Scripture: Acts 10
“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” – Acts 10:47
As the father of two girls, even as young as they are, I am intimately aware of the lingering inequalities and injustices that exist in this world even as white middle class Canadians we enjoy many, many privileges. When my eldest daughter first became enthralled with the Blue Jays three years ago, she quickly decided that she wanted to play for them when she grew up, and she was utterly appalled at the injustice when she heard that only men were allowed to play in the MLB. Similarly her current fascination is with space, and when she heard that only men had walked on the moon she was livid – and vowed she would be the first woman.
Similarly, my youngest daughter has had a fascination with the Roman Catholic Parish St. Teresa Shrine of the Little Flower because of the name and it’s on our usual school route – but when she recently learned that only men could be pastors or priests there she decided she no longer wanted anything to do with it!
Sometimes it takes the innocent eyes of a child to point out the injustice and absurdity of our societal structures.
Obviously, Western society has come a long way towards equality, but the recent #MeToo movement that exposed widespread misogyny and sexual harassment, or the recent hate-fueled van-attack which targeted women or the ongoing necessity for the existence of groups such as Black Lives Matter, or the initial neglect of the police to investigate the murders in Toronto’s Gay Village show that there is still a long, long way to go before equality and justice are a reality for all.
In some ways insider/outsider rhetoric is making an unfortunate resurgence – the rise of white supremacy and ultra-nationalist parties in Europe and North America points to a sharpening divide in those who are in and those who are out.
In the midst of all of this there is bad news and good news for the church.
The bad news is that the Church is often infected with the very same injustice and fear of the outsider as the world is; and it has been from the very beginning as our reading from Acts points to.
Our reading comes at the very end of the story of Peter’s encounter with the Cornelius the Centurion. Peter is a devout Jewish follower of Jesus, Cornelius is as Gentile as a Gentile can be – he is the very symbol of the powerful Roman empire and its oppression, a centurion a ranking officer in the great Roman War Machine – and Jews and Gentiles didn’t mix because association with a Gentile, especially eating with them or entering their home would ritually defile the Jewish believer necessitating purification before they could worship.
Up to this point in the story of the infant church, only professing Jews were part of the community. In fact much of the life of the church revolved around continued worship in the temple – something no Gentile could fully do as they would have been limited to the very outer courtyard of the temple. The first Pentecost, while demonstrating the multi-national character of God’s vision, was still limited to the Jewish diaspora and the disciples turned apostles had not yet taken up Jesus’ command to preach the gospel beyond Jerusalem and Judea – they had up to this point not fully comprehended Jesus’ command to go to the ends of the World.
It is clear as we continue through the book of Acts and into some of Paul’s Letters (e.g. Galatians) that this tension to remain Jewish in identity was a strong temptation for the early church. Time and time again Peter and then especially Paul ran into resistance from segments of the church when it came to the inclusion of Gentiles into their fellowship.
While our churches are no longer defined between Jewish or Gentile believers (after all most of us are the product of the incorporation of the Gentiles), we nonetheless experience divisions, prejudices and fear of those who are different than us. The Church is often held captive by a spirit and mentality that seeks to keep the Church as it has always been, filled with people who look, think, act or worship like we do. Throughout history and into modern times, the church has repeatedly struggled with defining insiders and outsider.
Part of it is natural, Christianity makes exclusive claims about salvation and the world – only Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life; only Jesus died for our sins; Only Jesus is the way to God the Father. All this is true of Christianity. But often this exclusivity overshadows Jesus’ call to love our neighbours or his call to care for the poor and the marginalized; often this exclusivity overshadows what we know of God’s boundless love which is stretched out for all of creation and all the human family. Often we can confuse the exclusivity of Christianity’s claims and forget that the Gospel and therefore the Church is meant to be open to all people.
Whether it is the continued experience of the marginalization of black African-Canadians in white-led churches, or the disregard for the experiences and practices of the Indigenous Church, or the continued challenges women face in church leadership, or the inhospitality experienced by the poor, mentally-ill or disabled members of society, or the shunning and harm experienced by gay, lesbian or transgendered people at the hands of the church (as an aside – without wading into the discussion of same-sex marriage we need to be aware of the great damage the church has done to the LGBTQ community and repent of it) – the church today still sins, it still seeks to set limits on God’s grace and mercy by the way it creates boundaries of hate and division.
This is the bad news for the Church.
But there is also good news, very good news indeed.
The Good News is that God is patient with his children – just as he called the nation of Israel again and again to faithfulness by the prophets so to does God call his church again and again to repent and live into his kingdom here and now; the Good News is that ultimately it is God who removes the barriers between those who are in and those who are out; The Good News is that Jesus by his death and resurrection “has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” as Paul writes in Ephesians 2:14; the Good News is that in Jesus all who believe – and I do mean all – have been reconciled to God; the Good News is that everything will ultimately find it’s fulfillment in Christ who is the beginning and end of all things (Ephesians 1:10|Revalation 1:8)
And so in our story in Acts it is Cornelius, a Gentile through and through, who is granted a vision by God to call for the apostle Peter, it is Cornelius who responds in faith to the God who he worships. And in the meantime God works to tear down the division which resides in Peter’s heart and at the heart of the early church sending him the same vision three times until Peter finally gets it and comes to a place where he can emphatically declare:
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but that in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” – Acts 10:34-35
And our reading states that “while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” – The Holy Spirit fell on Jew and Gentile alike, indiscriminately. It is almost as if the Holy Spirit was reminding Peter, and reminding us that it was God’s action and not Peter’s words or convictions that broke down the age old divisions of Jew and Gentile; it is the Holy Spirit that reminds us that it is God’s action that will break down the divisions which work their way into the life of the church today.
In response to this second Gentile Pentecost, the Jewish believers were amazed and Peter, echoing the passion and the immediacy of the Ethiopian Eunuch from our story last week, asks “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And our passage says that they were, and that Peter and his companions enjoyed fellowship with them for several days.
The Holy Spirit broke down the division, the Holy Spirit opened the eyes of the early church to possibility of God’s action outside its narrow focus, the Holy Spirit filled and enflamed Gentile-believers so that they could sing their praises to God, and out of all of this the Holy Spirit bound the two groups together in fellowship, in praise and common meal.
Peter still runs up against opposition in the following chapter as people are shocked and appalled that he ate with Gentiles – but our reading today marks the beginning of the truly universal (or catholic) nature of the Church.
The Good News for the church today is that it is the work of the Holy Spirit that will bring down the divisions, tear down the prejudice and oppression which still infects our fellowship – but we must be open, we must have eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts ready and willing to love.
Like Peter we may need to be pushed and prodded more than once, before we are ready to see the wondrous work that God is bringing about in the people we least expect. Like Peter we may run into continued opposition from segments of the Church as we strive to overturn the exclusivity of the Church’s common life.
As we gather in prayer, in fellowship, around the table of the Lord, bound by the Holy Spirit let us be a church which brings the voices of the marginalized to fore; let us be a church which values the leadership and spiritual gifts of our women and children as much as our men; let us be a church which raises up leaders of all races and colours; let us be a church that seeks to repent for the harm we have done to both the Indigenous community and the LGBTQ community; let us be a church that welcomes and loves those who are different than us and let us be a church that strives to truly love our neighbour – whoever they might be – as ourselves.
It begins with me. It begins with each one of you. But thanks be to God, that it is the Holy Spirit that will bring it to completion.