“Who Can Withhold the Waters for Baptism?” Acts 10:44-48
While Peter is preaching to a group of Gentiles, the Spirit falls on everyone present. They begin speaking in tongues, just like Jesus’ Jewish followers had done a short time before at Pentecost. For Jesus’ Jewish followers, this was an unexpected turn of events. Gentiles–people not like us–receiving the gifts of the Spirit? How could that be?
The story the lectionary delivers up for us today couldn’t be more timely. Some of us are participating in anti-racism workshops. In the Oak Street Gallery we’ve begun hosting the “Say Their Names” art exhibit. Hearing a story about one group questioning the worthiness of another group to join them–Yeah. This is a story about racism…Which means it’s the perfect time for us to hear this story.
A couple of weeks ago, I confessed my on-going struggle to root out racism still roaming around inside me. It was–and is–hard to recognize that I’m not quite as far along in my journey of becoming anti-racist as I thought I was. At times–it’s painful to admit this–but sometimes the questions of Jesus’ Jewish followers in this story rise up in my own thinking. Even these people can do …fill in the blank?
I once heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu talk about his own internalized racism. It came to a head for him on a plane trip. When the plane hit some turbulence, the archbishop’s first thought was: “I hope the pilot is white.” For the Archbishop, it was a hard realization.
It’d be easy to beat up on the circumcised believers in this story for seeing the Gentiles as less-than. If we’re honest, though, I suspect we all struggle with a similar dynamic. All of us have a long way to go in becoming truly anti-racist.
It can be depressing to realize we’re not as far along as we thought we were in our anti-racism work. If that thought makes you sad, let me tell you about Peter.
At the end of today’s story, Peter says: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Peter really seems to get it. It doesn’t matter whether the people there had grown up in the Jewish faith…their race didn’t matter at all. What mattered was that they had received the gift of the Spirit. And people who received the gift of the Spirit were baptized. End of story.
At the end of the story, Peter shines. At the beginning? No so much. It took Peter a while to get to this place of radical openness.
Acts 10 begins in Caesarea. A Gentile believer named Cornelius receives a visitation. He’s told to send a contingent to Joppa and find Simon Peter. As the contingent begins their journey to Joppa, Peter goes to the roof of his host’s house to pray.
As he prays, Peter has a vision. He’s hungry, so the vision that comes is about food. Peter sees a large sheet descend from heaven. On the sheet are “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he hears a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter says, ‘By no means; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” In the vision, Peter is invited to eat foods that had been prohibited his whole life. As a good Jew, he daren’t eat the things pictured on the sheet. The vision happens two more times.
Cornelius’ cohort arrives just as Peter is waking up from his vision. They extend Cornelius’ invitation and Peter goes with them. When he arrives, he says, “You know it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile (this was according to Jewish law at the time); but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” After that, Cornelius and Peter talk; they share their stories. And in the conversation, Peter wakes up.
Then, as he is wont to do, Peter preaches. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality,” he says, “but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” It’s while Peter is preaching that the Spirit descends, the Gentiles believe, and Peter invites them to be baptized.
Peter’s conversion story bears hope for those of us who are still trying to wrap our heads around this idea that “God shows NO partiality.” It’s not a toggle switch we can flip–I once was a racist, now I’m not. Becoming anti-racist takes a long time. It’s a process. Sometimes we, like Peter, have to see the vision over and over and over again before it transforms us.
Another striking thing about Peter’s conversion is that it happens in the context of relationship. Peter got a vision of welcoming Gentiles into the community, but it didn’t become real until he started talking with and getting to know Cornelius, who was a Gentile. Peter’s conversion wouldn’t have happened without the conversation.
Last Sunday, I spent a few minutes in the gallery talking with Kai Lendzion, one of the artists whose work is displayed in the gallery. I told Kai that walking through the gallery felt like hearing a sermon. In the months we’ve been planning this exhibit, my focus has been on trying to be a good host for these artists who are Black to display their work. Once the exhibit was up, I realized our task as a mostly white congregation is not only to be good hosts, but to open our ears and hearts to hear what this artwork is saying to us.
We need to see this artwork. I need to see this artwork. We need to spend time taking in the photographs and paintings. We need to open our eyes and see. We need to open the ears of our hearts and hear. And we need to talk with Kai and Heather. We need to talk with each other. We need to listen to each other. We need our hearts to open to the fact, the stone-cold fact that God shows NO partiality.
When I told Kai walking through the gallery felt like hearing a sermon, I got an idea–maybe the artwork could be the sermon this week. Then I received a video Kai made of him and Heather talking about their artwork. I could tell you what they said, but why not hear from the artists themselves? [Video]