“I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all!” (Acts 10:34-36)
These words spoken by the apostle Peter two thousand years ago in the city of Caesarea provided a fitting place to begin our pilgrimage to Israel. Caesarea was an insignificant coastal Mediterranean town until 22 B.C.E., when Herod the Great developed it into a magnificent harbor that held 300 ships. Herod built a stunning palace along the Mediterranean with an almost Olympic size fresh water swimming pool jutting out into the harbor. He also constructed a theater with stone seats that could hold 3,500 people.
As we sat on the same two-thousand-year-old stone steps, we remembered that it was in Caesarea where Peter had an experience that forever changed the early Christian church and still transforms us today. The primary issue that faced the first Christians, who were Jews, was what role Gentile (non-Jewish) converts could play in the church. In particular, did Gentiles who accepted the word of God have to become Jews first and keep the whole Jewish law before being welcomed into the church?
Acts 10 clearly applies to our world today, especially as many of us struggle with President Trump’s crude and unfortunate remarks last week about immigrants from Haiti and African countries. Dismissing entire countries and continents that are predominantly black or brown is painful to hear, yet arbitrarily deciding who’s in and who’s out and who should be included or excluded is not new.
One day, a Gentile but God-fearing man named Cornelius, who lived in Caesarea and gave generously to those in need and prayed constantly, had a vision. In the vision, an angel told Cornelius to have some of his men travel to Joppa and send for Peter, and he obeyed. The next day, Peter went up on his roof to pray, and he, too, had vision. He saw a sheet coming down from heaven that was filled with different kinds of animals and birds. The voice told Peter to “Get up, kill and eat,” but Peter protested, saying, “I can’t do that. It’s against the law!” And the voice replied three times, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Right then, the three men from Joppa arrived on behalf of Cornelius and invited Peter to accompany them back to Caesarea. When Peter arrived, he said to Cornelius, “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean.”
When Cornelius asked Peter to speak what God had directed him to say, Peter admitted that he was trying to learn not to show partiality to some and not others and that in every nation, whoever worships God and does what is right is acceptable. It was an incredible insight for a stubborn and hard-headed man. Yet it was this very experience that laid the groundwork for the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), where the early Christians chose to find a way to be united around how to treat Gentile converts to Christianity.
If it were not for Peter’s courage in standing up to his peers, if he had not stated that the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit just as the Jews did, and if he had not insisted that there is no distinction between “them” and “us”, there would likely not be a Christian church today. In the end, the early Christian leaders decided that the Gentiles only had to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from sexual immorality, and from “whatever has been strangled and from blood” in order to be a part of the church of Jesus Christ.Three days after remembering the leadership of Peter in Caesarea, where he became convicted that God shows no partiality, our group of one hundred pilgrims from Iowa was sitting on stone steps again, this time at a baptismal site along the Jordan River. We had come to reaffirm our baptismal vows in the same Jordan River where, when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, he heard a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
One woman in our group had been active in the church for years but had never been baptized. It was a moving experience for all of us to be witnesses as she proclaimed her baptismal vows. Then, as the rest of us reaffirmed our baptism, with clergy administering the sign of the cross and saying the words, “Remember your baptism and be thankful,” some stayed on the sidewalk, others stepped into the chilly waters of the Jordan, and still others were fully immersed.
I admit that I was shivering but not just from the cold water. I was shivering because the Holy Spirit was moving in a mighty way. I was trembling because when the Lord gets ahold of you, watch out! Before the baptism, I read from Matthew 3, “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” At that very moment, a dozen doves flew right over the water directly in front of us. No kidding.
After we had finished the baptismal reaffirmation, four women from Nigeria who had been watching came forward and requested to be baptized. I asked if they had been baptized before, and three said no. The fourth asked for a renewal of baptism. Then I, too, had a vision of Acts 8, where Peter proclaims the good news of Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch, who, upon seeing some water and says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized!”
What was to prevent these women from being baptized? Nothing. I had never seen or met these women before, yet I could not deny them baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. I cannot put into words the power of that moment and the joy on the faces of those women. I will never see them again, yet when I signed their baptismal/renewal certificates, I knew that their names would be etched in my heart forever.
Like Peter, I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Each day I learn. Rather, in every nation, including Haiti, the countries of Africa, and Israel, God’s love extends to every person, no matter what. By the way, as Peter was witnessing to Cornelius and his Gentile friends, the Holy Spirit came upon them. Peter said, “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?” He directed that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and they were. Thanks be to God.