
But it was precisely at this gathering in the home of Cornelius that the Holy Spirit first manifested the full appeal and allure of the Gospel message. The Good News was indeed for everyone. No wonder then that this short passage has been described as the Gentile Pentecost. It is nearly as significant an event in its way as was the first Pentecost, the famous one, which we shall celebrate just two weeks from today. As Peter himself almost blurts out, these Gentiles “have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” Just as we have. With no distinction, in other words, of race, background, religion, or status. The Holy Spirit does not discriminate between Jew and Gentile. All are offered forgiveness of sins through the Cross of Christ; all speak in tongues and extoll God’s wonder and mercy. All belong.
“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people…?” asks Peter, almost rhetorically, in response to the gift of the Holy Spirit which has come down upon them. And the answer is emphatically: No. No one can withhold Baptism anymore than they can withhold the movement of the Spirit itself. In faith and Baptism, we all belong. And so, Gentiles are here received into the full life of Christ, arguably for the very first time; though as it turns out not without controversy. The faith of Cornelius and his household, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and Baptism by water and Spirit bring together into one family and community of faith those who before had been apart and separated. In Christ, all are made one right here in Cornelius’ sitting room.
“They invited him to stay for several days.” The Gentiles of Caesarea then invite Peter into their homes; seemingly a perfectly normal thing to do but for the time and circumstances unprecedented. If the Spirit has made these Gentiles part of the family of faith; they now invite Peter to become one with them, to become in turn part of their family. A Jew among Gentiles, to be sure; but now a believer among believers; a Christian among Christians. Such is the power of the Spirit. And, while the text does not explicitly say as much, we can assume Peter happily accepted their invitation and abided there with them in Caesarea, among those who not so long before had been strangers and aliens to him and the other disciples.
Sadly, the differences of race and background which seemingly melt away at the Gentile Pentecost of Caesarea so long ago somehow stubbornly remain with us to this day, among Christians and non-Christians alike. The Holy Spirit -- and we ourselves -- still have much work to do to make the miracle of this momentous event an everyday reality in our world today. Sometimes crises, such as a pandemic, serve only to highlight the differences which remain among us; differences between rich and poor; and race and religion, and among all the peoples of the earth.
Perhaps it is only in staying connected over time, metaphorically “for several days,” as did Peter, that we can come to know each other at home where each of us lives; spiritually and in a deeper reality. It is in some sense this physical togetherness which Christians have most missed during this current crisis, one marked by distance and separation. Yet the promise of this Gentile Pentecost is that in the Spirit we remain at one. This brief encounter with the Spirit, so briefly recounted in this text, touches us still today. We may speak a variety of tongues but in Christ we nevertheless come to understand each other; even on ZOOM we learn to love each other with an abiding love.
“Abide in my love,” is in fact our Lord’s message and command to us in our account today from the Gospel of John. Christ has passed on to us the love of the Father for the Son. For, love exists only in giving, in giving of self. It is ultimately the love of Christ which brought together the disparate peoples of Caesarea so long ago. It remains the love of Christ poured out upon us in the Spirit which holds us together still today. Only by abiding in love do we too come to belong.
“What is to prevent these people from being baptized,” asks Peter. What is to prevent us, we might well ask, from living out today our own Baptism; from belonging; from loving others as we ourselves have been loved…?
The Rev Dr Frank Hegedűs