Changed by the Spirit Acts 10:9-20, 44-48

It’s mid-August on a Sunday afternoon, 1948.  Inside a modest farmhouse in Middle America, lounges a Methodist family devoutly observing Sabbath rest.  They’d been to church, but it is now mid-afternoon.  Dad’s feet are up on the worn out stool.  Mom and kids are resting, watching the dust mites drift through the shafts of sunlight streaming through the picture window.  Before long it will be time for Mom to re-comb the children’s hair as Dad will re-tighten the knot in his tie and head out for the evening vesper service.

Dad is finishing reading of the family’s fine Southern Methodist Episcopal heritage.  Suddenly and shockingly, the words on the page re-arrange themselves.  A message from God appears.  It says there is a new Cary Grant movie playing at the cinema.  The Spirit thinks they should take in the matinée!  Surely they would resist this cinematic command; thinking it was a mistake.  It would take great prodding by God for this family to change their fundamental beliefs, even though God said so.  This vision of change challenged these mid-20th century folk faith’s sensibilities.

If you think my illustration sounds absurd, what about the spiritual shock Peter felt when he received his vision.  There are few shocks to the system like a spiritual shock, which ask for change.  Peter’s vision comes as a holy surprise; asking him to realign his values.  Unlike some religious customs, God’s laws about clean and unclean foods are traceable to the Bible.  Blue laws about theater attendance and card playing were not derived from specific scriptures, but from principals in the Bible.  Peter could flip open his Torah to Leviticus and quote chapter and verse why they ate kosher, and didn’t eat other foods.  So, in this rooftop vision God commands Peter to break dietary laws from the good book and Peter is scandalized, his head is spinning as he considers making this change.

Despite their belief in Jesus as Messiah, Peter and the apostles still saw themselves as Jews.  Their Jewish identity was added to through the revelation of Jesus as God’s Son; their core religious identity had not been replaced.  Peter hears a knock at the door and a delegation of swarthy-looking Italians, representing a Roman centurion, Cornelius.  They say they are seeking Peter.  As a devout Jew, it was Peter duty to avoid Gentiles, or convert them.  It is unimaginable Peter would go with them to Caesarea, “Caesar-ville”, the name smacks of all that was loathsome to devout Jews.

Peter is ready to tell them to go away.  The Spirit whispers, “I sent them, go with them now“.  As Bob Dylan sang, “Change is a coming!”  When Peter enters Cornelius’ house, his first words are not the pinnacle of social grace.  He says, “It’s illegal for me, a Jew, to consort with you Gentile types?”  “I’m only here because God ordered me!  What do you want?

Cornelius shares his vision; Peter speaks the good news found in Jesus Christ.  To Peter’s wonder, a new day of Pentecost happens to the entire household; the Holy Spirit is poured out on these Gentiles.  No less change happens to them than what happened to the disciples in Jerusalem.  Peter can’t believe it, but he can’t deny the change.  He calls for water to baptize.

Peter’s change will not be complete for some time.  He will continue to believe Gentiles should be turned into Jews before they can be accepted as followers of Christ.  He will not make a complete change until Peter and Paul will have one of the early church’s most famous Donnybrook on this question at a later time.  Peter will insist Gentiles keep kosher and be circumcised, while Paul will insist such requirements are ludicrous.  Paul’s change will take as he comes to terms that “saved by grace thorough faith”. means God doesn’t wait for ritual before offering grace.

This is the Peter who walked the hills of Galilee with Jesus, saw Jesus heal Gentile children, though it was criminal for a Jewish midwife to birth a Gentile baby. It took him time to connect God’s grace with the times Jesus ate with tax collectors and spoke kindly to prostitutes.  Still, Peter had not been paying close attention to the activity of God.  In the end, Peter changes; realizing God has always sought all people; offering saving grace.

There’s a detail in Acts 10:5 that assumes biblically literacy; the city Peter receives his vision-Joppa.  There are two stories that involve Joppa: this one, and Jonah.  Jonah was prophet who fled to Joppa refusing to go to preach to no-good non-Jews in Nineveh.  Jonah believed salvation was only for Jews, he wasn’t going to be responsible if these non-Jews repented.  He flees and ends up in Joppa.  Years later, Peter ends up in Joppa, and the lesson for him is the same as it was for Jonah: God offers grace to all people.  Joppa is a changing place for both Jonah and Peter.

The primary change at Pentecost of the Holy Spirit showing up is a broader understanding of God’s desire is to offer grace to persons in all stations of life.  Everything God has done from the call of Abraham to the resurrection of Jesus was to extend God’s grace to the greater world.  As benefactors of undeserved grace, we are to partner in that process, not hindering it with our expectations and rules, which are rooted in a limited world view.  When the wind of the Spirit blows we are asked to change attitudes and actions to welcome folks who are indeed different.

The struggle to see our union with people different from ourselves in the 21st is no different from it was for Peter in the 1st century. In every age, we use our piety and practice as the yardstick; measuring others.  Listen to our words toward people who worship less reverently than we.  Hear how we speak of groups that associate with people we don’t understand.  We cynically wonder about churches that loosely govern themselves.  We relegate people who are different to being less informed; categorizing our differences with labels that suggest they are not as highly evolved.

In 1 Corinthians Paul teaches how are differences are necessary parts of the whole body.  He says if one rejoices, we all rejoice; if one suffers, we all suffer.  Paul once like Peter, but his heart changed; realizing if one has a problem, all have a problem.  The cliché, “It is not my problem”, has no place in the Body of Christ.  The whole body works together to bend and remove a thorn in the foot.  Paul asserts that happens in the Body of Christ.

What does the Spirit need to change in us as Pentecost approaches, so we may reach people who have not been included before this day?  What new sister and brother needs to be involved in our family: the migrant worker who builds our city and roads; the troubled teenager who is more trouble than they seem worth; the homeless schizophrenic who scares us; the young con who has never been told or told the truth; the licentious mother who struggles with things few of us can imagine; or the hard to understand African whose culture is utterly foreign.  If the grace of God through Christ can come to us it can come to any of these and others.

For some of these people who are different from us and others the Spirit will have to change some things in our lives, so we might be better vessels of God’s grace, just as Peter’s heart and mind had to change.  This kind of change is no different from the maternal love that adapts and changes to the different needs of our children at different time.  We, like Peter, can make these changes; so we, like Peter, can more clearly declare our one faith in the one Lord Jesus Christ who is this world’s hope.

Acts 10 concludes with something Peter could never have imagined in his wildest dreams.  After baptizing Cornelius’ household, Peter is invited to live with, these Gentiles for a few days: sleep under their non-Jewish roof and eat their non-kosher food; and he did.  The Spirit of Pentecost that converted Peter spurs us into many subsequent changes.  We should expect new revelations that bring about further changes; for the essence of God’s mercy is wider than our imagination and deeper than our thoughts. 

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