This is the last Sunday in our series “Belong, Believe, Become” – which is the opposite order in which outsiders have been traditionally incorporated into the community of faith. Typically we require people to believe and become (or behave) like us, and then they can belong; they become members and join in the service of leading the church forward as we follow Christ.
But, as we’ve noted these past five weeks, Jesus modeled a backward pattern of inviting people into leadership, including people with no prior training, proclaiming belonging and homecoming to the outsider, before beliefs or behavior were taught or tailored. With our passage this morning we are again confronted with the Spirit of Christ, who even after His death and resurrection continues as a nonconformist, tipping over and reversing the understood sequence and muddying the waters of purity and polity.
Poor Peter. Can you imagine? As a disciple and leader of the Jerusalem headquarters of the new Jewish sect known as Christians, he hears the voice of God calling him to go to the home of a Roman centurion in the city of Capernaum. Not only is it improper to enter the home of a Gentile; this particular Gentile is a commander in the occupying army. Peter doesn’t know what to think, but he obeys the voice and enters Cornelius’ home and begins to teach the gathered outsiders about Jesus. Then all heaven breaks loose.
You see, what is supposed to happen is this: the Gentiles who are interested in joining the family of God first become “proselytes”; then they commit to a season of learning the behaviors of the faith – modifying their diets to keep kosher, learning purification rites and all the other laws of the Torah – and professing their belief in God or, in the case of these new Christians, faith in Jesus as Lord. Finally, they are baptized in water as a sign and seal of their new identity. Ever since Pentecost, Peter and the other disciples have come to understand at there is another layer in this conversion experience: baptism in the Holy Spirit, being filled with the very presence of Christ. That’s how it is supposed to happen.
But just as Peter is starting the process, introducing these Roman Gentiles to the truths of the faith, the Spirit of Christ rudely interrupts and, willy-nilly, just starts baptizing all these Gentiles with the Holy Spirit! The nerve of that guy! Okay, that God-guy. He jumps right to the final step! There they are speaking in tongues and prophesying and clearly have been adopted and filled and blessed by God. So, like a man who has to run and catch the parade he’s leading, Peter asks, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit?” I guess not! Wow, before Peter can even get to the altar call the Holy Spirit is rushing in to take over.
Now, I believe it was vital for the Holy Spirit to interrupt and take over. Peter and the six men that came with him were all Jews – steeped in the Torah and the idea that salvation was only for the Jews. They believed that God had handpicked the Jews only to be saved. Oh, every now and then again, God would grant salvation to a non-Jew like Ruth or to a semi-half Jew like the Woman at the Well – but these Romans, well, that was more than even Peter could have believed. After all, as I mentioned, it was these Romans who had conquered the Jews and were enslaving them.
Peter had already gone the second mile by coming to see Cornelius and enter into his house. Go back to verse 28, there Peter says, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection.”
Traveling and speaking to Cornelius was about as far as Peter knew how to go. That was more than other Jewish people would have done in that day and age.
But then Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, took over and interrupted everything. I believe it was because Peter and his friends were not ready for this next event. What had happened in Pentecost with faithful Jews was now happening in the hearts and minds of these Gentiles; indeed, this passage is called “The Gentile Pentecost.” Yet, this had to stop them in their tracks. There was no way they were ready to see the Holy Spirit come down upon Gentiles in such a supernatural fashion.
This was a game changer. This meant that Gentiles would not only hear about the Gospel of Jesus Christ they would be welcomed into the family of God’s children. This was world changing news. The barrier that had kept Jews and Gentiles was being torn down right before everyone’s eyes.
All of this begs us to ask a question this morning: Are we open to the Holy Spirit interrupting our lives and our times of worship and prayer? Are we open to the Holy Spirit coming in amazing new ways? Are we ready to do what the Apostle Peter did?
The Apostle Peter gave up control. He doesn’t object. He doesn’t quench the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t say anything. Peter simply allows the Holy Spirit to interrupt and take over. He knows that the only way to truly follow Jesus is to be under the control of His Holy Spirit. Peter doesn’t understand fully what is going on but he is smart enough and in tune enough with God to know that what is going on is marvelous and wonderful. If we could have heard him pray it might have sounded something like this:
Holy Spirit, teach me, show me, do what needs to be done even when I don’t understand and when it goes against what I have been taught by others. I desire to always be open to your interruptions and your way. Holy Spirit fall fresh on me and on all those around me. I surrender to your will and to your way, Holy Spirit.
We have to understand that Peter wasn’t just winging it. He was carefully sharing the Word of God, the message of Jesus Christ and salvation when all of this happened. It was in the midst of Peter doing the God’s will that we see the Holy Spirit moving in and pouring out this anointing. This was not Peter being corrected, this was Peter being smart enough to allow the Holy Spirit to take over.
Pastor Jim Cymbala gives us some needed advice here in his recent book, Strong Through the Storm. Pastor Cymbala writes – “There is something wrong when our services are so tightly programmed and streamlined that there is no openness for the Holy Spirit to interrupt with His agenda. Unless, of course, you don’t believe he has one.” (Strong Through the Storm).
Peter knew what it meant for the Holy Spirit to interrupt. He was not afraid of wildfire. He wasn’t worried that things would get out of hand. He knew it would be the fire of the Holy Spirit coming down and being in charge. He knew that everything would be under the Spirit’s control.
The Bible calls us to be ready, for whatever may come our way. Titus 3:1 tells us, among other things, to “be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good…” First Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” And 2 Timothy 4:2 says, “Be prepared in season and out of season.”
But that doesn’t mean we sit around on our hands, waiting for some miraculous vision to arrive, telling us exactly what to do next. No. Both Cornelius and Peter were in prayer, talking to God, when their directions arrived. It’s not about standing around, watching the sky, waiting for an angel to reveal what’s next. It’s about doing what you should be doing, and allowing God to change the course a little.
Pastor Mike Barres, on the Heartlight website, wrote these words in speaking of the woman who is healed simply by touching the hem of Jesus’ robe: “The Gospels are full of these ‘divine appointment’ type of interruptions in Jesus’ schedule. Do you remember Jesus’ visit to Zacchaeus’ house, the widow at Nain whose son was healed, and the man let down through the ceiling by his four friends who was both forgiven and healed? Each of these stories involved an ‘interruption’ in Jesus’ plans, yet Jesus chose to listen to the people and look beyond the surface and reach out with God’s grace. Jesus could be interrupted; shouldn’t we be willing to be interrupted also? Do you allow Jesus to interrupt your schedule?”
Jesus is turning things upside down again. Telling people they belong, long before they believe or become. If we in the church are Peter in this story, who are the Gentiles of today? And how is our ordered way of faith perhaps hindering their belonging in the body of Christ?