Sunday, May 10, 2015
Can anyone withhold the water? The questions hits at the climactic moment that began when Peter was praying and in a vision was told that God would open his promises to all people, even non-Jews. God would do this through Jesus.
Can anyone withhold the water? Somehow, Peter and other Jews present who had put their trust in Jesus could see as Jesus’ Holy Spirit fell upon these Romans – the centurion Cornelius and his household. They could see it! They couldn’t believe their eyes, but they could see it.
Can anyone withhold the water? The Spirit’s work began in Peter as he responded even when God led him beyond boundaries he thought he would never cross. The Spirit’ work began when Cornelius, lacking the benefit of a Jewish heritage, nonetheless sought God. The Spirit’s driving of these men and the people around them inexorably led to this moment when they stood before each other and seeing with Spirit-filled eyes recognized they were brothers in Christ. The baptism confirmed it. The baptism sealed it. The baptism served as testimony to all that new birth had taken place.
Peter had not fully grasped that Jesus would reach to the world beyond Israel. He knew this in his head, but it did not register in his heart until he prayed on that rooftop and God changed his view. Jesus would shatter the barriers that stood as walls dividing people and Jesus would do this through his, Peter’s, preaching. As Peter prayed, there was a knocking at his door. Emissaries from the Roman Centurion Cornelius were looking for him and the Holy Spirit compels Peter to go with these men.
These Romans brought Peter to Cornelius, a man seeking the truth. The truth found him. He and Peter came together and shared their visions. Peter preached. He said,
Jesus is Lord of all and faith in him rips down the structures humans erect to keep a few in positions of prestige and power while most are kept at heel in the dust, powerless in poverty. Jesus the Lord, lifts up the downtrodden, freeing them from their disadvantage. Jesus the Lord gives the privileged the humbling they need. Without it, often the wealthy, privileged class – including many of us – fail to see how much they need God and need their fellow human beings. In baptism, we testify to the truth that no matter who we are, we have died in sin and been resurrected in Christ. What is great about us is Him alive and at work in and through each of us.
Peter’s speech is interrupted by the Holy Spirit dealing not with him but with Cornelius, and the other Romans there. The Holy Spirit fell on them. The Christian Jews with Peter couldn’t believe it. To this point, the message of Jesus had been taken to the far reaches of the world, but to Jews who lived in the far reaches of the world. Now, a mere 50 miles from Jerusalem, the great divide had truly been bridged. God’s Spirit was poured out on Gentiles.
The movie The Fellowship of the Ring, is the first of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Hobbits are the main characters. The Hobbits were small people physically and they were small in perspective. Their entire vision of the world was limited to the simple farming villages where they lived. And they didn’t mind keeping it that way. They were happy.
But the job of delivering the ring of power fell to a hobbit, Frodo. Frodo would have to travel many miles through the darkest, most evil parts of the world. His best friend, Sam, was determined to go. Even through Sam was a simple man who would just as soon stay on the farm and never leave, he was going with Frodo. As they walked, he stopped and said, “Well, this is it Mr. Frodo.”
“What is it, Sam?”
“This is the farthest I have ever been away from home in my life.” Sam took the next step and it led to places he had never imagined.
Peter stood before Cornelius who was full of the Holy Spirit and he had a decision. In mileage he was not far from home at all. But in understanding and in terms of perspective and in faith, he was about to go father away from home than he had ever been before. He would never go back. And, he took that step.
Having received the Spirit, in baptism we take that step. We go father from home than we ever have gone. And there is no going back. Nothing ever looks the same. No relationship, no person – we see with Spirit eyes.
When a paradigm shifts, everything changes. The availability of automobiles led to the near extinction of passenger railroad travel. People don’t cross country by train. As TV’s entered every home, we went through a paradigm shift. It changed radio forever.
Peter’s step to baptize Cornelius is the greatest paradigm shift in history. He did it because he could see that the Holy Spirit was operating outside of his established boundaries and if he wanted to be where the Spirit was at work, he had to step outside those boundaries himself. He saw where God was at work and he joined him there.
For us to feel the full impact of Easter and resurrection, we have to practice the Spiritual discipline of Reconciliation. This means we accept all people – white and black, rich, poor, and middle class, from every country, with accents we find different – we welcome all people. It goes beyond that.
Each one of us like Peter must take that step, go beyond our frontiers, experience that great paradigm shift of history. Each one us has to reach that point where we are farther in ideology, expectation, understanding, perspective, and faith than we’ve ever been. Then we take the next step. That point might be in another country, but, it might be in North Carolina, or in a neighborhood in Chapel Hill. It might be in this room. The place is in a person.
There is someone we cannot love. We’ll gladly spend the rest of our lives in a filthy, disease-ridden third world prison cell for the sake of the gospel. But we will not go and in the name of Jesus love with that person. That person is different for each of us. But we each have that person. It would astound us to see the Holy Spirit poured on that person. The hatred, the bitterness, the animosity is too great. Who is that person for you?
Years ago, I was very new in the ministry. I looked around for mentors – people who would give me advice and opportunities. I was lucky. Several veteran pastors took me under their wings in my first decade of ministry. They gave me opportunities, so when I became a senior pastor myself I had already visited hospitals. I spoke at funerals and did baptisms. I was indebted to these seasoned church leaders because they helped me greatly by inviting me into their churches and letting me try out pastoral tasks.
One of these beloved friends, however, floored me with something he said. He was telling me how he had to explain to one of his church members that he could never baptize a black person, not in his church. I was stunned. The way he told the story, it was as if he were spewing common sense that once explained would make sense to everyone. He told it to me in a knowing way as if it would be obvious to me. He could never baptize a black person.
My trusted mentor had not taken that step beyond his frontiers. Sunday after Sunday, he preached the Gospel. Year after year, he baptized new believers. But the heart of the Gospel called for a change he was not ready to make. He had to keep the Gospel small enough for him to maintain control. That never works.
I did not confront my mentor. I did not say to him, “Hey, what you just said is totally racist and antithetical to the way of Jesus.” I should have. I regret that I did not have the readiness or courage to confront the evil that is racism. I maneuvered adeptly, moved on, and became a senior pastor who within my first two years of ministry had baptized Sudanese people, whites, and Hispanics.
I remained friends with my mentor. We don’t dump our friends just because they say foolish things. We love them. But I did not love him enough to name an evil that lurked in him. I do not mean he was evil. In many ways, he was a good pastor. And he did a lot for me. However, His need for control and his refusal to follow Jesus beyond his own comfort zone created space in him for an evil – in this case racism – to set up shop and corrupt the good work he did. Late in his career, he realized his errors.
In Maya Angelou’s book I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a dentist in Arkansas refuses to help 8-year-old Marguerite even though she is doubled over in pain with a tooth ache. He declares he would give dental service to a dog before he put his hand in a black person’s mouth. That dentist will never get it – the fullness of Jesus’ resurrection – until he loves someone who is black. For him persons of a certain race represent that person.
Who is it in your life? What boundary is God calling you to cross? Where do we need to go to truly live the Gospel? This is the farthest from home I have ever been. There – that is where we see the Holy Spirit come down and baptism confirms the story.
It might be someone who hurt you. You’d rather see that person suffer than to be saved by grace as he comes faith in Jesus. Loving the one who injured you is going farther than you’ve ever been. You won’t bask in the full glow of Easter until you forgive that one and pray that Jesus would come to him. If you are there when the Holy Spirit is poured out on that person and if you say Peter’s words, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing this one I hated but now love because of Jesus,’ then you’ve been through the paradigm shift. You and that person will embrace at the cross and stand in the light of the empty tomb together.
I saw Peter and Cornelius meet. It was a worship service where we joined three congregations: a Spanish congregation, our English congregation, which was comprised of people from Asian, black, and Latino backgrounds, but was 70% Caucasian; and a primarily black church. The preacher was a woman from the black congregation.
She preached the gospel as powerfully as I have heard it. A woman from Argentina translated into Spanish. The black woman would say a few lines, and the Argentine sister repeated them for the Spanish speakers. It worked well – both women had done this before. However, just as the preacher was hitting the high note, describing the unconditional love and limitless grace of Jesus, the translator stopped cold. She couldn’t speak. Her heart was pierced by the preacher’s words and the love of Jesus. Her throat choked up and tears flowed. She was overwhelmed by grace.
The preacher stopped and came to her. There they stood. The larger than life African American woman preacher, embracing a small Argentine woman being showered by the grace of Jesus; I don’t know what it looked like when the Jewish Christians were astonished to see the Holy Spirit rain down on Gentiles that day in Cornelius’ house. I bet it looked similar to that day when those two women were wrapped up in Jesus’ love. I got to see it. I was astonished.
I believe we can be astonished again as we step farther than we’ve ever been. We step to that person. We do, and we are there to see the Holy Spirit poured out. We see God bring people together right here, in Resurrection reconciliation.