While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 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?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
This week we continue a focus on Baptism. Last week we saw Philip offer the gift of Baptism to an Ethiopian convert. We do not know exactly who this convert was, what their beliefs had been until they met Philip or if they were a Jew or Gentile – although the latter is more likely. Yet, with Philip’s act we know that the Gospel had grown, not just by a single believer, but by the opening up of God’s kingdom to those outside of Judea. The radical nature of God’s love had been revealed. It was for all people, and not just a single nation or people.
We take for granted that God is a God for all people. We here in twenty-first century America are very far removed from those who were once believed to be exclusively God’s people. With some exception, we are not descendants of Israel at all, but would rather be considered “ethne,” or Gentiles. Because we are so removed, we do not think about people joining the church as anything too radical. However, in Biblical Judea, the idea that any other group could really join God’s covenant family was radical. Judaism and Christianity both struggled with the idea of including Gentiles in community in the first century. Scripture provides a few examples of this. Jesus frequently spoke to Greek and Roman “God fearers,” who were gentiles that believed in the God of Israel. The outer court of the temple even allowed them to worship there.
Yet, it seemed that the Gentiles were still excluded from fellowship. The practice of eating separately from Gentiles is frequently referenced in the New Testament. Synagogues in Judea seemed to exclude Greek speaking Jews who had their own separate synagogues, and it is unclear if Gentiles were regularly included in either. Only in Acts, outside of Judea are we explicitly told of Gentile participation in synagogue life, suggesting that outside of Judea prejudices were not as defined.
Despite this openness in extra-Judean synagogues, there was still a clear separation between Gentile and Jew. They were not considered equal before God. The seriousness of this separation cannot be downplayed. It permeated every aspect of life in Jewish communities. A Gentile could fall in love with the God of Israel, learn all the scriptures by heart, and would still only be considered a “good Gentile,” at best a good example of an otherwise anathema caste of people.
This separation between Jew and non-Jew did not just appear from nowhere. Throughout the Old Testament there are laws and stories that make clear that marriages between Israelites and non-Israelites was forbidden. This was not purely a matter of race, as the concept of race as we know it had not yet been invented. No, it was a complex issue to do with land and religion and war and all manner of convoluted calculations. Beyond this separation of Israelite and non was also the various clans and tribes of Israel who had specific regulations regarding marriage. Relatives married one another to ensure land stayed in the family and religious obligations were met.
However, by the time of the Babylonian Exile, this system no longer stood. No one owned land and as such none had to stay in the family. The exiles doubled down on religious obedience, so they were less likely to stray. The biggest influence behind breaking these barriers was God. In Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29, the exiles are told to settle in Babylon and to live among the Babylonians. They are to take wives and husbands in Babylon and work to make Babel succeed. They are to break down the barriers between Jew and Babylonian and allow themselves to become one people blessed by God.
This unity was short-lived, as the return to Judah led to a reactionary purging of non-Jewish people from Jerusalem. The reign of Nehemiah and the tenure of Ezra over the returning exile community caused several problems for Judah. The descendants of those who remained in Judah during the exile – mainly poor farmers – were suddenly made servants to the returning nobility. Though they were native to the land and had never left, they were treated as foreigners. Those who returned were not exempt from their administration and found that they were to be punished for obeying Jeremiah. Ezra and Nehemiah, using God to excuse their actions, banished all non-Jews along with those who refused to divorce them. This “purification,” was justified as removing idolatry from the people, but in fact was a covert act of rebellion against the Persian rulers of the day.
The return to a strictly separate conception of Jews and Gentiles remained at least until the first century. Yet, something began to change. God’s spirit was moving among the people. The ability to convert to Judaism began to enter into Jewish practice. Baptism was the act which allowed for this transformation – sometimes in addition to or supplanting circumcision. This belief grew up along Christianity, but it seems Christianity began to fully include Gentile converts a bit sooner. Here we see the most obvious start point for this inclusion.
Peter, having received a vision from God, begins to seek out its meaning. After hearing a Gentile has been looking for him, he sets out and hears how God had spoken to Cornelius – the one who called for him. Peter begins his sermon, iterating the Gospel to Cornelius and his household with a bold statement – “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” The Jew and the Gentile could live and worship together, being united by their faith in Christ. There was nothing that could prevent God’s love from reaching out and encompassing all.
The love of God is a radical thing – it takes hold of all the world and brings life where once no life could be. It cannot be held back by anything or anyone. The arc of human existence, from Eden to Calvary has been a journey of God tearing open heaven and earth to come closer to the beloved creation. God’s work cannot be held back – not by anyone. Peter here sees the partition between Jew and Gentile melt away and now understands the Grace of God is radical in scope. More than that it overtakes our own standards and expectations – it is a scandal to all who see it. Yet, if we are willing, we will not stumble over God’s goodness, but rejoice alongside those who believe.
As those washed in the water, we are given a choice. We can rejoice at the wide net God has cast to bring people together or close the doors and resist this movement of God. We can be like Jeremiah or Ezra, like Peter or the Judaizers. If we truly believe our God is good enough to love and include sinful gentiles like us, then we must accept others with equal fervor. This means not shutting God’s grace off to anyone for any reason. We cannot bar the gates of the church or stop up the font of Baptism.
In all things we must let God’s grace lead us to accept others as they are. To expand our definition of God’s kingdom. To welcome rather than chase away or chastise. The Spirit has been poured out on all flesh by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let no one prevent it from filling all the earth. – Amen.