Then Peter began to speak to them: “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. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Peter’s life has been rudely interrupted time and time again. From Jesus’ first encounter with him when Jesus changed his name to Peter, to his walking on water, to his denying Jesus three times, to him being filled with the Spirit and preaching on Pentecost. Peter’s life will never be the same. But even after all these things, Peter still has room to grow and is again interrupted on a rooftop in Caesarea. He grows hungry when the Spirit gives him unclean food to eat and tells him to eat. Eventually Peter learns that what he thought was unclean might not be the boundary that God wants him to hold.
Phew, another lesson learned and it wasn’t too hard. But wait, “knock knock knock,” on the door. Gentiles have come calling for Peter to come with them to come and meet with the head centurion. Peter walks with these men to the centurion Cornelius’s house and is pondering these interruptions along the way. When he arrives, Cornelius’s whole household is gathered to hear what Peter has to say. So Peter uses a sermon that he had prepared beforehand to tell this group of Gentiles, people who were completely on the outside of who Peter would let into this budding sect of Jesus Judaism. But once again Peter is interrupted by the Spirit during his sermon.
But, before we get to that interruption, I want to interrupt this sermon and do a little digging at one word that really stuck out to me this week from Peter’s sermon. That is the word tree. Xylon – soo-lan. Peter calls the cross that Jesus was executed on a tree instead of a cross. And that word stuck out to me because whenever I talk about the cross or hear it talked about, I almost never hear it called a tree. Honestly, it feels a little unfair to trees to associate them with this instrument of violence and death. The tree did not ask to kill Jesus or be used for his public execution. But the sad reality is that so often what we are meant to be is shaped by violence into instruments of destruction. We are called children of God. We called to love our neighbor. We are called beloved. But then violence twists us in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways to become children of greed, to fight with our neighbor for resources, and to only love what is earned. This is not an ancient problem as we can clearly see how trees have been twisted from their lifegiving ways into weapons of violence from crucifixion to guillotines to gallows to electric chairs to trees used for lynchings. We see how we treat the trees and I wonder if it reflects how we treat ourselves.
Just this week I learned of the origin of the word tree hugger. This term intended to be derogatory came from a protest in 1730 when the Bishnoi people in India were protecting their sacred khejri trees from the building of a new palace. The people wrapped their arms around the trees to save them but tragically the ruler’s soldiers killed 363 people and took the trees. Sadly, we can still find examples of this even today.
And this idea of tree huggers reminded me of the term water protectors. A term coined by protestors and activists who were trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation. These indigenous people knew that the way we treat the water reflects how we treat ourselves. But once again, the ways of violence twisted the water into a weapon as the police’s water cannons shot down protestors.
The way we treat the water, the way we treat the trees, will ultimately reflect the way we treat one another. Peter had his idea of who was in and who was out of this budding liberative community. He believed that baptism should be reserved for people from his culture and background who accepted Jesus, not those from another culture and background. But the Spirit interrupts his patterns of violent exclusion and replaces it with radical inclusion. Baptism. In just a few verses from our text today, the Holy Spirit descends on this group of Gentiles while Peter was still speaking, interrupting him again! Leaving him to the only conclusion that the Spirit left for him saying, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit?” (Acts 10:47)
Likewise the Spirit is trying to interrupt us. How are we treating the earth? How are we treating our neighbors? How are we treating ourselves? Do we close off our hearts to others and even ourselves? Or. Or do we accept this radical call in baptism to let the Spirit call us beloved, just as we are? Do we let the Spirit work in us to transform us away from violent tools and into trees of life and waters of righteousness? In baptism, we are called not to an exclusionary and violent faith, but instead a radically inclusive, affirming, and transformative community where the Spirit turns us from swords into plowshares. Baptism is the sign and seal that we are beloved before we ever did anything to earn it and we can never lose it. But we can be twisted away from knowing it and acting like it by violent systems to which we must resist with the Spirit’s help. We must work with the Spirit to transform ourselves from weapons into life givers. Can anyone withhold the radical waters of transforming baptism from these people? Will you let the Spirit transform you?