< January 09, 2011 >

Commentary on Acts 10:34-43

 

Our text begins with Peter addressing a most unlikely audience.

He is speaking to the household and friends of Cornelius, a notable leader of Roman soldiers who is nevertheless described as "God-fearing" (10:2, 22). This means that he helped the poor and was also known for his regular prayer life (10:2, 32). Peter's "sermon" is startling and even destabilizing. He announces God's radical love is on the move, breaking down cherished and long-held borders and categories.

Your God Is Too Small
Peter begins by saying that "God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (10:34). God shows no partiality! Think of how that statement challenges and undermines our tendency to confine God to the comfortable categories of our own "religions." In Peter's day, the inclusion of Gentiles in God's mission was profoundly controversial. Many of the original followers of Jesus could not conceive of a messiah meant for non-Jews, even though God's promises to Israel have always had universal trajectory (Genesis 12:3).

We are not that different. We tend to build our own "private" faiths, drawing lines around who is "in" and who is "out." And we get upset when people mess with our religion. Some years ago, J. B. Phillips wrote a fine little book called Your God is Too Small.1 Interpreters might want consult it for this week's text. Using popular images, Phillips provides a long list of the ways we limit God to concepts and images that are safe and comfortable. He argues that we try to tame and domesticate God as we use him to pursue our own independent goals and agendas.

No Partiality--Because Of Jesus
The idea that God shows no partiality has sometimes been misunderstood. This is not an affirmation of a superficial universalism. Peter is hardly claiming the modern creed of many in the West who say that God is all-loving and therefore is far above all human religions. According to this line of thinking, God simply wants us to be kind to others and is fundamentally uninterested in particular religious differences.

But let's be careful about turning Peter into some kind of Deist. The reason that Peter makes the claim that God is not partial is because of the way that God has revealed himself in the concrete and particular life of Jesus of Nazareth. As Acts 10:40-43 demonstrates, Jesus' resurrection means that he is a messiah for Jews and Gentiles. And the fact that he is returning to judge all people means that all of human history is headed towards him. Ironically, only the life and ministry of the Jew named Jesus allows Peter to say that God shows no partiality!

You Can't Box God In
Our attempts to control God and keep God safely within our predetermined categories are contradicted by the early Christian preaching about Jesus. Most commentators on this text agree that Peter's speech in Acts 10:38-43 is something like an early Christian creed. At the center of this preaching is the fact that this one "anointed" by God ( the messiah) dies on a tree (10:38-39). But according to Jewish law anyone who dies this way is "cursed," literally cut off from the people of God (Deuteronomy 21:23). So early Christian preaching has God most fully revealed in the most unthinkable of places-in the execution of a criminal on a cross. By whatever measurement-religious, social, cultural--the death of the Jew named Jesus was hideous, shameful, and offensive. But because he bore the sin of the world, the cross becomes a place of forgiveness and reconciliation (I Corinthians 5:21). 

God's love is now at loose in the world--this is what animates early Christian preaching. It is a wild and unruly force, winning over the hearts of centurions like Cornelius. It reverses conventional categories of who is "in" and who is "out." It eats with sinners and upholds love of enemies as a new norm. Let us be cautious about all human attempts to corral and control this power. The Holy One of Israel has a way of eluding human attempts to hold him tight. Indeed, our "gods" are too small.

A Word About Baptism
This is the text for the Sunday that celebrates the baptism of Jesus. It might be a nice opportunity to highlight the importance of Christian baptism. Though interpretations will differ, most Christian traditions can agree that baptism is the place where God's love for them becomes personal. The danger of emphasizing a divine love that is "wild and unruly" (see above) is that it is perceived to be forever on the move and never really landing anywhere. But Acts makes clear there is a close link between baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit (10:47). And it is also true that the early mission of the church was inseparable from baptism (Matthew 28:19).

In other words, God's love takes up residence in human hearts. In baptism we celebrate the new life we have in Christ (Titus 3:5). It is also the place where we are joined to Christ (Romans 6:3-4). When assailed by doubt or overcome by despair, we can always point to our baptism as evidence that God's love has not passed us by. Paul's words ring in our ears: "For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his" (Romans 6:5).


1 J. B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small (New York: Macmillian, 1961).