44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 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, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 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 NRSV)
If you feel as if you’re missing something, you’re not alone. This is really the end of the story. So let’s get caught up.
Cornelius was a Roman centurion, therefore a gentile. He wasn’t your usual centurion, though. He and his household loved God. Cornelius was known for his generosity to others and he prayed constantly to God. One afternoon, he had a vision. In the vision, he heard God commending his faithfulness. Then he was told where to find Simon known as Peter and to bring him back to Joppa.
Meanwhile, Peter was hungry. While he waited for dinner, he fell into a trance and saw a vision that was horrifying to him. God was telling him that eating kosher was no longer necessary. Was this a test? “No, God. I’ve never done it this way before. I’ve always eaten kosher and I can’t profane you!”
God had his work cut out for him. Peter protested with the ancient words of the dying Church, “We’ve never done it this way before” and “We’ve always done it this way before.” God reminded Peter that “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:15) This conversation repeated itself two more times.
Peter was a hard sell. He needed more evidence. Don’t we all in the midst of change?
So God told him to answer the door: there were some gentiles outside who needed him. “Go with them, Peter.”
The next day he traveled the 30 miles to Joppa. With gentiles. You aren’t supposed to be with gentiles; they’re unclean. We’ve never done it this way before. What is God up to?
It had to have been a strange journey and I believe it gave Peter time to think about that equally strange vision. He had traveled with gentiles. You don’t travel with those people; they’re not Jews. It isn’t that Peter is bigoted. He’s just never done this before. However, he got to know them on this trip and heard stories about Cornelius, a member of the enemy Roman Legion.
When they arrived in Joppa, Peter did something else he’d never done before: he entered a gentile home. Did this home look strange without the markings on the lintels or other symbols of his faith in the home?
“You know, I’m not supposed to be here. Yet, I sensed God telling me that no one is unclean or profane.” He didn’t get it, yet. But, God smiled, knowing Peter was gaining insight.
Cornelius shared his vision and Peter shared the Christian Gospel. That brings us to today and the reading. Peter is still speaking when the Holy Spirit interrupts and “falls” on his listeners. This is Pentecost revisited and revised: the Gentile Pentecost. Peter looks around astounded.
“Next thing you know, we’ll be baptizing them!
“Yes. Baptism. That’s what we need to do. They’ve been baptized by the Spirit, we need to baptize them with water! We can’t hold back. They’re as much a part of the Christian community as we are.”
As I said earlier, the seven deadly words of the church are, “We’ve never done it that way before.” Others say, “We’ve always done it this way before.” Either way, we get stuck in the rules and traditions.
Some of our sister churches refuse to accept baptism unless it’s done by them. Other churches bar the communion table. We have membership classes, pre-baptism lessons; we ordain and commission within our own denominations.
I serve two congregations who are very close to becoming federated. One Presbyterian and one Methodist congregation will become one federated Presbyterian/Methodist congregation. Our forms of government is different. The Methodists have Bishops and District Superintendents who lead from the top down. The Presbyterians start with the congregation’s ruling body and moves issues up the line where they are considered and then sent back down. We are learning from each other how the other denomination works.
As we put the final touches on our proposed bylaws, I realize that we have reinvented ourselves using the best of each denomination. The Holy Spirit has been present to guide us in loving each other. New ideas are erupting. We’re finding new ways of doing what we’ve done before; we’re leaving some of the old behind while taking on the new.
Change is awkward, at times. We can adjust to only so much before we dig in our heels and say, “Whoa! We’ve never done it that way before.” Our 21st century is changing so quickly, we can hardly keep up. We’re reinventing on the fly and discovering much that isn’t working. We gaze into the future and it scares us. Our nation, our state is on the crux of something new. Some sigh with relief while others hang on tightly to what we have.
We play the blame game: millennial’s, the rich, the poor, the politicians, the teachers… Anyone who doesn’t agree with us is the enemy.
What if God is calling us into something different? What if all of this change and upheaval is God’s way of turning us upside down and tumbling us out of the box? Could we, like Peter, stand in front of that Gentile home and knock on the door for entry into the strange and different?
While we’ve drawn circles around ourselves, some have opened those boundaries up to include others. Dare we draw the lines further out? Dare we learn from the other about who they are and what they believe? Dare we cross those boundaries to learn from those with whom we disagree, sometimes violently?
While we create boundaries, the Holy Spirit crosses them. While we build walls, the Holy Spirit breaks them down. If that’s the case, how should we live? What do we do to feel secure and safe? If playing by the old rules isn’t working, maybe it’s time to open up to something new that God is doing.
Because He Lives, we can live inclusively. We begin with baby steps.
All glory and honor be to God.