“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word”, thus begins our 1st lesson. Now, obviously something happened before this for we are walking right into the middle of Peter’s good news message.
If this were a movie we’ve arrived late and have missed most of the action. So we need the back story to fully appreciate the powerful changes taking place in the movement of the early church.
Remember, this scripture is taken from the book of Acts, a continuation of Luke’s Gospel, and gives us the amazing story of the rapidly growing early church.
For the most part, at this time, the disciples have been preaching the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection to fellow Jews in and around Jerusalem. But things are a-changing.
In the 10th chapter of Acts, we are introduced to a Roman citizen and soldier named Cornelius, a devout man, a God fearer, not fully converted to Judaism, one might say of him he was “Jewish light”, therefore a Gentile.
In a vision, God tells Cornelius to send men to Joppa to get Simon Peter. But before the men arrive, we’re told Peter is on the rooftop, praying. He fell into a trance and is given a vision of a four cornered sheet lowered to the ground right in front of him. Every kind of animal, reptile and bird was on it that would make Peter unclean if he so much as touches them. A voice said, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.”
Peter knew the rules, even though it was noon and he’d had no lunch he wouldn’t even consider going near those animals.
God’s voice came a second time, “If God says it’s ok, it’s ok.”
This happened a third time before the sheet was pulled back up into the skies. While poor Peter is trying to make sense of what all this means, Cornelius’ men show up at the front door. Peter didn’t hear the knocking, being lost in thought so the Spirit whispered in his ear, “Three men are at the door. Get down there, don’t ask any questions. I sent them to you.”
It seems God is working overtime to get through to Peter. He goes to the door and says to the men, “I think I’m the man you’re looking for. What’s up?”
The men introduce themselves as Cornelius’ messengers and tell him he’s to come with them. Peter, a proper host, extends the customary hospitality of food and lodging, but this occasion is far from ordinary. A Jew would never consider it an obligation to extend hospitality to a Gentile, no way.
The God given message of the vision of the animals set before Peter must have suddenly clicked. If God says it’s ok to eat any meat set before you then it’s ok to offer hospitality to anyone that shows up at the door, even a Gentile!
God is indeed singing a new song. Try to imagine what it was like for Peter to go to Cornelius’ house, to actually step foot for the first time in his life into a Gentile house.
Jim preached a couple of weeks ago with the theme of “new day, new way.” Well, this is not merely new, this radically new! There’s a tectonic shift underway. Barriers are falling right and left.
Peter arrives at the home of Cornelius and enthusiastic greetings are exchanged. He addresses those gathered there, saying, “You know, this is highly irregular. Jews just don’t do this—visit and relax with people of another race. Yet God shows no partiality. It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from; if you seek God and ready to do as he says, the door is open.”
Peter then continues a message of Good News. “Jesus came among us, teaching, preaching, healing, performing miracles, astonishing people with his power and authority. Then, as his life work was completed, he gave everything he had for humankind forever. His death shattered the bonds of sin and opened the way to new freedom with God forever.”
At this point we pick up the story in today’s text. The word of Jesus is preached, the Spirit works. Tongues are spoken, the Holy Spirit pours out even on the Gentiles and they are baptized.
This is the heart of the matter. In Christ there is no east or west, in him no north or south. God is forever, for all.
The power of God’s Spirit changes the lives of everyone present, shattering long held assumptions and limited thinking.
Can we ever forget the celebration in Chicago’s Grant Park the evening that Barack Obama was elected our 44th president? Or the thousands upon thousands of people who filled the Mall in Washington, DC for the inauguration of our new president? We watched on TV as tears of joy streamed down the faces of Oprah Winfrey and Jesse Jackson. The barriers between black and white in this country experienced a major ripping apart.
The Holy Spirit moves through time and history bringing God’s Kingdom into this world. The promise is given in Act’s 1:8, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”
Our story today recounts that first moving out of the church into the hearts and lands of the Gentiles. Peter’s preaching explodes the myth of us and them, the insiders and the outsiders. Those present were astounded that “the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” And they were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ the same as the first Jewish believers. The Spirit continues to lead us into all truth and she hasn’t finished the job yet.
The Episcopal makes headline news when it takes radical action as in the ordination of women and inclusion of all persons regardless of sexual orientation. General Convention meets in July in Anaheim, California. Lacking any sensational issues on the agenda, the church may not be front page news this time around.
Where is the transforming power of the Holy Spirit working in St. Mark’s, in Montesano, in Grays Harbor and most importantly in our hearts and minds?
For whom is the gift of the Holy Spirit intended, some or all? Having received the gift of the Spirit to whom will it be given, some or all?
Jesus made it all quite simple, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you, not some, but all.”