Eric Barreto: When God Surprises Us

This sermon was originally delivered by one of Church Anew’s advisors, Rev, Dr. Eric Barreto, on July 3rd, 2022, as a part of Duke University Chapel’s “Fourth Sunday after Pentecost” worship service. To view a recording of the sermon, click here.


Acts 10:34-35, 44-48

Then Peter began to speak to them: “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.”

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.


My friends, do you ever wonder what God’s voice sounds like? Do you ever wonder if you would recognize God’s voice if God whispered in your ear or thundered from a mountain? I mean, we confess week after week that the Scriptures are God’s word, but what voice do you hear when we together declare, “The word of the Lord?” 

For some of us, I’m sure, God’s voice would sound resonant, deep, something like James Earl Jones but the CNN version more than Star Wars. (“This is CNN.” Not, “Luke, I am your father.” Spoiler alert.) For some of us, I’m sure, God’s voice is gentle, soothing; it’s that whisper we have heard when we were scared, worried, hurt by those we loved most. For some of us, I’m sure, we are not sure what God’s voice would even sound like. I mean, does God have a voice? A mouth? Lips? A tongue? Some of us think this is all very silly. 

Some of us grew up in churches where God’s voice was full of judgement and threat. Turn or burn. Obey God or else. God’s voice was like the angry preacher on television or on the soapbox on a street corner.

Some of us grew up in churches where God’s voice felt timid, halting, uncertain. God has some nice words to share with us, but such a God isn’t going to change us, not really. God’s voice was like a Hallmark card. Placid. Saccharine. Momentary.

All this might make me wonder how we would know God’s voice in the first place if we were to hear it. Not only that but let’s be honest, we have a hard time listening to and for God’s voice. Life can be so loud, so distracting that we can easily miss when God is speaking. Even worse is that sometimes, often times we miss God’s voice entirely because we don’t have the imagination to hear God’s voice. Our expectations about what God might say are too restricted, our expectations about how God will sound are too narrow, our expectations about what God might say is not open enough to receive the breadth and the depth of God’s graciousness. 

Fortunately, my friends, we are not alone in these problems!

In Acts 10, Peter wrestles with God’s voice, especially when God’s voice seems to lead down an unbelievable path. But first we meet a righteous centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius has a vision. A voice in the vision calls Cornelius to send for Peter. Cornelius listens right away. The next day Peter has his own vision. In this vision, a blanket comes down from the heavens with all kinds of animals. Three times, a voice says, “Kill and eat,” and three times, Peter refuses to do so. And, three times, three times!, the voice tells Peter that what God has called clean, acceptable, we no longer get to call unclean. All this happens three times and yet Peter emerges from the vision really confused. It is at this moment that Cornelius’s men show up. Peter goes with them, but you can sense some uncertainty in Peter. Is this really what God would want me to do? Can I trust that it actually was God’s voice that this Cornelius, this Roman centurion, this Gentile heard? And though he hesitates Peter comes to Cornelius’s house. Though he’s uncertain, Peter follows this strange voice. Though he sees all sorts of problem with where he is going, he dares to believe that God just might be speaking.

Our passage this morning is when it all clicks for Peter. He finally gets it. He is much less confused finally. You see, the vision Peter had, a vision about animals and food was not about what he ought to eat but about with whom Peter ought to eat! The vision was not about food; it was about people. It was about belonging. And if God has called a people clean, then we have lost the right to call those people unclean, rejected. God’s voice has been clear! Crystal clear.

But notice something! Peter gets it, yes. He begins by saying, “I now understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who does what is right is acceptable to God.” He gets its. Finally! 

But, I think he’s still a little bit nervous. You know how I know this? Because he keeps preaching! You see, when I get nervous, I’m kinda like Peter too. When I get nervous, I start preaching and preaching and preaching. Which is why we might be here all day!

So notice what happens in v. 44, one of my favorite verses in Acts. Notice what the Spirit does. Look at v. 44. Verse 44 reads, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the world.” While Peter was still speaking. While Peter was still preaching, still unsure about what was happening before him, still uncertain that he had actually heard God’s voice, the Spirit says, “Enough, Peter. Enough with your uncertainty. Enough with your preaching. Enough.”

And the Spirit falls upon all those gathered in Cornelius’s house. Not just righteous Cornelius and his righteous family but all his close friends he had invited over. In Acts, the Spirit does not wait for us to be ready. The Spirit moves far ahead of us, surprising us at every turn. The Spirit falls wherever the Spirit chooses. 

The Spirit falls, but, still, still!, some are unconvinced. Acts tells us that Peter’s companions are “astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured even on the Gentiles.” Astounded, really?

And here, I am incredibly frustrated with Peter and his companions. I mean, were you not paying attention? Were you not listening? Have you not been reading all along? I mean, when Jesus calls the disciples to go to the ends of the earth, who did you expect to find out there except a bunch of Gentiles? Weren’t you listening? And when Mary and Simeon were singing like they were on the set of Glee or on a Broadway stage, didn’t you listen to their resonant songs? Didn’t you hear when Simeon saw Jesus as a light to the Gentiles? How did you miss it? Or when Isaiah prophesied that all the nations would gather together on the mountain of God to worship the one true God? Or that Abraham was to be a blessing to the nations? Or when God created the world, the whole world, and declared it all good. Honestly, were you not paying attention? 

I want to be so angry at Peter and his companions for not seeing the obvious, for being so resistant. So obtuse. 

Except I can’t. Not really. Not if I’m being honest. 

You see, when God’s grace falls upon people I don’t think deserve it, I get frustrated too. When God opens God’s arms to those who haven’t earned it, I wonder what God is doing. When God is generous and merciful and loving among people who are nothing like me and my communities, I get more than a little anxious. Why? Because, if we are honest, God’s grace, God’s justice is strange to us. God’s grace, God’s justice baffle us. God’s grace, God’s justice is confounding because it breaks every rule we thought we knew, every measure of worth we have been taught, every boundary we have inherited and tried so hard to keep.

You see, the waters of baptism and the belonging they nurture are not ours. The waters of baptism and that belonging don’t belong to us. The waters belong to God and God alone. And these waters are abundant. These waters splash over the aqueducts we build to try to concentrate them in one place. These waters exceed the reserves we use to hold on to them for as long as possible. These waters fulfill every thirst. These waters cleanse every wound. These waters refresh every soul. These waters draw us together. These waters make us one. But these waters belong to God and God alone and God will send these waters wherever God will choose, for God is in the business of subverting our expectations, even our most deeply held convictions.

Do you hear? Listen. Really listen. Close your eyes and listen.

Do you hear? Do you hear what the voice of God sounds like? It’s not always a booming voice. It’s not always a burning bush. Sometimes, God’s voice is a river of water, bubbling, softly. God’s voice is so often subtle, quiet. We have to incline ourselves to hear it. We have to sink into the world to hear it. 

And when God speaks, God does not just speak my language, words with which I’m familiar. God speaks in all the languages of the world and even in words we cannot fathom. God speaks in strange ways but in ways that the Spirit opens us up to understand. Because God is, yes, mysterious but God is present among us. Yes, sometimes God’s words are strange in our ears, but the Spirit is a gentle tutor. Yes, sometimes God’s words are surprising and strange and shocking, but they are always words of resurrection and of life. 

I don’t know what God’s voice sounds like, at least not all the time. I don’t know what you hear when you hear God’s voice. But I know I have heard God’s voice. I know you have heard God’s voice. And God’s voice contains multitudes. 

I have heard God’s voice when I tasted the food my grandmothers made. I have heard God’s voice when my pastor saw gifts for ministry in an awkward teenager. I have heard God’s voice when I was serving as a hospital chaplain to a young Latinx couple who had just lost a pregnancy; I heard God’s voice when words in Spanish I thought I had forgotten spilled from my lips as I prayed for comfort and hope and grief. I have heard God’s voice on the lips of non-verbal people. I have heard God’s voice in the protest cries of the oppressed. I have heard God’s voice in the joyful cry of a child. I have heard God’s voice in the quiet of the night. I have heard God’s voice in the tumult of everyday life.

And God’s voice has always had a different sound, a different tenor. But what has always been consistent, what has always been characteristic of God’s voice is one thing, one transformative thing, one thing that makes all the difference.

God’s voice is always … a surprise because God’s grace is always more expansive than I had imagined. God’s voice is always … a surprise because God’s righteousness is always more generous than I had thought. God’s voice is always a surprise because God’s justice is always more merciful than I could have ever thought or hoped. 

The Book of Acts does not tell us exactly what God’s voice sounds like. But Acts does tell us to listen carefully, to expect the unexpected, to hope against hope because God’s voice is always, always, always a delightful, grace-filled surprise. 

Listen, my friends. Listen. God is speaking. 


The Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto is the Weyerhaeuser Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. His passion is to pursue scholarship for the sake of the church, and he regularly writes for and teaches in faith communities around the country.

Twitter | @ericbarreto

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