Tuesday, January 7, 2020

A Different Heavenly Vision


This Sunday is the First Sunday after the Epiphany, when we celebrate the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. It's a big moment in the life of the church. Those in the East celebrate this as Theophany--the revelation to the world of God as Father, Son, and Spirit. Even after Christmas and Epiphany, it's hard to overstate it. But, tucked away in this Sunday's readings, is the lesson from Acts, which by itself is a powerful summary of the gospel but, when expanded to the surrounding text, shows the effects of another moment when God reveals God's plan of salvation to the world.

Unexplained pronouns are always an invitation to search the wider passage of scripture, and the start of this reading from Acts 10 begs for that: "Peter began to speak to them, 'I truly understand that God shows no partiality...'" Who are the "them" to whom Peter is speaking? Given the number of speeches that are made in Acts, it could be any number of audiences, but a quick look at the beginning of chapter 10 reveals that this is part of Peter's interaction with Cornelius, the faithful Roman soldier. As a quick reminder, in this episode, God offers two temporally and thematically coordinated visions. First, Cornelius, a Gentile who is known to be kind to the Jewish people and who is labeled as a God-fearer, has a vision while praying. God's messenger (angel) speaks to him and says, "Send to Joppa for a man named Simon," and Cornelius obeys. The next day, as Cornelius' dispatch approaches Peter's house, Peter has a vision of a sheet being lowered to the earth with all kinds of unclean (not kosher) animals and hears a voice telling him to rise, kill, and eat. Initially, Peter refuses, but God's voice corrects him, saying, "Do not call anything I have made unclean."

By the time we pick up with Peter's speech, the reader and the characters involved can see how God is pulling everything together. Peter has gone with the dispatch back to Cornelius' house. They have exchanged pleasantries and confirmed each other's parallel visions. And now Peter makes theological sense of what has happened with his words: "[Now] I truly understand that God shows no partiality." This is, perhaps, Luke's version of the story of the magi--an epiphany of God's salvation to all peoples. It may not use a star and some astrologers from far away, but it relies on a heavenly vision (actually two) of no small consequence. The work of faith is to be obedient to them and to interpret them, as Peter does, in the larger narrative of salvation history.

I am preaching this week, and we will celebrate three baptisms in our parish, so I look forward to preaching on Matthew, but I don't want to leave this powerful story of epiphany behind. Peter was surprised at what he discovered--that God would use explicitly forbidden means (the command to eat unclean food) to show the limitlessness of God's saving love. The law is good because it reminds the people under the law that they belong to God, but what about those people not under the law? How will God bring them into God's gracious covenant? The story of the wise men, the story of Cornelius and Peter, the story of Paul and the Damascus Road, and so many more in both the Old and New Testament are stories that show us God is always pushing the boundaries of who is included in God's plan of salvation. Will we have the Spirit-inspired faith to interpret those signs in our own day?

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