Commentary on Acts 10:34-43
At first glance, it may seem that the connection between this text and this day is tenuous at best.
There is only a passing reference to “the baptism that John announced” in verse 37. There may be wisdom in the lectionary’s choice, however, and this text may provide a fresh perspective on this day.
The accounts of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels focus on revealing both the identity and the mission of Jesus. In the Gospel stories, those claims are made by the disembodied voice of God. However, that sort of experience may be difficult to relate to our own lives and to our experiences of faith and discipleship. Closer to the church’s experience may be this passage from Acts, where the claims about Jesus are spoken by a human witness, and where both the witness and those who hear the good news are transformed by the encounter.
We are, of course, entering into the middle of the story when we begin with Acts 10:34. Peter has had his vision of the surprising foods that God now declares “clean,” he has pondered the meaning of this vision, he has heard God’s call through the messengers from Cornelius, he has entered into that Gentile’s home and heard how God has already been active there. At the beginning of our text, Peter begins to express new insights prompted by all of this.
Peter has begun to see new realities about God’s grace and justice because Peter has entered into the life and space of the stranger. There he glimpsed the extent of the peace that God is bringing into the world through Jesus. He now sees that the spread of the message did not stop at the boundaries of Judea and Jerusalem (verses 37 and 49). Cornelius is not the only one who experiences a “conversion” in Acts 10; so too does Peter, and Peter frames what is happening both to himself and to Cornelius by retelling the story of Jesus.
Likewise, we are called to tell the story of Jesus in such a way that it frames both our own story and the story of the world. Peter begins by suggesting that Jesus’ whole ministry can be summed up in this way: God was preaching peace through Jesus (verse 36). That statement could mean that through Jesus’ ministry God proclaimed “peace;” or it could mean that God proclaimed “peace which comes through Jesus.” Either is grammatically possible. The first is certainly true. The second is also true and more adequate, since Jesus is more than simply a preacher of peace; he is the agent of God’s peace.
Given all the confrontation and conflict that Jesus’ ministry brought, “peace” is perhaps a surprising summary. The author of Luke-Acts has a great deal to say about “peace.” In fact, the Gospel according to Luke uses that vocabulary more than the other three Gospels combined. Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, declares that the Coming One will be God’s way of leading us into paths of peace (Luke 1:79). The angels announce the birth of Jesus as “peace upon the earth” (Luke 2:14). Those who experience healing from Jesus are dismissed into a new condition of peace (Luke 7:50). Jesus laments over the city that, even face-to- face with Jesus, still does not recognize the things that lead to peace (Luke 19:42). Yet it is peace that the risen Jesus declares again into the death–dealing world (Luke 24:36).
Such peace is not simply a lack of conflict, but the healing restoration of God’s world. This peace is nothing less than the good news of God’s salvation. In fact, to translate verse 36 as God “preaching” peace doesn’t quite capture the right tone. The text says that God “gospel-ed” peace (euaggelizomai, the common verb that describes proclaiming the good news).
This “peace” is more than simply being nice and quiet. This peace means engaging in the struggle against evil (“healing all who were oppressed by the devil,” verse 38). This peace means the end of oppression and domination, so that it may look like a Jewish fisherman entering into the home of a Roman elite in peace. This is what it means that Jesus is “Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). Peter is now beginning to realize just what that declaration entails.
As God reveals to us what Jesus’ lordship means in the world, we often find ourselves stumbling to keep up, just as Peter in this passage. Boundaries are pushed back and divisions are crossed as we respond to God’s calls and dreams about neighbors and strangers and enemies. We begin to realize in new ways that the family given to us by God’s grace extends beyond people who look, think, and live as we do.
Like Peter, we learn that God’s care extends beyond our own tribe, and that God calls us into an expanding welcome. In recent years, it seems that crossing boundaries has become increasingly offensive, and in some situations nearly anathema. Some politicians wear their refusal to work with those who belong to different political party as a badge of honor. Concern for others is sometimes dismissed with a sneer as “political correctness.” We can now ensure that the news we watch has no annoying “bias” that would challenge us or our prejudices. Politics of division and animosity seem to be on the rise. This is not the peace that God declares for the world, and the church is called to speak and to live a different reality.
Peter talks about those who were called as witnesses (verse 41). However, these witnesses do not simply repeat a story from long ago. They are witnesses to God’s continuing work of peace. That is what Peter realizes in this text, and we are called into that same living witness. The mission of God’s peace is at the heart of Jesus’ baptism. Of that truth, we are witnesses: empowered by eating and drinking with the risen Jesus, hearing his word, experiencing his forgiveness, and witnessing him welcoming all.
January 8, 2017