Baptism of Our Lord A

Consider the dynamics of sharing the gospel with people who have never truly heard it

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Photo by Kerim Serdar Kutbulak on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

January 8, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on Acts 10:34-43

In Acts 10:34–43, Peter shares the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ with Cornelius and other gentiles. He gives a beautiful summary of the gospel, from Jesus’ liberating ministry to his death, resurrection, and exaltation as Lord of the living and dead. This might leave a contemporary preacher wondering how to preach a text that is itself a sermon—and a very good one at that!

One place to start is by examining the literary context of this passage. Acts 10:1–33 tells the story of how Peter ended up preaching in Cornelius’ home. Strikingly, this did not come about by coincidence or by Peter’s own evangelistic zeal. Instead, it was orchestrated by God.

God first works with Cornelius (verses 1–8). The text describes Cornelius and his household as devout and God-fearing (verse 2), even though they are gentiles. Then Cornelius has a vision of an angel of God telling him to send people to summon Peter (verses 3–6). He immediately responds faithfully and sends for Peter (verses 7–8).

In the meantime, God also gives Peter a vision (verses 9–16) that opens him up to the unexpected, upcoming encounter with Cornelius’ envoy. Thus, when the Spirit tells Peter to go with the unknown visitors, without hesitation he does so (verses 19–23)—despite reservations that he, as a Jew, might otherwise have about associating with gentiles (verses 28–29). 

What unfolds in the rest of Acts 10 and 11:1–18 is the account of how Peter’s divinely-prompted encounter with Cornelius’ household leads Peter and the rest of the early Jewish Christian community to recognize that God’s gospel is for gentiles, just as it is for Jews (for example, Acts 10:34–35, 45; 11:18). While this might seem like old news to Christians some 2,000 years later, it was astounding to Peter and his first-century Jewish-Christian companions. God was doing something that would transform life in Christian communities.

This brings us back to Peter’s sermon in 10:34–43. What was he saying while the Holy Spirit fell upon everyone in his gentile audience, leading them to baptism (10:44–48)? Reflecting on Peter’s words and the wider story in which they are set can be fruitful for thinking about preaching today. More specifically, it helps us consider the dynamics of sharing the gospel with people who have never truly heard it—”evangelism,” as some might call it.

While the idea of evangelism excites some Christians, it makes others uncomfortable (to say the least). It may evoke unpleasant images of a lone individual on a street corner yelling at passersby to “repent or perish.” Or it might raise people’s anxiety as they fear that sharing their faith in Christ will offend their co-workers, friends, or relatives. These are valid concerns. To be sure, Acts 10:34–43 does not present a guaranteed formula for successful evangelism. What it does show is that God worked through Peter simply—yet boldly—telling the truth about God, as he experienced and understood it (Acts 10:39–42). This is something that all Christians can do by the power of the Spirit. And preaching this text today can remind them of this. Just as God prompted both Peter and Cornelius to their mutually transformative encounter, so too does God continue to prepare people in our communities to hear the good news. Christians are called to act in response, trusting that it is God who works through them.

If Christians today, like Peter, have experienced the gospel and know it to be God’s life-changing good news, how can we not want to share it with others? Does the story of God, out of love, empowering Jesus with the Holy Spirit to heal the sick and free the oppressed (Acts 10:38) ever get old? Is the miracle of God raising the unjustly executed Jesus from the dead to reign as a merciful Lord who forgives sins (verses 40–43) something that should embarrass us? 

It is important to emphasize that when Peter tells of Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, he is not merely relating a story of how God was at work in Jesus in the past. Rather, he is declaring that God is still working through the risen Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, in the present. This is evident in his divinely orchestrated encounter with Cornelius. It is also on display throughout Acts, as Jesus’ apostles continue to heal the sick, liberate the oppressed, and bring diverse groups of people into fellowship in his name. This is the same Jesus that works through the church—including its preaching of the gospel—today. 

Appropriate caution should be taken when preaching texts such as Acts 10:34–43 not to promise that God always works exactly as we see in biblical texts. Experience tells us that God does not heal every physical illness nor instantly break the hold that depression, addiction, or fear has on people when the church prays for them. Nonetheless, we should not doubt that the healing and forgiving presence of the Risen Christ is present in the church and beyond. The wider context of Acts shows that the church is not only to preach the gospel with words, but also to enact it with deeds, so that a type of healing can come through a lonely person being accepted into Christian communities, just as a person burdened with guilt for a past error can experience freedom through the church’s proclamation that Christ has forgiven their sin.

In the end, Acts 10 calls us to expect God to work through the church and its proclamation of the gospel in unexpected ways. Indeed, the biblical texts remind Christians that God also works outside of the church. A sermon might, therefore, call people to be attentive to the Spirit’s guidance in their daily lives and to be prepared to respond with faithful action.