In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.
About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there.
While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” So Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging. The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.
On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. But Peter made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.” And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?”
Cornelius replied, “Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. He said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”
When I was in undergraduate I took a leadership course. The first day of that course we learned a word that entered into almost every conversation we had in that classroom for the rest of the semester; the word was paradigm.
A paradigm is a framework, a way of seeing things and explaining things, that holds within it a community’s assumptions, ways of thinking, and ways of doing. They give us frameworks for understanding our world and for making decisions. They help us organize the information we are presented with everyday, about art, about culture, about family and relationships, even about God. They are like lenses we look through to organize the world we see. Think of a paradigm as a box that holds all the things you need to make a good cookie--the recipe, the ingredients, maybe your grandmother is in that box. And if you use all the things in your box, you get the cookie you want.
I’ll give you an example, if you were following the education conversations in SE Atlanta this week you saw a few different paradigms at work, you saw a few different systems of thought about education that revealed a lot about our community. One paradigm we saw at work this week assumes that good education is a right for all children, no matter where you live or what your socio-economic background is. This paradigm led to conversations about redistricting for elementary schools, perhaps zoning elementary schools by grade level instead of address, or having cluster-wide lottery for elementary school placement so that our community can get to know each other better and provide services for all the kids, regardless of income. It’s a way of understanding education, it’s a paradigm, and it was a paradigm shift for some as they came to a community meeting on Thursday night and experienced other people’s real fears, thoughts, and concerns for all the kids in our community.
Some paradigms, however, are more sinister. Consider the paradigm of racism, the paradigm or framework that assigns behaviors and status based on the color of skin. Understanding the world through this paradigm can lead to things like slavery, the holocaust, apartheid, and state prison systems burgeoning with Black inmates.
Paradigms--we can’t live with them and we can’t live without them, that’s why my college leadership class had to talk about them. In some sense, leadership is helping people see the paradigms they are using and helping people change them if needed.
But paradigms are not meant to last forever. They can’t. We outgrow paradigms; we abuse paradigms; paradigms get old and outdated by new information and new life experiences. Paradigms that once helped us understand a concept, perhaps a concept like not talking to strangers, can become destructive when we get older and need to meet new people and form new community. Paradigms are not permanent.
But as you can imagine, and as we’ve seen this last year, changing paradigms is, well, tricky. Many people, myself included, often don’t even see the paradigms we have. We’ve often operated within certain paradigms and ways of understanding our world for so long that it’s hard to even notice them as paradigms, let alone shift or change them.
So what do we do? How do we recognize and change our paradigms? We’re not alone with this question.
Our passage for today is all about some major paradigms shattering. The first paradigm we have to understand to really get the significance of this story is the paradigm of living in first century Palestine as a Jew. Religious life defined your existence in a way we might have a hard time comprehending nowadays, unless you grew up with Orthodox Jewish friends, then you might get it slightly better, slightly.
In our passage Peter said, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.” This might have been a slightly dramatic claim. At this point the region had been Hellenized (exposed to Greek culture and life) quite a bit, but some things still stood true, one of those things being purity laws. Food preparation and cleanliness were a big deal, and this meant hospitality and home-sharing was not a reality for Jews and Gentiles. Other than interactions within the obligations of the empire--like dealing with local government, it is likely these communities had very sparse overlap in their lives. Segregation would probably be a pretty accurate term to use, if we can set aside some of our history with that word. Jews saw Gentiles as a risk, as less than, as intruders.
The general paradigm was that outsiders, Gentiles, were not included in the community of Jewish folks unless they became proselytes (aka, they got circumcised and observed all the religious rules like a naturally born Jew).
This paradigm, as we see in our passage today, doesn’t exactly hold water with the new Jesus movement emerging from the Jewish religion. For starters, much of Jesus’ teachings challenge the social divisions of society based on wealth, gender, outer righteousness, and purity. And in the first chapter of Acts Jesus tells his disciples that they will be his witnesses to the “ends of the world.”
Or some of you can recite the famous “great commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit. It doesn’t say go only to people of the Jewish faith, it says all nations.
But going outside of Jewish culture and faith would be a BIG paradigm shift. Seismic. It would mean setting aside assumptions and boundaries about “outsiders” for a very vulnerable Jewish community, vulnerable politically, socially, economically. It would mean setting aside religious purity requirements that were bedfellows to how people understood their relationship with God. It would mean their unique identity and intimacy with God would be set aside for a bigger table. It would mean understanding how God loves based on a new system of the Holy Spirit and grace and not any merit a person might amass.
Talk about a paradigm shift. I do NOT envy the early Christian church nor the work that God was asking them to do--to change a way of understanding their religious life as they knew it.
And yet, here we are in Acts 10. The church is growing in Jerusalem, it is growing in the communities around Jerusalem and it has made it out to the Mediterranean Sea, to Caesarea and to Joppa. God is headed out beyond Jewish communities and the further out the Spirit takes these folks, the more they are interacting with Gentiles.
So we come to our story for today. The story we read today is about a Gentile man, Cornelius, who lives in Caesarea, about 120 Kilometers northwest of Jerusalem--that’s quite a bit if you’re traveling on foot or animal.
And Cornelius is hungry; he’s hungry for God and he shows it by “prayer and giving of alms,” two classic Jewish piety practices for devout followers. He’s not Jewish himself, he’s not even a proselyte (he has not been circumcised). But he’s hungry and God knows it. The problem is, the Jesus movement, this new church, hasn’t yet gotten up the gumption to go beyond their own religious community. They’ve kept Jesus to themselves. They’ve stayed in their tidy little Jewish paradigm. Something's gotta give.
I think many people would say that the vision that Peter has is what shifts his paradigm, and that vision needs some explanation. One of the things that sets the Jewish community apart from the rest of the world is that they observe strict eating rules--such as not eating pork. They have a paradigm of purity that keeps their bodies clean for God--AND keeps them totally separate from the Gentiles living around them. So in Peter’s vision God sends a sheet of all the animals and says “Get up Peter, kill and eat.” There were some pigs on that blanket--get it. God was giving Peter permission to change his paradigm, to eat as the Gentiles eat. To consider all that God has made, Gentiles and Gentile food included, as good. God’s vision shakes open Peter’s mind.
I’d love to say “bam, Peter got it.” But paradigms are usually harder to change than just changing how we understanding something, than just intellectually shifting our understanding. In fact, Peter tells God “no thanks” three times and is still wrestling with this vision when Cornelius’s folks show up.
And that, real people coming to his door, real folks with real experiences showing up, that, I think, is where God really does the shifting of Peter’s paradigm.
Willy Jennings, theologian and pastor, calls Acts a story about “the revolution of the intimate.” Willy Jennings argues throughout his commentary on Acts that the real revolution, the real paradigm shift that this early church community enacts comes through a revolution of the intimate--intimacy with God, intimacy with each other--that is where the change and the revolution happens. God changes who we are and how we think when we interact with the other people God has created.
This story of Cornelius and Peter isn’t just a theory or an ideology or a theology--it is the story of real people with real names. It is an intimate story of God entering into people’s lives and pushing them closer and closer to each other, so close that they are even staying in each others’ homes, exchanging hospitality. This would be like black and white folks having sleepovers in the 1960’s south. It takes intimacy and experiencing “the other” to push through a paradigm and get a bigger understanding, a new understanding of God’s world and love.
And this is what we see as we continue reading through Acts--particular stories about particular people in particular places being revolutionized by the intimate nature of God’s love and community We see churches being built in people’s homes through families and households and then cities. We see unlikely friends extending hospitality and thus inviting the revolution of the intimate into their very homes.
Paradigms are hard to shift. It is hard to change how we see things. It is hard to change our assumptions, but just like in Acts 10, that doesn’t mean God will ever give up on trying to shake and shatter our old ways of thinking. God will come, again and again if necessary, to wake us up and get us walking toward love. And again and again God will use Jesus’ revolution of the intimate, of knowing and experiencing real people to give us permission to question assumptions we’ve made and to open us up to new ways that the Spirit is at work in the world.
Sometimes it is hard to change, but it is not impossible--especially with God and especially with all of God’s amazing creation and creatures, ourselves included, getting close enough to touch and change each other with who we are and whose we are. This is a revolution of the intimate.
And today we get to celebrate this revolution of the intimate in a very special way--we get to celebrate it through baptism.
Baptism is a special religious practice called a sacrament. Sacraments are outward and visible signs of an inward and divine reality or grace. They are moments, rituals, or actions of grace that break the barrier between the physical and spiritual reality. Sacraments are our own little sign-posts of this revolution of the intimate, when the divine gets intimate with us and changes us, as it did Cornelius and Peter.
This particular sacrament shows us how God comes close to us through water--the waters of Creation, of the flood, of the Red Sea and the Jordan. In his ministry, Jesus offered the gift of living water that quenches our thirst. This water washes us of sin; it clothes us with the fresh garment of Christ and signals our place in a covenant family of the Church.
Baptism is also a Christian practice that intimately unites the people of God with each other and with the church of every time and place. It is a revolutionary community commitment. This particular congregation on behalf of the Church universal, assumes responsibility for nurturing the baptized person in the Christian life.
And in this church we baptize infants, as well as adults, because we believe that God is always choosing us before we could ever choose God--God is always showing up. God’s love is faithful from day one.