Grace and peace in the name of God our loving Creator, Amen.
Since Easter morning we have been hearing stories from the book of the Acts of the Apostles in the place of the Hebrew scripture we usually read as our first lesson, stories about how the disciples of Jesus became the early church as they discovered – as we must – what it means to be human in light of the resurrection.
This morning we hear come into a story from Acts that is already in progress. It is the story of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, a Gentile, who had received a vision from God instructing him to send for Peter. At the same time, Peter receives a vision from God of a great sheet, like a tablecloth, being lowered from heaven and filled with all kinds of creatures that were, by Levitical law, unclean to eat. Peter is told to rise, kill and eat these meats that were prohibited by law, he protests, and then is told, “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter comes out of his vision, and the servants of Cornelius are there ready to take him to their master’s house. Peter arrives at Cornelius’ home and the Roman falls at his feet, as if to worship him, but Peter tells the man to get up, and he discovers that this centurion’s whole household has assembled to hear what Peter has to say.
Peter begins by reminding them that under the purity codes by which faithful Israelites lived it was unlawful for him, Peter, to associate with or visit in the home of a Gentile. Then he understands the meaning of his vision, that God has shown him that he should not call anyone profane or unclean, and so he enters the home of Cornelius and begins to preach and, just as Peter is getting into a really good preaching groove, the Holy Spirit descends on the whole household of the Roman centurion and they begin to sing and speak in tongues and to worship god loudly.
I gather the moral of the story is, get to the point quickly before people begin to get noisy – and, remembering that we have a baptism of our own to celebrate yet this morning, I will try to stick to that before Kelsi Marie gets the spirit.
So Peter is preaching, the Gentiles are filled with the Holy Spirit, and then – after they have already been marked with the audible presence of God in their speaking and their songs, then Peter begins to realize the full meaning of his vision and he says, “can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” He orders that the entire household be baptized, and by doing so Peter goes beyond simply breaking the law by associating with unclean people – he takes the ritually unclean and he makes them a part of his own family, he baptizes them into his own body.
I’m reminded here of a short story by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy titled, Three Hermits. Tolstoy is remembered mostly for his epic novels, War and Peace or Anna Karenina, but in his time he was both and artist and an activist. He was a Christian anarchist and a pacifist who taught a philosophy of non-violence that inspired and informed both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
In Three Hermits Tolstoy tells the story of a bishop who, while traveling on a boat, hears of three hermits living on an island in a state of almost constant prayer. The bishop decides he wants to meet these men and directs the sailors to guide him to their island. Once he has arrived the bishop finds the hermits and begins to question them. Tolstoy tells it this way,
'I have heard,' he said, 'that you, godly men, live here saving your own souls, and praying to our Lord Christ for your fellow men. I, an unworthy servant of Christ, am called, by God's mercy, to keep and teach His flock. I wished to see you, servants of God, and to do what I can to teach you, also.'
The old men looked at each other smiling, but remained silent.
'Tell me,' said the Bishop, 'what you are doing to save your souls, and how you serve God on this island.'
The second hermit sighed, and looked at the oldest, the very ancient one. The latter smiled, and said:
'We do not know how to serve God. We only serve and support ourselves, servant of God.'
'But how do you pray to God?' asked the Bishop.
'We pray in this way,' replied the hermit. 'Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.'
And when the old man said this, all three raised their eyes to heaven, and repeated:
'Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us!'
The Bishop smiled. 'You have evidently heard something about the Holy Trinity,' said he. 'But you do not pray aright. You have won my affection, godly men. I see you wish to please the Lord, but you do not know how to serve Him. That is not the way to pray; but listen to me, and I will teach you. I will teach you, not a way of my own, but the way in which God in the Holy Scriptures has commanded all men to pray to Him.'
And the Bishop began explaining to the hermits how God had revealed Himself to men; telling them of God the Father, and God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. God the Son came down on earth,' said he, 'to save men, and this is how He taught us all to pray. Listen and repeat after me: "Our Father." And the first old man repeated after him, 'Our Father,' and the second said, 'Our Father,' and the third said, 'Our Father.' 'Which art in heaven,' continued the Bishop. The first hermit repeated, 'Which art in heaven,' but the second blundered over the words, and the tall hermit could not say them properly. His hair had grown over his mouth so that he could not speak plainly. The very old hermit, having no teeth, also mumbled indistinctly.
The Bishop repeated the words again, and the old men repeated them after him. The Bishop sat down on a stone, and the old men stood before him, watching his mouth, and repeating the words as he uttered them. And all day long the Bishop laboured, saying a word twenty, thirty, a hundred times over, and the old men repeated it after him. They blundered, and he corrected them, and made them begin again.
The Bishop did not leave off till he had taught them the whole of the Lord's prayer so that they could not only repeat it after him, but could say it by themselves. The middle one was the first to know it, and to repeat the whole of it alone. The Bishop made him say it again and again, and at last the others could say it too.
So, having taught these old men how to pray, the bishop returns to the ship feeling proud that he had shared and the proper way of practicing it with the hermits. It is night when he boards the ship and they sailors set out into deeper waters leaving the island behind.
During the night the bishop stays awake on the deck of the boat as the rest of the crew sleeps, reflecting on his work, when he begins to see a light coming toward the boat from across the water. It appears to be chasing after the boat, coming from the island they’d just left. The bishop calls to the helmsman of the boat asking what the lights could be and the sailor is terrified, thinking that they are being chased by something unnatural. Then the light comes into fo
cus and the bishop recognizes the three hermits, hand in hand, coasting across the top of the water without moving their feet. They arrive at the side of the boat and call up to the bishop in one voice,
'We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.'
The bishop realizes that the presence of God has been with these men all along, and the foolishness of his own religious pride. He responds to them, “your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you.” And the hermits return to their island back along the way they came.
The story of Peter and Cornelius is a story of grace, a story about God’s abundant love that refuses to respect human laws or boundaries. Too often it gets reduced to a story about God’s chosen people being expanded to include not only the Israelites but also the Gentiles; not only the Jews, but also the Christians. In the sad history of our church this story got folded into a perverse doctrine of supersession, whereby Gentile Christians who quickly came to dominate the early church understood themselves as having replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people. But that is not what this story is about at all.
Throughout the book of Acts the Holy Spirit is poured out on all sorts of unlikely people. This story from the tenth chapter is already the fourth such outpouring, but this story is unique in that here the gift of the Holy Spirit comes before the gift of baptism. Baptism, the church’s ritual for marking who is in and who is not, does not control who God will fill with the Holy Spirit. Baptism is not the church’s gateway to membership in the family of God. God determines who belongs to God’s family, and here God makes it clear that nothing God has made is unclean.
Baptism, therefore, is the church’s response to a world that says some people are clean and some are not. Some people matter and some do not. Some people are educated and others are not. Some people are wealthy and some are not. Some people are listened to and others are not. The waters of baptism flow with such force that the shorelines of who is in are pushed back so far that no one is left out.
As a part of our rite of baptism we call forward parents and god-parents to make promises before this assembly. We ask the congregation to make promises of support and assistance on behalf of the whole church. We recite the old, old creed that is the essence of the church’s faith. It can feel like an entrance exam. It is as though Tolsoy’s bishop has shown up in the middle of our worship service to interrogate our beliefs, to make sure we’re doing religion the right way.
Rest assured, the effectiveness of this baptism does not rely on how well we say these words or even how well we believe them. The power of this baptism lies in the strength of this water, water that holds us up as it lifted the hermits, making solid ground out of life’s stormy oceans and assuring us that the prayers of all God’s people, the prayers of all people, reach God’s ears.