Sixth Sunday after Easter, Year B
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
The first lessons we read on these Sundays after Easter are the stories from the earliest days of the Church. The Acts of the Apostles is the post-resurrection story of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the spreading of the Good News throughout the world. When we hear the story of Pentecost conveyed in a few weeks, we’ll hear Peter’s voice speaking to the baffled believers and interpreting this revelation of the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence as made known through wind, and flame and the simultaneous experience of the Good News in all the original languages of those present. The Holy Spirit’s presence was made known on that Day of Pentecost in the symbols and languages people understood. Peter’s words in that holy moment conveyed a truth he experienced in his soul, even if his mind hadn’t fully grasped the enormity of it. In the 2nd Chapter of Acts, Peter quotes the prophet Joel and puts into context the pouring out of God’s Spirit upon all flesh, concluding with the words “…and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). Pentecost was a commencement, not a singular event. It was the beginning of the unfolding of that which was beyond the imaginations of those gathered. That prophetic vision continued to unfold, and is still unfolding today.
At the point where our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles opens up, a whole lot of interesting things are in motion. The story unfolds at the beginning of Chapter 10, when we are introduced to the devout and loyal Cornelius…a Roman Centurion of the Italian Cohort…a Gentile…who prayed to God faithfully every day. Conelius is visited by a heavenly messenger and asked to send for Simon, known as Peter. Conelius follows this divine nudge, sending several soldiers under his command to go to the place where Peter is. Meanwhile, Peter who has been lodging in Joppa with Simon the Tanner goes up on a rooftop, praying to God so earnestly that his hunger moves him into a trance like state. He sees the heavens open and a sheet filled with animals…specifically, animals known to be unclean in Peter’s Jewish devotion and rule of life…being extended to him. He refuses to partake three times, declaring his purity and devotion to God. Eventually, Peter hears a heavenly voice saying, “What God has made clean, you may not call profane.” At this same time, the messengers sent by Cornelius arrive and Peter is again challenged because while they have an amazing story of being sent by God’s command, they are still Gentiles. Peter knows he cannot by temple law associate with Gentiles or he will be considered defiled and therefore, unable to enter the Temple. He has still been puzzling over his dream but In that moment, it comes together for him. He hears the story and invites the men to stay with them for the night, before they leave for the house of Cornelius.
Now, let’s just take note of how joyful it is when moments of serendipity like this happen. I imagine Peter thinking, “That’s it! Now it makes sense…I’m supposed to see Cornelius! Thanks so much for the dream, God. These are good people you’ve sent. I’ve got it from here…”
Maybe I’m mistaken about Peter’s inner dialogue, but I suspect it was something along those lines. We often experience these moments of incredible divine serendipity as events unto themselves, destinations rather than doorways opening into the unknown.
After this welcoming experience, the messengers and Peter set out to visit Cornelius. Cornelius opens his home to Peter, just as Peter welcomed the messengers. Peter seizes the moment. He begins to preach them the Good News, opening with the line: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…” and then he slips into his own familiar narrative, a story of how Jesus lived with, died for, and appeared to a chosen group of believers who were then charged to preach this message. It isn’t as though Peter was saying, “this message isn’t for you.” In fact, his hope was to convince Cornelius’ followers that the message he brought was meant for them. But if we listen closely, there is still possessiveness: Peter implicitly draws a line between “us” and “them” in conveying the Gospel message. Jesus appeared to us, and now we will share that message with you. It implies there is a group that has, and a group that doesn’t yet have. The “haves” are sharing with the “have nots.” Peter is still learning the depth of this message, still growing in his faith. He means well. He’s building a case in his mind as to why this “other” group where he has been sent, the Gentiles gathered with Cornelius, should hear the Good News and believe in Jesus. Peter reaches the point in his sermon where he says, “All the prophets [read: “our prophets”] testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
That’s a great message if you are the chosen group. What does it feel like when the tables are turned and you’re the hearer: do you hear Good News, or someone preaching in a way that between the lines it conveys “my prophets were right” and “you’re all sinners.”
While Peter is still preaching, the Holy Spirit comes rushing into this group of believers, inwardly filling and outwardly displaying the same signs and wonders of the Spirit’s presence as Peter and the other disciples had experienced at Pentecost. You see, rather like the Ethiopian who already believed and ran to the waters of Baptism, those gathered in the household of Cornelius were already believers. They were known to and beloved by God. God was speaking to them, and loving them, and giving them divine instructions. And in Peter’s presence, the Holy Spirit poured out into their midst, an outward and visible sign of that inward and spiritual truth. Peter’s challenge at that moment was to move from sermon to sacrament: from sharing the Good News to those he thought had not heard it, to recognizing a household of believers that he didn’t expect and that didn’t look like he thought they should look. Peter had an instantaneous confrontation with the recognition that the Holy Spirit of God is active, alive, filling and abiding with people we simply haven’t encountered yet. In that instantaneous expansion of his faith he responds lovingly and sacramentally, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
In the household of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit moved through all those gathered, uniting them across the dividing lines of this world and making them recognize what God already knew: they were all part of one beloved community, Children of God redeemed by the Risen Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit. God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer does not “belong” to any person or group. God is present, God’s salvation is made known and God who is Love abides physically and spiritually with everyone who believes. Everyone. No exceptions.
This short passage from the Acts of the Apostles offers us a very profound lesson for the ways in which we, the Christian church, encounter people today.
Many of us, myself included, have been wounded when individuals who purport to represent Christ inform us by word or action that they consider us to be in the “out” group. It’s a trap that followers of Christ have fallen into since the earliest days of the church, and it’s often some of the most zealous and well-meaning people who become colluded by this idea that we can somehow own or possess the Love of Christ within our own group. The error in our judgement comes when we have a list of things we think people need in order to be “in” our group: believe like us, behave like us, look like us, think like us, have education like us, have money like us, have homes like us, have jobs like us…the list goes on. Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit will upstage and unsettle those assumptions by making known that God is already present in the lives of all the people we are tempted to “other.” The error is in our misconception in claiming that the power of the Risen Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit belong only where we think they should be. Oh no, my friends. The Holy Spirit will upstage that every, single time we start to preach. Thanks be to God!
Instead, as our Gospel text reminds us, the way in which we are exhorted to move through this world is to abide…truly live…in the Love of Christ and to keep the commandment that Christ offers his disciples again, and again, and again: Love one another, as I have loved you. Love is the sermon, and the sacrament. Love that is of God can never be contained in one group, one nation, one time, one place, one race, one doctrine, one community, one culture…no, not one single dividing line in this world can stand up to the Holy, Loving Spirit of God.
What a lesson for us all in these few short sentences. How will the rushing winds of the Holy Spirit break us open? How will the tongues of fire burn away our doubt and shame? What will enliven in us when the inner grace transforms to outward actions of divine Love made known to the world in which we live? That, my friends, is the work of the Church. And may the Holy Spirit continue to upstage us, every single time.