Being A Follower (May 9, 2021)
Acts 10: 44-48
Being A Follower
Words matter. The words that we use, particularly the verbs that we use, matter greatly to the meaning that we convey, and certainly the meaning that we hear. For instance, if I’m telling you a story and I saw that someone “ran,” that brings different things to your mind. But saying that someone “scattered” or saying that someone “fled” brings very different things to mind. The words we use make a difference in what we hear. My first job was at a Taco Bell, and my favorite one of the managers there would often be manning the drive-through, and every time he said a total he would put the word “only” in front of the amount. So instead of saying that your total is $14.99, he’d say your total is “only” $14.99. “Only” $14.99 sounds like you’re getting a really good deal. It’s the used car salesman tactic.
And so I was keenly aware as I read this story this week of the words that Luke was using; in particular I wanted to look at two specific words. The first word is that the disciples and Peter were “astonished.” They were astonished. Not surprised, not thought it was cool, they were astonished that the Holy Spirit would fall upon Gentiles. That brings a level of surprise.
And it’s backed up by what I think is the most important word of this entire passage, and that’s the word “even.” They weren’t just astonished that it would fall upon the Gentiles, they weren’t astonished that the Holy Spirit acted (frankly I am astonished every time I see the Holy Spirit acted); they were astonished that this Holy Spirit would act “even on Gentiles.” That word conveys an idea that Peter and these disciples thought the Gentiles were out of bounds. They couldn’t believe the Holy Spirit was working, but really couldn’t believe the Holy Spirit was working on these people. They still viewed the Gentile as the outsider, they still viewed the Gentile as the non-neighbor, they still weren’t getting the message that their brothers and sisters were everyone. And here the Spirit was acting on Gentiles; and not just any old Gentile, but a Roman occupier.
In fact, if you look at all of the sermons that Peter gives in the book of Acts they all have something in common: structure. This structure is thought even to this day as one of the most common ones. You tell the good news of Jesus Christ raised from the dead, and immediately go into “now your response to that is to repent and believe the good news, and be baptized in the name of Jesus.” And this goes all the way back to Peter‘s first sermon in Acts chapter 3. He tells the Jews the good news of Jesus Christ, and then says “now repent and be baptized.” He jumps right to that. And they repent, they are baptized, and the Spirit falls on them. This is Peter‘s formula.
But it’s not here. Here we see that Peter comes to town, he preaches the good news, and the Spirit falls upon the Gentiles. I’ve liked to think that the Spirit was just so eager that it couldn’t wait, but that word “even” made me think that maybe the Spirit wasn’t waiting because it knew Peter wasn’t going to get there. Peter did not comprehend that the Gentiles, that even the Gentiles, could join the church. So he’s not going to get to the baptism part, he’s just gonna say “this is the good news, this is what the Jewish people are working through right now. and what we are celebrating.” Maybe defending the church to the Romans, that’s all Peter’s going to do. So the Spirit doesn’t wait.
This story began with a couple of visions that happened as Peter is in a town on the Mediterranean coast named Jappa. He gets a vision from God, and the main point of that vision is God saying “do not call anything profane if I have said it’s clean.” And then immediately after that is done someone walks up to him and says that this Roman centurion down in Caesarea has received a message from an angel to send for Peter. And Peter’s just heard God say “if I call something clean don’t call it profane,” so he goes. and visits with Gentiles (which is very much against the Law of the day). Because he believes that the Spirit has told him to go and to meet with this Cornelius.
But in some sense Peter is not really going in the way that the Spirit is. Because he seems to be going believing that the Spirit can’t go with them, believing the Gentiles can’t be brought into the church. And he believes that because generation upon generation of teachers of the law in Jewish tradition have said that the Scriptures of the Torah, of the first five books of the Bible, make it clear that Gentiles cannot be brought into the community. And to be fair, the Scriptures seem to be pretty clear on that. They’re not necessarily incorrect in their interpretation, that seems to be what the Scriptures are saying: that Gentiles, non-Jews, are not allowed into the community. He’s acting on that tradition. What he’s doing, though, is he’s telling God how to be God, based on generations of interpretations of the Scriptures, but still.
Of course Peter has been doing this for a while. Ever since the last time we were in the Caesarea. Different Caesarea, but similar story. That story involves Jesus bringing his disciples into the room and asking “who do you say that I am?” Peter says the correct answer “you’re the Messiah.” And Jesus says, “You’re right, I am the Messiah. And this is what being the Messiah means.” And Peter says “No, no. That’s not what being the Messiah means; this is what being the Messiah means.” He tells the Messiah how to be the Messiah. Peter has been doing this, trying to tell God how to be God based on the interpretations of the Scriptures, for a while. And each time he gets reminded that he is not God. He is to follow and listen. And his credit, each time he does.
I think the main lesson is that you cannot contain the Spirit, and you cannot predict what the Spirit will do. The Spirit asked Peter to do something he wasn’t prepared to do: go to a Gentile’s house and eat with them, and then baptize them. The Spirit is calling Peter to do something he wasn’t expecting it to ask him to do. And actually to do something pretty risky. He’s risking everything to follow what the Spirit is saying, even when he wasn’t expecting the Spirit to say that. And that is harder than it sounds.
But furthermore, you can’t predict when the Spirit will act either. The Spirit moves in its own time, in its own ways. We see here Peter probably wanted to stay in Joppa for a while, he’s just done and amazing miracle, there’s probably a bunch of people who are very interested in what he has to say right now, and he probably wanted to stay there a while and teach them. But instead the Spirit whisks him away. The Spirit will act in its own time.
But never more so than during the sermon. Peter has time between Joppa and Caesarea to really figure out what he’s going to say, and so my guess is that he had a sermon worked out of some kind. And probably he had a punch at the end to end it with, and instead the Spirit comes in and interrupts. And based on my experience with preachers, the Spirit was either too late or too soon depending on what Peter really wanted here. Too late from the fact that he’s gone through a part of a sermon, or maybe even most of his sermon without any reassurance that it was clicking, that the Spirit was acting. There was no nodding, or amend, or things like that. Peter wasn’t seeing that, and maybe he’s being discouraged. Or maybe the spirits acting too soon, since he had this big punch at the end, and that’s not coming anymore. But the Spirit acts on its own timing, and the Spirit cannot be predicted. That’s the lesson that Peter has to learn. And the lesson that we need to learn.
Even when they couldn’t understand what the Spirit was doing, even when the Spirit was acting in ways that didn’t make sense to them, they still follow. Peter went to the Roman, It flew in the face of tradition, generations of tradition, and yet Peter goes. And he ministers to the Roman, at the very least tells him the good news.
But perhaps most importantly, the line Peter says at the end, “can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” This line is one of the most important lines in Scripture for my faith development. It really is an amazing line. It asks the question of “if the Spirit seems to be acting in a way that flies against everything we think we know, can anyone say the Spirit is wrong?” And of course Peter’s answer, and the answer of all of them there, is no. We cannot tell the Spirit that the Spirit is wrong. If we’re going to be spiritual people we must humble ourselves and be guided by the Spirit instead of insisting that we guide the Spirit. Instead of insisting that God move in the direction we’re already looking.
But of course that’s not a problem unique to the 21st-century, it’s not a problem unique to their time either, it is a problem that exists in all of human history. This is what the Pharisees were struggling with. Peter tells God that God‘s not allowed to go to Gentiles. And he does that because generation after generation of teachers have told him that that’s what the Scripture says. The prevailing interpretation of the Torah was that the Gentiles were not allowed in the community, and since Christianity was a section of the Jewish community, a reform movement within Judaism, the Gentiles clearly can’t be in it. Generation after generation of tradition had said that the prophets say the Messiah is going to be a military leader, is going to overthrow our occupiers (now the Romans), so that’s what the Messiah is going to be. And almost everyone in the Gospels, almost everyone of the book of Acts, is struggling with the Spirit moving against that tradition, against that interpretation of what was clear in the Scriptures to them. And the question is always “are you going to follow the Spirit if the Spirit is moving and acting in the world? Are you going to follow the rabbis and the tradition so literally that you cannot see the Spirit acting in another way, in an unexpected way? Are you hearing the Scriptures so clearly, so loudly that you can’t hear God speaking right in front of you? Peter, in both cases, is able to hear and able to see the Spirit work. And the Pharisees in both cases are not. And this remains a question for us, because the Spirit remains active in our world, and the Spirit’s going to do what the Spirit’s going to do, regardless of what we say it should or shouldn’t.
And this is the lesson to take home today, the warning to take home today. It’s important to read the Scriptures, it’s one of the primary ways that God speaks to us. It’s important to read the tradition and the teachers of old, it’s another primary way that God speaks to us. Wesleyans believe that God speaks in Scripture, that’s the actual Bible, tradition, that’s what the teachers of old said, that’s generations of teaching. But also our own thoughts, our own reason. God gave us this mind to use it. And finally our own experiences, for example, do you see the people in front of you speaking in tongues right now? All four of them are important, not just one or two. And this is the lesson. Don’t be so certain of your interpretation and tradition, don’t be so literal, that you can’t hear God speaking in reason and experience to point you in a new direction. Peter was a very spiritual person. Peter read his scriptures. Peter took it seriously, but not so seriously that he couldn’t hear God speaking. That’s the lesson for today: be a follower, and be ready for the Spirit to do amazing things in your life. Thanks be to God. Amen.