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Prepare to be amazed! (an Other Pentecost)

Based on Acts 10:44-48

Think: Who are the ones with whom you are not supposed to hang out because you are a Christian?

Once upon a time God sent Jonah to Nineveh and Jonah did not want to go because he was not supposed to hang out with those people. Once upon a time Peter did not want to share the good news of the gospel with uncircumcised gentiles because he was not supposed to hang out with those people. Today we remember the stories about how Peter change his mind and his heart about that.

I don’t know about you, but I am very forgetful. One morning of this week I wanted to let the sewing machine on the table so that mom could use it while I was away. She cannot pick it up because it is too heave and would hurt her. Well, I forgot. I left the house and then I thought, “I didn’t put the machine on the table!” So I called my son for him to do it whenever he returned home before me. He decided to call his wife who was in the house and asked her to do it, that way my mom would not need to wait. My son’s wife comes to the table to find out that the sewing machine was already there. All of this happened in a matter of 10-15 minutes. My mom was still in bed. She did not do it. It seems I did it before I left and to this moment I can’t remember doing it.

One of the things that baffles me about the Bible is how quickly God’s people forget what God does for them. Given the story I just shared I should not be surprised that people forget so quickly! It seems to me that forgetting is a default mode for humans and because we forget, we are all the time prepared to be amazed, but in a bad way.

You see, in the story related in Acts 10:44-48, Peter and his companions had forgotten that only 8 chapters ago [see Acts 2:7-13], the Holy Spirit was poured on them causing amazement in a crowd of other Jews, like them. Amazement as in, “I can’t believe what is happening right now! These are Jews, like we are, but they are Galileans, unlike we are, and they can speak our language!”

And now, Acts 10 repeats the story; same plot, different characters. The ones receiving the Holy Spirit are uncircumcised Gentiles. The evidence is the same, speaking in tongues and extolling God. The reaction was the same: amazement. But now, the ones amazed, astonished, astounded, are the circumcised believers. This is what I think they forgot: that God does what God wants, that the Holy Spirit moves as it pleases, it cannot be contained, it cannot be boxed in.

The circumcised believers were expecting God to pour the Holy Spirit only on circumcised believers. They were law abiding, the lived by the rules that God gave them. They were circumcised. They would not eat profane or unclean food. They did not hang out or break bread with uncircumcised gentiles. Wait a minute! What were they doing there, at the house of “Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort”? They were breaking the rules! And still they have the nerve to be amazed at God breaking the rules!?

Here’s the background: They were breaking the rules because God told them. At the beginning of chapter 10, the Lord instructs Cornelius to send for Peter, to bring him from another town. Cornelius was a God-fearing devout man who prayed constantly to God (10:2) and who had with good reputation among the Jewish nation (10:22), and who also was an uncircumcised gentile. At the same time, the Lord instructs Peter to “kill and eat unclean food,” a new commandment that Peter resists because he is law abiding. Peter told the Lord, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Well, God insisted and when Cornelius’ people arrived, Peter understood that the vision was the Spirit’s invitation to go with them [the uncircumcised believers] and not to make a distinction between “them” and “us.” (Acts 11:12) The result of the obedience of Cornelius and Peter to the revelations they received was an exchange of hospitality that was not supposed to happen according to the law that God gave Moses. Peter hosted the uncircumcised believers at his place. Cornelius hosted the circumcised believers at his place. Fellowship among circumcised and uncircumcised was forbidden by the religious laws, but the Spirit orchestrated this mismatch to show them and us something powerful, something amazing.

The pouring of the Holy Spirit on the gentiles was a gift that Peter and the other circumcised believers needed to witness. It was so important that the Spirit interrupted Peter’s speech to do it. Between the vision of “unclean food” and the evidence of the Spirit pouring out on the Gentiles, Peter was converted into a believer of the mission to the Gentiles and he got in trouble for it. He had to appear before the ecclesial authorities to explain his behavior (Acts 11). But at that moment, when Peter sees what the Spirit did, he knew that it was not up to him to exclude what God had included. And such change of heart is what we see in his question, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

Siblings, People of God, we must not call profane what God has made clean. As we can see in the stories that we remember today, God invited Peter and invites us today to not call anyone unclean and to not make a distinction between them and us.

All the lectionary readings today pointed out the amazing things that God does. We should indeed be amazed, but perhaps the amazement should not come from the surprise of seeing God doing something that does not meet our expectations or that does not fit into our boxes. Perhaps the amazement should come from noticing, “God did it again! Once again God defied our expectations to show us a better way, to give us a new commandment. Indeed, let’s be amazed. Let’s prepare to be amazed by remembering what God has done for us, by remembering that as gentiles ourselves we were not supposed to be here, but we are, by remembering that if God crossed boundaries and broke rules for us, God will likely do it again, and again, and again. Let us prepare to be amazed.

Think again: With whom are we not supposed to hang out because we are Christians?

(Based on a sermon shared at Eastminster Presbyterian Church – Nashville, TN – May 6, 2018)

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