Now What? – Even Them? – John 15:9-17 and Acts 10:44-48
There is an old joke that asks, “How do you make God laugh?” And the response, which comes off more observational than laugh out loud funny, is “Make a plan.” How do we make God laugh? We make a plan. The humor in this lies in the observation that oftentimes when we make plans for our lives, things don’t turn out exactly how we envisioned them. And the implication is that perhaps God is looking down on us and intentionally thwarting those plans for the sake of humor. Now, while I don’t believe that God actually does that, I can still relate to the feeling that every time I plan something it goes differently that I thought it would. I think the same can be said quite often about our preconceived notions and biases. We often think that we have the inside track on things and our judgments couldn’t possibly be wrong, especially when our society and/or community confirms those judgments.
This was the situation for Peter as he went about proclaiming the gospel after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Peter was a devout Jew and had grown up following Jewish law. Most of the early Christian church was composed of Jewish Christ-followers. And so it was natural for them to continue to follow the Jewish laws even after acknowledging Christ as Messiah. Because Jesus was a Jew. Jesus had also followed the Jewish laws in his early life. But the problem occurred when Gentiles (those not of Jewish heritage) began to desire to follow Christ as well. Many of the Jewish Christians believed that in order for Gentiles to become Christians, they first needed to become Jews and follow Jewish law.
We see this belief at play when Peter is called to go to the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Cornelius is described as a “devout man who feared God with all his household.” Yet when Peter went into Cornelius’ house, the first words he spoke to the crowd there were, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.” Not only were Gentiles supposed to convert to Judaism in order to become Christ followers, but Jews and therefore Jewish Christians weren’t even supposed to associate with them. Seems like it would be difficult to proclaim the gospel to someone that you cannot associate with. But Peter goes on to say that “God has shown [him] that [he] should not call anyone profane or unclean.” And then Peter preaches the gospel to the people gathered at Cornelius’ house. And that brings us to the passage we read for this morning.
In our passage, the Holy Spirit falls upon everyone in that house who was hearing the words of Peter. It is that moment that really changes the hearts and minds of many of the Jewish Christians present. We see the shock of the people written into Luke’s words in Acts 10 verse 45. He writes, “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.” The thinking, I suspect, went something like this. Why would God’s Holy Spirit fall on the Gentiles if they are so unclean that we are not supposed to associate with them? A perfect example of God acting outside of our expectations. The Jewish Christians had an idea of how things were supposed to be…a plan you might say…but God had other ideas. The Jewish Christians were comfortable keeping the Gentiles excluded and at a distance. But God had a different plan. And it’s lucky for us that he did.
But this passage teaches us three things about God that I think are important to highlight this morning as we consider the question Now What? The first thing is that God is much bigger than we understand. That is I think where we get into trouble with planning. God is so much bigger than us that he sees the results of our plans before we’ve even made them. And God will often redirect us to something different if the plans we are making are not right for us. Or might hurt other people. Now, God doesn’t force us to go a different direction, so we can still make lots of mistakes. But if we are paying attention, God will often nudge us in the right direction if we are on the wrong path. We see that with Peter when he is in Joppa. He goes up on the roof of the home where he is staying and falls into a trance. And while in that trance he has a vision of a sheet coming down out of heaven. And on that sheet were all kinds of four-footed animals and reptiles and birds. Now, these animals would have been unclean for Jews to eat. So when Peter sees them in his vision, he says to the Lord, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But God says to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And then the interaction repeats three times before the sheet is taken back up into heaven.
God’s plans are often bigger than we can see. And sometimes all we see is worry and our own personal cares. The story of Feldkirch, Austria is a prime example.
“The citizens of Feldkirch, Austria, didn’t know what to do. Napoleon’s massive army was preparing to attack. Soldiers had been spotted on the heights above the little town, which was situated on the Austrian border. A council of citizens was hastily summoned to decide whether they should try to defend themselves or display the white flag of surrender. It happened to be Easter Sunday, and the people had gathered in the local church. The pastor rose and said, “Friends, we have been counting on our own strength, and apparently that has failed. As this is the day of our Lord’s resurrection, let us just ring the bells, have our services as usual, and leave the matter in His hands. We know only our weakness, and not the power of God to defend us.” The council accepted his plan and the church bells rang. The enemy, hearing the sudden peal, concluded that the Austrian army had arrived during the night to defend the town. Before the service ended, the enemy broke camp and left.”
God is much bigger than we understand.
Also, God’s spirit is active in the world and in our lives. This story of Cornelius and his household shows us that God is active in unexpected places and at unexpected times. Beverly Gaventa writes that, “Nowhere else does Luke narrate an event in which the gift of the Holy Spirit comes prior to baptism.” This is an unusual event where the Holy Spirit makes a surprising appearance. Yet isn’t that the M.O. of the Holy Spirit? Doesn’t Scripture say, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” God’s Spirit moves unpredictably in our lives but is always at work and always leads us in the way that God desires for us to go.
Celtic Christians have a unique image for the Holy Spirit. They call the Holy Spirit “the Wild Goose.” Author Mark Batterson writes about it this way:
“The Celtic Christians had a name for the Holy Spirit that has always intrigued me. They called Him An Geadh-Glas, or ‘the Wild Goose.’ I love the imagery and implications. The name hints at the mysterious nature of the Holy Spirit. Much like a wild goose, the Spirit of God cannot be tracked or tamed. An element of danger and an air of unpredictability surround Him. And while the name may sound a little sacrilegious at first earshot, I cannot think of a better description of what it’s like to pursue the Spirit’s leading through life than Wild Goose chase. I think the Celtic Christians were on to something that institutionalized Christianity has missed out on. And I wonder if we have clipped the wings of the Wild Goose and settled for something less—much less—than what God originally intended for us.”
We have a tendency to ignore or even resist the leading of the Holy Spirit. And I think the reason for that is because we think we can do things ourselves and don’t need help…even from God. Yet despite our reticence, the Holy Spirit remains active in our lives and in the world.
And finally, when we follow the Spirit’s leading amazing things happen. As Peter followed the leading of the Spirit with Cornelius and his household, the entire household came to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Acts 10 says, “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, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” The people were astounded by the work of the Holy Spirit in their midst. Now, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the Holy Spirit move in quite the same way as in this story, but I’ve always been astounded whenever the Holy Spirit has moved in my life or in the life of the church.
Take a moment and think back to the most amazing things that you’ve experienced in your life. As you look back on those moments, can you see the Holy Spirit’s mark on them? I know that as I look back on my life and the best moments of it, I can see how the Holy Spirit was definitely at work. Those were the moments when I didn’t resist or ignore the Spirit’s movements.
So what does this mean for us looking forward? It’s easy to see the Holy Spirit’s movements looking back (or at least easier). But how can we be more attune to what the Holy Spirit wants for us moving forward? As Presbyterians, we don’t spend a lot of time focusing on the Holy Spirit. But I don’t think that means the Holy Spirit is working among us any less. So, I want to suggest two things to help us tune ourselves to the Spirit a little better. And these come from the story of Cornelius. First, follow the vision of God. Peter saw a vision that taught him something important about who God is and how he was to act in response to that. The vision showed Peter that God was without partiality and so Peter was to be open to all, where Jew or Gentile. We too should be open to visions from God. We do that the same way Peter did, by quieting our hearts in prayer. God is trying to speak. We just have to quiet down enough to listen. And second, humble ourselves. Even when we know where God wants us to go or what God wants us to do, it is still pretty easy for us to get tangled up in our own desires. And we push God aside in order to get what we want instead. Peter could have done that. He could have ignored the request to come to visit Cornelius or ignored when the Spirit came upon them and refused to baptize them. But he put himself aside and followed God.
May we respond as Peter did, by being open to the vision of God for us and by putting our own desires to the side in favor of following the Holy Spirit’s leading! And may we be amazed at what God does!