Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:917
You may not know that I have been very busy lately with some important work for our Diocese of Western Massachusetts. Our Diocese was chosen by the national church as the site for a Revival this coming fall, featuring our Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Michael Curry, as the preacher. I am serving as the co-chair of the Steering Committee for this event. The Revival itself will be on Sunday, October 21 – mark your calendars – but we are really thinking of this as a longer-term event, with the Revival day itself as a sort of high point in an ongoing, two-year effort.
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: Revival and Episcopalians don’t really seem to go together. That’s something we have been wrestling with. Our planning process began with, “What needs reviving in Western Massachusetts?” As we explored that question, we had many different thoughts, and they led us to our revival theme: “Rekindling Hope, Sharing Light, Loving Jesus.” We are excited about where this might lead us.
To get the work done, we have created Revival teams in each of the geographic corridors of the Diocese: The Worcester area, the Pioneer Valley, and the Berkshires. As we have recruited leadership and membership for these teams, I have been adamant about one thing: While we on the Steering Committee have a vision for the work, we want each team to wrestle with that same question about what needs to be revived in their area. We want each team to have ownership and enthusiasm for the work. And we also want to be sure we are opening up a space for the work of the Holy Spirit.
I have been thinking a lot about the Holy Spirit lately, and today’s reading from the Book of Acts has giving me fodder for those musings. I love the opening verse: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” It sounds like the Holy Spirit came not because of what Peter was saying, but in spite of it! As a preacher, I find that oddly comforting. God shines through, even through our feeble chatter.
What was Peter talking about? Let’s take a look at what occurs before this passage to find out. Peter is reintroduced into this story of the early church at the end of chapter nine, when he visits various communities of early Christians and performs miracles: He heals Aeneas and brings Dorcas back to life. We then get the story of Cornelius, a Roman army officer and a god-fearing man. Cornelius has a vision, where God tells him to send for Peter. Unbeknownst to Cornelius, Peter also has a vision—when he is hungry, we’re told. His vision is that fantastic image of a sheet lowering from heaven, filled with animals of all kinds, both those considered clean and therefore allowable to eat, and those considered unclean. God orders Peter to “kill and eat;” but Peter protests that he can’t eat things that are profane or unclean. And God replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Peter is puzzling over that vision when messengers sent by Cornelius arrive on the scene. And the Spirit directs Peter to pay heed to them. Peter welcomes the men, and agrees to go with them to Caesarea, where he meets Cornelius. Peter acknowledges that, while it is unlawful for Jews to associate with Gentiles, he is doing so because of his vision; and Cornelius reveals that he was also responding to a vision when he sent for Peter.
And then Peter begins to speak to all those assembled, saying, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” He goes on to tell about the life of Jesus and how Christ’s followers came to know him as the Messiah.
And that’s when the Holy Spirit appears again – where today’s reading begins. It feels like the Holy Spirit is impatient with Peter. He’s saying the right things, but it’s time to put the Spirit where his mouth is! Soon everyone—Jews and Gentiles alike—is speaking in tongues, just as the gathered Jews did on the Day of Pentecost earlier in the Book of Acts.
Peter works hard to catch up to the Holy Spirit: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” he says. Interestingly, though, the order of things is reversed here; in other instances in the Book of Acts, it is baptism with water followed by a baptism of the Holy Spirit. Again, it seems that the Holy Spirit is impatient to get things going!
So, at the risk of getting ahead of ourselves (after all, Pentecost is coming in two weeks – that day dedicated to the Holy Spirit on our church calendar), I find myself thinking, what exactly is this Holy Spirit?
I tend to think of the Spirit as something gentle and sweet—a lovely warming breeze, or a beautiful white dove. Something that comes easily and quietly, and just makes everything better. All benevolent, all lightness, all joy and peace and love.
But the Holy Spirit here is a little more insistent—and perhaps a little more mischievous. This Holy Spirit will have her way. As one commentator says, “ The Spirit of God intervenes, indeed interrupts the rhythm of Peter’s plans, in order to make him aware what God is seeking to make happen through him.”[i]
What might God be seeking to make happen through us here at St. Paul’s, Stockbridge? What might the Holy Spirit be doing to get our attention? Or is the Holy Spirit hard at work somewhere else in our community? Have we missed the Holy Wind?
I have to tell you, I think about all of this a lot. I am approaching three years here with you, and I am still trying to figure out what the Holy Spirit has in mind for us here. Today’s reading brings to mind two things: first, that finding this elusive intention is not up to me alone; the Holy Spirit will blow, and will bring the work to us. I probably don’t need to work so hard at this task! The tricky thing to discern though, is how will it arrive – who or what will carry that message to us, and how do we identify that it is the Holy Spirit? I think we have to open ourselves to the many different ways the Holy Spirit may manifest herself; we have to be alert!
And second, I am beginning to realize that the work the Holy Spirit presents to us may not be exactly what we desire. It may make us uncomfortable; it may expect us to stretch and grow in unfamiliar ways. It may not be all gentle breeze and hearts. It may be fiery!
Of course, fire is how the Holy Spirit manifested on the Day of Pentecost—“Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them.” When I really begin to examine that image, and accept the idea of an impatient and insistent Spirit, I get pretty antsy. What if I am called to do work I don’t want to do? What if I am expected to move away from the comfortable and familiar, and into uncharted territory? What if I am called to go places I don’t want to go, and work side-by-side with people I don’t know?
You see, this story reminds us that an important part of the work of the Holy Spirit is bridging the divides that we create—nudging us to see clearly that we are all brothers and sisters under the same God, and that each other’s welfare is our collective responsibility and joy.
Theologian Jeffrey D. Peterson-Davis reminds us that, “this is an important text for the church today. Not only do the wounds of exclusion run deep in our culture and our church; the realities of uncrossed boundaries still exist.”[ii] But there is also good news: “The witness of this text is that neither Peter nor Cornelius was able to cross the boundaries on their own. But the outpouring of the Holy Spirit empowered each of them to move from their segregated places.”[iii]
My friends, we may indeed be called to difficult work; we may be asked to go beyond the safe and familiar. We may be expected to embrace those we are reluctant to engage. But we don’t go alone. The Holy Spirit, in all its ferocity and fire, will lead the way; indeed the Holy Spirit promises to be with us every step of the way. And even though we may be stubborn, or scared, or unfocused, or unconfident, the Holy Spirit will find the way to open our minds and hearts to the possibilities that are ours just because we all belong to God. The Holy Spirit will find the way to use us instruments of God’s love.
How has the Holy Spirit interrupted your life? How have you responded? Are you open to the possibility that God may be calling you right now – no matter who you are, no matter what limitations you may feel, no matter how reluctant you are?
There is a hymn text that is my prayer for today. You can find it as number 510 in our hymnal. I invite us to pray it together:
[i] Erskine, Noel Leo. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 482.
[ii] Peterson-Davis, Jeffrey D. Feasting on the Word (Op cit.), p. 482.