The Holy Spirit as a Pre-Existing Condition

Much has happened leading up to our reading for the day.  Catching up with the story is important for hearing today's scripture.  A quick update:

Cornelius--a spiritual, but not religious Gentile living in Caesarea of some importance in the Roman legion and a member of the Italian Cohort--Cornelius had a vision.  It was a clear send for an apostle of Jesus named Peter.

Peter--a devout and faithful Jew and an ardent follower of Jesus the Christ--Peter had a vision, too.  His was not so clear.  In fact, it was downright bizarre.  Peter was in Joppa, praying on the roof of his friend's house, and he was hungry.  While the food was being prepared, he fell into a trance and saw a sheet being lowered down from the heavens, filled with all of the foods that good Jews were not allowed to touch, much less eat.  There was a voice, "Get up Peter, kill and eat."  There was Peter's response, "By no means Lord!  You know I can't eat what is profane and unclean!" There was a counter-response, "What God has made, you must not call profane." 

It happened twice more; and then, before Peter could make heads or tails out of the vision, the sheet was snatched up into heaven and Cornelius' men were knocking at the door to take Peter on a trek from Joppa to Caesarea.  

The Holy Spirit said "Go!" so Peter went.  Arriving at the Gentile house, he realized that Cornelius was having a genuine experience of God, so he started in, preaching, to explain some things about this God who was giving Cornelius visions.  Before Peter could finish his sermon, the Holy Spirit short-circuited the usual order of things and poured through the room and all of a sudden the footprint of the church got a lot bigger....

And now reading from the 10th chapter of Acts:

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 to 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.

This ends the reading.

Those of us who comprise what we know of as the Church are lucky to have had someone as gifted as Peter in our history.

Peter was a remarkable apostle.  He was responsible.  Faithful.  Attentive.  Discerning.  Obedient. 

Matthew's gospel tells us that Jesus thought so much of Peter that, in fact, the Church would be founded upon him.

In the book of Acts, we see early evidence of Peter stepping up to the challenge of leadership in the Church.  It was Peter who quickly became the voice for the eleven remaining apostles (Acts 1:16).  It was Peter who recognized the presence of the Holy Spirit in the chaos of Pentecost (2:14).  Peter was the one who began to believe enough in the "greater things that would be done in Christ's name" that he was able to heal, cure, and even raise someone from the dead! 

These days, we value people who can negotiate what leadership gurus call "adaptive challenges."  Peter was an adaptive leader before adaptive leaders were cool.  Peter stood tall and steady in a time when the future of the Church was murky--at best.  In many ways, because of Peter's commitment and Peter's responsibility and Peter's wisdom--the body that has become the Church caught a foothold and began to grow. 

But the Holy Spirit couldn't leave well enough alone.  Just when Peter thought he had navigated the toughest challenges, the Holy Spirit started crossing boundaries that seemed out of bounds.

The truth is, sometimes being a leader makes you tired.  Navigating adaptive challenges can wear you down.  Being responsible can feel like a burden. And being these things in the Church is--sometimes--almost worse.

When Peter had his profane, rooftop vision, I can just imagine that he was ready to throw up his hands. 

Really?  More change?? 

"What God has made you shall not call profane."  

Really?  We're crossing that line??

It is about 30 miles between Joppa, where Peter was, and Caesarea, where Cornelius was.  I bet that journey for Peter was as confusing as it was tiring.  Maybe Peter was ticking off what he imagined to be the problems with what he was being asked to do:

  • How will I explain all of this to brothers and sisters in Jerusalem?
  • If the Gentiles are to be part of the church, how will we maintain our identity as God's chosen people?
  • Is this an isolated incident, or is it the beginning of a new chapter?
  • How will the structure we have built around the faith handle this change?
  • Do I have enough energy to meet this challenge?
  • How can I be expected to be a leader in the church if I cannot predict or understand these questions?           

All I imagine that Peter was sure of on that 30-mile journey toward Caesarea was that God had a role for him to play--probably out of the same, well-worn playbook.  For Peter knew that he was the one God could count on.  He was the one who always knew what to say.  He was the established and authoritative leader.

So imagine Peter's surprise when he showed up at the house of Cornelius and realized that whatever he was there for it did not all depend on him.  Imagine Peter's surprise to find out that the Holy Spirit had preempted his visit by one of the Holy Spirit's own.

What happens when Peter arrives at the house, hears of Cornelius' vision, and--all of sudden--begins to better understand his own is that Peter resets to default mode by assuming the role of the responsible elder statesman, and Peter begins to preach.

But the Holy Spirit didn't need those words. The Holy Spirit didn't need Peter's responsible action.  The Holy Spirit just showed right up and transformed the lives of Cornelius and his family, as well as Peter and his Church.

A good friend of mine[1] notices that this half-finished sermon of Peter's is the last speech given by an apostle in the Book of Acts. 

With the inclusion of the Gentiles, the role for the established, responsible types like Peter shifts. Instead of serving as the stewards of the tradition, as the explainers of the truth, as the gatekeepers for the movement--now, their responsibility is to recognize where the Holy Spirit is moving and to try to keep up.

Peter immediately understood this:  "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?"

And don't you know that is a gift?  Don't you know it is the surprise of God's grace?

What a relief!  What an antidote to the crippling weight of constant responsibility!  To know that the future of the church does not rely on you!  To know that the Holy Spirit is working in places and people yet unknown and does not depend on your evangelism strategy!   

Sure, there are challenges that Peter will still have to deal with...notably, convincing his fellow established, reputable, and responsible colleagues that he is not crazy or a heretic...but the Holy Spirit can be counted on to help with that, too.  Indeed, the next few chapters in the book of Acts bear witness to this fact.

One of the reasons I so appreciate Peter--and so empathize with Peter--is because I am the pastor to a church that is made up of people who are uber-responsible. 

Each Sunday, I preach to pews filled with folks who serve on committees and chair task forces and attend evening meetings and teach Sunday school classes and give themselves in service to the poor.   

First Presbyterian Church of Shreveport is a faithful, stalwart group that epitomizes what it means to be an established, mainline, Protestant congregation.  For 167 years, we have existed by God's grace and by the tireless, consistent, and responsible leadership of people who have answered God's call to serve.  

But--as I heard Dr. Stacy Johnson of Princeton Seminary say recently--the church that we have given our lives to faces a tsunami of change.  Our structure.  Our worship.  The ways we communicate.  Our place in the culture.  Our expectations of membership.  The kinds of people who are drawn to our ministry and mission.  The places where the gospel needs to be lived. 

It's enough to wear you out, especially if you feel responsible to understand and control and usher in that change.

So here is the gift!  A gift that I see reflected in the twinkle of the eyes of many older members of my congregation when they talk about the future of the church....

The gift is that our responsibility is not to understand or to predict or to control that future. 

What the church is becoming does not depend on our making it so!  The Spirit of God is ahead of the Church--as it has always been--creating, agitating, opening new space, inviting....

And our responsibility is to offer that expression of the Church a hopeful welcome.


Let us pray.  God of our past, God of our present, God of our future, for those of us who, like Peter, have given ourselves to the upbuilding of the Church, give us the faith and the confidence in the movement of your Holy Spirit that we might loosen our grip on what Christ's body will be.  We ask it in Jesus' name.  Amen.


[1] The Rev. Ellen Crawford True, in my preaching cohort, The Well.