This text for the Baptism of Jesus is a short sermon that summarizes the entire story of Jesus. The baptism proclaimed by John the Baptist is mentioned as the starting point for Jesus' public ministry (Acts 10:37).
Then the sermon offers several perspectives on the significance of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. As the sermon unfolds, we find a surprisingly high level of tension. Giving due weight to each dimension of the sermon offers a more surprising and vital proclamation of the gospel than any one dimension taken alone.
First, the sermon begins with the statement that "God shows no partiality," for "in every nation anyone who fears and does what is right is acceptable to him" (10:34-35). The message seems warm and inclusive. And it is, though there is more here than meets the eye. The context of this comment is the story of Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius is a Gentile, who is an officer in the Roman army. He is one of those from another nation. He may revere God and give alms generously, but he is a Gentile, not a member of the people of Israel.
Cornelius has a vision in which he is commanded to send a messenger to Peter, who is staying in the town of Joppa, some distance away. Meanwhile, Peter has a vision in which he sees a sheet full of unclean animals coming down from heaven. A voice commands Peter to kill and eat these animals, but he refuses to do so, since they are unclean according to Jewish law. Then the voice said, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane" (10:16). When the messengers from Cornelius arrive, Peter realizes that the vision is not just about unclean food, it is about unclean people. The issue is who can be considered part of the people of God.
Cornelius is Peter's first test case. Does he belong to the people of God as Peter does, or not? To say that "God shows no partiality" means that belonging is not a matter of one's ethnic background. The issue is faith and the kind of life that flows out of faith (10:34-35). So here is where things get interesting. Cornelius is not just a Gentile, since Gentiles traditionally worshiped various gods and goddesses. Cornelius is a person of faith. And faith, not ethnicity, is what matters.
The key point in Peter's vision was that God can "make clean" those who are unclean (10:16). There is action on God's part. Peter's vision does not say that eating unclean food is just fine. Rather, it shows that God has the power to make things clean. Similarly, the encounter with Cornelius does not mean that Gentiles are fine no matter which deity they venerate. Rather, God has the power to make them acceptable by cleansing them, that is, by bringing them to faith. The power of God to change people will be the theme that is repeated whenever Peter's story is told (11:18; 15:9). Cornelius has been brought to faith in the true God. Therefore he is a true member of God's people.
Second, the sermon shows that Jesus himself was about the business of changing people's lives. Peter sums up Jesus' ministry by saying that he "went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil" (10:38). From this perspective, God found much about the human situation that was unacceptable. When people are in bondage to evil, the gospel is not one of peace and acceptance but of confrontation.
The brief sermon in this chapter of Acts recalls the kinds of healing stories that we find in Luke's gospel, where Jesus heals those who are possessed by demons (Luke 4:31-37, 41; 8:2, 26-30). The forces of evil diminish life for individuals and the communities of which they are a part. They are powers that dominate the will and remove the freedom to live in ways that are life-sustaining. In the most specific sense, the passage is about those possessed by demons. In its extended sense, it relates to the addictions and compulsions that drive the lives of individuals and the systems of abuse from which families and societies cannot seem to break free. Evil is like an infection or cancer that takes life away. To heal, the gospel must overcome what is killing people in order to restore them to life.
Third, the sermon identifies Jesus as the judge of the living and the dead, and as the source of forgiveness (Acts 10:42-43). Again there is a surprising tension in the passage. Judgment and forgiveness are mentioned alongside each other. Neither stands alone.
In his role as judge, Jesus holds people to account for their sin. He does not treat sin as a matter of indifference, but confronts it and judges it. Sin has a destructive effect on those who commit it and on those victimized by it. The sermon does not trivialize sin, reducing it to a series of petty vices. Sin has perpetrators and victims. And where sin reigns, people suffer. As judge, Jesus says "no" to it. He brings sinners up short. He holds them to account.
The goal is that people might be released from sin. The Greek word usually translated "forgiveness" is aphesis, which literally means "release." A pattern of sins often brings people to a point where the sins define the present and limit the future. For a person to have a different life, the sins must no longer define the person's situation. This is what forgiveness means. It means that the grace of God brings release from the pattern of sins that have been committed, so that there can be a different future. Forgiveness does not mean accepting the situation but changing it through a word of grace. People need forgiveness precisely because they are accountable. And Jesus holds them to account precisely to awaken in them the sense of the need for change and a readiness to receive the grace that is offered.
For photos and information relating to the book of Acts see Craig Koester's web site: www.luthersem.edu/ckoester/paul/main.htm