Easter 6b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
One of the major issues facing the world today involves changes to weather patterns, known collectively as “climate change.” To a large extent this is about water — too much water in some places, where either the rains have increased or the sea level is rising; and too little water in other places, where the drought seems to be unending. So the problem isn’t with water itself, but with where the water is — or isn’t. There has been a good deal of discussion concerning water in the state of California. Much of that state is very dry even in the wettest of seasons, and when there are several years of drought — as has been true for the last four years — the amount of water available can fall far short of what is needed. The snow in the mountains that used to pile up many feet high — and feed the valleys below as it melted — has been measured in inches instead of feet. And so the valley thirsts.
Many in Los Angeles have been upset to have to withhold water from their lawns so that the people growing fruit and nuts in the central valley can water their orchards — and much is made of the fact that it takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond! The problem is that agriculture is a major contributor to the economic health of the whole state of California — and the produce from California is served in the salad bowls of much of the rest of the country — so the effect of this drought will be felt far and wide.
In short, this issue of water is something that touches everyone. Water is essential to life — not just drinking water, without which one cannot survive for more than a few days — but the water that grows the plants that nourish us: water which is with us literally from soup to nuts.
In our reading from Acts this morning, we hear of another life-giving aspect of water — the water of Baptism. And what might seem strange to our ears is the fact that Peter even suggests not baptizing the Gentiles to whom he has been sent in response to a vision from God. Isn’t baptizing the very thing the church is meant to do?
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Well, this is one of the many things about which the leaders of the early church had to be enlightened and instructed bit by bit. It was a lesson they had to learn. As I said a few weeks ago in one of my sermons, God informs and educates the church, through many means, bit by bit, story by story, in poetry and prose, by vision and revelation, and by the experience of the faithful. What we see in our reading from Acts is one step in that process of enlightenment — as baptism is extended to the Gentiles.
As I’ve reminded us in the past, all of us here are Gentiles by birth, and so the idea that there might have been a time when the water of baptism was withheld from us seems odd. This gives me an opportunity to remind us all once again of the essential Jewishness of Jesus and the earliest church. Jesus was a Jew, and so were all of the apostles. And baptism — a ritual by which water is used in a symbolic way as a cleansing from sin — was and is a particularly Jewish ritual. Now, of course, Jews are not the only people in the world who have given a symbolic meaning to washing with water as a way to cleanse from sin. We are reminded of this forcibly every year in Holy Week as the Gentile Pontius Pilate washes his hands as a way of cleansing himself of any responsibility in the death of Jesus. But for Jews of the time of Jesus, this ritual washing was a central part of the observance of the Law of Moses, which spells out numerous circumstances in which washing with water is required, as a means to restore them to the status of being ritually “clean.”
I remember a couple of years ago, there was a TV special about the Dead Sea community that lived outside of Jerusalem — a Jewish community of just before the time of Jesus. And their concern — being in the desert — was to have enough water so that they could carry out the rituals of what is called the mikvah: the cleansing tank where you would walk down steps into a pool of water and then up the steps on the opposite side. The archaeologists have excavated all of the water-works that were used in that ancient and now abandoned city. Water was central to the understanding of their rituals and their laws.
And for many Jews of the time of Jesus, there would be no point in a Gentile doing these exercises of washing — going down the steps into the pool and then up the other side would mean nothing for a Gentile — Gentiles are unclean by nature; you can wash and scrub and rinse and spin-dry, and from a Levitical standpoint a Gentile will be just as unclean after as before. What’s the old saying? “Beauty is skin deep, but ugly goes to the bone!” Well, from the standpoint of the Jews of Jesus’ time, Gentiles were sin, not just skin deep, but right to the bone. So washing them would make no difference. And this way of seeing things would have been as true of Peter as of any other Jewish man of his time.
Except that Jesus had given Peter some of that “information” I referred to — a lesson, — a revelation that came to him in a dream, also recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Peter was taking a nap before lunch and in a vision saw
a great sheet lowered from the sky, full of all kinds of animals, clean and unclean, and a heavenly voice had commanded him to kill and eat the unclean with the clean. When he protested that he had always “kept kosher” a voice from heaven chided him by saying, “Don’t call unclean what God has cleansed!” And to strike the message home, this dream was repeated three times. Didn’t I remind us a few weeks ago that God is a patient teacher who will repeat the lesson as often as is needed? Well, Peter needed three “reps” to get the point of this one. And he finally realized it wasn’t about what he was going to have for lunch, but about the mission on which he would soon be sent, to visit a household of Gentiles who had found God’s favor.
Now, these Gentiles — the Roman Cornelius and his household — had also been alerted by a vision, and had been promised that salvation would be coming to their household. Yet they know, as Peter acknowledges, that Jews want to have nothing to do with Gentiles. But Peter also says that he has understood this vision from God to mean — not that he should feel free to eat a ham and cheese sandwich — but that he was no longer to consider any human being as unclean by nature. God is not concerned with food, but with people.
So the stage is set; and when the Holy Spirit ratifies God’s direction in all of this, descending on the gathered Gentiles even before Peter can finish his sermon, he knows that he is called to baptize them — not with the old baptism, the baptism that he had used for most of his life as a Jew, a washing from ritual uncleanness that would have to be repeated again and again the next time he became unclean by touching something he shouldn’t have touched, or doing something he shouldn’t have done. Not the old baptism, but the new baptism in the Name of Jesus, the baptism that Jesus had told them to do (as Matthew records in his Gospel), going to all nations (and the word we translate as “nations” is the word the Jews used for the Gentiles — the goyim — which means the all of us!) the commandment to go to all nations and to baptize them. Even though Jesus had told them this was their missionary task as apostles, it took that additional trio of lessons on the rooftop to get Peter to understand. It took the vision of the great sheet of animals let down from heaven — three times; it took the heavenly voice. Finally it took the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles as they listened to Peter preach — it took all these lessons to get Peter to understand God’s message that salvation is for all, for every human being who can become a child of God through this wonderful grace — flowing as freely as water itself; whether a tidal wave washing over a continent, or a bare trickle of life-giving water welling up from a spring in the middle of a desert.
This is the water that gives life, the water of baptism that doesn’t just cleanse from sin, but incorporates the believer into the Body of Christ. For it is not just the water alone — as John the Apostle attests — but the water and the blood. It is not the water alone, but the Spirit of truth who testifies to the power of God. God’s power and greatness are at work in unexpected places, among unexpected people, among those from whom the pious might be inclined to withhold their blessing, but among whom the Spirit has shown itself not only pleased to dwell, but to manifest the signs of God’s presence — so that, watered with the nourishing water of baptism, they may bear fruit, fruit that will last, to the everlasting glory of God, and in praise of God’s most holy Name.