January 8, 2017

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

“I Love You All the Same”

This morning’s reading from the Book of Acts is part of a sermon preached by the Apostle Peter almost 2000 years ago. It’s a really good summary of the Christian faith, and one of the passages that we often read on Easter Sunday. It’s also probably the first sermon preached to non-Jews, to Gentiles in the city of Caesarea.

By the time Peter finishes preaching it, it is pretty obvious that the Holy Spirit is flying around the place, just as she had on the Day of Pentecost. So Peter invites his listeners to be baptized, and a bunch of them are!

What stands in the background of this passage is a conversion. And it’s not so much Cornelius’ conversion, as it is Peter’s conversion. Perhaps you remember the story about Peter and Cornelius. Peter is a Jewish Christian and leader in the early Christian Church, at this point staying in the city of Joppa. Cornelius is a Roman centurion living in Caesarea. He is not Jewish and not a Christian, but he is a man who believes in God, spends time in prayer, and gives generously to those in need.

Around the same time, both Peter and Cornelius have a vision from God. God tells Cornelius to send men to Joppa to find Peter and bring him back. Meanwhile, Peter has that famous vision of the sheet coming down from heaven carrying all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. And although many of the animals are ones that Jews are not permitted to eat, a voice tells Peter to “Get up, kill, and eat them.”

It happens three times, just to make sure that Peter is getting the point. Things are changing, and God is inviting Peter to look at things differently… indeed, to look at people differently, in the way that God sees them. “What God has made clean,” the voice tells Peter, “you must not call profane.” So, when Cornelius’ messengers show up shortly after, Peter is brave enough to go with these Gentiles to another city to meet their boss, a Roman centurion.

He goes and preaches to Cornelius and his household because something he never considered before is suddenly a possibility – that the God of Israel is actually the Lord of all, and Jesus is not just the King of the Jews, but the King of the whole world. And Gentiles, whom he would have considered unclean and unwelcome, are suddenly potential neighbours, even brothers and sisters in Christ, because he suddenly understands that God loves them too.

As Luke tells the story of Peter and Cornelius, it is clear that it took a lot of pressure to get Peter to speak the words recorded in today’s lectionary text. And we might be tempted so many years later to look down on Peter and criticize him for his hesitancy to open his heart to the Gentiles.

But as one commentator (Harry B. Adams) on this text says, “It behooves us to be sensitive to the issues with which Peter was struggling when he encountered Cornelius, because they are issues deeply rooted in the human experience.” The reality is that, “people isolate themselves from others. People find their identity within a group, and fear that they will lose that identity if they do not guard their separateness. People find it difficult to relate to and associate with those who are different from themselves. People have a sense that they will lose their status within their own group if they dare to reach out to those on the outside.”

Harry Adams points out that “on many different kinds of issues, people group themselves together and separate themselves from others.” Like it was for Peter, it may well be the food we eat. He gives an example from several years ago, when a Vietnamese refugee was frequently in his family’s home before she finally dared to tell them that when they grilled hamburgers the smell of cooking beef literally made her sick. He asked if she liked to eat pork. She replied that she did, but that she liked dog better.

Food is one example, but we also separate ourselves by racial characteristics, age group, socio-economic level, sexual orientation, religious conviction and practice, and cultural differences. If we are completely honest, we can empathize with Peter when he confronted a challenge to his deeply held convictions.

I think what is important to notice here is that Peter didn’t decide that he liked eating pork and shell fish after all, that he just hadn’t given them a try. Peter didn’t decide that he liked Gentiles, even with their different lifestyles and practices. What Peter realized was that God deeply loved the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Peter came to know that “God shows no partiality” and that “in every nation, anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

It must have been difficult to get his head around this new idea. After all, he knew that God had a very special relationship with the People of Israel. He was their God, and they were his people. God had given them special ways of living, and been faithful to them over thousands of years. God had guided them with prophets and sages, and finally sent a Messiah to draw them back to God and save them from their sin. But what he was discovering was that the special relationship of the Jewish People to God did not preclude God having special care and concern for other people as well.

I am reminded of something I learned from my mother when we were children. I was one of four children in my family, with two sisters and a brother, and we all shared pretty affectionate relationships with our mum.

I think I figured it out when I was a young teenager. I noticed that when I was alone with my mother, she would often say that she loved me, and sometimes she would say, “You’re my favourite.”

“Woohoo! I’m her favourite,” I would think. And I’d feel pretty good about myself.

But then other times, when a few of us kids were with my mum, and maybe just one was missing, if we asked, “Who’s your favourite?” she would answer with the name of the one who wasn’t there. Hmmm… not sure what to think of that.

But, of course, there were times when all four of us were with her, and we would ask the question again. And undoubtedly, the answer would be, “I love you all the same.” Interesting.

I remember thinking that, of course, my mother must love us all the same, but she’s playing with us, joking around about who her favourite might be. But, you know, I think now that she was telling the absolute truth every time.

With one of her precious children in front of her, that child was truly her beloved, her favourite. With most of the children there, but one missing, that’s the one that was on her mind and in her heart. But with all of us there, the truth was that she loved us all… with all our different qualities, talents, foibles, and failings. We were her children and she loved us. Not one more than another… but differently, uniquely, and in a very special way.

On this Sunday when we remember the Baptism of Jesus, we hear again God’s words of love and approval for God’s Son Jesus, as he began his ministry in the world: “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well-pleased.” Likewise, we remember our own baptism, that we also belong to God as his children. Jesus is, as the Apostle Paul put it, “the firstborn in a large family,” of which we are a part.

When you stand before God in prayer, and you open your heart to loving God and following Jesus with your life, may you hear God’s voice clear saying to you, “You are my beloved. You are my favourite, and I love you.”

And when we gather here as a church family and we notice that someone is missing, may we hear God saying to us, “She is my beloved. He is my favourite, and he’s lost. Can you help me to reach out to my child?”

And when we come together with all our diversity, and when we encounter our neighbours with even more different ideas and practices, may we hear God proclaiming, “I love you all the same. I show no partiality. You are my children, and I want you all in my life.”

Remembering our baptism, let us profess our faith together, using words from “Living Faith” about the meaning of the Sacrament of Baptism:

By the power of the Holy Spirit
God acts through Baptism.
It is the sacrament not of what we do
but of what God has done for us in Christ.
God’s grace and our response to it
are not tied to the moment of Baptism,
but continue and deepen throughout life.
It is a sacrament meant
for those who profess their faith
and for their children.
Together we are the family of God.

Baptism assures us that we belong to God.
In life and in death
our greatest comfort is that we belong
to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.