May 13, 2012
We live in a rapidly-changing culture, and sometimes it’s not clear whether any of the rules we used to live by, the cultural norms and values we used to share, sometimes it seems like none of that matters anymore, and we are cut adrift from our past as individuals, as a society, and as a church, with no clear map to guide us forward, no polestar by which to orient us in these turbulent seas. Technology brings us closer together, so we are able to connect with friends and family hundreds, even thousands of miles away. We know what’s happening in Greece, or Africa, or China, but all of that knowledge seems to deaden us to the world around us.
The rapid pace of change challenges once again this week. On Tuesday evening, Madison Episcopalians gathered together to discuss the proposed liturgies for the blessings of same-gender unions. They will be debated and voted on at General Convention this July. On Wednesday, President Obama made news by declaring his support for gay marriage. While polls disagree on precise numbers, it’s clear that support for gay marriage has increased dramatically in the US in the last decade, even in the last couple of years. Wherever we come down on these issues, it seems that the world, the moral compass that we took for granted a generation ago, no longer exists.
Now, I’m not going to preach about any of that. But as I was reflecting on these developments in our culture and church, I was struck by the way the lessons we’ve been reading from Acts shed light on our current situation. During Eastertide, the seven Sundays of Easter, we hear each week this year from the Book of Acts. On the surface, it may be a curious choice, for it seems to take the story of Jesus forward more quickly into the future, into the development of early Christianity, while the gospel story, and our attention, remains focused on the Easter event itself, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s more complicated than that, however, for in the last few weeks, our sense of chronological disconnect has been even stronger, as we hear from the Farewell Discourses in John, words the gospel writer has Jesus say at the Last Supper, just before his arrest and crucifixion.
But these lessons are not meant to be random or disorienting. Each of them is intended to demonstrate the power of resurrection. Sometimes, that demonstration may be less obvious than in other readings, but all of them help us understand and explore the deeper meaning of living in a world made new by the power of resurrection.
Perhaps that’s most clear in the readings from the book of Acts these past weeks. Again, it’s not always apparent to a casual Sunday morning worship attender what is going on in these readings, but each of them testify to the explosive and revolutionary power of life in the face of resurrection. We have heard again the story of how the new community organized itself after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We have heard Peter preach after he and the other disciples performed miracles as powerful as those of Jesus. We have also heard the bold words Peter spoke to the authorities after he had been arrested. Each of these stories bear witness to the Holy Spirit’s power
In the last two weeks, we hear different stories of the power of the Holy Spirit. There was the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch last week, and today, we hear the outcome of the story of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius the Centurion. Both of these stories deserve our closer attention.
Philip, we are told, was one of the Greek-speaking deacons appointed by the apostles to take care of the Hellenistic congregation. He was also a preacher and had a successful preaching tour in Samaria. But suddenly, he was taken by the Holy Spirit to a completely different place, to the wilderness road going down through Gaza. As he traveled he saw the Ethiopian eunuch, a high official of the queen’s court. He had come to Jerusalem to worship, and was now reading from the prophet Isaiah.
We may think the notion of an Ethopian eunuch rather exotic, evoking images of lavish courts from long-past civilizations, but he represents much more than that. Yes, Ethopian, African, calling to mind earlier relationships of Israelites and Jews with foreign lands—Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. But there’s more. As a eunuch, he would not have been able to take part in religious rituals in the Jerusalem temple, so the ostensible reason for him traveling to Jerusalem seems pointless. And when he asks Philip, “what is to prevent me from being baptized?” The answer is obvious. Everything. His ethnicity, his status as a eunuch.
But the Holy Spirit moved, and in the middle of this desert, there suddenly appeared water, and Philip, the Greek, the Gentile, baptized another Gentile, even more exotic than himself. And the eunuch returned to Ethiopia, and Philip went to another gentile town, Caesarea.
In today’s reading, we are at the end of the wonderful story of Peter and Cornelius. Peter had a vision in which a large sheet came down from heaven, and on the sheet were all manner of animals, all of them unclean. But a voice told him, “Take and eat.” A few minutes later, emissaries from the Roman centurion Cornelius came and asked him to go to their master, to speak with him. Peter did, and he preached, and as he preached, the Holy Spirit came upon the gathering, including on the unbaptized Gentiles. And Peter asked the same question, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Both of these men, the Ethiopian eunuch and the Roman centurion, are examples of the good news moving beyond the bounds of the Jewish community. That is one of the central themes of Acts which tells the story of the progress of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, and ultimately the whole world. It is a story that is filled with drama and excitement, surprising the original followers of Jesus as they have to rethink what it means to follow him, and to share the good news.
It is not a story without conflict or dissent. The New Testament, both in Acts and in Paul’s letters show the tension that arose as the gospel was proclaimed among Gentiles. Many Jews and Jewish Christians were troubled by the expansion of the gospel to Gentiles, and the decision not to require converts to keep the commandments of Torah.
These stories are often used to defend innovation in Christianity, in the midst of debates over contentious issues, one often hears people saying something like, “The Holy Spirit is leading us in a new direction.” Those who use these stories are usually convinced that whatever change they are advocating is the work of the Holy Spirit and rarely pay attention to the possibility that they are wrong.
How do we discern the work of the Spirit? That question has vexed Christians for nearly two thousand years. For Peter in today’s story, the answer was clear. As he preached, the Holy Spirit came upon those who were listening and they began speaking in tongues. For Pentecostal Christians today, such phenomena like that, and other miracles, remain obvious signs of the Holy Spirit’s work. But for others throughout the history of Christianity, such behavior seems like it did to the first witnesses of Pentecost—evidence of substance abuse or mental illness.
For us, discerning the Holy Spirit’s work is difficult and requires careful reflection and prayer. It also requires deliberation and conversation. Most importantly, it depends on something else—the ongoing life and love of the community. Today’s gospel continues Jesus’ instructions to his disciples. He reminds us of the importance of love—his love for the Father and the Father’s love for him, and commands us to love one another as he has loved us.
Any group of people, whether it is a congregation of the church, or a civic gathering, is bound to have conflict. It is a fact of life, a product of our human nature. We in Wisconsin have learned all to well in the last year and a half about how communities and societies can fracture when we lose sight of the common good. The same is true in the church. But Jesus calls us to love one another, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends as he did for us. When we do that, when we love one another as Jesus loves us, we will discover the working of the Holy Spirit, in our lives and in the life of our church.