Sixth Sunday after Easter
May 9, 2021
We have significant distrust of “the other.” It is rooted deep in our anthropology, it’s deep in us as humans. It seems almost hard-wired into us. We sort and differentiate ourselves based on all manner of categories. Race, class, place of origin. Longhorn or Aggie. Democrat and Republican. It goes back in history. North and South. Loyalist and Patriot. Catholic and Protestant. We find our tribes, the ones we identify with and most closely resemble, and stick with them because we feel safe in that category. Think about it – groups of more than one hundred and fifty humans are so rare because when you can’t know everybody you start distrusting somebody.
This is also why racial slurs and derogatory terms are so pervasive and so damaging. Because they describe and define “the other” as someone different from you, as less than you or your group. It’s a psychological shortcut to reassure yourself that since they are not in your category, your circle, your group, and they should matter less than you do. This sorting, this difference making, is the texture of who we are, of our history, of our psychology, and our culture. It just is. And I would imagine that you have been both on the receiving end and on the giving end of those boundaries. You have both been made the other and have made someone else the other. This is what we do as humans.
Then along come these radical points of departure. Along come these radical people who shake our understanding. The ones who open our eyes, to help us see that yes, indeed, we are different, but that those differences are not hindrances but blessings. Along come people like Cornelius the Gentile and Saint Peter.
The bible tells us that Cornelius was a soldier in the Roman army. But he was devout to the God of Israel, though a Gentile. He gave alms and offerings to the poor. All things considered, though he was a Gentile, he was acting like a Jew, like one who follows the laws of Israel. But he wasn’t quite part of the group. He hadn’t been circumcised according the ancient laws. So, to the Jews and the earliest Christians of the time, he remained one of the “others.”
Then there is Saint Peter. Solidly Jewish, but following the sect of those who called themselves “Christians.” But make no mistake, Peter was well aware of the laws, traditions, and customs that differentiated Jew from Gentile. He knew what it took to be in one group, and what it took to be an other. But through a vision, God commands Peter to go to Cornelius, to go to that other. Because God is up to something.
So that’s where our story picks up today in the Acts of the Apostles. Peter is preaching to Cornelius and his friends and relatives (Acts 10:24) when something amazing happens. “The Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word” (Acts 10:44). Peter and his companions are astounded that the Holy Spirit is poured out “even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45). You hear that emphasis, that astonishment, right? Even on the Gentiles. This is what not Peter expected. Cornelius is a Gentile, a Roman soldier, an other. He’s not circumcised, he’s not one of them, he belongs to the other; and yet somehow here the Holy Spirit has come even upon Cornelius, even on the Gentile. God is doing a new thing; or maybe it’s that God is doing an old thing in a new way. Regardless, the old human boundaries are being reformed by the Holy Spirit.
Then Peter says something. He drops a load of theological dynamite. Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). Just as we have. Think about it this way – there are two gifts of the Holy Spirit happening here. One is that Cornelius is now praising God in Jesus Christ. The other gift is that Peter’s heart is now open to the other.The Holy Spirit opens Peter’s heart to empathy. Peter sees Cornelius’ experience as his own experience of the Holy Spirit. The dividing wall between the two has been torn down (Ephesians 2). Through God’s gift, Peter sees that Cornelius is not an “other.” Sure, they still have their human differences. Peter is a Jew and Cornelius is a Gentile. Peter is a fisherman, Cornelius is a soldier. Those differences still exist, but they are no longer the defining markers of their lives. What defines their lives is that they have shared the same experience – the Holy Spirit has come upon them. Cornelius is not an “other.” Now he is “another” in the Spirit.
Empathy. It is a gift of God. And it’s praised by many, but practiced by few. Now, this sermon could easily become a simple exhortation – “we should be more empathetic.” But that’s a motivational speech, not a sermon. This is about theology, not anthropology. So let’s keep going deeper.
The One who leads the way in empathy is the Lord God Almighty. The Lord God has complete and absolute empathy with us by becoming human in Jesus Christ. The One who is seated between the cherubim in the heavenly city is also the One who knows what it is to live here on earth. Jesus enters into this world of differences and categories and anthropological groupings but overcomes them. Jesus overcomes these differences through his love. And in this way, empathy is a manifestation of love. Empathy is not only a human trait that we should cultivate – it is a gift from God that we receive with gratitude.
So, I’m not saying that we can overcome our human distinctions and differences by refusing to see those distinctions; by pretending differences don’t exist. Cornelius receives the Holy Spirit just as Peter has, absolutely – but Cornelius remains an Italian soldier. Peter remains a Jewish fisherman. They are still who they are. The real grace here is that people as different as Peter and Cornelius can live together in this thing we call the Body of Christ. The Holy Spirit and the waters of baptism don’t erase the old person. Instead it’s the Holy Spirit and the waters of baptism that pull us together so that we can see each other and love each other. That empathy is a gift of God. We do not see “others.” We see “another.”
This story today sets up the rest of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. For the rest of that book in the bible the question is simply – “can we let them in, too?” Cornelius isn’t circumcised, can we let him in, too? The eunuch is from Ethiopia, can we let him in, too? Lydia is a woman at the head of a household, can we let her in, too? The answer is always, “yes, we can let them in, too.” The answer is never a human motivated “yes.” The answer is always from God; a divinely motivated and empathetic, “yes, we can let them in, too, because they have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”
As it was in the Acts of the Apostles, so has it been over the twenty Christian centuries. The Church has come across a new people and we’ve asked the same question – “can we let them in, too?” The answer must never come from ourselves – the answer must always come from the Holy Spirit. Even when it seems to go against the traditional laws and customs we must not stick to our anthropological distinctions. In the tradition of Saint Peter we must embrace what the Holy Spirit is up to; to courageously see that “others” have received the Holy Spirit “just as we have;” to welcome with open arms, not because we have no differences but because our differences have been overcome with the love of God. To embrace “another” with the same love and care which brought us home to God.
This is a tricky sermon in such a difficult time. The world is clamoring for certainty. The Christian will say that only God is certain. The world wants an ironclad answer – who is in and who is out. We will be criticized for being vague. The world will want to pin us down, the world will demand adherence to human categories, or to none at all. We will say that the God of loving empathy sees us for who we are. The world will see “others.” But we pray that God will give us the eyes of the Holy Spirit to see each other for who we truly are. For we are not “others” in the eyes of God. To God, we are simply “another.”