Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Joseph dreams. Joseph dreams of angels, and warnings…”don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” (Matt 1:20)…yes, it’s confusing…highly unusual…scandalous even…but she’s carrying a special child. “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt,” (Matt. 2:13), Herod is freaked and is looking for blood… Ok, Herod is no more, “get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, (Matt 2:20). Joseph is obedient…unquestioning…righteous…or “just”…which means he lives by the law, and shows us this by his actions.
Peter dreams as well. If Joseph’s dreams get buried in the fog of Christmas… the preponderance of Luke’s shepherd’s…and the procession of Matthew’s Magi…then Peter’s dream is even further buried. We rarely hear about it on Sunday…it’s one of those bible stories that seems kind of familiar…maybe…but only in kind of vague outlines…Our Sunday readings are like doors set slightly ajar…you get a glimpse of what’s behind them…but unless you open them…and step inside…the treasures remain hidden, and the skeletons keep us in their thrall.
So let’s open the door to our Acts reading and see what’s in there…because this is actually a key episode in a history that continues to have real world—life and death consequences —today.
The story goes like this: In Caesarea, there is a centurion named Cornelius …a Roman…but not just any Roman…he’s one of those people known as “God-fearers”—he is a Gentile who adheres to Jewish ideas and practices. He is not a Jew, but he lives as much like a Jew as he can. One afternoon, during prayer, he has a vision. An angel says to him, “Send some men to Joppa (down the coast a ways) and find Simon who is called Peter.” And being devout and righteous (like Joseph), he does.
Cut to Peter. It’s lunch time the next day and Peter goes up on the roof to pray…it’s a weird time to pray, and (not surprisingly) he gets hungry and asks for something to eat, and while it’s being prepared, he falls into a trance. He sees heaven opened, and a large sheet bundled up by the corners being lowered to the ground…inside are all kinds of “four-footed creatures, reptiles and birds of the air,” in other words, a lot of stuff considered “profane or unclean” by Jewish dietary practices. A voice from heaven says, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” But Peter—who is not known for being super devout or righteous—says, “No way. ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice tries again, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times (…things are always three times with Peter…”I don’t know him.” “Peter, do you love me?” “Here’s some dream food…”)…
And just then Cornelius’s men show up, and the Spirit says, “Look, three men are looking for you…go with them—without hesitation—(see the Spirit knows Peter)—go with them. So he goes down and says, “what’s up” and they say, “Corneilus, a centurion and an upright and Godfearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to come find you.” (Acts 10:22). So Peter, invites them in, and the next day they all head back to Ceaserea.
When Cornelius goes out to meet him Peter gets cagey and says, “Yeah, I’m not really supposed to be associating with you…I’m a Jew and you’re not (which isn’t really true…but it’s a convenient excuse), but what’s up?”
Cornelius tells him the story of the heavenly vision and then he says, and now we’re all here in the presence of God “to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say”(Acts 10:31). And Peter gives the speech that we heard today. And then Luke says: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers (the Jews) 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” (Acts 10:44). It’s Pentecost all over again. And Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And of course the answer is no, so they are all baptized and presumably celebrated. Then Peter goes back to Jerusalem, where all of the Jewish believers say: “what’s this about you baptizing a bunch of non-Jews? And Peter tells the story, and they “praised God and said,” ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).
In the Book of Acts, chapter 9 focuses on the conversion of Paul. Chapter 10 tells the story of Cornelius and Peter’s…Chapter 11 is the story of a church in Antioch where the term “Christian” first appears. In other words, it’s at this point in the story when it becomes clear that the non-Jewish, Godfearers (i.e., us) are no longer peripheral, but are becoming part of the story. We, the non-Jewish followers of Jesus have become grafted onto this narrative of God’s saving action in history; and from this point on…as Acts shifts to following Paul’s journeys…we become central to the story.
That we are grafted onto…adopted into…the story of God’s people and God’s salvation…is the positive side…the light…of the story. But every light casts a shadow…so there is a dark side to it as well…This is the beginning of a significant split… and the tragic mis-understanding of, and reprehensible and savage treatment of our Jewish siblings only gets worse from here.
It’s easy to tell the story of Peter’s dream and Cornelius conversion as one of jubilation and hope…and it is…but there’s a shadow side as well…When Peter says in verse 39 “They put him to death,” who do you think he’s referring to? The Romans? The Temple authorities? The mob? We know who Christians have historically believed “they” has referred to…and we must never forget the horrors that has led to.
These are not just stories of the past…they have real world consequences…Just this past week, I signed a letter, along with hundreds of other Christian faith leaders decrying and condemning the continued violence against our Jewish siblings (if you would like to add your name to this letter, I’d encourage you to do so, using this link). And in addition to standing in solidarity with them against hate, bigotry and violence, we will have to continue to stand with our Muslim siblings as well. Our Jewish and Muslim friends and neighbors live with an increasing level of anxiety, fear, and violence that we who are part of the “mainstream” don’t…because these stories echo and reverberate in our world, and need to be responsible for them and with them.
Our Christian story is full of miracles, and wonders, and light and hope…and good, good news, and we rightly lift that up and celebrate it. Our Christian history also full of darkness, violence, and complicity with real evil, and we also need to be aware of that, confess that, and bring those shadows into the light.
Because the ministry of Christ is the ministry of reconciliation….The baptism we are baptized into is the baptism of redemption and reconciliation…the light shines in the darkness—even in our own darkness—and the darkness does not overcome it. But that doesn’t mean we get to ignore the bad stuff and hope things work out…nor does it mean that we simply have to convince everyone to see the world we do…It requires something deeper and more difficult…it means that as we become more and more aware of the darkness in ourselves…we must go out and seek the light and stand with others in the world…others of of any nation…creed…or faith…who “fear God and does what is right and acceptable to God.” That’s what it means to walk the way of love…and let our light shine before others. That’s what we commit to in our baptismal promises, and what I invite you now to stand and join me in reaffirming.