Sermons That Work

In the Acts of the Apostles…, Easter 6 (B) – 2009

May 17, 2009

In the Acts of the Apostles, we see our Christian Church in its earliest, most perfect and probably most idealized form. There were no buildings, doctrines, vestments, or rituals; just the power of the Holy Spirit giving the preached Word of God the power to transform death into life, making the lost found, the captive free, the lame to walk, the blind to see, and giving the hopeless hope.

For whom is the gift of the Holy Spirit intended: some or all? And to whom are we, if fortunate enough to have received the gift of God’s Spirit, going to give it: some or all?

In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we hear preaching that explodes the myth of “us and them” and “we and they.”

We are they.

Our passage from Acts begins, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard he word.” We need to remind ourselves of all the marvelous things that have happened in this tenth chapter of Acts to appreciate the new song, as the 98th Psalm reminds us, that we are called to sing to the Lord, “for God has done marvelous things.” How marvelous that the Resurrection of Christ is not for the few, but for the many!

At the beginning of the chapter, we hear of Cornelius, a Roman soldier of rank, prestige, and honor. He’s wealthy, owns slaves, and may have gained all he had through pillage and plunder. He would’ve been, to the faithful and observant Jew, which includes Simon Peter, a person of derision, maybe disgust, and probably hatred for participating in the oppression of Israel and the economic exploitation of the people so as to provide for the glories of Rome. So, Peter will be quite surprised when God makes it clear that Cornelius is loved by God, too, and there is nothing that Peter can do about it.

Shortly before God arranges an introduction of Peter to Cornelius, God gives the well-meaning-yet-often-befuddled Peter a vision of a four-cornered sheet full of animals that would make Peter unclean if he even touched them, much less ate them. Peter may not follow the rules, but he certainly knows them. “Kill, and eat,” a voice says to Peter.

“By no means, Lord,” Peter replies, even though he is famished, “for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”

The voice replies, “What God has made clean, you shall not call profane.”

Then the clean Peter meets the unclean Cornelius. God has made Cornelius, too, and it is not for Peter to call him profane. In God’s economy, the lost are just as much God’s as the found. Clearly, as the Acts of the Apostles makes abundantly clear, the ones who are being saved by Christ are not to stand still waiting for the lost to come to them. Peter has been sent to Cornelius, not the other way around.

Peter preaches a sermon that begins with these words of the new song, full of the marvelous things of Christ’s resurrection: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” It is during this sermon that the passage before us takes place: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”

Cornelius and his unclean cohorts receive the gospel message with abandon, like the people of Nineveh did when Jonah prophesied, and the Holy Spirit pours in and blows through their unclean lives just as surely as the Spirit does ours. “The circumcised believers,” Acts 10:45 tells us, “were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”

Every time the verb “astound” or the noun “astonishment” shows up in scripture, pay close attention, because chances are there is an example of God acting in our lives as God wants, not as we want God to act.

When the understanding of a Biblical passage turns on understanding the rite of circumcision, we are rightly uncomfortable to go into detail. Simply put, the circumcised believe they are clean and that the uncircumcised, like Cornelius and those named gentiles, are permanently unclean. We can see the tectonic shift underway; we can hear a new song being sung: What God has made no one shall deem unclean.

Peter finishes his sermon directed not at the ones being converted, but to the smug and certain who already think that their Christian faith and forgiveness by God makes them privileged over others. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

The Church is but a few days old, yet the congregants are already complaining among themselves, conspiring to send a letter to their equivalent of the bishop and standing committee, complaining that even the gentiles – yes the gentiles, can you believe such a thing? – have accepted the word of God.

We can almost hear them saying, “Who is sitting in my pew?” And “I am all for inclusion, as long as we don’t lower our musical standards.” And “We shouldn’t have to print the leaflet just because it’s easier for people who don’t know how to use the prayer book!”

We are not the hosts at God’s table; we are guests ourselves. We aren’t called to welcome as much as to act like we have been welcomed ourselves into the grace of God. We don’t forgive the sins of others; we testify that our sins have been forgiven. We are all beggars hungry for the bread of God, telling the other beggars where the bread may be found.

Jesus made it all quite simple: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Too many Christians believe that we are called simply to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and that when we achieve that belief, it somehow separates us from those who don’t. We fall into the sin of believing that we are clean, and those who don’t believe are unclean.

But as the philosopher Kierkegaard observed, “Christianity is not a doctrine to be taught, but a life to be lived.”

Are we called to believe in resurrection, and teach it as doctrine, or are we called to practice resurrection in the life that we live?

Jesus instructs that we are to practice resurrection when he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

We go astray when the Risen Christ is worshiped but not followed. To love one another is a call to action, modeled on Jesus’ love for the disciples. For the people with whom we are called to share the Good News of the resurrection, their future in the faith is often dependent on our ability to practice resurrection and not just preach it.

To practice resurrection with the very substance of our lives will be a constant expansion of our capacity to love. Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

Take a moment and look around. Who is not here? There are so many, but they will not come to us. We must go to them, not in arrogance, but in humility. We must go with a love that shows resurrection to be substantive and life-giving, not as a doctrine. We must show a love so sacrificial, charitable, welcoming, and abundant that it reveals that we would give our very life so that they would receive that transforming love imparted by the resurrection.

Many will say, “I can’t go so far as giving my life.” Let us then say, “We believe in the resurrection,” and testify to that belief with what our earthly lives reveal about our faith in God.

When the worship ends, the service begins. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”

So let us ask God for what we need and go, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Alleluia, Alleluia.

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Christopher Sikkema


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