|'Holy Spirit Coming' by He-Qi|
There is nothing harder on God’s green earth than changing your mind.
Unless, perhaps, you’ve decided you want to try to change someone else’s mind.
And the one exception to both the above seems to occur when the Holy Spirit gets involved.
The entire book of the Acts of the Apostles might be understood as a continuous narrative of people changing their minds. It begins after the resurrection, with Jesus ascending into heaven, and continues with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Ask anyone in our Monday evening Bible Study: we immersed ourselves in the book of Acts for the better part of a year. Anyone who was part of that immersion experience will tell you: the Holy Spirit is really the main character in the book of Acts, and the Spirit goes about changing hearts and minds beginning in Jerusalem, and all throughout Judea, to what was known, in the first century, as the ends of the earth.
Today’s story from Acts occurs roughly a third of the way into the book, but it is a turning point, on which all the rest of it depends. It actually begins at verse 1 of chapter 10. And it reads like a film script.
Scene 1: Close up on Cornelius: a Centurion, an officer in the Roman army. He’s not a Jew, though he respects and worships God, prays with passion and conviction, and is generous towards the poor and needy. Through the magic of special effects we see that he has a vision: an angel of God tells him to send for Simon Peter, Jesus’ disciple and follower. Cornelius sends two slaves and another religious soldier from his cohort off on the mission: bring back Simon Peter.
Scene 2: Meanwhile, Simon Peter is off having a vision of his own, though it is decidedly more trippy than Cornelius’. Simon sees a sheet being lowered from heaven, and it contains all kinds of animals, birds and reptiles. It comes with a command, also from heaven: “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” And Peter, who is a Jew, and was raised a Jew, and knows perfectly well what both scripture and tradition have to say about all the non-kosher foods in front of him on that sheet, says, “No. Way. I know what’s clean and what’s unclean. I know what’s Godly and un-Godly. I will NOT eat them, God-I-Am.” To which the angel replies: “You are not the boss-of-God. You do not get to tell God what is clean and what is unclean. Now, knock it off.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.
Scene 3: The people sent by Cornelius arrive—we can see them out the window, even as Peter is trying for a third time not to eat those non-kosher foods—and Peter gets a heads up from the Holy Spirit that they are there, and that he should go with them. He offers them hospitality and they spend the night. The next day he goes with them: they journey to the home of Cornelius. Traveling montage, as the scene goes back and forth from the travelers to the eager Cornelius, waiting at home in Caesarea.
Scene 4: This is where a little comic relief gets thrown in, as Cornelius, overcome with joy to see Peter, starts out by falling at his feet to worship him. Peter quickly puts an end to that. Then they have one of those exchanges people sometimes have in the movies when they’re falling in love. “I swear I had a dream about you.” “Really? Well guess what. I had a dream about you!” Only they’re not falling in love with one another, but with this new thing that the Holy Spirit is doing in and through them both.
Scene 5. Peter preaches one of the most important sermons in Christian history.
When I studied preaching in seminary, it became clear to me that sermons can serve many functions. There are sermons that are meant to encourage, and sermons that are meant to instruct. There are sermons to inspire and sermons to motivate and sermons to console. But at the heart of each and every sermon there is one fundamental purpose: conversion. That word, “conversion,” comes from a Greek word that literally means, ‘turning around.’ Every sermon seeks to persuade the listeners, in some way, to turn around—to see things differently, to get a new vision, a new view, however subtle or dramatic. Every sermon in the book of Acts seeks to convert its listeners, to turn them around so that they are ready to receive the gospel, the message of Jesus.
Peter begins, “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” [Acts 10:34-35]. As it is presented in the book of Acts, this is one of the most important sermons in history. This is the sermon that makes the difference between a world in which Christianity remained only a small minority sect of first century Mediterranean Judaism, and a world in which Christianity flourished, growing like one of those mustard seeds described in the gospels.
A seminary friend wrote about this sermon this week.
“I now know that God shows no partiality.” It was a shocking declaration then. Truthfully, it may be just as shocking today for those who have been on the business end of Christianity’s judgment stick—and for those who have wielded it.[i]
“I know now that God shows no partiality,” said Simon Peter, the Jewish fisherman from Galilee—thus declaring a departure from his religious training and tradition and the scripture that had formed his faith.
There is nothing harder on God’s green earth than changing minds, unless, of course, the Holy Spirit is involved. And then, as now, all bets are off.
This week a sister denomination of Christians gathered for its perioding ‘big meeting,’ akin to our Presbyterian General Assembly, which meets this summer in Pittsburgh. At their meeting our brothers and sisters in Christ debated the following amendment to their constitution:
“We affirm our unity in Jesus Christ while acknowledging differences in applying our faith in different cultural contexts as we live out the Gospel. We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s love is available to all, that nothing can separate us from the love of God.”
One writer explained, “After some very lively debate, this legislation passed, but not by much. In the end, only 53 percent of delegates agreed to add this very basic, very obvious, very scriptural [Romans 8:38-39]… affirmation of God’s love.” [ii]
I bring this up, not to single out our brothers and sisters in that denomination, not to say, Oh, aren’t they terrible, that 47%, and aren’t we great, who know better, but rather, to say this: what Peter said was shocking then, and it’s shocking now, deeply shocking to our sense of who and what God is. God’s love is bigger than we are comfortable with, and God calls us to ways of loving one another that live into that love.
And so thanks be to God for Scene 6 in our movie: The Holy Spirit comes down. Falls on all who are present. This includes Cornelius, and the members of his household: his family, his servants and his soldiers. This also includes the “circumcised believers” who had accompanied Simon Peter—those who have, you might say, their own opinions and expectations here, those who are, like Simon Peter, predisposed to believe that the received tradition and scripture are to be adhered to no matter what. But the Holy Spirit comes down.
Scripture gives us some vivid descriptions as to what occurs when the Holy Spirit comes down. One memorable account is at the beginning of the book of Acts, and it involves nothing less than violent wind, and flames of fire, and the ability to speak in new and unexpected languages. In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, the falling of the Spirit causes bones bleached dry in the desert to come together and be covered with flesh and sinew and be filled once again with the breath of life. Another memorable but perhaps more subtle account the one we read just a couple of weeks ago, in John’s gospel: Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit upon his disciples and giving them the gift and commission of forgiveness.
The Holy Spirit comes down, and all bets are off. The Holy Spirit comes down, and nothing is the same. The Holy Spirit comes down, and instructions from Jesus—like, “Love one another, as I have loved you”—take on new shape and vibrancy and urgency. The Holy Spirit comes down, and minds are changed. Conversion happens. Things, and people, turn around.
Our popular culture, the culture of attack ads and highly politicized news reporting, has a phrase for changing one’s mind. They call it the “flip-flop.” You could say, Simon Peter flip-flops on the issue of whether non-Jews may be welcomed unconditionally into the body of Christ. He flip-flops on the restrictions he puts on Jesus’ commandment of love. Of course, he has the Holy Spirit to blame for his change of mind and change of heart. The Holy Spirit comes down, and all bets are off.
My seminary friend has this to say on this game-changing moment in our reading:
What Peter did changed the course of Christianity forever. He opened it to the whole world—to you and me, who would never have been welcome if this vision of God’s impartiality had not worked its way through Peter’s—and Cornelius’—active imaginations.
When Peter declared, “God shows no partiality,” he opened the possibility that anyone—everyone—is welcome in the family of faith. He also put us on warning: the rules were changed for you, so that you could come in—who are you, then, to prevent God from blessing the whole human family? Who are you to stand in the way of God’s love?
God changed the rules for us so that we could come in. God through the Holy Spirit—through trippy dreams and night visions—changed the game so that you and I could be part of the family of faith. God changed hearts and minds in order that the family of God, the body of Christ, could be ever more hospitable, more opening and welcoming, to all God’s children. God turns us all around, so that we can see and live and participate in Scene 7—in which, babies and adults are baptized and welcomed. In which the Presbytery of San Francisco finally ordains Lisa Larges, after more than 20 years of her faithful participation in the ordination process. In which we grow in ways we can only begin to imagine, in loving one another, according to our God’s gracious plan. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Rev. David Lewicki, “Holy Calamity: Acts 10:44-48, ON Scripture, http://odysseynetworks.org/news/onscripture-the-bible-acts-10-44-48.
[ii] Matt Algren, “United Methodist Church Divided on God’s Unconditional Love,” http://blog.mattalgren.com/2012/05/united-methodist-church-divided-on-gods-unconditional-love/#.T6-f178ZA7B.