A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B – Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
In this season after Easter, we hear many of the stories of Jesus after his resurrection, of his appearing to the disciples, of the earliest witnesses coming to terms with what Jesus’ death and resurrection meant to them and to the world. But we also get to hear stories of this same group of people, fast-forwarded a few years into the days of the Early church. We hear stories of Peter and Philip and the other disciples, now apostles, from this book, aptly entitled, the Acts of the Apostles.
The lesson from Acts this morning is clearly a snapshot of the end of an event during the formative days of the Early Church, with Peter preaching the good news of Jesus the Christ to crowds who have never heard the story. What we don’t hear is the sermon that Peter preached that lead to these unexpected events recorded in today’s lesson. Preceding even the sermon, in the beginning of chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles is even more background.
You may recall that the church immediately after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus found itself in a bit of a quandary. It was an identity crisis. The original followers of Jesus, his immediate apostles and the rest of those who chose to follow Jesus, were all Jews. The men had been circumcised, had been raised in Jewish communities, and they even continued to keep the Law with dietary restrictions and other holiness codes even after Jesus’ ascension.
Well, as the gospel spread, more and more gentiles heard the story of Jesus. They were joining the movement and it was quickly looking less like a localized Jewish sect started by some rabbi to an international movement. No event could have been more symbolic than the day of Pentecost – the day that the spirit fell on them in a new way — the story of the powerful deeds of God was spoken aloud in many strange and foreign tongues. It would seem that the Spirit was determined not to be contained, but rather to move like the wind, defying expectation.
But the question remained – what to do with these gentile converts? Do they need to become Jews first? Must the men be circumcised? Should they follow the Law in order to be followers of Jesus? Jesus hadn’t prepared them for this. The early Christians were forced to decide for themselves what to do with these unexpected brothers and sisters. Would they be second-class citizens in God’s kingdom? Would they ever be allowed to be leaders of God’s people?
Last week we heard the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 who became another example of an unexpected follower of Jesus. Philip even baptized him in a very unexpected, surprising place.
At the beginning of chapter 10, we hear the story of yet another of these unexpected followers – Cornelius the Centurion. We are told Cornelius was a devout man, even though he was a gentile. He gave alms generously and that he prayed constantly. Well Cornelius has a vision of an angel telling him that his prayers have been heard by God. The angel also told him to send someone to go find Peter.
Meanwhile, Peter himself has a vision, or what the reading calls a “trance.” In this trance Peter sees a sheet descending from heaven and spreading on the ground. On it are all kinds of animals, four-footed animals, birds and even reptiles, the writer of Acts notes. Peter is told in the trance to “kill and eat.” But not all of the animals on the sheet are clean. To this day, not all animals are kosher, so Peter objects – I’ve never eaten anything unclean. But the response Peter hears is clearly what he is meant to take away from this encounter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And at that moment the servants sent by Cornelius to find Peter arrive at the house. God has good timing.
Peter ultimately meets with Cornelius and Peter himself comes face to face with someone like the Ethiopian Eunuch, and unexpected follower of Jesus. And so it is in this context that Peter is preaching the sermon that immediately precedes today’s lesson. Shew!
Peter’s sermon that day began with these monumental words, words that would reverberate throughout the early church – “Truly, I understand that God shows no partiality.” Peter goes on to give eyewitness testimony to the life and ministry of Jesus, and tells some of his own story.
But then the Holy Spirit interrupts Peter. It would seem this Spirit isn’t very good at following the program. The Spirit interrupted at Pentecost and again here. What is even more remarkable is what happens in this gentile setting – the day of Pentecost had been in Jerusalem, but this was in Caesarea, a town full of Romans and other gentiles. The Holy Spirit falls on this gathering, much like at the day of Pentecost. The results are very similar – people speaking in tongues and praising God. But the shocking fact is that these people hadn’t received water baptism yet.
Peter and the others are astounded. These gentiles, not even officially converts yet, are filled with the same spirit of God as the apostles! What do we do now Peter? “Quick,” Peter says, “Baptize them!” So these gentiles are given water baptism en masse.
God’s expectations and plans are not always what we can predict. In those early days of the church God did amazing and unexpected things, bringing into the followers of Jesus unexpected people. It has often been said that God’s spirit doesn’t follow a clear path, but instead works in a trajectory, drawing us toward God’s kingdom.
Perhaps the lesson from John predicted this trajectory. Jesus seems to speaking almost in a riddle. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love. This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.”
The commandments of God that defined the Jewish nation were many, but Jesus has simplified what it means for his followers to keep his commandments – love. And the epistle from I John has a similar meditation – if we love God, we will keep God’s commandment to love.
This spirit was doing remarkable things in the early church, driven by love, breaking down barriers, confounding expectations. This same spirit is among us today, guiding the church to new places, unexpected places.
In 2003, the people of the Diocese of New Hampshire elected Gene Robinson to be their bishop, despite those who demanded that he was eligible, not worthy. God’s spirit confounded expectations, and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen footage of when his election was announced, but the cathedral in Concord erupted in exuberant celebration. God’s spirit is still moving.
I’ll never forget the stories told of General Convention 2006 – the national gathering of Episcopalians. At this convention, delegates were electing the new Presiding Bishop – the Bishop who serves as the leader of other bishops and serves as our national bishop, of sorts. Something unexpected happened, God’s spirit moved and elected, of all things, a woman! Just thirty years after the church finally consented to allow women to be priests, God’s spirit, God’s wisdom told us it was time for a woman to lead us. I don’t know if you saw some of the memorabilia from that Convention, but one of my favorites was the button many people wore after Katherine’s election that simply read, “It’s a girl!” The spirit of excitement that spread throughout the gathering was much like the excitement of the day of Pentecost. Clearly God’s spirit continues to confound expectation, to break down the rules and regulations we set up for ourselves. God’s spirit will not be contained.
We here in Southwest Virginia are listening to the Holy Spirit as we seek our next bishop. We’ve been sharing our hopes and dreams for the future. But what we cannot predict is where God’s spirit may take us. What’s next? God’s spirit is moving. Stay tuned! Amen.