What strikes me about the breadth of this story is how the plot concentrates simply around the 1 on 1 conversation, which the Holy Spirit arranges between Cornelius and Peter. The two are, step by step, little by little, brought together. Two unlikely strangers, meeting for the purpose of furthering their faith and the work of the gospel, even though they were ethnically estranged, and have no idea what it is they will talk about or collaborate on together.
So, there is a kind of hesitancy and nervousness about even getting together. Cornelius is a Roman soldier, an officer and leader of 100 troops, part of the same military that helped crucify Jesus, and who represents the occupation and bondage of the Jews, and the followers of Jesus – not unlike the U.S. military who occupy Afghanistan today. But Cornelius was also a believer, who practiced his faith in sympathy with Judaism, with regular prayers and generous offerings. He is close to the realm of God.
Peter is also a leader, of course, of this fledgling Jesus movement called, “the Way.” He is evolving as a leader, much like President Obama on marriage equality, both of whom finally had no other choice but to do the right thing. Peter’s own opinions were led by the Spirit, and she shaped and transformed Peter, until it became clear there was only one faithful choice to make, include the Gentiles.
Peter’s conversion is the proto-typical story of every believer. His conversion is not just one moment in time, but always evolving. Was it when he walked on water with Jesus? When he confessed Jesus was the true Messiah? When he jumped off the boat after that miracle catch of fish to swim ashore and meet the resurrected Jesus for a fish fry and then receive the three-fold commission from Jesus to feed his sheep? Was it in this story, of meeting up for a 1 on 1 with Cornelius, and having the Holy Spirit fall on him and everyone present, opening their eyes to a Roman soldier’s baptism, the first Gentile convert? With the Spirit, it seems, conversion, whether Peter’s, or our own, is an ongoing enterprise, a thing of beauty in progress, a never ending work of art, which God is creating.
Which is not to say it’s always smooth or without controversy. When Peter arrives at Cornelius’ goyim, unclean household, the first words out of his mouth are, you know I’m not supposed to be here, so if you don’t mind, can we just get to the “why did you send for me,” part? ‘I’m not sure,’ Cornelius says, why don’t you sing me a few bars! To which Peter winds up into one of his wonderful speeches about Jesus fulfilling the scriptures, and offering life and salvation. But in the middle, as he’s waxing eloquent, the Spirit interrupted! …which is where our reading in Acts begins today: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”
At our special Council and Vision Steering Team meeting this week, I had a similar experience! The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry! You see, as I waxed eloquent about the vision, and possibilities Unity has, in developing a Mission Plan, and for applying for a synod mission grant, which is the impetus for calling John to Unity as a part time Assistant Pastor – and believe me, I did wax eloquent – “the HS *interrupted* [and] fell upon all who heard the word!” Not my words, so much as God’s word that reached through and touched our hearts! And our vision for mission began to grow wings and take flight! Enough talking about what we should be doing, it’s time to actually do it! Why don’t we enlist the talents and passions each of us has for outreach. Why are we holding them back?
As Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing [Cornelius, and his household] who have [clearly] received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” In our meeting, we discovered that there are talents people are already willing to offer here at Unity, but which have not be authorized or put into action. And though unintentional, it’s the same really, isn’t it, as having blocked or told them their gifts are not welcome. Enough! The Spirit has fallen on us! How can we withhold the water for baptizing each others gifts, and for empowering and enlivening one another in mission?
So, when the Spirit interrupts, a movement can be ignited into action, and dare not wait for a formal process or council to discuss it to death. I believe the Spirit is alive and well and blowing through us, the church. And our mission plan is to identify the power of the Spirit, directing our vision and core values. Our mission plan is, not to get in the way of the Spirit, so that each of us will be set free, to “put our faith into action courageously!” In our 1 on 1 conversations with one another, and with neighborhood leaders and groups, we can learn to be on the look-out for the Spirit, realizing how they are simply occasions to build a relationship with others we don’t yet know, even with strangers, like Cornelius and Peter were. We may not even know why God is calling us to meet them, we may only have a hunch, maybe a silly dream in the middle of the night, or during prayers. Our mission plan is to stopping babbling, and get out of the way of the Spirit’s power – to recognize the faith, and God’s Spirit of life, in our neighbor right in front of us, and to empower them to offer their gift and let them do the same with us.
Ironically, as Acts was being composed, the church was already in the process of quenching the Spirit, codifying doctrines and boxing her up in worldly hierarchies of exclusion. The Spirit works well for movements, but fares poorly in institutions, which has been the Churches struggle ever since.
Which is why we return often to our core value of “the Gospel of Jesus.” Jesus, as you know, didn’t say a whole lot about the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit was vital, in his mission, descending on him at his baptism “like a dove.” Luke adds that he was “filled with the power of the Spirit” when he returned to Galilee, to begin his public ministry, and read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Lk 4:14-18). Jesus didn’t talk much about the Spirit – the Spirit, lived in and through him, and guided him in all things.
And so, the Gospels and Book of Acts are not just a story, some classic to take off and return to the shelf, at our convenience. Remember when the disciples had locked themselves in the upper room for fear of the authorities after the resurrection, and Jesus comes and interrupts them, and “he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’?” (John 20:22).
And soon after, Peter was out in the streets inviting others to meet the Spirit too! Peter wouldn’t let anyone or anything prevent him from growing and transforming the church, by the guidance of the Spirit. And so Acts is just the beginning of the story. Now the Spirit lives in us, the church, too.
The nature of the Spirit, is to interrupt, to enliven and send us out. Let us welcome her, in all her beauty and creativity. Let the mission begin!