Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sermon for May 16-17

The Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 16-17, 2009
Text: Acts 10:34-48
Dear Friends in Christ,
Baptism is a major theme of the Easter Season. This is why it shows up so prominently in many of the appointed readings. This is also why we have been speaking so much about Baptism at this time. Further, if one looks at the traditional service for the Vigil of Easter - that is Easter Eve - is a service of Baptismal remembrance. In the ancient church it was customary to baptize adult converts on Easter. Baptism is also directly connected to the resurrection of Christ.

One of the problems with baptism is that it is a purely physical act. This was fine in the Middle Ages, but since the age of enlightenment, we don’t like physical things. They’re dirty, and messy. You could get wet. Particularly in the case of baptism. We came to a time when people were focused on ideas and concepts, rather than physical acts of piety. Sacramental theology in general and baptism very specifically took a big hit. It should be noted that for the first several decades of Portals of Prayer, there was not a single reference to Baptism or any of the Sacraments. It wasn’t until the 1980's that you started to see baptismal references in Portals of Prayer. Dr. “Wild Bill” Schmelder, down at the seminary in St. Louis owns a copy every single issue of Portals of Prayer ever published. He keeps them stacked in his office and invites students who doubt this to check for themselves. Not only is it wrong and un-Lutheran to not speak of Baptism prominently, it is actually gnostic.

About now you’re saying, Pastor, stop using those big words - those theological terms that only the pastors know. Well, “gnostic” and “Gnosticism” are terms you’re going to need to get a handle on. Why? Because we are living in a gnostic age, with Gnosticism all around. We need to know what is and learn to recognize it around us.

The word gnostic comes from the Greek word for knowledge. Gnosticism radically spiritualizes everything and treats the material world as trash. Any notion of God working through physical means is rejected. Or the material means are considered only incidental. It emphasizes the idea that we should have secret knowledge that God has revealed only to the true believers. So even the Word, that is Scripture, is too closely tied to the material world. The real good stuff, according to the gnostic, comes directly from God. So for example, a person comes and says, I feel that God is leading me to shack up with by boy friend of girl friend. Or I feel that God does not condemn homosexuals. This is Gnosticism and it is both wrong and deadly.

In our text, Peter is preaching to the household of Cornelius. Cornelius was Roman army officer stationed in Judea as a part of the “Italian Cohort”. Most of the Roman soldiers in Judea were Samaritans. Rome often raised auxiliary troops locally to handle garrison duties. Apparently however, there was one battalion or cohort of actual Roman soldiers. This was probably only about four hundred men. Cornelius was an officer in this unit. Cornelius was what was termed a “God Fearer”. God Fearers were gentiles who had come to believe in the Jewish God and worshiped Him, prayed to Him and such, but who had not formally converted to Judaism. They were not keeping the ceremonial law.

God had a purpose in mind for Cornelius. It was time to make a point, to get the Apostles to understand something that they had not yet grasped. The gospel to this point had been preached to Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritans were half Jews, descended from the old kingdom of Israel which had been destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. The deacon Philip had also preached among the descendants of the Philistines. But here too, at the times of turmoil there had been intermarriage. Also many Philistines, such as Uriah the Hittite, had served King David. But the Gospel had not yet been preached to people who were total gentiles, with no previous connection. God was about to change that. Cornelius had a vision that he was to send for Peter. At the same time, Peter had a vision that he was to no longer regard things as “unclean”. While Peter was puzzling over this, the men from Cornelius arrived. Peter now understood what he was to do. So he went and preached to Cornelius and his household.

What is this business of the “Spirit” falling on Cornelius and his household? It is a repeat of Pentecost. They began to speak in various other languages, declaring God’s praises. Very likely, it was these Romans speaking in Hebrew or Aramaic, which they did not know. Why do I say this? It was spoken for Peter’s benefit and he clearly knew what they were saying. What did this mean? It meant that they were already believers. That they were already accepted by God. God was saying to Peter, these too are My children, perform the act of adoption. What do we mean by that? Baptize them. Render the verdict of God over them. This was not some nebulous concept or head in the clouds idea. This was a concrete verdict. God was saying to Peter, these are mine, now go make it so. It must have a been an earth shattering moment of revelation for Peter.

Peter then baptized the entire household. We see this in the book of Acts. It would be common for many centuries thereafter. For example, Clovis, king of the Franks, ordered that all his soldiers be baptized. St. Paul tells us that there is no longer any male or female, slave or free, and so forth. This is referring to Baptism. In the Old Testament, the Jews practiced circumcision. It marked them as God’s holy people. But only males were circumcised. Baptism, God’s new circumcision of the heart, was for everyone. Notice that there is no command to baptize women. But they did. Likewise there is no command to baptize infants, but they did. They did so because they understood that baptism, like circumcision was not something a person does, but something done to a person. So Baptism was for everyone. It was for all who believed in Christ and also for their children. Because this now defined who a person was. They were a child of God. Why? Because in Baptism, this is the verdict that God had pronounced over them. This is what God did in circumcision. This He now did in Baptism. But unlike circumcision which was for some, Baptism was for everyone. Baptism is as universal as the Gospel itself. Just as it is God’s will that everyone come to faith and be saved, so also it is God’s will that everyone be baptized. For it is in this act, that we are born of water and the Spirit - that we are born as a child of God.

Modern man, even modern Christians, don’t like baptism. It’s too messy. It’s not intellectual enough. It’s not spiritual enough. Why, after all, modern man reasons, would God tie His actions to something as common and simple as water? Because this is not only the God of redemption, but also the God of creation. The God who looked upon creation and declared that it is good. This is the God who created water and then, by His Word made it holy for our use. Yeh, that’s messy. That means we get wet. But then being born in the first place is sort an earthy, messy thing. But then all of God’s work is messy isn’t, with the shedding of blood, eating of sacrifices, circumcision, and the like. Maybe the problem isn’t God, but man looking for his own way to God rather than seeking the way that God comes to us. We come to God as creatures of wrath. But Christ comes to us and washes our sins away, so that we are now creatures of grace. It might be messy. It might mean we get wet. But the results are glorious and last forever. Amen!

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