We’ve come to the penultimate Sunday of the Easter season, the sixth Sunday, the week in which Ascension falls. Forty days after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Next Sunday is the final Sunday before Pentecost. Our lessons come from, as usual, the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 10 this week, the final section of the story of Cornelius’ conversion. First John the final chapter, and the Gospel of John, from the farewell discourses of Jesus, the fifteenth chapter. And Psalm 98.
As we have been observing, the Acts of the Apostles shows the Holy Spirit moving resolutely, mysteriously, and in ever-widening circles. Beginning with the circle of Jews coming up for Pentecost upon whom the spirit falls, who then return to their homes across the entire known world of the day. And as the narrative line of Acts unfolds, from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria, then to a lone black high-official headed back to Sudan to tell of Jesus Christ, newly baptized, rejoicing as he goes. A God-fearer become Christian.
Today it is Cornelius’s turn. We know a good deal about the specifics of his religious life. So let’s rehearse these as Acts provides them en route to today’s reading. Like the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius too is a God fearer. And a high official, a centurion in the Italian Cohort: “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God.” And we learn, his prayers and his benevolence are noted by the One God of Israel to whom he prays, rising up in memorial. He is to go find Peter, which he does with his servants and a devout soldier. They set out for Joppa from Caesarea.
Next it is Peter in prayer, on the following day, and he receives a vision that perplexes him. Pondering it, the contingent from Cornelius arrives and beckons Peter to come and visit, as they describe him “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation.” The spirit tells Peter to go and he does. Upon arrival Cornelius kneels before him and does obeisance. Peter’s vision has prepared him to enter and he bids Cornelius rise, who promptly tells of his own coordinated vision the day before. In less than a 100 words Peter responds with the story of Jesus, for opening his mouth he says, “in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.” The spirit falls on all who hear his report and now we learn there are Jewish believers who have accompanied Peter. It is their turn to be amazed. The same Holy Spirit manifesting himself just as he did with the Jewish Christians prompts Peter to baptize Cornelius and all on whom the spirit fell.
So it is that a devout God fearer, pious almsgiver, well-spoken of by the whole Jewish nation becomes the first Gentile convert, following the man from Cush. This time there are witnesses present, bowled over by the Holy Spirit’s claim on all who hear Peter’s testimony, and Cornelius is not headed off to a distant land but is based in Caesarea itself. He is no garden variety Gentile any more than the official reading Isaiah in his chariot, but he paves the way for just that development as we read on in the coming chapters of Acts. The Council of Jerusalem evaluates what this development, long prophesied, will mean practically-speaking for the Jewish Christians.
It is striking to hear the portion from the last chapter of First John selected for today. “Everyone who believes Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” Cornelius, those who heard Peter’s report, upon whom the spirit fell, the Ethiopian eunuch, and all those whose numbers are building as the Spirit moves forth from the Jewish Pentecost gathering in chapter one through Samaria and to the ends of the earth, with Paul finally in Rome itself as Luke’s two-part story ends. The life of faithful obedience testified to in Cornelius is front and center in Acts account: “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God.” As Peter opened his preaching he made it clear “in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
First John speaks of the Christian as one who does what Christ commands, whose commands are not burdensome, but belong to a different sphere of life than the commandments of centurions or queens of Cush of this world.
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world.
He who believes Jesus is the Christ has overcome the world – much as John chapter 16 put it as well. They are new men and women rejoicing on their way, filled with the Holy Spirit.
This same Jesus Christ fulfilled all righteousness by submitting to the baptism of John. He came by water, in obedience to the commandment of God, and conquered the world. Not by water alone, but by water and the blood that gained his victory and ours. Interpreters through the ages have seen here the sacraments of baptism and eucharist in the church, which is an obvious extensional sense. But the ground meaning is found in the literal beginning (water) and end (blood) of Jesus coming—he came by water and by blood—to save the world. In John’s Gospel the beloved disciple saw blood and water pouring forth from the wounded side at Jesus’ death and proclaimed in this a great significance: the blood which saves and the water of the Spirit’s release, rising up within him to eternal life, as Jesus had promised the Samaritan woman at the well. The order is different as is the emphasis in First John, “not water only, but water and blood” — still one can see why patristic interpreters wanted to link the sacramental to the literal sense. First John itself goes on to speak in the verse that follows our Epistle portion of the three together: water, blood and spirit. Baptism, death, and Holy Spirit, grounded in and flowing from Christ’s earthly obedience.
He writes: And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth. There are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree.
We have strange and confusing commands issued in Acts, to Philip last week, to Cornelius this week, and to Peter as well. All are obedient and from this obedience flows new life and ever widening fellowship in Christ. Peter commands that water be brought and baptisms follow, in the crowning moment of obedience to the heavenly command. His faith in the heavenly vision overcomes the world, just as the prophets has promised long ago, and the Holy Spirit enters in majesty and renewal. “I have said these things that my joy might be in you and that your joy may be complete,” Jesus says in our Gospel, from the 15th chapter of John.
The faith that overcomes the world shows a world where commandments and joy are able to kiss one another as do truth and mercy in the psalms. In today’s psalm it is hard to keep up with the joy and singing and clapping, trumpeting, shouting, noise making, ringing out, harping and rejoicing, as nature breaks forth to respond to the spread of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. A new song befitting the Holy Spirit’s renewing and new-world making work.
And all of this springs forth because the Lord Jesus has laid down his life for his friends. There is no greater love this. And therefore because he obeyed the command of his father, so he commands us: You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I have appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, as we see witnessed in the Ethiopian, in Peter, in Cornelius, and all those in the widening circles of his flock, and those of another flock, he is bringing step by step, by the Spirit’s work, into the kingdom he has come to give us.