Sunday 6 May 2018
6th Sunday of Easter
Do you ever turn your television over to a channel in preparation for a show you want to watch and catch the end of the previous one? And, as you watch the denouement of the story from this previous show, you think: “That might have been very interesting. I wish I had seen how it started and rolled out to that conclusion”.
Well, that is how you are entitled to feel about the reading that we had this morning from the Acts of the Apostles. We were only given four verses by the Lectionary that tell of Peter speaking to a group (we don’t know who they are), the Holy Spirit coming down on them, some other group with the curious descriptor of ‘the circumcised believers’ being astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles (presumably the unnamed group from earlier), Peter questioning whether Baptism could be denied them in light of the Holy Spirit’s apparent influence, and Peter being asked to stay for several days.
There must be something that we have not been told that gives this puzzling narrative a context and therefore meaning. And in fact, there is. We get all that in the preceding 43 verses of chapter 10 that the Lectionary has chosen to leave out – possibly on the basis that it was considered that we would all be so familiar with the scriptures that we would remember what all of the background of the incident was.
But, just in case there are one or two of you who can’t recall the lead up to this event, let me give you the Readers’ Digest version of things.
The event takes place in Caesarea where there is a Roman centurion of the Italian Cohort, Cornelius, who was what was called a “God fearer”, that is, a Gentile who embraced Judaism without becoming a Jew. He has a vision of an angel who tells him to send to nearby Joppa for Simon, known as Peter. So, he sends some men to bring Peter back to Caesarea.
While they are on the way to collect Peter, Peter, who is in Joppa, has a vision in which a sheet carrying all sorts of animals, reptiles and birds descends from heaven and a voice instructs him to eat. Peter remonstrates that nothing unclean has ever passed his lips. But the voice tells him that it is not for him to call profane what God has made clean. This vision occurs three times to Peter and so he is left with the clear understanding that his Jewish notions of clean and unclean are not to interfere with his role as an apostle.
So, when the messengers from Cornelius come for him, he has now no objection to going with them and entering the house of a Gentile. And so, Cornelius welcomes Peter into his house and calls together other Gentiles to listen to Peter. Peter then preached to the gathered group of Gentiles and explained how Jesus taught, healed, died and rose and how Peter and other witnesses ate and drank with him after he rose.
Then we come to the text we read today. As Peter is speaking, the Holy Spirit becomes manifest amongst his Gentile audience. They begin to speak in tongues and extoll God. Peter’s associates who had come with him from Joppa, the circumcised believers, that is Jews like Peter who had embraced Jesus as their Lord, were astounded to witness how the Holy Spirit was manifest amongst this group even though they were Gentiles. Peter asks rhetorically, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Of course they can’t. And so, he orders that they be baptized.
This story is an account of one of the critical changes in direction for the preaching of the Gospel. Because Gentiles were now hearing the Gospel of Jesus and being filled with the Holy Spirit and asking to be baptized, the apostles and evangelists were being challenged about their notion of seeing the Jesus movement as some sort of subset of Judaism. The Gospel was breaking all bounds. The Holy Spirit knew no boundaries.
We don’t want to underestimate just how big a challenge it was to the early preachers of the Gospel to recognise that it was not necessary for Gentiles to become Jews before they could become Christians. As most of us are of non-Jewish descent, and because people of that ilk form the vast majority of the Christians in the world today, we take it a little for granted that Jewish practice cannot be expected of those who wish to follow Jesus. For the earlier followers of Jesus, this was a developing notion and it was events like Peter’s vision, like the baptism of Cornelius and his associates, which played an important part in its becoming the norm.
We can always look very wisely back at the scriptures and speculate over why they were so slow to understand some seemingly obvious issue. Hindsight is always a wonderful thing.
What is of more benefit for us is to pause and consider what might be the situations where we are slow to recognise the presence of the Holy Spirit. We can often let our own perceptions of what constitutes a Christian limit us in our willingness to share the Gospel with others. The message of this scripture reading is surely that we should be leaving the decision-making on worthiness to the Holy Spirit. Our role is simply to be generous in the way that we share our faith with others, offering them the opportunity to respond as they will.
We have incorporated this sentiment into our Parish Mission Action Plan by placing a heavy emphasis on being invitational, on opening ourselves to seekers and giving them opportunities to connect with us, and hopefully, with Jesus through us. Let’s continue to pray that we will be an open invitational community, a community that does what it can to draw people closer to Jesus and then to let the Holy Spirit do as she will.
Father Allan Paulsen
St Matthew’s, Holland Park