First an Ethiopian, Now an Italian
Easter VI; May 6, 2018
The framers of our cycle of readings – the Revised Common Lectionary – have selected for today a short reading which is the conclusion of a story. Although the point of the conclusion is important – the Holy Spirit is at work in the Church of Jesus Christ – I don't think you can see that conclusion for yourself unless I tell you the story.
Last week I read to you and talked about the story of the Deacon Philip baptizing an Ethiopian government official. All sorts of things about that baptism seemed wrong, including that the official was a foreigner. But Philip did it anyway and apparently the Church decided that he did the right thing: they included the story in the Bible. I'm reminding you of that so that the title of the sermon makes sense to you and also so you can see for yourselves what the Holy Spirit is up to. Now, the story.
In the city of Caesarea lived a man named Cornelius. Caesarea was a great seaport and the political and military center for Judea; Pontius Pilate, whom you know about, lived in Caesarea when he was prefect of Judea. This Cornelius was an Italian; he was a centurion, an officer in the Roman army. He was financially well-off and had a sizeable household. And like the Ethiopian in last week's story, he was interested in Israel's God. He was not a Jew and he could not participate fully in the faith and worship of the Jewish people, but he prayed to the God of the Jews and he was generous with his money, helping to contribute to the Jewish community in Caesarea.
One afternoon as he was saying his prayers he had a vision: an angel stood before him and said, "Cornelius." He was, of course, terrified. As I've said to you before, angels in the Bible do not look like chubby babies with wings or like beautiful women in diaphanous gowns: they are frightening. Anyway, Cornelius said, "What is it, Lord?" The angel answered, "God is paying attention to your prayers and has noticed your generosity. So here's what I want you to do: send some of your guys to Joppa to the house of a certain Simon, a tanner; his house overlooks the sea. There they should ask for another Simon, called Peter." That's all the angel said: nothing about what will happen next or how this particular mission is a response to Cornelius' prayers, just these instructions. But that was enough for Cornelius; he called two of his slaves and one of the soldiers under his command – a man who, like him, prayed to the God of the Jews – and sent them to Joppa.
Joppa was about thirty to thirty-five miles from Caesarea, down the coast. Simon Peter was staying there in – you've guessed it – the home of Simon the Tanner. And the next day, as the three travelers were within sight of Joppa, Peter went up on the roof to pray. Houses in that part of the world generally had flat roofs and people spent a lot of time on the roof. Peter went up there by himself to pray. It was lunchtime and he hadn't eaten, so he was hungry. And he had a vision. A sheet full of animals, including reptiles and birds, was lowered from heaven. A voice said to him, "Peter, get up. Kill something and eat it." Now you know that Jewish folks have rules about what they are allowed to eat and what they are not allowed to eat, and those rules include the way the animal is killed and the way the food is prepared. This visionary sheet was full of animals that Jews are not allowed to eat. So Peter, figuring this was a test, said, "No, Lord; I have never eaten anything that is not kosher." And the voice said to him, "What God has made kosher you must not call dirty." Oh, and to drive the point home, this happened three times. Peter is told to kill something and eat it, he refuses, and the voice tells him that God can make clean what he thought was unclean. And then the sheet went away.
Just then (drum roll) the three men sent by Cornelius arrived and asked for him. And up on the roof Peter got a clear message from the Holy Spirit: there are some guys downstairs looking for you; go with them, because I sent them. So Peter went down, introduced himself, and asked what they were after. "Cornelius, a centurion who is a good and God-fearing man, a man who has a good reputation among the Jewish people, was told by an angel of God to send for you in order to hear what you have to say. So, we are here to take you with us to him." Peter invited them to stay overnight and the next day all four of them set out. And when they heard what was up, some of the other Christians in Joppa went with Peter.
The trip took all day, and so they got to Caesarea the next day. Cornelius was waiting for them, along with his closest friends and some of his relatives. Now Peter was a little strict about rules, and a strict interpretation of the rules said that he should not go into the house of a Gentile. But he went in. Cornelius fell at his feet, but Peter told him to stop that. "I'm an ordinary guy," he said; you shouldn't worship anyone except God alone. I have to stop here and have a moment of amazement that a centurion, a Roman officer and commander of men, would fall at the feet of a fisherman. Anyway, Peter asked why he had sent for him, and Cornelius told him the story of his vision. He finished, "So here we all are, in the presence of God, to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say."
Peter had the whole trip to think about what he would say, and he simply talked about Jesus. Well, first he confessed that he himself had learned something; namely, that God doesn't play favorites. I knew a guy in Cincinnati who had a bumper sticker on his truck that read, "Jesus loves you, but I'm his favorite." And at the time of these events that is exactly how Jewish folks were entitled to feel: God loves you, but we're the favorites. That vision Peter had of the unclean animals and the voice telling him that God can make anything clean showed him how wrong that was. So Peter went on to tell about Jesus, how he was the Messiah the Jewish people were hoping for, and that Jesus showed that by healing the sick and exorcising demons. He said, "I know; I was there." He said the leaders executed Jesus as a criminal, but God raised him from the dead, and Jesus appeared to a lot of people after his Resurrection, eating and drinking with them. And Peter finished: "Jesus is the one appointed by God to judge the living and the dead, and the prophets make clear that all who believe in him receive forgiveness of their sins in his name."
He wasn't finished, but the Holy Spirit interrupted by coming to all those who were listening. I doubt they even had time to pray for the Spirit; they heard the message about Jesus, something clicked and suddenly they received the Holy Spirit. We can take a moment, though, and pray:
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Melt me; mold me; fill me; use me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
How did Peter and his companions know that they had received the Holy Spirit? Here's what the Scripture reading says:
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
Speaking in tongues and praising God, two signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts, of which speaking in tongues is one, and the Holy Spirit gives us the impetus to praise God. Expressing a spiritual gift and a genuine desire to praise God are both signs of the Holy Spirit.
So Peter and his companions baptized all of them: Cornelius, his family, his servants, his friends. And they stayed several days, no doubt giving Peter the opportunity to teach Cornelius and the others more about Jesus.
Now, there is a "rest of the story" moment: Peter went from there to Jerusalem, where the Church had heard a report of what happened in Caesarea. Right away they pounced on Peter: "Why did you visit and eat with Gentiles?" Yeah; first Philip hangs out with an Ethiopian, now Peter is hanging out with an Italian. So Peter told them his story and they changed their minds; they praised God for including Gentiles in the chance to be saved.
Well, I both love and fear this story. I fear it because I worry that it can become a pretense for people just to do whatever we feel like doing. You know that the license plate on my car reads POLITY. "Polity" is a system of governance, and we Presbyterians are particularly fond of our polity. I'll tell you honestly: at one point in my life I was ready to become a Lutheran, but I preferred our polity. Polity is the process by which we get things done, and it tells us who has the authority to do what. According to his polity Philip should not have baptized the Ethiopian; according to the polity Peter had always lived by he should not have eaten with and baptized Cornelius.
But he did, because it was very clear that the Holy Spirit had overruled his polity. He didn't do it because he felt like it; he didn't do it in order to give the finger to the system. He did it because they began to speak in tongues and to praise God, and because he had received a vision from God preparing him for the experience, and so it was obvious to everybody that the Holy Spirit had overruled his polity.
And so I love this story. It reminds me that you can't tame the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is like Aslan the lion from the "Chronicles of Narnia." Mrs. Beaver, I think it is, says of him, "He's a good lion, but he's not a tame lion." You and I can't make the Holy Spirit play by our rules. But, at the same time, when the Holy Spirit moves, the Spirit provides clear evidence of what she is doing: spiritual gifts are practiced and God is praised. And all who are attuned to the work of God, even if they start out complaining, find that they can join in praising God for including Gentiles in the chance to be saved.
When I pray for us, as a congregation, that God will pour out the Holy Spirit on us, I do not have in mind anything in particular for what that will mean. I don't expect the Spirit to follow my agenda. As the Spirit moves among us, though, we can be sure of two things: we demonstrate our spiritual gifts and we give praise to God.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 Daniel Iverson, 1926; hymn #288 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Ó2013 Westminster John Knox Press).