This week, we will hear another baptism story that’s part of a much larger story that begins with an angelic visitation to a devout God-fearing Roman centurion who was stationed in Caesarea. The angel told Cornelius that his prayers had been answered and he should send for Peter who was staying in Joppa with Simon the Tanner. It was lunchtime when Cornelius’ messengers arrived at Simon’s house and Peter was up on the roof praying. While he prayed he had a food-related vision. In this vision, God told Peter not to consider things to be unclean if God declared them to be clean. So when went downstairs and greeted the messengers, he put two and two together and went with them.
When Peter entered the house of Cornelius, he confessed that he had always believed that it was unlawful for a Jew to be in the house of a Gentile, but apparently, God had changed the rules. What he had learned from the vision was that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).
That’s where we pick up the story. Peter was in the middle of his sermon, telling the story of Jesus, including how Jesus had been crucified and then raised from the dead by God. But before he could give the altar call and invite the crowd to come forward as the choir sang “Just As I Am,” the Holy Spirit intervened and fell on this group of Gentiles. They began to speak in tongues and give praise to God.
Now, this was most unexpected. Luke tells us that Peter’s companions were astounded at this sight, and I think Peter might have been in shock as well. Nevertheless, he managed to ask the right question: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Vs. 47). There was no need for a congregational vote on this matter because the Spirit had cut through the red tape and welcomed the people into the community. So, as Willie Jennings points out, what the waters of baptism signified was “the joining of Jew and Gentile, not simply the acceptance of the Gospel message. Yet both are miracle. Both are grace in the raw. The Spirit confronts the disciples of Jesus with an irrepressible truth: God overcomes boundaries and border” [Acts, p. 114].
The Holy Spirit’s actions remind us that there isn’t just one way of entering God’s realm. Peter had offered one formula on the day of Pentecost when he told the crowd that if they wanted to be saved, they needed to “repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” That formula makes sense, but sometimes the Spirit gets ahead of us and puts the filling before belief, repentance, or baptism. That’s the way it is with the Holy Spirit. Since Peter wasn’t going to argue with God, he ordered the people to be baptized.
Many of the baptism stories in the Book of Acts tell how God breaks down barriers and walls. We see this happen in the stories of the baptisms of the Samaritans, the Ethiopian eunuch, and now Cornelius’ household. What we see in each of these cases is the Holy Spirit opening previously closed doors so the good news could spread outward to the ends of the earth. The Holy Spirit is still at work removing barriers and empowering the witness of God’s people.
I believe that the vote to become an Open and Affirming congregation five years ago was a work of the Holy Spirit. Now, as the congregation enters a season of uncertainty and transition, the question is, where might the Spirit lead next? What doors will the Spirit open? What walls will come down?
Disciples tend to be a rational tradition. We have definite roots in the Enlightenment. We see this in Alexander Campbell’s “just the facts” message. It has served us well, but there’s another founding voice that doesn’t get as much attention from Disciples. That is the voice that was present at Cane Ridge. In many ways, Cane Ridge has more in common with a Pentecostal revival than a typical Disciple event. Nevertheless, that revival is part of our story, and Barton Stone who was the host of the event always believed that this was a work of God. So, thirty years after the revival broke out, he wrote:
I saw the religion of Jesus more clearly exhibited in the lives of Christians then, than I had ever seen before or since to the same extent. The preachers were revived. I saw them filled with the Holy Spirit of their Lord, addressing the multitudes, not in Icebergh style, nor according to the studied rules of rhetoric and oratory; but in the language and spirit of heaven [Answered by Fire, p. 138].
So, what is the Spirit going to do in our midst?
There’s another important element to this story that’s easy to miss. You see, the next step in this story, after the baptism takes place, is the start of a relationship between a Jew and a Gentile believer. It’s easy to miss, but Cornelius invited Peter to stay with them for several days. I’m assuming that if Luke mentions this, then Peter accepted the invitation. So, Willie Jennings writes that this act of hospitality signals God’s desire for Jew and Gentile “to eat and live together in peace.” [Acts, p. 115].
These two acts, initiated by the Holy Spirit, baptism, and an act of hospitality, signal that thick walls of separation had been removed. Yes, doors were opened and people heard and embraced the good news of Jesus. May that be true for this congregation as the journey continues into the future.