It seems that wherever the Spirit is up to something, people are going out on a limb, engaged in some kind of risky business or impossible mission. Wherever.
St. John’s United Church Sunday Service – April 28, 2013 Scripture: Acts 11: 1-18 Reader: Beth Bennett Reflection: Rev. Beverley Tracey
Acts 11 1 Now the apostles and the believers* who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers* criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.* These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
REFLECTION: What we have in the passage from the Book of Acts that Beth has read for us today is a tight summary of an incredible event. I don’t want to assume we all know the story inside out so I’m going to take a moment to walk through it. Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, is a Jewish man -- as Jesus was a Jewish man – brought up within that religious tradition, steeped in its scriptures, well versed in its distinctive practices ... one of which is the kosher kitchen. Certain things are off limits ... for example you don’t eat pork or shell fish or reptiles. And there are pretty clear lines around who is at your table ... you would not be eating with those who were “unclean”lepers, those who had touched the dead, Gentiles (non-Jews). It’s important for us to understand that these rules are not just a matter of proper table etiquette. These rules were about the survival of a particular people, about the preservation of their particular identity. God knows, if you start eating with outsiders, hanging out with those who are other, before long you will have lost your distinctiveness, your identity, especially when you are a small minority group. So we join the story where Peter, one afternoon, has this dream. In the dream, something like a sheet comes down out of heaven holding a bunch of snakes and birds. He hears a voice say, “Peter, rise and eat.” But Peter, a good practicing Jew says, “Of course not. I never have and I never will.” The voice comes again ... and a second time Peter says, “Never!” And then he hears the voice from heaven say to him: what God has called clean you must not call unclean. Three times in all, Peter and this voice have the same exchange. The next we know, a knock comes to the house where Peter is staying. Three men from Caesarea have come looking for him on behalf of Cornelius, an officer in the Roman army.
Cornelius too has heard a voice, telling him to send for Peter. Peter invites the three men in, puts them up for the night, and following the prompting of the Spirit, the next day he starts out with them to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile. Two days later they arrive at his home. Not only is Cornelius there, but a houseful of people he has brought together. “You know,” Peter says, “that is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask you, why have you sent for me?” Cornelius describes the experience he had only a few days before ... how a voice spoke to him, telling him to send to Joppa for a man called Peter. “And now you have been kind enough to come and all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.” We can imagine Peter taking a moment to gather himself ... he had no idea why he was led there, and now here he is, in this forbidden situation … completely unprepared for this moment ... except for the dream he was given, and the Spirit’s prompting to go with these strangers. In one respect, it’s not a lot to go on. And yet in another, what more does he need?! The Spirit of Life is moving in him. What are his first words as he begins to address Cornelius and the entire Gentile household? “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” As he was speaking, bearing witness to God’s way in Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and the whole household just as it did upon Peter and the others on the day of Pentecost. In other words, God is showing no partiality! but is pleased to dwell with Jews and Gentiles alike. God is pleased to create a new community of people
empowered by the story and the Spirit of Jesus. What just happened? Old divisions no longer hold. Old perceptions are blown apart. After generations of learning that Gentiles are contaminating, the Spirit says NO! After generations of separation, the Spirit dismisses the distinctions, creating a new inclusive fellowship. Peter finds himself drawn into the newness God has in mind. Not only that -Peter finds himself an agent of this unthinkable newness! So here we are with another story about the wildness of the Spirit stirring in people’s lives, igniting an unimagined future. It seems that wherever the Spirit is up to something, people are going out on a limb, engaged in some kind of risky business or impossible mission. Wherever the Spirit is up to something, people’s routine is interrupted so to speak! ... lives are turned inside out and upside down! I wonder how many of us really get that this is what we’ve signed up for?! That our participation in a faith community such as this goes hand in hand with the transformation of our lives and the world? I expect for the most part each of us is a strange mix. Part of us longs for more, part of us longs to make a difference in the world, part of us desires to grow in freedom, in love, in faith. And then there’s another part of us that is totally resistant... we’re afraid of disruption, we prefer the familiar, we’re not looking to have our lives turned upside down. Sure we want good things for the world but what if it costs too much or creates too much inconvenience? Perhaps that is why on the night before he died, Jesus gave us a new, an eleventh commandment He put it this way, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
It was as if he knew that any of us who might be inclined to follow him would have to face the crisis that comes when we realize that God’s love and care for the world is large, expansive, and completely beyond our usual horizon. It was as if he knew that the Spirit would call us to new forms of ministry, to engage with new neighbours, to be about the transformation of our lives and the life of the world. and in order to do that we would have to tap into his love, the love that goes the distance. The wonder is that we are not alone in this new way – the Spirit, source of joy and wellbeing and power, the Spirit that was poured out even on Cornelius and his household, has been given to us as well. The Spirit has this way of drawing us beyond where we’ve been. The Spirit has this way of coaxing us into deeper and deeper freedom. And while it calls us to move into new and unfamiliar territory, in some strange way, it’s there we discover we’re being led toward our heart’s desire. I wonder what new thing the Spirit is asking of you these days? I wonder what new thing is the Spirit inviting us here at St. John’s to be about over the next few years? Early this year a small group of us were asked to sort out a process by which we as a congregation could discern what the Spirit was asking us to be about over the next three years. We began by asking ourselves five questions, and then at our March meeting St. John’s Council spent time with the same five questions. Now it is time to hear what the Spirit might be saying to all of you. Here’s the questions we’ve been asking, in the hopes that they might prompt in us an opening to the Spirit of Life: As you think about the past three years in our life as a congregation – 1. What are the signs of life; what’s thriving, where’s the joy, where’s the passion? 2. What are the surprises that invite us to pay attention? 3. What are the gaps, the areas that call for our attention? 4. What is your hope for the wider community, for the world
that you long to see and be part of creating? 5. What would you name as five priorities for our life and work at St. John’s over the next three years? Would you spend some time prayerfully considering your response to these questions? They’ll be printed in the announcement page for the next two weeks; I’ll send them our through our email list; and John will put them on our web site. And then on Pentecost Sunday, May 19, we will gather over lunch to hear what the Spirit has been saying to you, to gather your responses to these questions, and to hear anything else that the Spirit might be saying. If you can’t be here on that Sunday, there will be gathering the following Wednesday evening, May 22, and with the help of coffee and dessert we’ll be about the same task. From there we will draft a document outlining what we’ve heard, develop a simple plan for how we might go about following the Spirit’s lead, and bring it to a congregational meeting in June for your response, suggestions, approval, and your commitments. As the world becomes smaller, resources more limited, society more fearful and violent and destructive, the people of Jesus’ Way are put down in the middle of it to counter the power of hate and anger and exclusion. We are given a new commandment –to love as Christ loved, to embody God’s love and care for the world, a love that is large and inclusive and completely beyond our usual horizon. It is for us in our time and place to listen for the Spirit’s call that we might know what that love looks like, what that means for us, as the United Church in Deep Cove in these next few years. May the Spirit guide and inspire and fill us with joy as we move into God’s new day.