Preaching to Cornelius
| Acts 10:34-43
||Sun, March 31, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Cornelius. Have you heard of Cornelius? All Easter preaching is finally preaching to Cornelius. We have become accustomed to Easter preaching that takes us to the tomb and to the women and to the first dawning recognition that something unbelievable is now the believable truth. It is no surprise that the narratives of Easter morning are the compelling location for our singing and dancing for joy today. But we are not at the tomb or back in Galilee. We are far removed from that point of origin. That is where Cornelius comes into the picture. He doesn’t appear in any of our Easter morning texts. But he is always here. Over the years the church has, wisely decided that there is one text that is always to be read on Easter Sunday morning. It is the nine verse sermon that Peter delivers in the tenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. It isn’t an Easter Sunday when he preaches. But the occasion of his sermon is critically important, nonetheless. You see, he preaches to Cornelius.
Cornelius marks a huge turning point in the life of the church. He is the first outsider who finds his way in. Until Cornelius, the church is a small circle of insiders. They are ‘church people’, Jews like Jesus himself. Raised on the Bible. They know the commandments. They are the faithful. But they haven’t yet discovered just what amazing new thing God is doing in their life together. It all changes when Cornelius arrives on the scene. Cornelius was not raised up in the synagogue. He doesn’t know the Bible by heart. He hardly knows it all. Cornelius doesn’t belong. But he finds himself strangely drawn to the God of the synagogue and church. He is the first seeker to seek out the Christian community. And his arrival on Peter’s doorstep marks not only his conversion, but also Peter’s conversion, to Christ. Before Cornelius, Peter assumes that the church is a closed shop, for people who think and look and act like he does. In Cornelius, Peter and the first Christians discover to their amazement that God is creating a church that is a multi-coloured, multi- textured, multi-theologied people.
When outsider Cornelius arrives at Peter’s doorstep he asks Peter to preach, to tell him “all that the Lord has commanded you to say.” This is, of course, the situation that the church finds itself in today. In case you hadn’t noticed, congregations that are filled with life long ‘church people’ are dying. Like the early church, so in our church, it is the congregations that speak to and make room for Cornelius, and others like him, that thrive. Making room for Cornelius means hosting very different people and traditions and ways at Christ’s welcome table. That is one of the things that all y’all have learned here at University Hill Congregation over the past twenty years. I daresay that a photograph of this congregation two decades ago would reveal a very different community gathered on Easter Sunday morning. Somehow all y’all have found the grace to make room for Cornelius. Just look at the printed testimonies of those who come for renewal of baptism here today. One says: “Some deep-seated longing eventually caught up with me ... My steps leading back to God have been tentative and solitary. Through membership in University Hill Congregation perhaps God is providing me with the support I need to move from solitary to communal involvement.” Another writes: “In some ways I feel like I come here from a distant and far away land ... but not nearly as distant as the places and cultures from which many Uhillians come. These stories of where others come from and how they make Uhill home are warming to me. They make me feel like here there is a spirit of openness and a delight in cultural diversity that will also welcome me.” And another:“Life has presented me with a number of tragedies, and I often doubted God’s presence and love. Today I die to the brokenness of the past and begin a journey of newness in Christ and in the community of the church.” This gathering of searchers, longing for home is the context of Peter’s sermon ... and of all our Easter preaching now. It is preaching to Cornelius ... and to his sisters and brothers in the faith.
And the sermon that Peter preaches is risky. He sees that God is not partial to Christians or Jews or Buddhists or Hindus or atheists or agnostics, “but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Christians who wonder about interfaith dialogue need look no farther than Peter’s first words to Cornelius. Here the early church gives up any claim to purity and self-righteousness. Here, in its beginnings, the church becomes radically open to God’s power to call out faithful disciples in every nation and culture, with or without the ‘help’ of the church. Any claims to harmonize western culture with the Christian gospel, as if the two necessarily go hand in hand, are discredited by Peter’s daring sermon: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality”. This kind of speaking marks Peter’s conversion to the freedom of the resurrected Christ to work beyond the boundaries of religious institutions and human expectations.
But Peter does not stop here. He goes on to make the radical claim that the Christian community stands in the world’s courtroom of truth as a key - perhaps as the key - witness. Peter does not offer testimony in the argument between religions and philosophers and ideologies about precisely what a good life and a just society looks like. This, of course, is the huge problem facing humankind. Doing “what is right” so as to be acceptable to God is proving to be a perplexing problem, more difficult to resolve than the most complex mathematical equation. Go to the economics department and ask how to solve the massive problems of third world economies that trap billions in poverty. Go to the political science department and ask what is right in Jerusalem and in Ramallah, not to mention in Kabul or in Washington. Go to the physics and biology and chemistry departments and ask what we are to do about the effects of our wondrous technology on the future of the earth and its creatures? In case you hadn’t noticed, our attempts to think harder and to love more have so far not produced an earth free of its ancient troubles. We modern people who claim to be “enlightened” are producing an age darker than any “dark age” before us. Faced with the dilemma of how to live, Peter does not offer a sermon full of moral advice. Instead, he brings startling new testimony. He tells the defendants and the jury that there is a new judge sitting in the judgment seat. It is the one who has risen from the dead and who has been “ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.” This is stunning news because this judge has forgiven the corrupted court that judged him guilty and unjustly sentenced to him to death. This holy judge is prepared to hear the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the trouble and the wrongdoing and the guilt that weighs so heavily on the nations of the earth, because he has been there and he knows all about it. This judge offers forgiveness for all truth tellers who come into his courtroom seeking pardon. He shows no partiality in his judgements. He is prepared to extend mercy to all who are face the truth about themselves and about their neighbours.
This is, to be honest, a fantastic claim. We are not surprised that much of the world - even much of the church - cannot believe this to be the truth about things. We imagine that there is either a harsh judgement waiting humankind ... or no judgement at all. Instead, we hear the news that our ways of living with neighbours and enemies matter, that the truth must finally be told. More than that, at the cross we discover that the earth and our lives are finally, thank God, in the hands of a merciful judge. To be baptised in his name is to risk your lives - to risk our life together - on the impossible possibility that Jesus Christ is the judge of the living and the dead. Baptism into his community tatooes us with the sign of forgiveness. With Christ we die to the ways that we have been taught to judge others and to judge ourselves. Rising out of the waters of baptism, our new life together testifies that the truth about us can be told so that past wrongs can be named and redeemed ... because, you see, mercy has already had the final word. Amen? Amen.