Sunday, May 9, 2021
The Holy Spirit is on the move!
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
Today’s passage from Acts is one of those passages where the lectionary makes me crazy. This passage is lifted out of the middle of a great and wonderful story, but the four short verses do not tell the whole story. So let me take you back and put this lesson back into the larger picture.
The Holy Spirit is just busting out all over the place in the beginning of Acts and regardless of who the disciple is, it is the Spirit who is the star of the show. Acts begins with Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit to the apostles. Last week was the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch. What I didn’t talk about last week was that this eunuch was a total outcast because of his sexuality. He was a faithful Jew, probably well off, and highly educated. He was after all the queen’s treasurer. He had made a pilgrimage all the way from Ethiopia only to be turned away from the temple. A Eunuch could only enter the courtyard of the women. You see he was damaged goods considered an “abomination” according to Leviticus and unworthy to worship with the men. (By the way abomination in the ancient Hebrew meant against custom.) Yet after listening to Phillip he remarks, “Here is water, what is to prevent my being baptized?” Phillip responds by baptizing him on the spot without a second thought and the eunuch goes on his way rejoicing.
The very next passage, which we skip over in year B is the story of Saul, the worst persecutor of the Jews, breathing threats is on his way to Damascus to arrest disciples and early followers. He is stopped in his tracks, blinded, gets his sight restored and becomes, Paul simply the greatest apostle we have.
And now it’s Peter’s turn again and he’s being called to the Gentiles! The story starts with Peter on a rooftop getting ready to pray when he falls into a trance and has a vision of a sheet coming down from heaven three times and he is told to kill and eat of the animals on the sheet. Many of which were not kosher. He refuses and the Spirit tells him nothing God has made clean is profane. In one vision 1000 years of dietary laws are swept away.
At the same time, Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, has a vision that tells him to send for Peter to come and teach him the gospel. His men arrive at Simon the Tanner’s house and ask for Peter to come and instruct the Centurions household about this Jesus. They travel to his home in Caesarea and then we have today’s passage.
This scene is set in the Centurion’s house. Now that means that Peter has entered into a house of a person considered unclean by Peter’s fellow Jews. In fact all of them who enter are now considered unclean. Yet, Peter does not hesitate! Possibly more remarkable the Centurion does not hesitate. It is critical to realize that being baptized probably ended his military career. Christians could not serve in the army.
Peter begins teaching them and then all of a sudden the Holy Spirit arrives in the middle of this teaching. The Holy Spirit interrupts Peter’s teaching and the gathered gentiles begin speaking in tongues! All are astonished at this action and to an outcast group. Scandalous! The Spirit has come upon them just as it came upon Peter and his disciples. This is a moment when the Spirit intervenes and changes everything. Outsiders are treated by the Spirit exactly the same as the apostles even though they are uncircumcised and don’t keep a kosher diet. That they are outsiders no longer matters. The tent is opened up wide to all and this is incredibly revolutionary for a predominately Jewish sect who pride themselves on being special, chosen, the elite.
Peter asked, “Are there any objections, any reason I should not baptize these people?” Nobody objects because of what they experienced in Cornelius’ house. However, Peter’s baptism of this group of Gentiles sets the stage for the very first major church fight and it’s about who is in and who is out. So Peter retells the entire story to the gathered church in Jerusalem and persuades them that what he did was right.
All of these passages in these chapters are about openly accepting the other, the different, the outcast. This is a breaking open of the Good News to the entire population not just one small segment. This is about changing the conversation and declaring that God loves everyone, no exceptions. This was a really radical message back then and to be honest it is still a radical message. Many today have trouble accepting that God’s tent is so big that nobody is outside of it.
Regardless of anything else it is quite clear that the Holy Spirit is shaking up the early church and the entire Jewish culture. This makes some of them very uncomfortable. Everything in their view is changing and the world is completely upset. What they have always thought, at least the Jewish portion of the church has now been turned upside down. To some extent that may be the way some of us feel today. We see a culture that is rapidly changing and this creates a huge tension in many churches. With the political divisions and then the pandemic on top these are unsettling times. Especially ones like us who are pretty settled in how we do things.
Our world has been upset over the past year in particular and I hear a great deal of conversation around “when things get back to normal.” I however believe that just like when there is a death or major change in a family, the old normal is probably not going to ever completely return. Certainly how we do church has changed. Livestream and zoom will be here in some way for a long time. Bishop Doyle told the clergy that we have made 5 years of progress in technology during this past year. Going forward there will be some sort of hybrid way of doing things. Work is certainly changed forever. Neither of my two sons will be returning to a traditional office setting in the foreseeable future.
One of the changes that Bishop Doyle has talked with the clergy about is the people who may now come to our door. One thing that our church does is welcome all people regardless of a variety of things, many of which make them unwelcome at other churches. It is of critical importance that we make efforts to truly open our doors to all.
When I was first ordained I worked in Massachusetts and got to know the Rev. Stephanie Spellers. She now works for the National Church and has written several books, one of which is on welcome. It is entitled Radical Welcome Embracing God, The Other, and the Sprit of Transformation. There are many ways in which a church can welcome people. This ranges from segregated and exclusive to radical welcome. Radical Welcome is more that being inclusive. The segregated church and I’m not talking about racial segregation although that is possible, welcomes only those like themselves. Some churches welcome all types of people, but then the expectation is that the newcomer will become one of them. They adopt their way of thinking. At least they welcome the other but the other must change and become like the group.
What Peter does in today’s passage is model what Stephanie refers to as radical welcome. Gentiles were definitely the other and certainly were not welcome in the church in Jerusalem. We know that because in the very next chapter Peter has to explain why he baptized the Centurion’s family and friends. Peter has to first get the message in the vision that nothing God has created is profane. Nothing that God created is outside of God’s love, that is the message of the sheet and then the instruction to go meet the men Cornelius has sent and go with them. Peter meets this group of Gentiles, baptizes them and welcomes them. But the early church is changed by this because now you don’t have to first become Jewish to be a follower of the Way as it was known at that time.
He allowed the newcomer, the visitor to change his understanding of the church and how the church is to function. That is what Canon Spellers is talking about as radical welcome. A church that offers radical welcome says come in, join us, share your gifts with us, become one of us and enrich us by those gifts. Most importantly they allow themselves to be changed by the new members.
Radical Welcome is hard and very few churches do it well, but just working towards that goal is important in a world that has changed as radically as ours has especially in the past year. That requires us to look at what we do through a new lens.
While out at Camp Allen for Spring Clergy Days a couple weeks ago one priest was saying we need to look not for resuscitation but for resurrection. If we simply resuscitate the old that will not meet the needs of the new reality. Resurrection brings about new life and that’s where we need to look. Resurrection is the lens to use and over the next 6 months that is what we are going to do. A vestry subcommittee is working with Joyce and the other leaders of Outreach. We will want to look at Christian Formation. What will our resurrected programs look like that will be there for the new people who have come in our door. And make no mistake we have new people bringing their new gifts.
We must follow where the Spirit is leading just as Peter did and be ready to be surprised.