Sunday, April 23, 2023

Sermon: "I Am Learning...", Acts 10 (April 23, 2023)


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On Easter, we completed our journey through Matthew’s gospel, finishing the story of Jesus’ life with the account of his resurrection appearances to his followers. Last Sunday, we punctuated that narrative sentence by focusing on Jesus’ very last earthly words, what we’ve come to call “The Great Commission”: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” This week, the Narrative lectionary offers a story about one of the disciples’ earliest attempts to do exactly that.

Acts, of course, is the only canonical narrative that we have about the early Church. The epistles, while informative, are like snapshots of specific communities. Acts is the only scriptural source that continues in the tradition of Genesis and Exodus, of Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – it tells us the ongoing story of God’s people. In fact, it’s a literal continuation of Luke’s gospel: a second volume by the same writer, who must have realized that any reasonable person, having just heard this incredible story of capital punishment, resurrection, and divine triumph, would react by demanding a sequel, saying, “WELL??? WHAT HAPPENED NEXT???”

As natural as this curiosity is, there’s another reason that the book of Acts is in the Biblical canon. Christ-followers turn to this book in a genuine desire for direction. For us, the question, “What’s next?” isn’t just about the plot of a story; it’s about what the gospel message expects us to do once the dust has settled and the excitement of the resurrection has died down. And the book of Acts helps to answer this question.

It may seem strange to skip 9 chapters of this important book in the lectionary, but it actually makes a lot of sense for us to read chapter 10 to immediately after the Great Commission. Chapters 1-9 recount stories of the early Church’s identity, their persecution, and their work among the Jewish people, but THIS story is one of the disciples’ first attempts to reach beyond their own community and make disciples of ALL nations, as Christ commanded. It’s the first recorded attempt to live out the Great Commission fully.

It can be hard to see at first because Peter’s evangelism looks completely different than we usually see in the world today. Making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey sound like a command to impose discipleship, baptism, and obedience on others. And we’re not the only ones to hear it this way; there’s a reason that terrible things like the Crusades, Native American boarding schools, the Holocaust, and conversion therapy are a shameful part of the Church’s history.

When we hear these commands out of context, we tend to imagine the sort of evangelism that makes us cringe. We picture what evangelism has come to mean in modern times: people with bullhorns and angry signs on street corners, grandparents sneakily baptizing the children of their “heathen” offspring in secret, and purity culture. And so we struggle with these instructions, even though they come directly from the risen Christ, because we don’t want any part of that. But the longer I’m a Christian, the more I’m learning that Jesus’ instructions are not as simple as humans make them out to be. That’s why we study all of scripture instead of just the parts that make good slogans: this story about Peter and Cornelius shows that there’s still a lot for us to learn about the Great Commission.

To begin with, the command to make disciples isn’t about chasing people down to tell them about Jesus whether they want to hear it or not. Peter, the rock upon which Christ built his Church, never does this. When he preaches to crowds, it’s because they’re already gathered and looking to him for answers. In this story, Cornelius is the one who comes to Peter, AND THEN PETER EXPLICITLY ASKS WHY CORNELIUS SUMMONED HIM before he begins to preach. The gospel is always offered freely, but never forcefully.

This isn’t to say, of course, that one should wait for an engraved, hand-delivered invitation to share the good news, or that there’s no place for witness in the face of opposition. But Jesus’ message of love, mercy, and reconciliation isn’t a blunt instrument, so it shouldn’t be wielded in that way, either. 


As Peter notes, Cornelius already knows about Jesus of Nazareth. And certainly, with the Bible being the best-selling book of all time, this is also true of most people today. The responsibility that Jesus has given us in the Great Commission is more nuanced than just bombarding a person with bible verses until they give in. Peter gets to know Cornelius, asks him questions, considers his perspective as a Gentile living in the heart of the Roman empire. The longer I’m a Christian, the more I’m learning that the task of making disciples involves time, relationship-building, discernment, and – importantly – empathy and compassion.

Surely, though, the command to baptize is about racking up souls for God, right? Whatever it takes to get someone baptized, we’re supposed to do it as soon as possible to save them from hell and to pad our membership numbers. Well, Peter doesn’t seem to think so. Baptism doesn’t even seem to be on his radar until he senses the Holy Spirit moving among those gathered. It’s far more important to him to share the good news with Cornelius than to dunk him in water. And when he finally does baptize Cornelius, it’s not out of a sense of urgency or compulsion, but of pure delight in gaining a new brother in Christ.

Baptism isn’t something to be wielded as a threat, a prize, or an obligation. Baptism is “an outward sign of inward grace,” a gift of the Holy Spirit. We are to administer it with joy and celebration, not fear or anxiety. Peter again demonstrates the right way to follow Jesus’ instruction: in conversation with the one to be baptized, discernment with the community, and recognition of the Holy Spirit’s presence. It’s supposed to be a natural outgrowth of the good news. The longer I’m a Christian, the more I’m learning that baptism is not an obligation, but a blessing.

But perhaps the least-understood part of the Great Commission is the third part: “Teach [the nations] to obey everything [Christ] has commanded you.” Too often, Christians from all traditions interpret this to mean that we, the “righteous,” are to go out and “correct” those who aren’t Christian, saving them from their own ignorance in a one-way transaction of enlightenment. But Peter rejects this idea out of hand. Not only does he acknowledge that Cornelius and his household already know a lot about Jesus, but he recognizes the things that he himself DOESN’T know, the things that he’s learning from his time with THEM: “I really am learning,” he says, “that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another.”

This statement is an important lesson by itself – that absolutely no one is excluded from God’s promise of redemption and salvation through Christ – but it’s also significant in its larger implications for evangelism. In living out the Great Commission’s instruction to teach, Peter begins his “lesson” by celebrating that even he, a member of Jesus’ inner circle and firsthand witness of everything that happened, is STILL actively learning new things about God. That ALL of us are still figuring this out TOGETHER. “I really am learning…”

This might not seem like that big a deal, but a teacher’s attitude can make all the difference in how a lesson is received. Think about the least effective teacher you’ve ever had. Did they spend the whole lesson talking AT you? Did they use words that went over your head? Did they make you feel unimportant? Na├»ve? Foolish? Now, what about the most effective teacher you’ve had? Were they excited about the subject? Did they involve you in the lesson? Did they admit when they didn’t know something and delight in seeking the answer with you? Which one does Peter seem more like?

“I really am learning…”

Like a good teacher, any good evangelist should recognize that they’re always learning alongside their students. No matter how diligently they study the Bible, or how often they pray, or how well they think they know God, there’s still always something that they don’t know – and that’s a GOOD thing. In Peter’s case, it makes his message that much more powerful: that God is more good, more merciful, more loving than even Christ’s most faithful and devoted followers know. And this sort of God is certainly someone worth getting to know.

“I really am learning…”

The Great Commission wasn’t just given to Peter; it wasn’t just given to the disciples, and it wasn’t just given to clergy. It was given to everyone who dares to follow the radical and subversive way of Christ. And it’s more than just a job – it’s an invitation to keep learning as you minister. In my 9 years of ordained ministry, 14 years as a ministry professional, and 37 years of trying to live out the Great Commission, I really am learning still. I really am learning that loving my enemies is much harder than it sounds…but that it’s the part of the gospel that brings me closest to God. I really am learning that being Christian and living according to the gospel message aren’t necessarily the same thing. I really am learning that being uncomfortable is a much bigger part of following Jesus than I anticipated. I didn’t know these things 15, 10, or even 5 years ago. Much of it I learned as a direct result of teaching others. And I am learning still. So what are YOU learning?

When we go out into the world, let’s evangelize the way Peter does, making disciples of all nations through relationships, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in joy, and teaching them to obey everything that Christ commanded us with nuance and open-mindedness. You don’t have to be afraid of this responsibility, now that you know what it really means. And you can be at ease, knowing it doesn’t have to be perfect. We ARE still learning, after all. Amen.

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