This week, we moved a little farther down the road, and picked up the story with Peter at a gentile’s house. Audio’s below and text is after the jump.
Okay. Some background. There was a man named Cornelius. He was a Roman soldier, a good guy. He prayed, lived right, gave money to the poor. And he was a gentile—which means he wasn’t Jewish.
Just before what we read today, Cornelius had a vision where an angel came to him and told him to send for a man named Peter. He was totally terrified, as is appropriate when one is visited by an angel in a vision, but he sent for Peter.
Peter, meanwhile, is hanging out in Joppa. Peter, we remember, is a really faithful Jew, and is something like chief disciple. And, it’s probably worth remembering that at this time, all the Jesus followers were Jews. The God who raised Jesus from the dead was the same God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. So if you were going to follow Jesus, you first needed to be a Jew, and do all the things that made Jews holy—eat the right food, be circumcised, worship at the temple, and so on.
So. Peter’s a good Jew, and he’s hanging out in Joppa, when these messengers show up and say, “Our boss Cornelius was told by an angel to send for you. Will you come with us please?”
Um. Okay. This is strange, but considering the last few years, not the strangest thing that’s happened to Peter. So Peter asks no questions. He gets up and goes, taking a few friends with him.
When he gets to Cornelius’s house, he’s a little uncomfortable. It’s a gentile house, after all. These folks eat different food, so they probably smell differently, dress differently, and there’s been animosity between Jews and Roman soldiers in recent years. But, Peter is trying to be faithful, and so he comes in, and asks, what’s up? Why did you send for me?
Cornelius tells him about the vision, and says, “That’s all I know. How about you tell me what’s going on.”
And Peter begins to realize, maybe this meeting is not just bizarre and random. Maybe there’s something more going on here.
So Peter, always willing to break the ice, begins to tell these gentiles about what has been going on, about this new life he and his fellow Jews have found in Jesus.
It’s right in the middle of this monologue that the Holy Spirit descends on Cornelius and his whole household. It’s like they fall into a trance, or finally, really wake up. Did their eyes close in ecstasy? Or open wide in amazement? They begin to praise God, caught up in the moment. The story says they spoke in tongues. Maybe some of them broke out into song, unable to hold in the joy that’s just swept over them.
This is when Peter and his friends freak out.
Being summoned by a stranger miles away who had a vision—not so wild.
The Spirit of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, coming to rest on this household that doesn’t even know Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? These folks who haven’t studied scripture a day in their lives, encountering the living Word? The power of Jesus at work in people who haven’t been baptized, haven’t even repented, much less professed to believe in Jesus?
It can’t be.
And yet, the love that came to dwell with Peter and the disciples in Jesus, has broken open even farther, embracing even these strangers, even these strangers who are good, but are not of the right faith, who seem righteous, but haven’t repented, who up until two minutes ago had not even heard of Jesus, who have made no profession of faith, who have done nothing to warrant this outpouring of the Spirit, and yet, right there, in front of Peter’s eyes, Cornelius and all of his Roman family are having the exact same experience that Peter and the disciples have had. The Spirit has washed over them, baptizing them whether Peter and his friends understand it or not.
Can anyone keep them from being baptized? Can anyone withhold the water from these people who have clearly already drunk deep from the living waters?
All that’s left is for Peter to catch up, yet again, with the Spirit that blows ever forward. He calls for them to be baptized with water, acknowledging the love God has already made plain.
We, all of us, who have experienced something of this love that shows no partiality, are children of Cornelius, included in this family of faith because of the Spirit that covered him on that day.
Just like Cornelius, we do not earn our baptism. We do not earn the presence of God in our lives. We do not earn those moments of transcendence that point us to the kind of life that is eternal. It is all a gift from God, given to us out of God’s great love.
This is worth remembering today as we confirm the faith of three new members. Andrew, Michelle, and Gracie did not earn this day or the faith that has brought them here. It is a free gift from God. Sometimes faith arrives in an instant, bursting into full bloom, the way it did with Cornelius. And sometimes, as with Peter, faith grows over time. No matter the details of how we come to this love, it is all because of the movement of the Spirit that blows free like the wind.
Like Cornelius, we do not earn the Spirit, and like Peter, we can’t ever quite predict where it’s going to show up next.
We are children of Cornelius, heirs to a faith we did not earn. And, if we dare, we may be children of Peter as well.
Peter is the one who’s already been familiar with Jesus for a while. He could be forgiven for having a been there, done that air. After all, he was Christian when Christian wasn’t cool, when it wasn’t even a thing.
But Peter does not know it all. He has the grace to recognize that, and he’s trusting enough to follow the Spirit, even when it leads him into utterly surprising situations.
This is still our call—to follow the surprising lead of the Spirit.
It may arrive as a flash of intuition, as an off-hand comment from someone else, as a word spoken in worship, in a time of prayer, or while walking through the grocery store.
How might we know that it’s the Spirit leading us, and not our own longings? One clue is if it leads us out of our comfort zone, into contact with people we might not otherwise know, it is likely the prodding of the Spirit. Another clue is if, as we follow, we slowly discover that God’s already here, in whatever strange land we’ve been led to, then it was probably the movement of the Spirit calling us forward.
Maybe the only sure thing we children of Peter can count on is that the Spirit will surprise us. It may lead us to break bread with our neighbors who are very good people, but not Christian, and it may open our eyes to see that Christ is already there, among these good neighbors who are spiritual but not religious. The Spirit might suddenly open our eyes in an entirely un-religious place: the hospital or doctor’s office, the grocery store or at our kitchen sink, in the midst of a heated debate about politics or during a tv show that’s decidedly not spiritual. If our eyes are open, like Peter’s, we might find that God’s on the move in the world in ways we’d never guessed, bringing new life where only death seems to reign, turning strangers into family, and even, at last, watering the hard earth of our own hearts, tilling the soil, and coaxing us, leading us, all of us, into ever more faithful discipleship.
This is what it is to be resurrection people: it is to assume the Spirit is on the move in the world, to take it for granted that the Spirit is going to surprise us, and to be willing to follow wherever it might lead. May we be children of Cornelius and Peter. May we dare to follow.by Sarah W. Wiles Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA 98407