Year B, Easter 6
As most of you know, we have been reading from the Book of Acts every Sunday during the Easter season. On most Sundays in the church year, we have two readings from the Old Testament, one which is always a Psalm. In Easter, we keep the Psalm and replace the other Old Testament reading with a reading from Acts. Why? It is partly so that we can distinguish the Easter season from other seasons. Something big happened on Easter, something that changed the world for everyone (whether they know it or not). For these 50 days after Easter, we look ahead instead of behind. The Book of Acts tells the story of the beginning of the Christian Church. In doing so, it tells of transformation of individuals and groups. It doesn’t just tell the story of what happened before, it gives us a template for our future story.
The Acts reading we have for today seems rather innocuous. The Holy Spirit fell on some people and Peter decided to baptize them. This is chapter 10 of Acts. In just a few weeks we will hear the Pentecost story from the 2nd chapter of Acts where the Holy Spirit fell on people in the form of fire. People who did not even know the language that the disciples were speaking could suddenly understand the disciples as if they were speaking their own language. It was quite a scene. Therefore the scene this week is well…boring in comparison.
It is only boring if you take it out of context. We missed a few critical chapters between last week’s story of the baptism and conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch and this week’s story. Therefore, to fully appreciate the drama of what happened this week, let me share a little about what happened in the previous chapters, particularly with Peter. As most of us know, Peter had some rough moments in the Gospels. He did not come out looking like a star disciple. However, after the resurrection, Peter truly shined. In chapter 9, we hear a story of Peter healing a paralyzed man, and then, as if that was not impressive enough, he brought a woman back from the dead. This undoubtedly gave Peter some confidence in his abilities, as well as his connection to God.
After Peter raised the woman from the dead we hear stories of two visions. One is for Cornelius, a Roman officer, and one is for Peter. Both visions come from God. Cornelius’s vision was simply a command to find Peter. Peter’s vision was a little more complicated. It involved a command from God to eat animals that were considered unclean by the Jews. Peter initially insisted that he could not eat these animals because he would never eat anything considered profane or unclean by Jewish law. Finally God responded, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” The God who raised Jesus from the dead had changed things. God was telling Peter that it was time for him to change as well.
Shortly after this vision, Peter was called to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile and a Roman soldier. Just the fact that Peter agreed to go to the home of a Gentile is remarkable. However, there was something from that vision of the unclean animals—and perhaps even before that vision—that opened him up to this possibility. He met Cornelius, as well as Cornelius’ family and friends and heard the story of his vision from God. Peter came to know Cornelius and his family as more than just Gentiles, but as people who God had called upon.
He proceeded to share this sermon: “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.” This is a complete 180 from what Peter previously had thought. Up until now, he had only preached to the Jews. He had believed that only Jews could hear and receive the message of Jesus Christ.
This turn around was partially due to the vision that God had sent, where he proclaimed that what God had made clean, no one could call profane. But it also came from his interactions with Gentiles, the time he spent talking to them and eating with them. It was probably a more gradual change than it appears in these few chapters. It was no doubt a difficult change. He didn’t just have a vision and fundamentally change his world view. He opened himself to the movement of the Spirit. He let down his guard enough to see that maybe things were not as clear as he once thought. Wisps of the Holy Spirit had slowly whittled away at those beliefs that had been so sacred to him, so foundational to his faith. It was not an easy transformation, as transformations rarely are. But that transformation he made altered the course of history. Without his willingness to be open to the Holy Spirit, we might not have a Christian faith today.
That is what brings us to today’s reading. He was at Cornelius’ house and a crowd formed. It was a crowd of Gentiles. Peter told the crowd the story of his vision and experience with Cornelius. While Peter was speaking to these Gentiles, proclaiming the good news, the Holy Spirit fell upon every person who was listening to this good news. I love that the text says, “While Peter was still speaking…” The Holy Spirit interrupted Peter. It’s like it could not wait any longer. The Holy Spirit swept in and fell upon these Gentiles. Surely Peter’s words had something to do with their transformation, but the text proves that there is something unpredictable about the Spirit, even to super apostles like Peter.
While the Holy Spirit surprised Peter a little, it shocked the Jews who were the companions of Peter. They could not believe that the Holy Spirit would be poured onto these unbelievers, these Gentiles. It is understandable that they were shocked. After all, the Holy Spirit had been working on Peter for a while now. He had seen visions. He had gotten to know faithful Gentiles. But for Peter’s companions, this was new and shocking.
Peter could have said, well, let’s prayerfully discern this. We can have some listening sessions, form a task force—then in a year or so we can decide whether we should start baptizing Gentiles. Nope, he simply asked the Jews in his midst, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” No one could. They could have said no. They could have grumbled and said things under their breath (which they probably did). But no one was willing to withhold water from people who had already received the Holy Spirit.
The Book of Acts does not merely tell us the history of the beginning of the church. It tells us our purpose. It tells us our potential as people of the risen Christ. Sometimes in the church, we focus far too much on what has happened as opposed to what can happen. We focus on stories that have already been told. That is understandable as we have a lot of great stories. But we cheat ourselves when we act like our faith is one of history and not a story of how we live today and tomorrow. The only way that we can move forward as people of faith and as a congregation is if we ask ourselves where the Holy Spirit is moving us now…what change might be on the horizon. Imagine if there were no stories of transformation in the Bible. It is impossible to imagine because it would be mind numbingly boring. So why is it that we think we can just keep moving forward as we have always been? Why we do think we can live on the transformation of people who have come before us? We can’t. The stories of the Acts of the Apostles are 2000 years old. (That is older than St. John’s!) We need new stories. Let’s make sure that when someone decides to write a sequel of Jim Tormey’s awesome history of St. John’s, there is something to write about. The time to act is now.