The Apostle John says that there are “three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree” (1 John 5:7-8)
In the Old Testament, priests were sanctified for service by washing with water and by the blood of a sacrifice, and by anointing with oil, denoting the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. In this way, they were a type of the Christ to come. For when Christ came, he was baptized with water – although he was without sin – he was anointed with the Holy Spirit, and by his blood he offers up the ultimate sacrifice for our sin. He is truly our Great High Priest by and through whom we are reconciled to God. He has overcome the world, including death, and we are victors with him.
So, we are who we are because of Christ, our High Priest, our Savior, our Lord. And we are priests through him, also having the water, Spirit, and blood bestowed upon us in baptism. And Christ notes our connection to him in John 15 where he says: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”
And this is echoed in John’s epistle where he says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him” (1 John 5:1).
So, you see some things connected here. First, it is through Christ that we are born again. Second, that because of this, we are united in him. Third, that this unity means we ought to love one another.
Now, the phrase “born again” has a lot of connotations. Some people call themselves born again to mean that they are Christians. By this they tend to mean that they have made some commitment to God and have become disciples of Christ, or “Christ followers” as some say. But, how does this idea of being born again fit within what we see in the New Testament?
To help us answer this question, let’s look at today’s reading from the book of Acts and the broader context from that reading (Acts 10:34-38). This reading takes place within the context of St. Peter’s dealings with Cornelius. Cornelius was a Roman centurion of the Italian Cohort, based in Caesarea, the most important city in the area. The city was where the Roman governors lived, and Cornelius was a leader in the cohort of soldiers drawn from Italian volunteers. The Romans stationed Italian soldiers in this city, because the city was considered important and the native Italians were considered the cream of the crop of the legions. So, Cornelius, as a leader in this cohort, was a man with responsibility and of some means.
Cornelius was also what the Jews called a “God fearer.” That is, Cornelius was a gentile who worshipped the Lord. He was not circumcised, though. He wasn’t a Jewish convert. But, he worshipped Yahweh sand supported the Jews. So, one day Cornelius received a vision from an angel of the Lord who told him to send his servants to the city of Joppa to get Simon Peter and bring him to him. So, Cornelius does this; he sends his servants to go get Peter.
Peter also received a vision at about the same time. He had a vision of a great sheet covering the earth, with four corners and all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds on the sheet. Then, a voice told Peter to kill and eat these animals. But, the animals were things that Jews were forbidden to eat, so Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” But, then Peter heard, “What God has made clean, do not call common” [or unclean].
As Peter was struggling with what this vision meant, Cornelius’ men arrived at the house where Peter was staying and called for him. Peter was told by the Holy Spirit to go with the men, and they told Peter that an angel had appeared to Cornelius and had sent them to fetch him.
So, Peter went with the men to see Cornelius. The Jew Peter left the city of Joppa to go see this gentile Cornelius in the gentile city of Caesarea. Does anyone recognize the name Joppa?
Do you remember Jonah in the Old Testament? The Lord had told Jonah to go to the Assyrian city of Nineveh to call the people to repentance. He wanted Jonah to go declare His Word to the gentiles in Nineveh. The Assyrians, though, were a great military power who were the enemies of the people of Israel. They also engaged in all sorts of pagan and barbaric practices. So, Jonah didn’t want to go.
Instead, Jonah went where? He went to Joppa, because it was a port city and he was trying to flee westward to Spain. But, while on a ship headed West, he ended up getting thrown into the sea and saved by a great fish and vomited up onto the dry land; then, he went to Nineveh to proclaim the Word of the Lord to the gentiles. His journey to the gentiles began in Joppa.
So, Peter’s journey to the gentiles also begins in Joppa. He goes to proclaim the Word of the Lord to the gentiles, because what God has made clean, do not call common, or unclean. The mission of the Church is to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations, because it is Christ who makes us clean and one in him.
So when Peter arrives, Cornelius had assembled all his relatives and close friends so that they could all hear what Peter had to say. Cornelius tells Peter, “… we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”
So, then Peter says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Peter understands the vision of the sheet now and what the Lord had said to him. Peter is continuing the mission of Jonah in proclaiming the Word of the Lord to the gentiles, because God’s salvation through Christ is meant for all people. The mission of the Church, both Old Testament and New Testament, is to declare God’s unmerited grace given through Christ.
Jonah’s ministry pointed to Christ – as Jonah was in the belly of the beast for three days and then rose to proclaim God’s Word to the nations – these things pointed to what Christ would do. So, now that Christ has come, Peter’s ministry points to Christ as the one who died, rested in the tomb for three days, and then rose from the dead so that the forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all nations. The “sign of Jonah” has been fulfilled.
So, Peter proclaims Christ to Cornelius and his friends and family. Peter declared of Christ, “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Cornelius was a “God fearer.” He believed in the God proclaimed by the Jews. And now Peter declares to Cornelius that Jesus is Lord of all and that Jesus is the one to whom all the Jewish Scriptures pointed; Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. Peter proclaims that the forgiveness of sins comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The water, spirit, and blood all agree; they are witnesses to Christ and we receive them in baptism.
And, “While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.” God works through His Word, and we see this in Acts as Cornelius and his friends and family are brought to faith in Christ through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And Peter and the other Jews who witnessed this “… were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.” So, “Peter declared, Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”
So, that’s what happened in Acts. Peter is sent to Cornelius, by God, to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Cornelius and his family and friends. Flesh and blood is proclaiming Christ crucified and risen to other flesh and blood. Then, during this proclamation, the Holy Spirit falls on the hearers to bring them to faith, and then Peter baptizes them all with water in the name of Jesus Christ, the one who shed his blood so that we may live. The water, spirit, and blood all agree.
And, water, and the Spirit, and the blood of Christ are all united in this act of Baptism – these three agree, precisely because the water and Spirit of Baptism connect us with the death and resurrection of Christ and the blood that he shed for us. They connect us with salvation and the forgiveness of sins that Christ’s death and resurrection bring us.
So, I ask, who is the main actor in this reading from Acts? It’s not Peter, it’s not Cornelius. It’s God. God tells Cornelius to send for Peter. God tells Peter to go see Cornelius. God works through Peter’s proclamation of the Gospel to bestow the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius. And God has Peter command Cornelius and his family and friends to be Baptized. God is the actor. In fact, the book of Acts would be better thought of as “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” because in the book we continually see God acting through the water, Spirit, and blood to enlarge the Church.
Peter doesn’t go see Cornelius and have him fill out an application for baptism. He doesn’t ask Cornelius when he accepted Christ. He doesn’t ask Cornelius to tell him what a good guy he is. No, he proclaims the Gospel of the free forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ; that’s why it’s called the Good News, because it’s a gift of God.
It’s the same way today with our Baptisms. We also have the water and the Spirit connecting us with the blood of Christ that was shed for the forgiveness of our sins. We are anointed as priests through this water, Spirit, and blood.
And in the faith and baptism of Cornelius, Peter and the other Jews clearly saw that the uncircumcised Gentiles were being brought into the Church by God. Peter saw that they received the Holy Spirit, therefore they need to be Baptized, because Baptism and the Spirit go together, just as Baptism and the blood of Christ go together. Peter saw that the forgiveness of sins through Christ was for both Jew and Gentile and that the Church unites all people around the crucified and risen Christ through faith.
So, “Born again” is what we started talking about. Who is doing the birthing in Baptism, then? Does a child decide to be born? Does a child decide to be created? No, a child receives its life and birth as a gift from his or her parents. Likewise, do we choose to be born again, do we choose to be re-created in Christ? No, we are as children who receive these as gifts from our heavenly Father.
The Old Testament analogue of Baptism was circumcism. Circumcism was received as a gift as well, because boys who were only 8 days old were circumcised and brought into the community of Israel, the Church. They had no choice, God chose them. And in New Testament Baptism, God again chooses both infants and adults to be His own. We are always as children before God, receiving His gifts as infants with empty hands who can offer nothing to him to earn His grace. We simply receive what He gives.
You see this in Acts as God incorporates the Gentiles into His Church united around the blood of Christ with the water and Spirit of Baptism. You see this in John’s letter as he says that “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” Likewise, Jesus in the Gospel says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit…” Could it get any clearer? “You did not choose me, but I chose you…”
So, we Baptize people – infants and adults – because Baptism is God’s act; it’s His gift to us whereby – with the water – He gives us His Holy Spirit and the benefits of the blood that Christ shed for us to save us from the eternal death that our sins deserve.
And this is a great comfort; this is the Gospel. Paul says in Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). God has done it for you. God has saved you. God has chosen you through Christ to be His children.
And this then results in a new life for you, a life that leads into eternity. Paul continues, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Your works flow out of God’s choice of you as His own. They don’t earn you salvation, because God has already saved you through Christ; your works flow out of the fact that God has birthed you as his children.
So, you are “born again,” because God has birthed you as His own child through the Church, because the Church is the bride of Christ who proclaims the Gospel and administers the Sacraments in order to birth children for God. The water, and the Spirit, and the blood agree – all of God’s Word in Baptism, the proclamation of the Word, and the Lord’s Supper continually point us to Jesus Christ and give him to us for our salvation. Through these means of grace the Church births children for God and then feeds them and takes care of them. The Church is our mother who gives children to our heavenly Father through the Gospel.
And the Gospel points you to Christ for your salvation, rather than to yourselves; that’s why it’s the Good News. Everything is God’s act for you. God created you. God baptized you in His name, God called you as His own through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God gives you Christ’s body and blood for your salvation in the Lord’s Supper. So, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood all agree – God is doing these things so that you may be saved through Jesus Christ. For Christ died for you and he rose for you; God accepted you through Christ and has made you clean from your sins through him.
What he has made clean, do not call common or unclean, for you have been washed clean in the waters of Baptism and with the blood of Christ. God did this for you, and what Good News this is! Amen.
(Image: St Peter Baptizing the Centurion, Cornelius, By Alberto Carlieri – Walters Art Museum: Home page Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18838204 )