Let us pray:
Lord God, join us this morning. Speak to us through your word; speak to us your truth. Fill us with your Holy Spirit, that we may go forth and live as we are called to live. Amen.
Our passage in Acts this morning comes from the middle of a story. And I’m not sure it makes sense by itself, so I’m going to back up a bit.
Chapter 10 in Acts begins with a man named Cornelius, a god-fearer (that is, a non-Jew who worshiped God) who receives an angel visitor who tells him to send some servants to go and fetch Peter. So the servants go; as they get close to Peter, he has a vision about a sheet full of animals,–not cows and sheep and normal animals, but birds and reptiles and all sorts of animals–which the voice of God tells him to eat. Peter pretty understandably refuses three times, each time because of the Jewish food laws which called most animals unclean.
As Peter’s trying to figure out what this vision meant, Cornelius’ servants find him and take him to Cornelius, along with some of Peter’s fellow Jewish Christians. By this time Cornelius has gathered all his friends and family at his house to wait for Peter to arrive, and so when he arrives, Peter preaches the gospel to them all.
And here’s where we arrive–for, in the middle of his sermon, “while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” All the believers who’d come with Peter were amazed that God was willing to accept, even come to, all these Gentiles in the form of the Spirit–and Peter, who the day before was refusing to eat any unclean animals, is now calling for the baptism and total inclusion of these Gentile Christians, something that is as against the Law as is eating unclean animals.
We see many of the same themes that we talked about last week, about the utter, radical inclusion of these Gentiles, who before were seen as outside God’s family. These Gentiles, this mish-mash of people that Cornelius knew and who were willing to come to his house on a day’s notice because he claimed he’d seen an angel, received the Holy Spirit. They were welcomed into God’s family, into the promises of full life and salvation that God made.
And so I’d like to talk about something else this morning, something that was also important in last week’s story about the Ethiopian eunuch. Well–I should say ‘Someone’, because I mean the Holy Spirit.
In the church year, we’re still preparing for Pentecost, for the coming of the Holy Spirit–but in Acts, Pentecost has already happened, and so the early church is learning about the Holy Spirit. Earlier in this story, Peter is nudged by the Holy Spirit to go with Cornelius’ servants; last week, Philip was told to go and speak to the eunuch, and then the Spirit lifted Philip away and deposited him somewhere else entirely. In many ways, the story of Acts isn’t the story of any one person–after all, the narrative jumps around, from Cornelius to Peter to Philip to Paul to Stephen and back around again–but the story of the relationship between the church and the Spirit.
So… as we approach Pentecost, as we think about the Spirit and how we see and feel and hear the Spirit, let’s spend some time with this story, with this part of the story of Peter and Cornelius and everyone else, and see what it says about the Spirit.
The first is, of course, the Spirit’s complete unexpectedness. The Spirit interrupts Peter’s sermon, crashes through all these human expectations we have of doing things in order and properly. But the Spirit has God’s timing, which doesn’t coincide with ours all that often. The Spirit comes and interrupts, comes to these Gentiles before they’ve even heard the full message of Jesus-since the Spirit interrupted Peter’s sermon!-and before they’ve been circumcised, which the Jewish Christians would have seen as a requirement for baptism.
Instead, the Spirit includes these Gentiles just as they are-without requiring baptism or circumcision. The Spirit breaks through the early church’s understanding of who was accepted into the family of God. And Peter responds-he calls for their baptism, their total inclusion.
We see, too, that the Spirit changes the people in the crowd, visibly changes them: they are given the gift of speaking in languages that are not their own, and they are running around praising God. They end by inviting Peter to stay with them for a few days; they show hospitality and love.
So what does that mean for us today? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen the Spirit fall on people like that. I’ve never had such a dramatic experience of the Spirit.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t still have the Spirit. Sometimes the Spirit does change people in an instant; sometimes the Spirit changes us in a thousand instants, that all build up to that one moment where we realize suddenly that we have been changed, we have been renewed and recreated. The Spirit still moves among us and through us, recreating us and giving us gifts and guiding us.
Alleluia, and Amen.