Sixth Sunday of Easter. “Who can withhold…”

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. (Acts 10: 44-48)

In the name of God – Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer – Amen

This portion of Acts is pretty exciting.  Saul, aka Paul, has just begun to  provoke the Jewish community by his sudden conversion and his passionate arguments for Jesus as Messiah (Acts 9)  Peter meanwhile is preaching and healing – even raising the dead.  The church was “living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit” being built up, and enjoying a time of peace.  So far, so good; everything is going according to plan – disciples are being made, the community is growing, and people are being welcomed into the body of Christ.  But only a certain people.  Only Jewish people.

It was through the God of “Abraham Isaac and Jacob” that deliverance would be revealed; to God’s ‘chosen’ that the promise had been made.  To Peter – “The Rock” – (Mr. “I would rather die than deny you, Lord…”) comes a disturbing vision.  Three times, while fasting and praying, Peter encounters a vision that suggests to him that everything is about to change.  There are people coming to him who represent a different direction for this new community of faith.  They have been sent by Cornelius, a Centurion who fears God and is well thought of in the Jewish community, to bring Peter to share the Gospel with Cornelius’ household.  This is astonishing news.  It’s not allowed; it’s contrary to Jewish law and against generations of tradition.  God’s good news was for God’s people; it was that simple.

Peter knows it.  Cornelius knows it.  Everybody knows it, but Peter comes, on the strength of a vision, and Peter preaches in the strength of the Spirit.  And something incredible happens.

This sort of openness is rare among religious folk.  People tend to guard their beliefs quite closely – to build fences around their habits and their traditions to ensure that only those who truly believe can have access to the benefits of faith.  There are rules associated with membership, and strangers are only admitted after they have learned the rules and promised to respect and uphold the traditions.  First you must learn the stories.  Then you can help us tell them – that is how it goes.

But here are gentiles – outsiders – the centurion and his household, overcome by the Spirit of God by the mere mention of the story of Jesus.  Incredible!  Nothing like this has happened since…well, there is no precedent for this.  But Peter knows what must be done.  Peter has a word from God:

“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

This is about more than ancient dietary restrictions.  God is inviting Peter to reach across old barriers and reunite the human family through the gift of the gospel.

We can’t really appreciate how alarming it must have been to see the Spirit take hold of these enemies of God.  They were “speaking in tongues and extolling God” – gifts that had been given to people who knew the promises of God and who then had encountered the Gospel of Jesus.and Peter (of all people) invites them into the fold.  Until now, the act of Baptizing is the thing that unlocked the gifts of the spirit.  This time, the Spirit has changed the rules.

Now, I want to be careful here, because it would be easy to infer that all our rules were useless, and that we should abandon ourselves to the wild unpredictability of the Spirit.  The Spirit has long proven that order, not chaos, is her modus operandi,  This episode is not unexpected, following as it does the vision Peter is given on the roof.  The gift of the Spirit to the unbaptized is an affirmation that the church (as it was) needed to open it’s doors to the wider community; to look past the ordinary and expected.

These folks are not drilled on the catechism and tested on doctrine before their names are added to the communion roster.  They are suddenly seen in the light of God’s love, and welcomed into the fellowship.  “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people…?”  Peter knows this is the right thing to do and the right time to do it.  The so-called ‘enemies of God’ are not so different than the ‘chosen people’.  It was true on that day for Peter and his friends, and it remains true for us today.

The history of the church is full of examples of our supposed superiority.  We know , certainly here in Canada, the kind of damage that caused among First Nations.  We never seem to run out of targets for these kinds of attitudes, though we do change our methods to make our prejudice seem acceptable or reasonable.  We still harbour an inordinate fear of those whose religious and cultural expression are different from ours, but they are easy to categorize as “THEM”.  More concerning are people of different sexual identity, for they are – in every other way – just like us.  Canadians, Christians, neighbours, employers; people who speak our language and hold our beliefs.  Some believe that the answers are simple – that the rules are clear and these people are outside the bounds of God’s love.  As I understand the love of God, nothing could be further from the truth.

It is to a people bound by such narrow vision that the Psalmist speaks.  God’s victory is defined by righteous judgement and equity.  The ends of the earth have see God’s victory – all of creation roar and sing for joy at God’s presence.  The urge to offer praise is inescapable, and cannot be controlled by our limited understanding.  The same spirit that brooded over Creation and called the elements to order, gathers us in our confusion, and our uniqueness to a single purpose.

Worship, in the wisdom of God, takes many forms and comes from often unexpected sources.  It is the privilege of the broken, and the first language of all God’s children.  It can be formal or spontaneous; serious or celebratory; it follows traditional patterns that can be suddenly abandoned.  The purpose is always praise and the benefit is always ours.

The church is facing interesting times.  Society is asking questions of us and we have trouble with the answers.  We are reexamining old definitions of friend and foe – We must face the truth that ours is not the prevailing religious opinion on the planet – We must still be true to God’s call.  And I wonder if the answer doesn’t lie in the discovery that Peter made that day on the roof.  The gift of life that God offers in Christ is a gift without borders; a gift without limits.  perhaps our barriers aren’t that important after all.  Amen

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