Prejudice is really a terrible thing at so many levels. We often think of prejudice as being a bad thing from the viewpoint of the object of the prejudicial behavior. Or to put it another way there is a perpetrator and a victim. The victim suffers the results of bad treatment. This is often a majority against a minority. It can be one national group against another or it can be one religious group against another.
This last kind of prejudice is what we have in today’s lesson from Acts. Today is the Baptism of our Lord. His baptism is unique in the strict sense of that word meaning that it is completely singular. Our baptism is not like Jesus baptism in any way other than that water is used. I have frequently preached on the uniqueness of Jesus’ baptism but today I would like to concentrate on what Peter is doing in Acts 10 in relationship to Cornelius.
The lesson is written from Peter’s perspective and last year in Thursday bible study I was forced to take another look at this lesson that I have passed over so many times as a sermon text. As I shared with the class I have had a prejudice against the whole book of Acts and so because I had already made up my mind the message of today’s text was vailed to me.
Peter was surprised when he had a vision of a sheet carrying all the animals listed in the Law as unclean accompanied by a voice telling him that God had made them clean. Peter was even more surprised when he was told to go to the house of an unclean Gentile named Cornelius and preach the Gospel to him. That is, God had made all humans clean.
We all have a hard time living without the comfort of knowing that some people, some things, are unclean. This fear that sustains us is the fear of the Other. Peter was freed of his prejudice religious and national and because he was liberated he got to know and have a relationship with a really nice guy Cornelius and his great family.
If Jesus and his Jewish followers like Peter and Paul did not welcome people like Cornelius who tradition said were unclean and unworthy we would not be here because we are the descendants of Cornelius and not of Peter and Paul. We are non-Jewish gentiles.
It is also a fundamental practice of statecraft today is to deal with rivalry and tensions within a nation by designating an enemy that the whole nation must fight. Which is simply more prejudice but at a different level and I really want to keep this sermon on baptism as the antidote to prejudice from the perspective of Peter.
Most communities have demonstrated the human tendency to divide foods between those deemed clean and those considered unclean. Eating is a central activity of a community. We eat with those who are closest to us. By dividing the food we eat between clean and unclean, we create a barrier between us and other people, between us as the “in” group and those in the “out” group. We get a lot of this in the gospels where Jesus is criticized for eating with sinners and tax collectors. These were considered to be unclean like Cornelius.
Today’s lesson is about a profound change in Peter who learned what Paul had tried to teach him up at Antioch when they had their famous dispute over eating and drinking with Gentiles.
Peter was up on his rooftop praying when he fell into a deep trance and he sees the heavens opened and out of heaven something comes down which he finds repulsive: a sheet full of every kind of beast. This included reptiles and bugs things that disgusted a Jew. Three times he is told to kill and eat them and each time as a good Jew he refuses, for these were profane and impure. The voice says to him: What God has cleansed, do not call impure. Peter doesn’t really understand what it is all about, but when he enters Cornelius’s house he gets the point and he tells his host: You know that it is unlawful for a Jew to have dealing with foreigners or enter their houses, but God has shown me not to call any person profane or impure.
This is not saying all things are good. Peter does not say God has revealed to me that there is no such thing as impure or profane, but rather not to call any person profane or impure. This is an important distinction.
This is the whole point of baptism. It makes all of us the same. If we believe that God is our Father as Jesus taught than baptism make us brothers and sisters and we affirm this when we all come to the table together to eat and drink as family.
Baptism dismantles the old kingdom build on distinguishing between in and out and clean and unclean and it is replaced by this new thing that Jesus spoke about constantly called the Kingdom of God. Where people certainly continue to sin and do evil and impure things but where no person is called profane or unclean. The economy in the Kingdom of God is based on forgiveness that each of us received in our baptism and that we pass on freely to one another.
To be clear I am not saying that everyone is the same. What I am trying to make clear is that baptism puts us together is to a new community where we are defined by the Father whose children we are. It is a different way of making community. It is a place where we are liberated from our prejudice so we can live together, organized under the banner of walking in the ways of discipleship in the steps of our example Jesus Son of God. That is what defines who we are and it all started when we were baptized.