A Sermon by Fr. Davenport, 13 January 2008

Epiphany I: Baptism of the Lord

Isaiah 42:1-9
Acts 10:34-38
Matthew 3:13-17

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

LOIS BOOTSIN operated a health food store, but in the evenings she earned a few extra peanuts moonlighting at the Metropolitan Opera as a supernumerary.1  “If ‘Simon Boccanegra’ [was] being performed, she [espoused] religion; if ‘La Boheme’ [was] on the schedule, she [hawked] cheese; and if ‘Manon Lescaut’ [was] on stage, she [sold] her body.”  Ms. Bootsin explained, “One day I’m a prostitute, and the next day I’m a nun.  Where else could you get instant conversion like that?”

Not many places, except perhaps on the Damascus Road.  Dramatic, sudden, radical transformations happen, but they’re rare.  That image of an abrupt, startling change from prostitute to nun, or in St. Paul’s case from persecutor to persecuted, is the popularized image of conversion.  It’s what happens in chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles. 

The more common kind of conversion is the kind that happens to St. Peter in chapter 10.  Conversion doesn’t simply happen to non-Christians ‘out there,’ beyond the church doors. It’s also happening here.  Day by day, week by week, we grow and change.  If we’re alive in Christ, our faith deepens and matures.  It keeps our souls and parish alive and vital.

Peter gives a sermon in today’s lesson from Acts.  He’s explaining a tremendous new insight he received from God, and thereby God re-directed his life, and the Church’s. God expanded Peter’s understanding of the faith and his vision of the Church’s mission.  It allowed Peter to step out into new territory and to lead the Church into the fullness of its calling.  Peter’s conversion deepened, and that’s made all the difference for us, that’s allowed us the privilege of following Christ.

Chapter 10 tells the story of how the Holy Spirit leads Peter to baptize Cornelius and his household.  Cornelius was a Roman centurion, a Gentile, but he participated in the synagogue, worshiped God, gave generously and obeyed Jewish moral strictures.  However, he remained un-circumcised and so did not adopt the Jewish religion.  Cornelius had a vision of an angel of God, who directed him to summon Peter. 

            While Cornelius’ men were on the two day journey from Caesarea to Joppa to get Peter, God gave Peter a vision directing him to do two surprising things: first, to eat all foods, even non-kosher, ritually impure foods; and, second, to receive Cornelius’ men.  It was a shocking, disturbing, even revolting command for Peter.  It’s a bit as if we were told to eat dog, or beetles, and then to welcome Al Qaeda operatives.

            Cornelius’s men arrived in Joppa and took Peter back to their boss.  As Peter and Cornelius described their visions to each other, Peter explained that normally he would not have even entered Cornelius’ house, that it was contrary to Jewish law.  Faithful Jews didn’t fraternize with Gentiles, especially members an occupying army.  Peter said, “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean, that no race or ethnicity is more favored than another.” (Acts 10:28)

            Then we have today’s reading, Peter preaching to Cornelius, his household, and his friends.  “God is no respecter of persons.”  That is, God doesn’t show partiality.  God is open to anyone who wants him.  This is a radical new understanding of God, a major break from the past.  It transforms Peter’s understanding of God’s mission.  It means that the gospel will go beyond the boundaries of Judaism, that the gospel will spread to the four corners of the earth and to all people. 

            Peter is grappling with what God is doing.  He is learning new ways, but as he changes, there’s also the loss of the familiar, the known.  It’s dis-orienting for him to discover that the gospel is not bound by his cultural expectations.  The gospel goes out into the world unencumbered by Jewish customs like kosher rules and circumcision.  The gospel is bigger than culture. 

            Next week, ten of us from the parish will be on a mission at San Juan de Oriente, a rural village in Nicaragua.  I’ve not spent much time in the so-called ‘developing’ world.  I expect that it will be a much different world than I am used to and comfortable in.

            While I’m not clicking my heels in gleeful anticipation, I recognize the potential of many benefits and joys.  First, it will allow me to see and participate in the power of the gospel in a much different culture.  We’ll see the inclusiveness of the gospel.  We’ll get a better sense of what is gospel and what is culture, better able to differentiate between the essence of the gospel and the stuff we bring to it. 

            Second, one of the best ways we can learn about ourselves is to be taken out of our familiar routines and customs.  It can help us become less fearful of differences and more grateful for what we take for granted.  It can help us to become more self-aware.  While we will be doing some teaching in Nicaragua, I expect that we will learn far, far more than we will teach. We’ll see what Christ means to other people.  We’ll see Christ at work in new ways.  We will experience God’s love in new ways.  That deepens faith and enriches our ministry.  It’s the continuation of our conversion.

            Third, today’s lesson from Acts ends just before the description of what happened while Peter was preaching.  The next verse tells us that Holy Spirit came down upon Cornelius and the others.  It’s a second Pentecost.  Peter saw that God pours out his grace without limitation.  It shows God’s desire to heal our divisions.  Missions, like ours to Nicaragua, allow us to make connections and build relationships with people across cultural, economic, ethnic, racial, social boundaries, boundaries that are ours, not God’s.  Overcoming these boundaries is the hope of the Kingdom of God.

            Fourth, in a brief reflection on the death of Fr. Henri Nouwen, Philip Yancey suggests that missions are what spark and renew faith.2  Nouwen was born in the Netherlands where he went to seminary before coming to North America.  He began to make a big name for himself in the ivory towers of academia, living among the best and the brightest, but after twenty years of that he gave it all up to live simply with the mentally handicapped.

            Shortly before he died, Nouwen returned to Holland to lecture at his seminary.  There were just thirty-six students instead of the hundreds which had been there when he was a student.  A century ago, 98 percent of Dutch people attended church.  Now less than 15 percent do.  “Almost half the church buildings in Holland have been destroyed or converted into restaurants, art galleries, or condominiums.”

            Yancey writes, “Whenever I visit Europe and see the mostly hollow shells of an institution that dominated the continent for fifteen hundred years, I wonder if the same pattern will play out here [in the United States].”  Yancey has hope that our country will “resist the avalanche of disbelief” because individual churches here have long been sending people on mission.  Those on mission learn about  suffering from the church in China, passionate evangelism from Africa, and intercessory prayer in Korea.  “Just as nothing threatens my faith like a visit to agnostic Europe,” Yancey writes, “nothing invigorates my faith more than a visit to churches in non-Western countries.”

            Paul Nouwen, Henri’s brother, was a highly successful business executive. 

After Henri’s unexpected death at sixty-four in 1996, Paul stood before a gathering of diplomats, ambassadors, members of Parliament, and other dignitaries.  He told of sitting at Henri’s funeral and hearing people from many countries speak of Henri’s impact on their lives.
“I realized that compared to Henri, I have nothing,” he said.  “And as I sat there listening, the difference became clear – Henri has God.  That made all the difference.”

            As I reflect on that story, I wonder if that’s the most important aspect of mission – be it half-way around the world or around the block at N Street Village or the Street Church at Franklin Park.  St. Peter and Henri Nouwen both drew closer to God in mission to those much different from themselves.  The more we share God, the more we have God.  The promise of mission is our renewal.  The promise of mission is the deepening of our conversion.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

            1Esther B. Fein, ‘Extras at the Opera: A Silent But Dedicated Corps,’ The New York Times, November 19, 1984.

            2 Philip Yancey, Finding God in Unexpected Places, Doubleday (2005), pp. 136-139.

© 2008 Lane John Davenport

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