Acts 10:34–43 (NRSV)
Gentiles Hear the Good News
34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Today we celebrate the mystery of Christ. Every Sunday we celebrate this mystery, the mystery of God becoming an incarnate man to live among mankind. How often do we consider this mystery? How often do we find ourselves in awe of this mystery? I speak of it as a mystery because no matter how much we study the enigma of Christ there is always more to consider, more to study, more to enact in our lives, and more amazement to uncover. But today we celebrate an aspect of the mystery of Christ, the anointing or baptism of Christ. This aspect of Jesus’ life is what history calls epiphany. That simply means a moment of sudden revelation or insight. In this case epiphany is the sudden revelation or manifestation of God.
This season is one where we as the church are encouraged to get to know Jesus the man that lived among our spiritual ancestors two thousand years ago, and encounter that revelation of God incarnate in him. While doing this we ourselves might encounter an epiphany of our own, recognizing that there is an aspect or spark of God in all people that is yearning to be stoked into a blazing fire.
Quakers throughout history have spoken about that of God in all people from the foundations of our history. It is a term that can cause us to squirm a bit. The idea is that every person on the face of the earth bears the image of God, this image was passed on to us from the very genesis of humanity. It is an image that was written in our genetic code and is there by design. Every person from the most righteous saint to the most heinous sinner bears the image of God, the very same image that God proclaimed was very good. Every child, every man, every woman, and every awkward adolescent trying to become an adult that we see bears that image and the most mysterious thing about it is God loves them.
Do you find it difficult to consider this mystery? I struggle with it every day. Some of you may have seen a posting I shared on Facebook that suggested that someone surveyed people asking what they would do if they found out one of their children was a Homo Sapiens, seventy percent of those surveyed said that they would disown their child. I said I struggle with the mystery of God’s love because I find it difficult to love. If this survey is real, which I strongly doubt, it would suggest that the ignorance of humanity is so great that they cannot recognize that Homo Sapien is the scientific name for human which means wise man. I mention this because it portrays that we as people would disown our children for being human, let us consider that for a moment. We disown our own children for being human, yet God loved the ones that bear His image so much that Jesus came to live among us. Taking on the very human nature we disown and uniting it with the divine.
This is the greatest single mystery of all, this is the Epiphany. It is a mystery that we struggle with because it is impossible for us to even contemplate that very God that calls us to be holy as He is holy is willing to dwell with us. The very God that gave the people of Israel the laws of Moses was willing to live with a people who historically turned their backs on His covenant and instead sought after the wisdom and ways of their own understanding. They developed governments, religious institutions, economies, and societies where they would interpret humanity and what was important. Everything that was outside their interpretations was regarded as vile and those that participated in it was disowned. Yes, some of those things were established for good and even holy reasons, but how we interacted with each other is where the righteous sin.
The things about this is that even though God set one group apart from the others, His goal was not to only bless one people. His goal was to bring all bearing His image back to Him. His goal is and has always been to restore fallen humanity back to a state of divine relationship. Peter witnessed this first hand as he began his Apostolic Ministry. If we were to read the verses prior to the passage we consider today, we would find that Peter had a vision of a sheet coming down from heaven and on the sheet was every type of animal that we could imagine and in this vision Peter heard the voice of God telling him to take and eat. So this sheet was a huge table cloth and on that table is roasted lamb, barbeque pork ribs, burnt ends, lobster and Peking duck. God tells Peter eat up and Peter hesitates because some of these items are meats considered unclean by his faith tradition and if he would eat he would be seen as unacceptable to worship with is countrymen. The reason that God gave him this vision was to show Peter that if He accepts someone He accepts them completely, even if it does not make sense to us. After this fantastical feast, Peter was encouraged to meet with a Roman official and this Roman man believed and desired a life with God through Jesus, and Peter witnessed that God fully accepted this Roman man to the very degree that God accepted him. This Roman man was filled with the Spirit of God made evident through gifts of the very Spirit that gifted Peter with.
Peter then said that God caused him to understand that he shows no partiality. I want us to let that sink into our minds for a moment. God does not discriminate, respect the human understandings of personhood, or show favoritism of one group over another. Do we fully grasp that concept that mystery? As I said before I struggle with this. Because I have preferences, I do hold more respect for some over others. I prefer to spend time with people that have similar educations, similar beliefs, and similar likes. We all do. This is not inherently sinful, but this can lead to discrimination and discrimination can be a vicious thing. It is sinful if we lump an entire people group together and judge them as a whole, and making decisions based on this stereotype instead of the individual themselves. For Peter this was a groundbreaking revelation from God. He was reared in a culture that believed that they were chosen by God. They believed that no matter what they were inherently better than every other human on the face of the earth because their ancestors had a unique relationship with God. They by genetic inheritance were the people of blessing and the only way to have access to the one true God was through them. So to have any relationship with God you would have to have a family connection. Because of this belief in their own inherited righteousness they regarded all people outside of their nation as lesser human beings, lumping all of them together in one term Gentile and often that one term morphed into a less attractive label of sinner. And if anyone of their members were to associate with one of the lesser humans they would be disgraced.
Peter, the Apostle whom is considered the leader of the Apostles, was overpowered with the understanding that God did not have the same view of humanity as his fellow countrymen had. God did not show partiality, he did not discriminate based on the understanding of men, he did not unjustly regard any individual but accepts all who showed respect to God. This is the basis of our Quaker understanding of that of God in all people. We as humans should not show partiality, we should instead fear God and encourage all to respect Him as well.
Peter still struggled with this concept. It is not one that is easy to perpetuate. Even today we have forms of these very same sins working in the world’s nations. Yet Peter was faced with this dilemma, if a person outside of the people of God were accepted by Him if they were exhibiting Holy signs just as the Apostles what should he do? He began contemplating the teaching of Jesus, he began looking back to the teachings of the prophets and the writings of Moses, and he came to the recognition that maybe he did not know everything about God like he thought.
Jesus healed all who were oppressed. He healed a woman who had a disease that would make anyone in contact with her unclean for religious association. He healed people that were isolated from society with leprosy. He healed the servant of a Roman centurion, a daughter of a foreigner, and a daughter of a Synagogue ruler. He enjoyed sitting at the table of those regarded as sinners, and he conversed with people of questionable reputation. Jesus did not discriminate, he did not only show partiality because he not only dined with those of poor reputation but also sat at the table of the religious leaders. Peter looked at this life and lifestyle and it impressed him. What he learned from this revelation fundamentally changed the direction of the Church. What was once regarded as a Jewish sect became a faith open to the entire world. And this happened because of Jesus. The work began the moment Jesus rose out of the waters of the Jordan and with a sudden divine revelation Jesus was revealed to be the promised one, the fulfillment of Israel, the one through whom the light of God was to be shown to all mankind. Jesus became the nation of Israel and the entire world is graphed into the promise of Israel through Jesus.
Jesus lived a life with rhythm, a sacred rhythm of worship, prayer, and service to others. He invited people to join with him in this lifestyle, people from ordinary families, businessmen, tax collectors, terrorists, and swindlers. He went about the province doing good. He cultivated righteousness. This is what doing good means. Cultivating the things that honor God, encouraging people to honor the image of God within them and those around them. Teaching and nourishing the light of God and providing the tinder to allow the flames of the Spirit to illuminate the soul.
Today we celebrate the baptism of Christ. We celebrate this not because that ceremony of water magically changes people, but because that rite provided the moment in which the Epiphany, the sudden dramatic revelation of God could be made, as John proclaimed on the shores of that Jordanian wilderness there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and God the Father announced this is my son in whom I am well pleased. It is through Jesus that we learn how to be truly human, true Homo sapiens or wise men. It is through Jesus that we can look at those around us and see the image of God instead of the barbarian horde. It is through Jesus we can begin to see peace, healing and most of all hope. This all comes when we lay down those prejudices we hold and begin to live our life Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others in every moment of every day. Cultivating or becoming disciplined in our own lives as we encourage those around us. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Behold the son who is given authority to adopt children for the kingdom. Behold the mystery of God who loved the world so much that he gave his only son to live, teach and die for us while we were still sinners and enemies of God. Behold the love of God who does not discriminate but accepts all who fear him and actively participate in the cultivation of good in his world. Let us gaze upon that mystery and repent or turn to God. Let us turn away from our own prejudices and discriminations and be immersed or baptized into the power of Christ, the power to love and cultivate goodness and hope reflecting the same selfless love Jesus shows each of us.