Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
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Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 24, 2017

Have you ever had something so big happen to you that it changed your life forever? Having a baby, especially unexpectedly, is like that. Losing your job or changing careers is like that. Having a new person come into your life that you develop a partnership with is like that. Things that bend your ear, twist your head around, drop your mouth open, leave you dizzy with the newness of it all.

Peter had that happen to him, but if you can imagine, it was so much greater. People have babies, lose their jobs, find mates on a regular basis. But no Jew ever thought that their God would become everyone’s God, even though God blessed Israel to be a blessing to the nations way back in Genesis 12:3. No Jew thought that the barriers between Jews and Gentiles would ever be brought down, that living separate lives from the Gentiles would always be in place as Torah had said. The Jews weren’t allowed to mix with Gentiles or they would become ritually unclean. And most of all they were not allowed to eat with Gentiles, because their food was most definitely not kosher. God had put these laws into effect and they never expected them to be broken.

But they were. By the pushing and prodding of the Holy Spirit (Richard I. Pervo), which infuses this story, Gentiles are given the same gift – the gift of the Holy Spirit – that the Jews received when they believed in the Lord Jesus. Peter is awed; Jerusalem is silenced. But the Holy Spirit goes right on working, legitimizing the mission of Christianity to the Gentiles, opening up God’s saving grace to the whole world.

Though Peter was the main actor, none of this was Peter’s idea. Peter felt the same way everyone else did. But the things he heard during his participation in the conversion of Cornelius changed his mind in a way that he was able to present his case before the conservative Jews in Jerusalem with persuasion and success.

Throughout the story of Cornelius’ conversion, Peter was motivated by the Holy Spirit. First there was the vision while he was praying. He saw that sheet coming out of the heavens with all sorts of non-kosher meat on it and God asking him to kill and eat. Peter protested. Nothing unclean or profane had ever touched his lips, he said. But God says God has made all things clean and that Peter shouldn’t call anything God created profane. Well, once was not enough to give Peter what he needed. He had to have the vision two more times to think that God might be overturning such an important law for the Jews.

Directly after his dream – surely a God-incidence – three men came to him from Caesarea inviting him to go to Cornelius’ house and speak to the people gathered there. Again the Spirit moved strongly, knowing that Peter might not yet be convinced, and told him to go with the men and not to make a distinction between them, including visiting or eating with them.

Given that the Holy Spirit was speaking, Peter did as the Spirit asked and went to Caesarea. When he arrived at the house, he heard about another miracle. The Holy Spirit had appeared to Cornelius telling him to send for Peter, who would give a word by which all those gathered would be saved.

Peter can’t deny the work of the Spirit, so he preaches the good news and as he does, the Holy Spirit moves again, falling on Cornelius and his family and friends. We don’t know what this baptism means for them immediately, but we do know from the original story that Peter heard them speaking in tongues. The Holy Spirit had come upon these Gentiles, just as it had upon the Jews when they had believed.

Peter was astounded that the Gentiles would receive such a blessing, but then he heard the word of the Lord speaking in his mind, reminding him that Jesus baptized with water, but believers would be baptized with the Holy Spirit and marvelous things would happen to them. They would be empowered to use their gifts for building up the church and to use their tongues to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to all people. And now it was truly all people, not just unconverted Jews. Peter had started a radical new thing. Rather, the Holy Spirit had decided it was time to do this radical new thing now and Peter is the Spirit’s instrument. Both he and Cornelius were led by the Spirit from the very moment this encounter began or certainly Peter and the centurion would never have done what they did.

Peter brings back the news to the Jerusalem church. They are not as concerned it seems at first about the belief and Holy Spirit thing as they are about Peter’s eating with the uncircumcised, about the lawlessness of non-kosher food. In this amazing series of events it was the one thing they could grasp onto. Peter heard their criticism and then refuted it, saying that God had removed the barriers between Gentiles and Jews because he had given the same gift of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles. He didn’t see a reason to keep the barriers up any longer as God was evidently breaking them down.

Peter heard two more things that put him in mind of the power of the Holy Spirit. First the Jews were silent, trying to take it all in, trying to wrap their minds around what the Holy Spirit was clearly doing in their midst that was a radical new thing, ripping away all thought that they would just remain a sect of Judaism. God was calling them to bring everyone into the fold. God was declaring that all were God’s people and that Jesus’ salvation was for every person. When they at last were able to speak, Peter heard them praise God because God had given even the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.

Peter heard and saw through this story the radical words and actions of the Holy Spirit, upending his life and the lives of all other Jewish Christians from this time forward. What are we to hear from this story that impacts our life?

We hear that God shows no partiality. God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved. There is no favoritism with God, so we are not to put others on a pedestal or ourselves in the gutter or vice versa. God has made us and God loves us all and wants Jesus to be our Lord and Savior.

Because God loves us all equally, there are no barriers. Do we have any that we need to get rid of? Barriers around race, around class, around political or religious points of view. We don’t have any rights to those barriers, as the Jewish Christians, who had always carried them in accordance with Torah, had no more rights to them. We are called to treat everyone as God’s beloved child.

And we are called to go out. We are not called to stay in our churches, waiting for people to come to us. We are called to go and give the message of the saving grace of Jesus to others, to listen to the Holy Spirit, to tell the story as Peter did, to share our stories with strangers and with friends.

The Jewish followers of Jesus had their worlds turned upside down. And that’s what life with Jesus is about. Jesus is always moving in us, always transforming us, always poking and prodding us to do new things, as the Holy Spirit moved Peter. We need to listen to the Spirit’s voice within us and act as Peter did, knowing that even if we are unsure, the Spirit will guide us in our work and help us bring the saving message of God in Christ to all who need to hear it.

AMEN.

     -- Rev. Ann Barker

Works Cited:
Richard I. Pervo, Tuesday Morning, Vol. 18, No. 2, April-June 2016, p.9