|Stained glass panel,|
First Presbyterian, Nebraska City, NE
After all, the day celebrates the importance of baptism to the New Testament church, and our very name as a tradition comes from our historic commitment to baptism as “believer’s baptism”. That is, we affirm the baptism of persons by immersion and at an age where the person makes his or her own decision to believe in and follow Jesus. Observing the day in the Church year given to remembering this ritual so closely tied to our history and heritage is a most appropriate and fitting thing for Baptists to do.
That being said, while we are a people who have been seeking an understanding of “church” patterned after the ways of the New Testament church, we have made some adjustments over the years.
Today, it is more customary for a person being baptized by a Baptist church to be baptized inside. (An Episcopal friend from college claimed the Baptists have “holy hot tubs”.) Previously, many churches I have known had a history of outdoor baptisms down the way, even during the Northeast's cold, "cut a hole in inches-thick ice" winter. (Of course, if one wanted to go "old school" and be baptized in the river this month, it would be a test of discipleship….)
Baptist churches differ when it comes to membership, some who welcome Christians baptized in other traditions and even by the “other” way of baptism (i.e. “sprinkling”), and other congregations steadfast in their practices that you must be baptized by immersion only to be a member. Ironically, while the Baptist tradition can be described as a people in search of the New Testament church, we might forget that the churches of the New Testament era were constantly being surprised by the Spirit, whom sends the faithful often in varying directions. What seems "settled" can be "unsettled by the Spirit of God.
That’s where we find Peter in today’s reading. The confident leader is tossed into the deep end of the unexpected. In the gospels, Peter is lifted up among the disciples, told by Jesus he is “the rock” upon which the Church will be built, a central figure in the gospel stories. Yet, here is the “rock” himself, an original follower of Jesus, finding himself less the sure church leader and more like his earlier days, when thinking himself able to walk out onto the waters. Indeed, he’s in the middle of a situation that has thrown him into the deep end.
Our reading today is just one part of a longer story about Peter of the inner circle and the one that should have been the odd man out: a Roman centurion. Cornelius has become a God-fearer, that is, someone who has taken great stock in the religious beliefs of Israel. Hearing the gospel, Cornelius wishes to follow Jesus and be baptized. Indeed, he wants his entire household to become baptized.
The problem? He is a Gentile, aka “an outsider” or in more modern terms, “the other”.
Now, Peter, the great confident orator at the Day of Pentecost, finds himself fumbling for words. What he has taken for granted (the faith is only for Jews and not non-Jews, i.e. Gentiles) was not the final word. Even a gospel is spreading to the ends of the earth, the Church’s boundaries are being tested.
Reading Acts 10, we hear first of Cornelius when the centurion sends word that he would like to have Peter come to his house. Peter is a bit puzzled, though he is told that Cornelius is a friendly person to the faith. Up on the rooftop, Peter experiences a strange vision. In this vision, a sheet descends from the sky, and Peter sees a variety of animals. A voice tells Peter “to kill and eat” what he sees. Peter is hesitant, as among the animals are those that he does not eat to keep religious purity, or kosher laws. Three times, this vision comes to him. Each time, Peter hesitates. How could this be?
Now at Cornelius’ home, the puzzle pieces are starting to fall together. God has brought together this Gentile from Rome and this one-time fisherman from backwater Galilee. Cornelius is not to be left out of the gospel’s good news. What had been a “given” about the faith was not “the last word”. Again and again, as the Church finds its identity in the book of Acts, the Spirit keeps shifting the direction of the early Christians, unsettling what might have been thought settled once and for all.
So it is now with Peter, beginning to do what is familiar (preaching the gospel) while learning on the fly what is changing about the faith. In fact, Peter admits as much. In the Greek text of Acts 10:34, one scholar renders Paul’s words: “In truth, I am grasping that God is no respecter of appearances” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina, Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier/Liturgical Press, p. 188). Here, the book of Acts emphasizes how Peter “is just now grasping or coming to understand” (p. 191) the implications of what is coming to pass. It is one thing to realize what God is doing. It is quite another to realize that it changes what you have taken for granted.
Peter, whose mind had been stretched by the parables and teachings of Jesus, is now experiencing another challenge, brought to bear on his own sense of the boundaries of faith. Gentiles could express faith in the God of Israel, the same God whose prophets claimed would be drawn to the light of Jerusalem’s glory, yet deep down, Peter shared a degree of religious skepticism that Gentiles had much worth beyond these lofty ideals. Now, the visions coming to Peter and Cornelius alike were the beginnings of a greater dream: the gospel that goes well beyond the understandings of the faithful. Writing in the mid-20th century, Southern Baptist scholar Frank Stagg observed, “There are those who continue to say that Peter opened the door to the Gentiles. It would be closer to the truth to say that the Gentiles opened a door to the larger world for Peter.” (Quoted in Barr, et al, The Acts of the Apostles: Four Centuries of Baptist Interpretation, Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009, p. 486).
Over the centuries, the story of Cornelius and Peter has been a wonderful tale of evangelism and a cautionary tale for the faithful. The gospel goes forth, even if the “Church” lags behind out of disregard or disdain. Baptist history is likewise a testament to the contrary word of the gospel to the sometimes reticent body of believers to open the doors too far, lest “those people” get in.
On one hand, Baptist history reminds us of how severely early Baptists were considered outsiders and made to feel unwelcome by other Christians for holding less popular beliefs and practices. An early Free Will Baptist traveling evangelist John Colby, a native to Vermont and New Hampshire, traveled across New England and subsequently “out west” (back then, the “frontier” was Indiana) on preaching tours in the early 19th century. In his memoirs, Colby recalled a particularly one preaching engagement where most of us would have left discouraged. Persons showed up to make his visit to a certain neighborhood very difficult, including locking one place he was to speak to a crowd and then hiding the key. Colby’s opponents did not wish to let this preacher come into their town, as Baptist evangelists were not considered legitimate enough clergy bringing a message deemed worth hearing.
In the midst of such difficulty, Colby persevered, recalling earlier that same week when he had the pleasure of baptizing four young men who heard his word gladly. On that occasion, he referred to Acts 10:34-35. While his memoirs do not record his sermon that day, Colby recalls that he felt empowered to speak “with more than common freedom of mind”, a remarkable witness to the Spirit who kept his spirit moving forward, in times of great success and times of great adversity. Colby’s memoirs witness to Acts 10 as a text about Christians learning to welcome the gospel, even as some within the Church find themselves struggling to grasp that God is more inclusive than sometimes “the faithful” can envision. (This excerpt from Colby’s story is referenced in Barr, The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 475-6.)
As we gather this day to recall the baptism of the Lord, Baptists celebrate what makes our tradition’s name so important: the call to follow Jesus and to be baptized ourselves, to give continuing assent to the way of Christ. Baptists celebrate baptism as a turning away from our sinfulness and living out our lives as faithful witnesses to the gospel. So it is that we find ourselves in the midst of a local congregation, yearning to be with other believers and involved in the task of working together to serve the Lord. Baptism signifies our desire for new life in Christ while it also levels the playing field that the world (and yes, even religion itself) prefer to keep more of an obstacle course that only the “right type” of people can traverse. Bradley Chance, a contemporary Baptist biblical scholar, notes that in Acts 10 “the system of categorization” has changed. Previously, it “would have discouraged Peter from associating with the ‘other’ peoples” (quoted Barr, et al., The Acts of the Apostles, p. 501). What does it mean to follow God with such an expansiveness to divine welcome and inclusion? Such a story from Acts 10 should be remembered, not forgotten, when we feel challenged by the stranger at our gate, the person who does not readily appear to fit in with "us" (and therefore is known as one of "them").
The baptism of Jesus points to the new order being brought about in the Kingdom-Reign of God. The gospel is given to the whole world in all its diversity, bringing together into one body the many. In the search for “New Testament church”, we might find ourselves looking for some sort of “good ole days when things were better”, when in reality, the book of Acts shows us that even in our earliest days, the Christian faith was being schooled by the Spirit of God, who knows no partiality and presses us to keep our vision of “faith” and “church” ever flexible, ever humble, and ever expanding.