Author, speaker and sports enthusiast Pat Williams, in his book, A Lifetime of Success, gives an example of moms and where we have come as a country.
He tells of attending a very special Atlanta Braves’ baseball home opener on April 8, 1974. It was a night game against the Dodgers and it was a complete sellout. Williams looked around to see that, seated immediately behind him was singer Pearl Bailey. Up at the plate: the immortal Henry Aaron. On the line: Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs. Aaron had tied the record and tonight he was aiming to break it.
Understand that this was nearly 40 years ago. An African-American player was about to topple the great Babe Ruth – and a lot of people in the country didn’t like it. Aaron got a lot of mail that year – more than 930,000 letters in all, far more than any other person in the country. Most were fan letters – but about 100,000 of them were hate letters, some containing death threats.
Williams says he was on the edge of his seat when Dodgers pitcher Al Downing hurled the ball toward the plate. Aaron swung and connected. The crack of his bat echoed through the stands. I can still see this today in my mind from when I saw it on TV.
The ball was gone. Home run. Babe Ruth’s record was shattered. (Being a Dodgers fan, it was bitter sweet that he hit that home run against the Dodgers. Why couldn’t have been another team?) The ballpark went nuts.
“As Aaron rounded second base,” says Williams, “a couple of teenagers – both white – jumped over the retaining wall and ran onto the field, chasing Aaron. For a moment, no one knew what they had in mind, but then it became clear: they were celebrating and cheering Aaron on. As Aaron crossed the plate, the dugout emptied as the Braves streamed onto the field to surround him, cheering and whooping it up. But amid all those ballplayers around Aaron was a short, sixty-eight-year-old black woman. She latched onto Aaron and wouldn’t let go of him.
“Henry Aaron turned and said to her, ‘Mom! What are you doing here?’ ‘Baby, said the mother of the new home-run king, ‘if they’re gonna get you,’ (thinking of the death threats Aaron had received) ‘they’ve gotta get me first!’”
The love of Hammerin’ Hank’s mother was so much that she would give up her life for her son. It was this kind of love that Jesus talks about . It is this kind of love that God has for us. It is this kind of love that transcends our attitudes. Aaron’s mom wasn’t on the field to celebrate. She was there to protect. Sometimes, our attitudes and how we have always done things get in the way of God’s love.
Now, I am going to shift to Acts. Peter and Cornelius the centurion is a baptism story. We might take that for granted. There must have been thousands of baptisms in the first decades of the church. We know of only a few. The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch is remarkable in many ways. This one is also remarkable. That may be why these two baptisms are recorded.
Over the centuries, the church has seen the baptisms of these particular gentiles as very significant. Our lectionary authors decided that this baptism story is so important, we hear about this almost every year at this time. So they split up the story so as not to repeat the verses each year. That means each year we only hear a part of the story. A pity.
So here is the rest of the story, abridged. St. Peter receives a vision from God that all animals are clean, because God made them all. This breaks a Jewish barrier of clean and unclean animals. Jews have a list of animals they are not allowed to eat, from the Law of Moses. God is telling Peter that the law is no longer valid. Then God tells Peter to go with the men who are about to call on him.
The men arrive and Peter goes with them. They are under the command of a Roman army officer – the gentile, or non-Jewish, soldiers of the occupation army. For a like Peter, they are hated because they are gentiles and because they are an unwelcome military force who impose Roman rule. Peter would not have gone with them if God had not told him to.
The Roman army officer’s name is Cornelius. It is a Roman patrician name. He is likely related to a one-time Roman consul and dictator. It turns out Cornelius also had a vision and was told to fetch Peter. It is likely that Cornelius had some familiarity with Judaism.
Peter then tells the story, the story of the good news of Jesus of Nazareth. He especially told the part about Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, ordered by Cornelius’ boss, Pontius Pilate, and carried out by soldiers just like him. But Jesus didn’t stay dead. Peter says that he and his friends saw Jesus and ate with Jesus. Then Jesus ordered them to go and tell everyone they see that Jesus is the judge of the living and the dead and everyone receives forgiveness through him.
Now we are all caught up. Peter is still talking about Jesus when the Holy Spirit shows up. The began speaking in tongues. Luke, who is a Greek, separates the Jews and gentiles in the story by calling them the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Peter’s companions were shocked that the Holy Spirit would bother with these gentiles.
Peter must have been deeply affected by his vision. Peter’s mind set was that only Jews can be followers of Christ. But after seeing these gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit, Peter asks his companions how baptism can be withheld from these gentiles. Peter seems to be making a political check with his friends before acting. Very un-Peter like. Seemingly, no one objected. So Peter orders their baptisms and they stay for several days.
I have given hints as to why this story is so significant for Luke to write about. The issue is who are allowed to join the church. The early assumption is that only Jews can be followers of Christ. Early on, the followers of Christ were considered to be a Jewish sect by those inside and outside the group. This officially changed in AD 90, but that is another story.
If a gentile wanted to join the Jesus group, they had to first convert to Judaism. This involved a baptism and circumcision for males. Peter later tells the story of these gentile baptisms to the other church leaders in Jerusalem. This and St. Paul’s refusal to circumcise creates a crisis in the church that was resolved at the first church council. In Paul’s version, Peter vacillates on the issue.
Another point: we must believe that we receive the Holy Spirit when we are baptized, because the prayer book says so. My experience and observation is much closer to today’s story. People, like Cornelius and his household, receive the Holy Spirit and are then drawn to baptism. In this model, baptism confirms God’s action that is already happening with the individual.
Peter recognizes that the church needs to be as inclusive as God is. Gentiles have an equal footing with the Jews. They have received God through the Holy Spirit and with that they receive God’s forgiveness and baptism.
Jesus talks about God’s love in today’s gospel reading. It is this principle that Peter is living into when he visits Cornelius and his household. The act of love is to dispense with Jewish rules and baptize. Their receiving of the Holy Spirit demonstrates God’s great love.
Just as the Holy Spirit shook Peter’s assumptions about what the church should look like, the Holy Spirit continues to shake the church. Rosemary Radford Ruether says that the church must be organized to do two things:
1) To pass on the tradition from one generation to another, and
2) To be open to the winds of the Holy Spirit by which the tradition comes alive in each generation.
The Holy Spirit, sometimes, has a hard time breaking through our stubborn desire to stay the same. Our task is to listen to where the Spirit is moving us in the 21st century.
Text: Acts 10:44–48
 Pat Williams, A Lifetime of Success, (Grand Rapids. MI: Fleming H. Revell, 2000), pp. 109-110, adapted by Craig Kuehn