Peter, Cornelius and Baltimore
Last month in East Hartford, the local Methodist church partnered with Greater Hartford Legal Aid
to screen the film “The Color of Justice,” a documentary about the juvenile justice system in Connecticut.
Studies show that while children of all races commit equivilent crimes,
children of color are disproportionally represented in the juvenile justice system.
The film was followed by a community discussion which included police, educators,
community leaders, and parents.
The discussion was one of many needed to address these problems,
but it built up the community and bridged a divide that has gotten a lot of media attention:
distrust between communities of color and the police.
Since then, Freddie Gray was arrested and died while in police custody,
setting off days of rioting and protest in Baltimore.
Just last week, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said
that the community lacks trust in law enforcement,
and police must acknowledge that they are part of the problem.
"The community needs to hear from us that we haven't been part of the solution, and now we have to evolve. Now we have to change."
If it had been one story about clashing between communities and the police
one story about an arrest gone bad
I think we’d chalk it up to one city, one cop or one suspect.
But the Freddie Gray incident is one in a long line of stories of police shootings involving minority men.
Now it seems like everyone is calling for change
from police chiefs instituting the use of body cameras on police officers
to community leaders trying to rebuild trust between the public and police
to the president calling for greater educational opportunities for African Americans.
The climate of distrust seems particularly troubling in our country right now, but it isn’t unique.
If we look at first century society, similar kinds of mistrust had been brewing for a long time.
The Jews were ruled by the Romans, and they lived under a kind of martial law.
Soldiers were on the streets to enforce the law of the land and to quell unrest.
The Jews hated that they did not control their own land, and hated paying taxes to Rome.
They were predominantly peasants, and did not have opportunity for advancement.
The social system was fixed, with Roman citizens at the top and conquered people at the bottom.
But on top of this, many Jews were deeply committed to their faith
they despised having the idolatrous Romans in charge.
Revolt was commonplace, with two large scale uprisings before and after Jesus’ lifetime
as well as a number of self proclaimed messiahs promising to restore the kingdom to Israel—
all of whom were put to death as traitors by Rome.
It is in this climate of hostility and violence that our story from Acts emerges today.
We get just the tail end of the story, which features the conversion of Cornelius.
By this time, thousands of people had converted to Christianity.
The thing was, most of the them were Jews.
In fact, it was hard to think of it being any other way,
because the Jews had always been taught they were the chosen people
and God’s salvation was to come through them.
They expected that if people were going to join the Christian movement,
that they would become Jews first.
Cornelius, however, was a Gentile—a Roman soldier, no less.
He was a good man, a man of prayer, but although Gentiles could believe in God
they were always considered a different class than the true Jews.
There were strict division between Jews and Gentiles.
They weren’t allowed to eat together.
Not to mention that although this centurion seemed like a good guy, he was a Roman soldier.
Who knew when he would have to obey orders and turn on them?
But God sent Peter a vision in prayer that showed him God made all people part of the plan.
And about that same time, Cornelius received a message while praying that he should contact Peter.
When they met up, Peter told Cornelius the Good News about Jesus.
Upon hearing this message, Cornelius received the gift of the Holy Spirit, just like the Jewish disciples.
“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?” Peter asked.
The community considered this new development, and decided the answer was no.
They could not withhold the water, for the Spirit at work, healing the divisions.
They wanted to get in line with what the Spirit was doing.
Commentators always make a big deal about the religious dimensions of Cornelius’ conversion.
It is a sign that the spread of the Gospel is going according to Jesus’ plan which he told his disciples:
first Jerusalem, then Samaria, then ends of the earth.
Cornelius is the second Gentile to join the ranks of the Christian community,
busting open long held preconceptions about who was in and who was out of God’s kingdom.
But I am compelled by the social dimensions of the story of Cornelius.
Cornelius wasn’t just any Gentile—
he was a Roman military officer, a leader of the occupying forces in Caesarea,
the local capital of the Roman Empire.
He was member of ruling ethnic group, and Roman citizen
in a land where people lived in poverty and under the threat of military destruction.
He was by any rights this man would have been seen as a leader of the bad guys,
a symbol of all that inspires fear, mistrust, and anger.
But this did not stop Peter and the early Christians from seeing what the Spirit was doing in their midst.
And the Spirit does not discriminate.
Earlier in this chapter Peter says,
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him
and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
God’s Spirit claims people of all persuasions, breaking down the hostility between people
building bridges and fashioning a community out of warring factions.
It is a message of hope for us in troubled times.
Here in Newington we are situated between two cities, Hartford and New Britain.
Our town is becoming increasingly multi-cultural, with 29% of the student body a minority.
25 languages are spoken in our schools.
This is a good thing.
Just like the growing diversity was God’s doing in the early church,
these changes are a sign of the Spirit at work.
There is an opportunity to be a part of the Spirit’s work in breaking down barriers between people,
in creating a community that reflects the splendor of God’s people who come from many backgrounds.
But in order to be a part of the Spirit’s work in fashioning this multi-cultural community
in order to get on board with the Spirit’s work of breaking down walls and neutralizing hostility
We need to be proactive.
We need to pray for opportunities to foster discussions that will help us learn from our neighbors.
We need to pray about ways to reach out to our neighbors as individuals and as a congregation
so that as Baltimore’s police commissioner said, we can be open to change in response to them and their needs.
Times were chaotic and dangerous in Peter’s day.
But God Spirit was mightily at work.
Through prayer, Peter and Cornelius and the community began to see how they could be a part of it.
Likewise, we can trust that in the tumultuous circumstances of our day, that God is still at work.
In order to see it, we need to pray.
In order be a part of it, we need to pray—
pray how we can hear God’s direction on all of these issues of prejudice and policing and community.
In this Easter season, God is fashioning a new creation in and around us
May we take the Corneliuses among us to prayer
that our eyes be opened to the Spirit’s work in expanding community and making peace.
Children’s Sermon: Go and Bear Fruit
(put on scarf with cut out fruit pinned to it)
How do you like my new outfit? It’s modeled after Jesus’ command from our Gospel lesson:
“I appointed you to go and bear fruit.” What do you think?
You don’t think that this is what Jesus meant by “go and bear fruit?”
Maybe he meant to make the fruit bare, like peeling a banana? No?
So what did Jesus mean?
I’ll give you a hint: he also said this:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Now do you know what the fruit is? Loving other people!
Last week, we heard Jesus talk about how is like a grape vine, and we are like the branches.
When we are connected to him, we share in his life and love,
just like the branches get their nutrients from the vine.
The ‘nutrients’ that we get from Jesus we are meant to share—like the fruit from the grape vine!
I am going to share these grapes with you as a reminder that we are to ‘bear fruit’
grow in Jesus’ life and love, and share that love with others.
I’ll even give you enough to share with those sitting next to you.