The New is Here for EVERYONE!
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues[b] and praising God.
Then Peter said, 47 ‘Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptised with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ 48 So he ordered that they be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
Sometimes I worry about us Lutherans. We seem to have lost so much vision for who we are and what the Lord can do through us. These are tough times for Christian churches, for sure. But that doesn’t mean that God’s vision has downsized or disappeared and that eventually all of our congregations will.
More and more I sense a general despondency, doubt and quiet despair among people in Lutheran congregations. Their church is declining. The kids aren’t coming. The grandkids never have. Aussies don’t want religion, at least not of the Lutheran variety. We can’t stop it. It is all just a matter of time until we will be no more.
I disagree! We need to listen to the Spirit in motion in the Book of Acts!
As the story of the Acts of the Holy Spirit done through everyday people continues, the people of this new Way were finding out that God has plenty to say, plenty to give, plenty to offer people who don’t know him, have dismissed him, are lost in their own little worlds or living it up without him.
We have been hearing three stories of God’s ever widening mission.
The first story was this new creation being taken south to a whole new continent of gentiles; Ethiopia via the treasurer of that kingdom.
The second was the interruption of Jesus himself into the Arab world in the the north east on the Damascus road via a stunned and transformed Saul now sent specially to non -Jewish people for the rest of his life.
And now it is Peter’s turn to be stunned and transformed.
This last story is like a long movie where the whole thing builds and builds to the last half and then ripples and ripples out as a result of what has just happened is shown.
We are on the coast: Caesarea. Big shipping and military port not too far West of Jerusalem.
There is a Roman soldier, this leader of men – Cornelius. He is surprising. He is ‘devout God-fearing man’ who practiced his faith in generosity and was a praying man. So, the Spirit has been at work in this man and his family before the big thing happens.
God speaks to this non-Jewish man via a vision. ‘Go and find Simon called Peter in Joppa’. Cornelius, the commander of men commands his men to do it.
Up the coast further, in Joppa, Peter is also praying. As someone cooks up some lunch, Peter also experiences a vision.
It is an offensive vision – killing, handling, working and then eating expressly declared unclean animals: pigs, reptiles, other hoofed animals …
Peter wakes from this nightmare in fright and distaste, “No way, Lord!” I don’t do ‘unclean’. I am ‘squeaky clean’! I am one of your favourites. I am a Jewish person!
This happens three times. It is unmissable. Something is going on. The Spirit is doing something new.
Another voice: ‘Three guys are calling for you. Got out them’. Cornelius’ men arrive and ask or Peter.
Boy, the Lord needs to do a lot to get this man in the right place and heart to do this new thing!
We hear that Peter has begun to get it. He has learnt something new. He is not as favourite as he thought. He does not need to be more favoured than anyone else.
“I should not call any person impure or unclean before God” (Acta 10:28)
Why? Because the Lord doesn’t.
Peter grabs a few of his Jewish fellow followers of the Way and goes.
What a moment when they meet. Cornelius the military man used to be served and honoured now does the honouring – on his knees! Wow. That’s new! Peter tells Cornelius to stand up. Peter has some humility. He is not God!
Cornelius shares his vision. It is now obvious. This is more important than your doctor’s appointment. This is a divine appointment.
“Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to say”, says the soldier to the lowly Jewish fisherman!
“I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right”.
Then Peter does what he can do and is sent to do. He tells the Jesus story that again ends with the big thing – the centre thing; “God raised him from the dead”. We all saw him. He told us to go, to speak, to bear witness to what we had seen and heard and learnt.
And now? People from anywhere with any sin can receive Jesus’ forgiveness and put their life in his hands for the rest of their life.
Staggering! This gift of forgiveness, new hope and life is not only for the favourite family – but those outside the family; not just for one nation but all nations; not just for one place but every place.
This Jesus really is for everyone:
for unclean people,
people we had written off long ago,
people we avoided, people we did not like much,
people we dismissed and maybe even put down at parties among ourselves or in their hearing.
He is for us when we know we don’t deserve his favour.
Cornelius and his whole household of maybe 30 or 40 including his workers, wife children, parents, all baptised……
Word, Spirit, Baptism, tongues of praise: all together in this Gentile house. A new community is born. The old has gone, the new has come.
“Hooray!”, we say! Or do we? They didn’t, at least not at first.
This news disturbs the favoured ones.
The leaders of the favoured few back in the city “criticised Peter”. ‘Peter, you are being too loose with the truth’. You are throwing out our precious gifts to dodgy people! These are Jewish promises!’.
But Peter has seen this before. He and John investigated this kind of thing up in Samaria just a little while ago. Remember Simon the Sorcerer?
Peter tells them the whole story in all its detail again.
And just like Peter and John themselves had done in Samaria with Phillips work, the community leaders in Jerusalem
…, had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.
Have we got it? This being church, not the other sad story. This is the Spirit at work through us. We are not on a long journey to eventual extinction. We are carried and powered by the same Spirt in his mission to bring this gospel of life to EVERYONE.
We are not the favoured few because we are all favourites of Jesus Christ.
This new life gifted by Jesus’ resurrection to us in our baptism is for EVERYBODY without fear or favour.
It is still for the people we know and the many we don’t; the people we like and the people we don’t, the people we understand and the people who just confuse us or anger us or upset us.
Even more. This man of love is for me when I don’t love, feel old, don’t belong, can’t walk, can’t speak, chase the wind of temporary success and easy money or life. This gospel it is for me and my household wherever I live.
When you are shameful or shaming, hurtful to another or hurt by another, making it or losing it, finding it or forgetting it, at your best or at your very worst, living well or dying difficult, so connected or so lonely, succeeding with flair or failing with regret our God does not have “favourites” because you are favoured Peter declares.
Terrible news for those who believe they have earnt being God’s favourite. Great news for those who know they can’t and gladly repent and believe!
Will Willimon, the US preacher, author and leader, writes,
“At every step in the Acts program of evangelism and church growth, it is the church that must be dragged kicking and screaming into new areas of baptismal fidelity … Evangelism is a matter of a church in good enough condition to keep up with the frenetic movements of the Spirit without passing out.” (notes in the April 17, 1991 issue of The Christian Century, throughout the book of Acts the people whom the Spirit shocks are the ones already “in church” (p. 472).
Friend, even if you are coming kicking and screaming into this new era in which the Spirit is doing new things because you thought you were the favourite, or because you don’t want to give up something or leave something behind or embrace something new, he still calls you his favourite – just like everyone else here! There are no favourites with God because we are all his favourites.
He calls you again to keep up with his “frenetic movements of the Spirit without passing out” today!