Witnesses | Easter Day

Acts 10:34-43

34 Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. 35 Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all! 37 You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached. 38 You know about Jesus of Nazareth, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and endowed with power. Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone oppressed by the devil because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of everything he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen, 41 not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (CEB).

Witnesses

Let’s be honest, resurrection is not an easy sell in our modern world. I’d imagine that a lot of us have a difficult time believing in such a thing. And, if we do believe the resurrection happened, many of us hold the assumption that the resurrection doesn’t really affect us right now, there’s no immediate resurrection-impact on our lives, because it’s something that won’t really come into play for us until after we die.

That’s kind of how Karl Marx viewed religion. The reason Marx called religion “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and “the opium of the people” is because he thought religion promised oppressed and poor people a heaven that is denied them on earth. Thus, songs like The Preacher and the Slave became popular. Its refrain says: “You will eat [You will eat] bye and bye [bye and bye] in that glorious land above the sky. [Way up high]. Work and pray, [Work and pray], live on hay, [live on hay], you’ll get pie in the sky when you die. [That’s a lie!].”

What Marx and, I suspect, many Christians failed—and still fail—to recognize is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ isn’t about the future only. The resurrection is about now. The resurrection leads individuals and communities in the conversion of their hearts and minds now.

Part of our misunderstanding of the resurrection comes from the fact that we misunderstand the Gospels, themselves. We read the Gospels from beginning to end and assume that the resurrection is the miraculous happy ending to the story of Jesus. And, hopefully, we’ll get a miraculous happy ending, too when we die. I mean, we love happy endings, right? Even if we read a book or watch a movie where the ending isn’t happy, I at least feel some satisfaction if the bad guys face justice. I don’t like it when they get away with stuff. We want the happy ending that Jesus got.

What we forget—perhaps what we’ve never even noticed—is that the only reason the Gospels were written, the only reason we have the accounts of Jesus’ birth, life, and teaching at all—is because of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is the precondition for the witness of the Gospel accounts. The resurrection is the basis for every account of Jesus’ life and ministry. Without the resurrection, we would not have the four Gospels, nor a New Testament, nor a Christian faith. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to everything. That’s why Easter is the holiest day for Christian people. We all love Christmas, but Christmas only ranks #3 on the list of holiest days on the Christian calendar. Pentecost comes in at #2. Without Easter, without the resurrection, we wouldn’t have the other celebrations.

When Peter visited the house of Cornelius—a Gentile centurion—and preached this message to his household, the foundation of Peter’s witness to Cornelius was the resurrection. None of Jesus’ earlier activities could be understood without the resurrection. That fact is clear in the Gospel accounts. The disciples, themselves, understood nothing of Jesus’ teaching and ministry until after Jesus was raised from the dead.

Only in light of the resurrection did God’s revelation through Jesus Christ make sense. Only in light of the resurrection could Jesus Christ be claimed and affirmed as both divine and human. Only in light of the resurrection could the saving grace offered to us through the life, teaching, and death of Jesus be believed as God’s initiative to save us and be reconciled to us.

Without resurrection, we have nothing. That’s why Paul wrote, “So if the message that is preached says that Christ has been raised from the dead, then how can some of you say, ‘There’s no resurrection of the dead’? If there’s no resurrection of the dead, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless… …If the dead aren’t raised, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins, and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever. (1 Corinthians 15:12-14, 16-18 CEB). The resurrection is central to everything we believe and everything for which we hope.

The resurrection is also central to a Christian understanding of peace, freedom, and impartiality. And I said, a Christian understanding because we can use those same words in a secular sense and have radically different meanings from the Christian sense.

Peter’s first line to Cornelius’s household is that he really is learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Think about how incredible that statement is coming from a Jew who had lived his entire life in the unquestioned certainty of God’s particularity. God chose the Jewish people, not the gentiles (which is everyone else). Yet, Peter comes to recognize, by God’s initiative, that God does not show partiality or favor. Rather, God offers restoration and inclusion in God’s plan of salvation to all people.

There are whispers of God’s universal love and care for all people throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. After all, the promise God made to Abraham included the words: “all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you” (Genesis 12:3c CEB). God’s exclusive claim of Abraham’s descendants ended on a note of God’s radical inclusion of all the families of the earth.

The prophet Jonah was sent to a foreign city, Ninevah, so the people there could change their hearts and minds and find salvation in God. When Jonah got angry that God didn’t kill them all, God had to remind Jonah that God cared about those people and even their cattle, too.

We find that same theme in the New Testament, too. When the angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, the angel said, “Look! I bring goods news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people” (Luke 2:10 CEB).

God took the initiative in changing and expanding Peter’s understanding of who is included in God’s plan of salvation. Peter experienced a conversion. His unquestioned assumptions about the particularity of Israel grew into a new insight of God’s expansive impartiality and inclusion of all peoples.

Another piece that we we desperately need to understand—just as Peter had to learn—is that salvation is not our plan. Salvation is not something we do. Salvation is neither ours to offer nor ours to withhold from others. Salvation belongs to God and is offered by God to all. God doesn’t show partiality to one group over another, which tells us that the church can and should become a community of radical reconciliation and peacemaking between women and men, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, gay and straight, between differing cultures and faiths and skin tones and languages.

It sounds nice, right? God loves everyone, and so should we. Yet, Peter’s new insight into God’s cosmopolitan impartiality should not make us feel particularly good about ourselves. We can’t pat ourselves on the back and feel good about the fact that we serve a God who knows and loves everyone. That’s not where this should lead.

Rather, Peter’s insight ought to chasten us because, while we’re called to love everyone, we don’t. Do we? I don’t.

God is the God of impartiality, so we’re supposed to be a people of impartiality, but we aren’t. Are we? I’m not.

God wants us to be in relationship with all kinds of people but we don’t often bother to build relationships with those who are different from us. We don’t have to look much further than the political rhetoric of the day to see how partial our thoughts can be. Much of the time, I act like God is partial, and I assume that God favors my way of doing things. Don’t we all do that?

Yet, the resurrection of Jesus Christ demands conversion. There’s some irony in the fact that Peter became the foundation for the Church’s own conversion in its earliest days. Peter’s name means rock. The image of a rock doesn’t lend itself much to change, yet Peter had his mind changed by God. When the other leaders of the church in Jerusalem questioned Peter about what he’d done, He convinced them that God had accepted even the Gentiles, and the whole church experienced a conversion. If God could change Peter’s mind, then God can change our minds, too.

Peter was a witness to the resurrected Jesus. Peter, along with other witnesses, ate and drank with Jesus after he was raised from the dead. And, it wasn’t until after Christ’s resurrection that Peter and the other disciples began to understand the radical social implications of resurrection life.

What we proclaim on Easter is that Christ has been raised from the dead, and Jesus Christ really has taken away the sins of the world. Christ alone is appointed by God as the judge of the living and the dead, and everyone… everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. Christ is Lord of all.

Christ has been raised from death. And, we are called to be witnesses of Christ’s resurrection by living resurrection before the eyes of the world now, by living out God’s radical impartiality now. One of my seminary professors at Duke was fond of saying, “Show me your resurrection.” So, what does your resurrection look like? Like Peter, in what ways do we still need to experience conversion?

We don’t have to wait until we die before living a Resurrection life. We can live Resurrection now. We can live in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, and in the grace offered to us because of Christ’s work on our behalf now. Resurrection is where our faith begins and ends. The only reason any of us are here today is because Christ has been raised. Resurrection is the message of Easter. And Peter reminds us that everyone is invited to dine at the table of the Lord. Everyone is invited to live as members of God’s family. All of us, together, are the reason Christ came into the world and was raised from the dead.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Ascension | Ascension Sunday

Acts 1:1-11

1 Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, 2 right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. 4 While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: 5 John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

6 As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”

7 Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

9 After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. 11 They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (CEB)

Ascension

Mothers know what it’s like to wait. Childbirth is preceded by nine months of expectation, anticipation, preparation, growth, change, worry, sometimes a touch of doubt or fear. Pregnancy, especially a first-pregnancy, is a transition time from one way of life to another. A whole new world looms before mothers (and fathers), and the life after childbirth is never quite the same as it was before. But before parents get there, (especially moms) they have the long wait of pregnancy.

Then, after childbirth, mothers (and fathers) learn even more about waiting. Waiting for that fist tooth to finally pop through so you can get a minute’s sleep again. Waiting for a child to say Mommy, because they always learn to say Daddy first. Then, waiting for the child to learn to say Daddy again because from then on out, it’s always, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mom! Momma! Mommy!” And, there’s waiting for your child to be able to find a matching shoe so you can finally leave the house now that you’re thirty minutes late. Even at age thirteen, we’re still not past that on some days.

The Day of Ascension was this past Thursday, forty days after Easter Day, but we commemorate the Ascension of Jesus Christ on a Sunday because, honestly, Sunday is the only day pastors can get most of their congregation to come to church for worship. Like the Epiphany, the Ascension is important enough that we don’t want to skip it, so we move it to a Sunday to make sure it’s covered.

The Ascension of Jesus falls in the between-time of Easter Day and the Day of Pentecost. Easter is joy and happiness. Pentecost marks a different kind of excitement as the church’s birthday and descent of the Holy Spirit. Not only does Ascension fall in a between-time, it marked the beginning of a waiting period for the Disciples. Remember, after Jesus was raised from the dead, he appeared to the disciples multiple times over forty days. He appeared in a locked room. He showed up again so Thomas could see. He was recognized after breaking bread in Emmaus. He cooked breakfast for the disciples on the beach.

Acts 1:4 suggests that Jesus may have stayed with the disciples, maybe even lived with them for part of those forty days. The Greek word used there has an uncertain meaning, in part, because it’s only used once in the New Testament. It might refer to table fellowship or gathering the disciples together. Or, it might refer to staying the night. The Common English Bible translates it as “While they were eating together,” while the New Revised Standard Version renders it, “While staying with them.”

Either way we translate the word, what’s clear is that Jesus was hanging out with the disciples a lot. The disciples had likely gotten used to resurrection-Jesus being present and continuing to teach them. Luke tells us in his Gospel that Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures about the Messiah and how repentance and forgiveness of sins must be proclaimed in his name (c.f. Luke 24:45-47). Acts 1:2-3 tells us that Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen speaking with them about God’s kingdom. And he ordered them to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit, which the Father had promised to send upon them. The timeline of a few days from now is rather non-specific. They didn’t know the when.

But, the apostles still had questions about God’s kingdom, so they asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” (Acts 1:6 CEB).

At first, it sounds like a very earthly question, as thought the apostles were still looking forward to an earthly kingdom. And maybe it was an earthly question, in part. But the word Luke uses for restore is the same word used in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament in Malachi 4:6 (*LXX 3:23) where God speaks of Elijah being sent to turn the hearts of children to parents, and the hearts of parents to children before the great and terrifying Day of the Lord comes. The Septuagint actually says “who will restore the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of people to their neighbors…” (Malachi 3:23 my translation of LXX).

So, if Luke used this word as an intentional reference to the restoration work of Elijah that was mentioned in Malachi, then the question of the apostles was about more than an earthly kingdom. It was about a kind of restoration that involved calling the people of Israel back to faithful community. A restoring of broken relationships. The importance of restored human relationships is one of the things Jesus preached about often (c.f. Luke 17:3-4; Matthew 5:20-26, 18:15-17; Mark 11:25). After all, the work of Jesus Christ on earth included restoring the human race to God and human beings to each other.

It seems like the apostles wanted to know if this restoration was about to take place. After all, what other work is left for Jesus to do? And Jesus responds by telling them not to worry about the timing of things. Instead of being concerned about the timing of things to come, the apostles will be witnesses of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In essence, Jesus tells the apostles that his work will now continue through them. The Ascension is the transition of Christ’s ministry from Jesus, himself, to the apostles and those who will follow them. The gist of Jesus’s message to the apostles is this: Don’t worry about the time, you’ve got a job to do.

Then, suddenly, Jesus was taken up into heaven. There’s no indication that the Ascension was something the apostles who were with Jesus expected when it happened. One moment Jesus was walking and talking with them, the next moment he was zooming into the clouds. Luke notes that the apostles “were watching” as he was lifted up. They were staring toward heaven when two men in white robes suddenly appeared beside them and asked a pointed question: Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11 CEB).

First, it’s worth noting that these two men in white robes make several appearances in Luke’s writings. In the account of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), Moses and Elijah show up and talk with Jesus about his departure, which is literally Exodus in Greek.

Later, two men in gleaming bright clothing appeared to the women at the tomb of Jesus. They also asked a rather pointed questions: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Human One must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (Lk. 24:6-7 CEB). These men were later described as a “vision of angels” (Luke 24:23), but since the word angel means messenger, it would fit whether the men were actual angels of the heavenly kind or Moses and Elijah appearing once again. After all, they were described as men initially.

While the two men aren’t mentioned at the Ascension at the end of Luke, they do show up in Acts. And they ask questions once again. “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11 CEB). It’s possible that these two men—these messengers—were Moses and Elijah prodding the apostles on.

There is a strong connection to the Ascension of Elijah in this account of the Ascension of Jesus. Forty days recalled the forty-day experiences of both Moses and Elijah. Moses was with the Lord for forty days on Mount Sinai where he neither ate nor drank (c.f. Exodus 34:28). Elijah fasted for forty days as he travelled to Mount Horeb where he experienced the theophany and heard God’s voice (c.f. 1 Kings 19:8). The forty days of post-resurrection Jesus is an echo of his forty days of fasting in the wilderness during which he was tempted (c.f. Luke 4:1-13). But these forty days after the resurrection weren’t a time of preparation for Jesus, they were a time of preparation for the apostles and the ministry they would continue after Jesus ascended.

It’s significant that the apostles saw the Lord ascend into heaven. When Elijah was about to be taken up into heaven, he asked Elisha—his disciple—what he could do for him before he was taken away. And Elisha asked for a double-share of Elijah’s spirit; twice the spirit of Elijah. Elisha’s request would be granted only if he saw Elijah being taken into heaven. That event of Elijah’s ascension—of separation from Elisha—was what allowed Elisha to receive that double-share and continue the work of Elijah.

Joshua was filled with the spirit and wisdom because Moses had laid hands on him before Moses died (c.f. Deuteronomy 34:9). It is after the departure of the leader that the followers are empowered. The apostles saw Jesus ascend, and only a few days later, the Holy Spirit rushed upon them with fire and wind. They were empowered to speak languages they hadn’t learned, and to proclaim Christ with a boldness they hadn’t known before. They were empowered to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

While Jesus was on earth, his work of healing, restoration, and proclaiming God’s Kingdom was limited by the fact that he was only one person who could encounter a limited number of people. When Jesus ascended, his followers were empowered to continue his work, and the number of people with access to the power of God’s Spirit increased exponentially.

We are now witnesses. The work of Jesus Christ is ours to continue. While the apostles would wait another ten days after the Ascension to receive the empowerment of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, we have the Holy Spirit now. The Spirit is with us everywhere. We are Christ’s witnesses, and we have the privilege of continuing Christ’s work. We don’t have to start by traveling to the ends of the earth. We can begin right where we are.

It might also be worth noting that, while the apostles were waiting for the Holy Spirit to come, the first thing they did was gather together to pray. That’s in verses 13-14. Before they did anything else, they prayed. That’s a model for us, too. We have work to do as followers of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean we throw ourselves into business at the expense of everything else. The work of Jesus Christ includes the work of devoting ourselves to prayer. Prayer is a way of connecting to the Spirit. It’s how we prepare ourselves to receive the Spirit. Pentecost is waiting. Are we ready?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

 

*The Septuagint is commonly noted as LXX, which is the Roman numeral for 70. It is a translation of the Old Testament, written in Greek, which dates to the 3rd-2nd centuries B.C. Also, chapters and verses sometimes differ between English translations, the Greek Septuagint, and the original Hebrew. Malachi 4:6 in English translations, for example, is Malachi 3:23 in the Septuagint (LXX) and Malachi 3:24 in Hebrew.

Repent | 3rd of Easter

Acts 3:12-19

12 Seeing this, Peter addressed the people: “You Israelites, why are you amazed at this? Why are you staring at us as if we made him walk by our own power or piety? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– the God of our ancestors– has glorified his servant Jesus. This is the one you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence, even though he had already decided to release him. 14 You rejected the holy and righteous one, and asked that a murderer be released to you instead. 15 You killed the author of life, the very one whom God raised from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16 His name itself has made this man strong. That is, because of faith in Jesus’ name, God has strengthened this man whom you see and know. The faith that comes through Jesus gave him complete health right before your eyes.

17 “Brothers and sisters, I know you acted in ignorance. So did your rulers. 18 But this is how God fulfilled what he foretold through all the prophets: that his Christ would suffer. 19 Change your hearts and lives! Turn back to God so that your sins may be wiped away. (CEB)

Repent

Throughout the Season of Easter, the lectionary provides a text from the Acts of the Apostles where we would normally find a lesson from the Old Testament. While I’m somewhat critical of this—because it can suggest, incorrectly, that the New Testament is more important than the Old—I think one of the reasons for the shift is to focus on the implications of the resurrection of Jesus for the community of believers. Several of the texts from Acts are sermons of Peter, and this one is the second of Peter’s sermons in the book. So, in essence, I get to preach a sermon on a sermon.

Musicians get to do this all the time. You have Variations on A Theme by Hyden composed by Brahms, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis composed by Williams, and so on. And, any Star Wars fan who’s ever heard Mars, The Bringer of War by Gustav Holst knows where John Williams got his ideas for the Star Wars score. So, maybe I should have titled my sermon, Variations on a Theme by Peter.

First, it’s important that we understand the social context of Peter’s sermon. Just as I am a Christian speaking to an audience of Christians in a Christian worship setting, Peter was a Jew who is speaking to an audience of Jews within a Jewish worship setting. The reason why this is important is because Peter gets a little harsh with his audience. He accuses them of rejecting Jesus, of killing Jesus.

One of the more disgusting pieces of Christian history is that some of our European ancestors used Peters words as an excuse to murder Jews in retaliation for killing Jesus. Peter’s Christian context was Jewish. He wasn’t anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. He was a Jewish, Semitic Christian, and he would be horrified at how some Christians after the third and fourth centuries used his words to persecute his own people. Jesus, himself, was a Jewish man. There is nothing anti-Jewish or anti-Semiotic about Peter’s words.

Second, it’s important for us to understand the context of this text within the book of Acts because, obviously, verse twelve is not the beginning of the story. “Seeing this, Peter addressed the people…” (Acts 3:12a CEB).

And our first question is… Seeing what? What precipitated Peter’s sermon? Let’s back up and take a look. Acts chapter two tells us about the Day of Pentecost, which includes Peter’s first sermon. Then, at the end of chapter two, Luke gives us a little summary of how the Pentecost Christians ordered their life together as Easter People. By the time we get to chapter three, we have no idea how many days have passed since Pentecost.

Chapter three begins with Peter and John going into the Temple to pray during the established prayer time of 3:00 in the afternoon. Meanwhile, a man crippled from birth was being carried in so he could beg at the Beautiful Gate. When Peter and John walked by, he asked them for help. Peter simply told the man, “Look at us!” (Acts 3:4 CEB). The man looked at Peter and John expectantly, but Peter said, “I don’t have any money, but I will give you what I do have. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6 CEB). Peter took the man’s hand, pulled him up, and the man’s feet and ankles became strong.

All of a sudden, this guy starts jumping. He doesn’t try out his newly-healed legs with baby steps. He walks around, leaping and praising God. Can you imagine the joy this man felt and how it spilled out of him?

All the people saw this man jumping and leaping, full of exuberance and shouting praises to God, and they recognized him as the same man who used to sit at the Beautiful Gate asking for money. They were filled with amazement and surprise. While the man clung to Peter and John, all the people rushed toward them at Solomon’s Porch, completely amazed at what they were seeing.

That’s what Peter saw. He saw the utter amazement and surprise written on the faces of the other Temple worshippers who had rushed together at Solomon’s Porch to see a crippled man jump and leap for joy and thanksgiving at being healed. And Peter asks, “You Israelites, why are you amazed at this? Why are you staring at us as if we made him walk by our own power or piety?” (Acts 3:12 CEB).

I think this is one of the reasons why Jesus picked Peter to lead the fledgling church. The dude could preach. Paul couldn’t preach worth a lick. His gift was in writing. (2 Corinthians 10:10). But Peter, when he stood up to preach, he held his audience captive. After he preached his first sermon at Pentecost, three-thousand people were baptized into the church. After this, his second recorded sermon in chapter three, it depends on how one translates the Greek, but the church either grew to five-thousand in number, or they grew by five-thousand in number. Did you know the early church was the first mega-church? It was a big, Jewish, Semitic, predominantly Aramaic-speaking mega-church.

The fact that Peter addresses his audience as “Israelites,” which is their God-given name as a people, shows that he meant to honor them as God’s people who have their identity in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. At the same time, he wonders at their surprise and amazement. First, he denies that the once-crippled man’s healing came by his or John’s own power or piety and immediately points to God’s glorification of Jesus—the same Jesus that the people handed over and denied before Pontius Pilate, the holy and righteous one they rejected and asked for a murder to be released in his place. They killed the author of life.

Now, so far, Peter’s speech sounds bleak, and more than a little accusatory. But, we should note that his words are full of shared grief, and he’s probably including himself. Peter says, “This is the one you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence” (Acts 3:13 CEB), and “You rejected the holy and righteous one” (Acts 3:14 CEB). Those words denied and rejected are the same word in Greek. The reason I say he’s speaking of a shared grief is because that word is the same word used about Peter when he denied knowing Jesus. “Then a servant woman saw him sitting in the firelight. She stared at him and said, ‘This man was with him too.’ But Peter denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I don’t know him!’” (Lk. 22:56-57 CEB). Peter was just as guilty as the people, and he knew it.

Peter grounded his sermon in the patriarchs of Israel by saying, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God of our ancestors—has glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3:13 CEB). The word in Greek for servant can also be used to refer to one’s immediate offspring: one’s child. It’s the same word used by Mary when she sang, “He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy” (Luke 1:54 CEB).

Then, Peter tells them that God raised Jesus from the dead, and he and John are witnesses of the resurrection. If you were wondering what John’s role in the story is, it’s probably to serve as the second witness to corroborate the claim Peter makes. Several Old Testament texts (Numbers 35:30, Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15) require two witnesses when bringing testimony against someone for a crime. But the same idea developed about any claim. If one person made a claim, it wasn’t enough to substantiate the claim. But if two witnesses agreed about a matter, it was enough (c.f. Matthew 18:16; John 5:31-32, 8:17; 2 Corinthians 13:1). John didn’t say anything, but his presence was required for Peter’s testimony about Jesus to be believed as true.

In a form of repetition similar to Hebrew poetry, Peter makes the same claim in three slightly different ways in verse 16. First, he says, “His [meaning Jesus’] name itself has made this man strong” (CEB). Second, he clarifies the first statement by saying, “That is, because of faith in Jesus’ name, God has strengthened this man whom you see and know” (CEB). Third, he summarizes the first two statements by saying, “The faith that comes through Jesus gave him complete health right before your eyes” (CEB). It wasn’t Peter of John who healed the crippled man, it was Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

Now that Peter has made his accusation and shown that the crippled man was healed in the name of Jesus whom God has glorified, Peter let his hearers off the hook in two ways. First, he told them that he knows they acted in ignorance, as did their rulers (c.f. vs.17). Then, he reminded them that the Messiah’s suffering was a fulfillment of God’s word as spoken through the prophets. The death of Jesus was bound to happen.

Not only did Peter let his brothers and sisters off the hook for their participation in Christ’s death, he shows them a way forward. He called them to repent, to change their hearts and lives and turn back to God so their sins could be forgiven.

The healing of the crippled man highlights a misunderstanding that we share with those who stood listening to Peter’s sermon. It’s a misunderstanding about something that is absolutely fundamental about our shared life with God. Brothers and sisters, our faith is often stuck in a kind of functional atheism in which we believe that sin and brokenness is the rule and, should God ever bother to speak or act, that would be the exception. But in an Easter world, and among an Easter people, the presence and power of God is as prevalent as night and day, sunshine and rain, wind and calm.

Do we see it? Do we see the mercy of God in our midst? I’ve seen it big and small ways: from healings from disease to the smile of a child eating a fresh cucumber for the first time and filling their hungry belly.

Peter also reminds us that, when we do see the workings of God in our world, our response must be more than astonishment and surprise. We must change our hearts and lives so that we can live into the healing and restoring work of God and participate in it. We, like Jesus, are God’s servants and God’s children. What is our response as Easter People?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Acceptable | Easter Day

Acts 10:34-43

34 Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. 35 Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all! 37 You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached. 38 You know about Jesus of Nazareth, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and endowed with power. Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone oppressed by the devil because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of everything he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen, 41 not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (CEB)

Acceptable

It isn’t always easy to learn something new, especially if the new thing goes against what you’ve always known. I remember when I was first started playing guitar, my Grandpa taught me to play the G chord a certain way. And I got comfortable playing G that way. Sometime later, someone told me to try it with different fingers. They said it would be easier to transition to several other chords, and I could make the changes faster.

I didn’t like it. It was difficult, uncomfortable for my hand, and it made my pinky hurt. It wasn’t how my Grandpa taught me to play a G chord. The new way was messing with what I had always known. But, as I kept practicing, I realize the person was right. If I played G the other way, switches to other chords were faster because my hand barely had to move. Now, I can play a G chord in a lot of different ways.

Learning something new is even more difficult when it goes against something that’s deeply ingrained within us. Especially if the old thing is something we KNOW is right and the new thing is something we KNOW is wrong. We’re liable to put a lot of energy into fighting the new thing rather than giving it honest consideration. That’s what happened to the Jerusalem Council, the full assembly of Israel’s elders, when the apostles came along doing weird new things: preaching, teaching, and healing in the name of Jesus Christ. Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel, suggested that the Council let the apostles go after they were arrested. If their new thing was of human origin, it would fail just like all the other failed movements. But, if this new thing originated with God, then no one would be able to stop it. Instead, the elders of Israel might find themselves fighting God. The Council let the apostles live but had them beaten and told them not to speak in the name of Jesus anymore. Most of them couldn’t accept the new thing God was doing.

Learning something new is what happened to Paul. You might remember that he was called Saul before he took the name Paul, and he used to hunt Christians down to arrest them. Acts 8:3 puts it this way: Saul began to wreak havoc against the church. Entering one house after another, he would drag off both men and women and throw them into prison” (CEB). Later, as he was on his way to Damascus to arrest more Christians and drag them as prisoners to Jerusalem, a vision of Jesus showed him that the new way was a God thing, and Saul needed to get on board with it. Within a few days, the man who had been breathing murderous threats against Christians was preaching the good news all over Damascus.

Peter had a lesson to learn, too. Now, note that this is the Christian-Peter; the leader-of-the-church-Peter; the Peter who was the reason people would set their sick friends and family members out in the streets in the hope that when Peter walked by, his shadow would touch them-Peter. This Peter still had a hard lesson to learn about the new thing God was doing.

You see, Peter was a faithful Jewish man, and he knew, to the core of his understanding of God’s ways, that salvation was for Jews. His Jewish faith also told him that Jews were not supposed to associate with Gentiles. He knew that as truth. Faithful living required that he have no association with Gentiles. But then, he had this weird vision. He was up on the roof of a house in Joppa when he saw heaven opened and a large linen sheet being lowered by its four corners. Inside the sheet were all kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds. A voice told him to get up, kill, and eat. But Peter said, “Absolutely not, Lord! I’ve never eaten anything impure or unclean.” Then, the voice told him, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This scenario happened three times, and left Peter bewildered. Then, three Gentile men who had been sent by the Centurion, Cornelius, showed up at the gate looking for him, and God told Peter to go.

You know what the first thing Peter said to the crowd of Gentiles gathered inside Cornelius’s house was? “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28 CEB).

Now, at this point, it doesn’t seem like Peter was convinced of any new thing, any serious challenges to the certainty of what he already knew. The way Peter puts it, all he knew for sure was that God told him he couldn’t call the Gentiles dirty. He was obviously ill-at-ease, and it’s a racial-ethnic kind of ill-at-ease.

If God had not specifically told Peter to go, there is no chance that Peter would have gone to the house of an officer in the Roman Legion. Rome had conquered the independent Jewish Hasmonean Kingdom and occupied their homeland less than a hundred years prior. You can almost hear the reluctance and distaste dripping from Peter’s lips when he says, “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders.” <Deep Sigh> “However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean. For this reason, when you sent for me, I came without objection. I want to know, then, why you sent for me” (Acts 10:28-29 CEB).

Then, Cornelius told Peter his story, about an angel who visited him during his 3:00 prayers and said, “Cornelius, God has heard your prayers, and your compassionate acts are like a memorial offering to him. Therefore, send someone to Joppa and summon Simon, who is known as Peter” (Acts 10:31-32a CEB). Cornelius told Peter that he sent for him immediately, and Peter was kind enough to come, and now, here they all were, ready to listen to what the Lord had directed Peter to say.

Peter’s message begins with himself. “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35 CEB). Before this moment, it was inconceivable to Peter that Gentiles could become disciples of Jesus. But there he stood, in a house full of Gentiles, ready to preach the good news of Jesus Christ because God had led him there and showed Peter that God was doing something new.

The message was this: God had anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone and overpowering the devil. The disciples bore witness to the things Jesus did in Judea and Jerusalem. Then, Jesus was killed by crucifixion on a tree, but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen by those who knew him in life, who ate and drank with him on a daily basis. Jesus commanded the apostles to preach and testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. And, everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins.

Even though it was contrary to what Peter had always known and held as faithful truth, Peter learned the new thing that God was doing, that people in every nation who worship God and do good are acceptable to God, even those who have no previous experience with Jesus, the Jewish faith, or what makes Jesus significant within it. It was unheard of! It was unimaginable! Throughout the whole of Acts 10, Peter’s long-held assumptions get replaced by God’s new thing.

We all have long-held habits and assumptions that we know, to the fullness of our conviction, are sacred and holy and right. With the same conviction, we know that those on the other side of those lines are sinful, unholy, and wrong, just like Peter thought of Cornelius and those of his household. We might even have Scripture to back up our positions, just like Peter did. But, when God moves outside of our interpretations of Scripture, when God decides to do something different, something like Easter, that new thing can turn our convictions and Biblical interpretations upside-down. Even the Scriptures tell us that God confounds human wisdom, so why should we be surprised, or affronted, when God proves our holy certainties false?

Our assumptions need adjusting from time to time, because God is not a prisoner of our assumptions. God is not constrained by what we think is right and holy. God acts. And when God acts, we’re often surprised—if not scandalized—by the things God does.

God took on human flesh and was born of a poor young virgin from some backcountry town? Most people had different ideas about God, believing God was too holy and set apart to ever do something so icky as becoming a human being.

Even the disciples rejected the idea that God’s Son would be killed by being crucified on a tree. They wanted to follow a victorious Messiah to restore the Kingdom of Israel, not a failure who would be killed. You might remember that Peter took Jesus aside a chewed him out for suggesting it.

And this resurrection thing: a mangled body, full of holes and a back flayed raw, with a chest cavity and heart pierced by a spear got up and walked around for forty days? He spoke to people, ate and drank with them, appeared to people inside of locked rooms?

In a day when the church is confronted with divisions of all kinds: race, ethnicity, beliefs about gun laws, abortion, human sexuality, immigration, war in the Middle East, to name only a few, it’s important for us to hear that no matter how many ways we try to tear ourselves apart, divide and separate from each other, and draw lines in the sand over issues, God continues to find ways to put us back together again. Peter came to realize that Jesus is Lord of All, and that’s a lesson we need to learn, too.

The resurrection of Jesus threw the doors of the church open wide—probably wider than we’re comfortable with. Sometimes we try to wrench them closed just a little more. But we are recipients of God’s Kingdom, not its doorkeepers. Resurrection means that whoever worships God and does what is right is acceptable.

Now, we can try to qualify what’s meant by “does what is right,” but the comments in the text about Cornelius suggest it’s quite simple. Cornelius loved God enough to pray, and he loved his neighbors enough to give generously to meet their needs. He loved God, and he loved his neighbors. He did works of justice, he loved mercy, and he walked humbly. That’s what God finds acceptable.

Resurrection means that anyone who believes, anyone who trusts in Jesus, receives forgiveness of sins. The question is, can we learn that lesson as well as Peter?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Cretans and Arabs…

Acts 2:1-21

1 When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? 8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions. Your elders will dream dreams. 18 Even upon my servants, men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and a cloud of smoke. 20 The sun will be changed into darkness, and the moon will be changed into blood, before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (CEB)

Cretans and Arabs…

Somehow Pentecost reminds me of the beginning of one of my favorite movies of all time: The Princess Bride. I’ve watched it so many times I can almost quote the whole movie, and it has so many great quotable lines it’s worth memorizing. But the reminder doesn’t come from the heavenly sound like a rushing wind, or descending fire, or the people speaking in languages they’ve never learned.

In the beginning of the movie, the Grandson is sick, so the Grandfather comes over to read him a special story that has been passed down from generation to generation in the family. The Grandson isn’t very impressed with the book. First of all, it’s a book, not a video game. Second, it’s old and shows a little wear. The Grandson asks, “Has it got any sports in it?”

The Grandfather passionately replies, “Are you kidding? Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Revenge. Giants. Monsters. Chases. Escapes. True love. Miracles.” The Grandson then leans back in his bed and says, “It doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try and stay awake.”

That’s why Pentecost reminds me of the movie. I think a lot of Christians are kind of like the Grandson. The story of Pentecost is dramatic, it’s full of action and the amazing activity of God and it’s the birthday of the Church, but I think a lot of American Christians put more stock in Federal holidays and Hallmark holidays than we do in Pentecost. Regarding any Christian holy day other than Christmas or Easter we’re often kind of halfhearted about it, “Well, it doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try and stay awake.”

Every Sunday demands our attention. Every Sunday is a little Easter. Every Sunday is a day we set aside to offer our worship to God. But Pentecost, especially, demands our attention! Are we awake to the moving of the Holy Spirit in and through the church? This day means new life for God’s people!

It’s no accident that the birth of the Church occurs on this important festival day. The Feast of Pentecost, or Weeks, as it is known in the Old Testament, marked the end of the celebration of the spring harvest, a Jewish liturgical cycle that began at Passover and during which devout Israelite families praised God for God’s grace and bounty. It was also the beginning of a period, lasting until the autumn festival of Booths, in which the first fruits of the field were sacrificed to the Lord.

Among some Jews, the Feast of Weeks was also a time of covenant renewal. The Hebrew word Shavuot could be translated weeks or oaths. The Book of Jubilees is a Jewish writing that dates from about 150 B.C., and it states, “Therefore, it is ordained and written in the heavenly tablets that they should observe the feast of Shavuot in this month, once per year, in order to renew the covenant in all (respects), year by year.”[i]

Pentecost, then, is a significant and expectant moment in the life of God’s people, and in the relationship between God and God’s people. It’s like that moment when gestation ceases and giving birth occurs. It is both an end and a new beginning, like graduating from high school or college. The end of the old thing is the beginning of something new.

Pentecost is not a time of completion, any more than baptism or accepting Jesus is a time of completion. You can’t say, “Well, I accepted Jesus and got baptized. Check that off the list, I’m good to go now.” Pentecost, like baptism and accepting Jesus Christ is a beginning; a time of moving forward into new dimensions of being. When we accept Jesus Christ, or when we’re baptized, we aren’t done. Those things are not the end-goal, but the very beginnings of Christian life. For the church, receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was not the end-goal, but the very beginning of the Church!

We follow the lectionary cycle in our worship, so we’ve been prepared for the arrival of this significant moment in time. Twice, in connection with Jesus’ ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit has been promised: “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” (Act 1:8, CEB). At Pentecost, that promise is now realized in a manner which far and away exceeds the expectation of even the most faithful disciples. New life for the Church! New life for individuals within the Church! New life through the Spirit of God! The meaning and significance of Pentecost is that God has given us a new way of living.

In the early Church, Easter ranked first among all Christian holy days, and Pentecost ranked second—even ahead of Christmas. Have you ever thought of Pentecost as something that important? It’s the second-most-important Christian holy day! Pentecost is something we Christians ought to get excited about! If we’re as lackadaisical as the Grandson in The Princess Bride and say, “It doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try and stay awake,” then we’re really not seeing the significance of what God has done by sending his Holy Spirit upon us.

At Pentecost, no-one present is excluded from this display of God’s grace. Everyone was included, no matter their nationality. Cretans (I’ve been called a cretin before) and Arabs are included.

Unlike other important events in the history of God’s mighty acts in Jesus, the Christ, where only the inner circle of disciples were witnesses to the work of God’s Spirit, everyone is included at Pentecost. Everyone hears the noise like a rushing wind! The tongues of flame rest on each of the disciples, and a moment later the crowd comes surging forward because each one has heard the disciples speaking in his or her native language.

In order that not even the least astute person reading this text might miss the inclusiveness of the moment, the list of places that begins in verse 9 traces a wide sweep through the Greco-Roman world. Everyone, from every corner, is included.

When I went to Israel, my tour guides were Palestinian Christians. And they said that they traced the ancestry of their Christian Faith back to the Day of Pentecost, where Arabs are mentioned as those who were present in Jerusalem on this day, and who heard the noise like a rushing wind and heard Peter stand up and preach! I thought that was pretty cool, and it’s right there in Acts 2:11.

What happens on Pentecost is no mystical experience for the inner-circle alone, but an outpouring of God’s energy and power that touches every life present. This is an in-rushing, an unleashing of God’s Spirit in a way that has never happened before.

Still, people respond to God’s actions in different ways. Not everyone responded to the winds and fires of new life in positive ways. Even though they heard the in-rushing wind with their own ears, and perhaps even saw the tongues of fire with their own eyes, some mocked and in their unwillingness to believe the new and absolutely amazing thing that God was doing, reacted with sour words as they confused Holy Spirit-induced joy with alcohol-induced inebriation. “They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, ‘What does this mean?’ Others jeered at them, saying, ‘They’re full of new wine!’” (CEB).

Maybe it was the extravagance of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring presence that caused them to conclude that what they saw happening couldn’t really be happening. Nothing like this had ever happened before, how could they believe what they were seeing? It wouldn’t be the first time that people looked for another explanation when God did something absolutely extravagant. Yet, what it seemed to be is exactly what it was. God’s Holy Spirit coming in power, offering new life for all of God’s people!

Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost begins with a quotation from the Prophet Joel, and nothing could be more indicative of the nature of Pentecost than the change in meaning of this text. Joel says, “After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. In those days, I will also pour out my spirit on the male and female slaves. I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth–blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. But everyone who calls on the LORD’s name will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be security, as the LORD has promised; and in Jerusalem, the LORD will summon those who survive.” (Joel 2:28-32, CEB).

For Joel, this prophecy is a forecast of doom, destruction, and death; a time of fear and terror where you’d better call on God’s name or you’re toast! But for Peter’s sermon, the meaning of Joel’s prophecy is turned around, and he uses it as a declaration of new life. For Joel, the outpouring of the Spirit is a prelude to disaster, but for Peter these wonders have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, himself the greatest of God’s wonders, and their purpose, Christ’s purpose, is nothing less than the healing of the human race.

The Holy Spirit has invaded human life in ways that shatter old expectations. The reason for the Spirit’s visitation is not death, but new life. New life! God has poured out the Holy Spirit upon us, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Are we excited? Or are we just trying to stay awake?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

[i] Jubilees, O.S. Wintermute, trans., in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Vol. 2, James H. Charlesworth, ed., (Doubleday: New York, 1985), 67.

Hindering God

Acts of the Apostles 11:1-18

1 The apostles and the brothers and sisters throughout Judea heard that even the Gentiles had welcomed God’s word. 2 When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him. 3 They accused him, “You went into the home of the uncircumcised and ate with them!”

4 Step-by-step, Peter explained what had happened. 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying when I had a visionary experience. In my vision, I saw something like a large linen sheet being lowered from heaven by its four corners. It came all the way down to me. 6 As I stared at it, wondering what it was, I saw four-legged animals–including wild beasts–as well as reptiles and wild birds. 7 I heard a voice say, ‘Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!’ 8 I responded, ‘Absolutely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 The voice from heaven spoke a second time, ‘Never consider unclean what God has made pure.’ 10 This happened three times, then everything was pulled back into heaven. 11 At that moment three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were staying. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them even though they were Gentiles. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered that man’s house. 13 He reported to us how he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is known as Peter. 14 He will tell you how you and your entire household can be saved.’ 15 When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as the Spirit fell on us in the beginning. 16 I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John will baptize with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”

18 Once the apostles and other believers heard this, they calmed down. They praised God and concluded, “So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.” (CEB)

Hindering God

I joined a fraternity in my freshman year at The University of Findlay. For the most part, I enjoyed it. I had a great group of brothers. We studied together, we had fun together, we occasionally caused a little trouble together. But there was one part of the fraternity experience that I really didn’t like. At the end of each recruitment rush, we got together to talk about the potential recruits. We discussed each person and either our desire to include them or our desire to not. We decided who we would let into our brotherhood, and who we would fence out.

Now, I could maybe understand it if such discussions included the examination of a high school transcript and concern about grade point averages. After all, our fraternity was supposed to be a scholarly social club. But the discussions that transpired rarely rose above the ridiculous. We talked about how this person looked or dressed. We bantered over the manner in which this person greeted or didn’t greet a certain brother at a party. Or whether we thought they were cool or a dork.

We made every decision based on trivial nonsense. And I hated it. I hated how we judged others and made decisions about whether or not we would allow them to associate with us based on such ridiculous distinctions. It made me wonder how I got in. I was never one of the cool kids. I certainly had no fashion sense. I’m fairly certain I made it because one particular leader in my fraternity vouched for me after getting to know me in a campus ministry organization. In our fraternity, we set boundaries. We excluded people for reasons I found unsatisfactory.

It’s a common phenomenon, this desire to fence-out, to set close boundaries, to keep a level of control over our community. The early church faced just such an issue, and it threatened to tear the young movement apart.

After Peter healed Aeneas and raised Tabitha to life, he was led to the household of Cornelius the Centurion. He preached the message about Jesus Christ to this Gentile man’s household, and the Spirit of God fell upon everyone who heard the word. Peter and his companions were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on even the Gentiles.

It might help to recall part of Peter’s sermon from Acts chapter 3 after he healed a crippled man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. Peter proclaims, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God of our ancestors—has glorified his servant Jesus.” (Acts 3:13, CEB). Peter’s message was about the God of the Jews and good news for people of a certain genealogy. Prior to Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, the idea of Gentiles being included in the promises of God hadn’t crossed their minds. Gentiles were people on the outside, even righteous Gentiles like Cornelius.

The other apostles and believers in Jerusalem heard the news that the Gentiles had accepted the word of God, and it disturbed them. So, when Peter returns to Jerusalem, the Jewish Christians leaders called him on the carpet. They demanded to know why he ate with Gentiles. Eating was a sign of acceptance. It’s why Jesus caused so much controversy when he ate with tax collectors and other known sinners. It meant he accepted them, and his acceptance of sinners was a theological and practical problem for the Jewish religious elite.

They probably assumed Peter had unilaterally decided to do some evangelism among some Gentile folk and, when they accepted and believed, he baptized them of his own accord. The problem with Peter having done this is that the other believers in Jerusalem didn’t want some dirty Gentiles associated with their holy church. This Christian thing is a God-movement. We can’t have some unclean, ungodly Gentiles associated with us. You can’t just invite those kind of people here!

So Peter got up and, contrary to his usually impatient style, he explained everything that led up to the Gentile incident. Peter described the vision he had while praying. Unclean animals were lowered down from heaven in a sheet. When Peter saw the animals, he heard a voice say, “Get up, Peter! kill and eat!” But he replied, by saying that nothing unclean had ever entered his mouth. Then he heard another voice say, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.”

This whole vision scene happened three times, then it was taken back up into heaven. At that moment, three men who had been sent by Cornelius in Caesarea, arrived at the house. The Spirit again spoke to Peter, telling him to go with the men and to not make a distinction between “them”—meaning the dirty Gentiles—and “us”—meaning the Jewish believers. Six others also went with Peter. When they arrived in Caesarea, Cornelius explained to them how an angel had stood in his house and told him to send to Joppa for Simon Peter who would give him a message by which he and his entire household would be saved.

As Peter began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had to the disciples on Pentecost. Peter asked, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way? Once the apostles and other believers heard this, they calmed down. They praised God and concluded, ‘So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.’” (CEB).

The Jewish Christians were left with a choice. They could have said no. No, Peter, these Gentiles can’t be a part of the church. They’re unclean. They haven’t converted to Judaism. They’re outside the Law, they’re not heirs to the promises God made to Israel. They aren’t welcome.

They could have said that, but they knew too well that the church didn’t belong to them. The church belongs to God. They can try to stand in God’s way by grasping for control. But, the thing about getting in God’s way—attempting to hinder God—is that God really can’t be hindered. God will either work around us, work through us, or plow us over and work right over top of us. When it comes to the church and the work to which God calls us, we’ve never been anything more than along for the ride.

Thankfully, the early believers responded to the radical shift God had just thrust upon them with rejoicing. Their first response was anger. But when they realized it came from God, they praised God for this unexpected, unbelievable thing. Even Gentiles can repent. Who knew? Who knew God would include those people, the outsiders, the unwanted?

No one. God has a long history of doing the unexpected. And yet, we always act surprised when the Holy Spirit moves in a way we didn’t anticipate! That God would extend such good news to all of humankind was indicated in Genesis 12:3, where God says to Abram, “I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.” (CEB).

God revealed long ago what was going to happen; yet the believers in Jerusalem were astonished when they heard that Gentiles had accepted the word of God. They were angry. They demanded an explanation from the one who was, they thought, responsible. I love Peter’s response: I didn’t do it. This was totally God’s fault. Blame God. I didn’t do it.

Peter made it clear to his critics that what happened to these Gentile sisters and brothers was not his own doing, but God’s! Peter didn’t arbitrarily decide to go baptize some Gentiles; all along the way he was guided and moved by the Holy Spirit. The Good News of God’s salvation offered to all through Jesus Christ is not something that was to be limited to the Jews. It is for all who come to believe.

The Holy Spirit made this happen. This story from Acts should scare us a little bit. We have no control over the Spirit’s movement. We cannot tie the Holy Spirit down. The Spirit of God is going to do what the Spirit of God will do, whether we like it or not. Our job is to expect the unexpected outpourings of God’s grace and mercy because we, too, were once on the outside.

One of the things we need to remember, especially when some unexpected thing comes to us, is that the Holy Spirit only acts for the good of people. Even if our initial reaction to God’s action is visceral repugnance, we must recognize that sometimes it’s not only about us. Yes, we’re special to God, but so are the people we don’t like. That’s not an easy lesson to learn. The Holy Spirit consistently acts for good, and expresses God’s love in ways that we, with our many limitations, could never do.

In this case, the Jewish believers were flabbergasted that God gave Gentiles repentance. Repentance is God’s gift to us. We often think of it as something we do—a first step we make toward God by overcoming our doubts and faithlessness. When it comes to our relationship with God, not one of us ever acted first. We can only respond to what God has already given. Repentance is a gift from God. It is our response to the way God has already given God’s self to us. What this story tells us is that everyone—even those we least expected—can turn away from their sins and receive the life God has offered. Everyone can have life.

But it’s easy to forget. Paul had to remind the Gentile Christians in Ephesus not to get too proud. He reminded them: “At that time you were without Christ. You were aliens rather than citizens of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of God’s promise. In this world you had no hope and no God.” (Ephesians 2:12, CEB).

I don’t know your genealogy, but I’m one of those Gentiles. It is only through the blood of Christ that I have been brought near to God, and the early Christians initially weren’t fans when they heard people like me had accepted the word of God. They were surprised. Come to think of it, I was, too. God is full of surprises. I wonder what the next one will be.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!