We get a Reader’s Digest condensed version of a truly remarkable story in our Acts of the Apostles scripture lesson this (morning). It might seem like a quaint vignette about one of many events in the advancement of the gospel throughout the world. But many theologians call this event a second Pentecost.
In the first Pentecost, which we celebrate in two weeks, the Holy Spirit came down on the disciples as they were gathered in prayer and blew all about Jerusalem like a mighty wind, as the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit spoke the praise of God in a multitude of languages to Jews from all over the diaspara who were on pilgrimage in Jerusalem. In this story the Holy Spirit descends on a gathering of unclean Gentiles (the vast majority of people in the world) welcoming them into the Kingdom of God. Peter is present and preaching at both Pentecost’s but it is the Holy Spirit who is the real event planner here.
All of Acts 10 tells the story of the opening of the Gospel to the Gentiles. It isn’t until the last 5 verses in today’s reading that the Holy Spirit descends and Cornelius and his companions are baptized. In the Roman garrison of Caesarea, a Roman Centurion named Cornelius who was a God fearer, a Gentile who believed in the God of Judaism (even if Judaism didn’t accept him), was at prayer. An angel speaks to Cornelius in a vision telling him his prayers have been answered and to send for Simon named Peter, a Jew in the city of Joppa about 38 miles down the Mediterranean coast. And so Cornelius sent some of his servants and one of his officer’s down the coast to find Simon Peter. A day later, as the travelers from Caesarea were about to arrive, Peter who was tired, hungry and waiting for lunch, fell asleep and had a dream. The same dream was repeated 3 times. Peter saw a huge net descending from heaven capturing all kinds of animals: reptiles, birds, shellfish, pigs… in other words, all kinds of unclean food. A voice from heaven told him to get up, kill and eat. A shocked and offended Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But the voice told him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” After the third time with the same dream, the group from Caesarea arrived at Peter’s doorstep and God told Peter to go with them.
When Peter arrived in Caesarea and entered the home of the Centurion, a home that he as a Jew was not permitted by Jewish law to enter, he went in and both he and Cornelius told of their remarkable visions. Peter began then to tell those uncircumcised Gentiles about the good news of Jesus. And that’s where we pick up the story today in the 44th verse of Acts 10. The Holy Spirit interrupted Peter mid-sermon; the power of God fell on those Gentiles and they miraculously started speaking God’s praises in Hebrew. An astounded Peter looked at the scene and asked his fellow Jews who have traveled with him from Joppa, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
The Holy Spirit did something quite remarkable. Up to then, the Jesus movement had been kept within the bounds of Judaism. Jesus followers kept all the Jewish laws and customs and Gentiles were still regarded as outside the new Covenant. In Acts 10, we read how the Holy Spirit acted to include the Gentiles. Including Gentilse in the Christian community was a seismic change for the early Church. In many ways the rest of the Acts of the Apostles and all the letters of Paul highlight how difficult an adjustment the inclusion of the Gentiles really was for the Jesus movement. The Spirit of the living God was forcing the early Church “to come to grips with the limitations of their own ethnicity and cultural context in proclaiming a universal gospel.” (Marion Soards, Thomas Dozeman and Kendall McCabe, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Lent/Easter, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1993, pg. 151)
St. Francis Episcopal Church in Stamford has a wonderful catch phrase to highlight their mission: “Inclusive, because diversity was God’s idea.” I would like to highlight some moments in parishes I have served where I believe the Holy Spirit orchestrated a Christian community to open wider their sense of inclusion. One of the most powerful and best-loved stories of St. Peter’s, Eggertsville, a suburb of Buffalo, NY, where I first served as a Rector, involved the arrival one Sunday of the Talbot family. Vincent and Dorothy Talbot were the first black couple who had come to worship in this new post WW2 suburban church. It was in the early 1960’s. Vincent and his wife, Dorothy came up to the rail and knelt for Communion. A group of white congregants already at the altar rail stood up and went to the other side of the rail for Communion. Fr. Duncan, the Rector, calmly proceeded to give Communion to the Talbot’s and then passed by, refusing Communion to those who had moved to avoid close proximity to someone of a different race. Fr. Duncan has always been one of my heroes. Those bigots left the parish and the Talbot’s stayed. Vincent Talbot, a retired army officer, later became St. Peter’s first black Sr. Warden.
One hot and steamy Sunday morning in August, 2003, a week or two after the General Convention of the Episcopal Church approved the election of Gene Robinson, a gay priest living with his partner, as Bishop of New Hampshire, two young women came for the first time to worship at St. Paul’s, Woodbury, CT, a church I served for 20 years as Rector. Pam, a slight young woman, was visibly tired, hot and very obviously 8 months pregnant with twins. Marianne, who was with her, I soon learned, was her partner. About 20 active families left St. Paul’s, because of the fall-out over the election of Bishop Robinson. They would not stay in a Church where homosexuality was accepted. Some of St. Paul’s few tither’s were among them. It was a severe loss and blow to our parish. Pam and Marianne and their twins, Matthew and Thayer, helped me and the people of St. Paul’s who remained, learn a new reality, that God was fully present and welcoming of people of more than one sexual orientation.
Four and a half years ago a Spanish speaking Episcopal congregation was looking for a new home, as the Anglo parish in which they worshipped had to close its doors. They asked if St. John’s could give them a home. I am glad to say that we welcomed Fr. Eddie and the people of Iglesia Betania. We have shared in worship together many times. Two weeks from today on Pentecost Sunday, we will worship together in English, Spanish, French and Creole, along with L’Eglise de L’Epiphanie, the Haitian congregation also worshipping at St. John’s for over 20 years. It is often difficult to fully understand each other. There are cultural differences that sometimes surprise us and language is often a barrier. However, we share the love of Christ and the traditions of the Episcopal Church. More than that, we share in community and fellowship together. The Holy Spirit has forced us to be more inclusive, because diversity is God’s idea.
In Matthew 28 Jesus commissioned his disciples to go into all the world and to proclaim the good news to every nation and culture. Ever since, the Jesus movement has struggled with translating the Gospel into different cultural contexts and languages. There has often been resistance. Does the good news of Jesus really apply to them just as it does to us? Sadly, the Jesus movement has splintered into thousands and thousands of different denominations, because we have such a hard time bridging all those differences. Often it takes the work of the Holy Spirit to overcome our human resistance to God’s inclusivity.
Some adults find it difficult to welcome children to worship together in the same space. Some people don’t want to have to hear a language in worship other than their own. We often think of our own cultural contexts and norms as essential parts of the good news. Over the decades dancing, movie going and card playing, long hair and short hair, beards and shaved faces, speaking in tongues, traditional hymns and Christian rock, drums and organs, head coverings and bare heads: are all a short list of some of the cultural contexts that have sometimes been banned and sometimes been the norm in Christian life and worship. The cultural context for living and expressing the Christian faith, is always shifting.
As St. Francis’ catch phrase states: “inclusive, because diversity was God’s idea.” God is always breaking through our cultural limitations and prejudices to help us embrace more people with God’s love. Whom do you find it hard to embrace with God’s welcome as worthy to include in God’s love? Immigrants? Muslims? People of a different hue of skin or ethnicity or language or socio-economic background or politics or dress? I suspect that all of us, no matter how accepting, find some group of people more difficult than others to warm up to. How might the Holy Spirit be giving you a new vision to be more inclusive? How might the Holy Spirit be giving St. John’s a new vision to be more welcoming and reach out with a wider embrace? While it is not our catch phrase, I hope that it is also true of St. John’s that we are inclusive, because diversity is God’s idea.