Easter 6, Year B, Sunday, May 13, 2012
Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 115:9-17
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Psalmist writes: “Sing a new song to the LORD, who has done marvelous things.” I don’t know much about worship music in Biblical times—no one does—but in America, most people who go to church don’t like to sing a new song. Anyone who’s done any worship planning could tell you that. No matter what denomination, region, or era, the complaint is the same whenever a new song is introduced. “What’s wrong with the old songs we know and love?” people say. “They were much better than this new stuff!” I had a professor in seminary who had a list of hymns, some new and some that are for us old familiar classics. Below that list was another list of actual complaints made about the songs when they first came out, and the game was to match which complaint belonged to an old classic and which belonged to a new hymn. It was surprisingly hard, because people made the exact same types of complaints a hundred years ago as they do today. It was a good reminder that every old thing was once new. Every bit of beloved tradition started out as a change from the way things used to be done, and was probably grumbled at when it was introduced. I don’t think it was that different in ancient Israel. People like familiar things. It’s human nature. Change is messy, and unpredictable, and always has unintended consequences. So unless things are going terribly wrong, most people like things to stay the same, and assume that the way things are is the way things should be. It’s just human nature.
In our first lesson, Saint Peter and his followers shared that appreciation for the status quo. Even though Jesus had come to them, had lived and died and turned the whole world inside out with his teachings and his sacrifice, they assumed that things would go on and be business as usual. The Jews were the people of God, so those who wanted to follow Jesus would become Jewish, and would follow Jewish customs and be circumcised. After all, circumcision was the mark of being God’s people. That’s why they were amazed that the Holy Spirit came to these gentiles. They weren’t Jewish, weren’t circumcised. How could God be with those outside of the community that had been worshipping him for centuries? As the book of Acts says, “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.”
This story could happen in any church in America today. In fact, it could happen in any congregation in the history of the Christian church. It’s an old pattern. We meet someone new—someone who’s different than we are. Maybe they come from another country, or another state, or another ethnic group. Maybe they come from another religion. Maybe they have a different political ideology. Maybe they’re from another economic group. Maybe their orientation is different. The specifics don’t really matter, in any one of a million different ways, the newcomers are not like us. They are, in the words of today’s reading from Acts, gentiles. People from outside the traditional community of faith. And then we see that God is at work in them, and we are astonished to find that God can send God’s Spirit even to those who are different from us.
After all, we know that we are God’s chosen people. Peter and the circumcised believers in the Acts story knew it too. God had come to their ancestors long ago, and made a covenant with them, a promise that he would be their God and they would be his people. God had chosen them, given them the gift of his love, taught them how to live good and fruitful lives. God had been with them through many dangers, toils, and snares. Every male of their community had physical proof of their relationship with God in the circumcision that was part of the covenant. Jesus Christ had come, God’s Anointed One, and given them an even deeper understanding of God’s love. Jesus had shown them that all the commandments God gave could be summed up in one word: love. Love for neighbor and love for God. Instead of focusing on the rules and regulations, they should focus on the intentions behind the rules, and love one another in deed and in truth, and love God—abide in God—with all their heart, soul, and mind. They were doing everything that God had called them to do! They were God’s chosen people.
That’s why they were shocked to find that these gentiles were God’s chosen people, too. These gentiles did not share their history. These gentiles were not part of the covenant God made with the Jewish people. These gentiles didn’t share their language, their worship traditions, their culture, their values, their perspective on the world. These people were different. And yet, God had chosen them! Those first circumcised believers had thought that because they were God’s chosen people, God would only choose people who were like them, or were willing to become like them. But God had a different plan. The gentiles didn’t have to give up their identity and become Jewish in order to receive the Holy Spirit. God gave it to them as they were. God’s love was given to everyone, not just those who were already part of the community of faith. Jesus’ commandment to base our lives on love for God and one another was given for everyone. God chose these Gentiles, guiding them in new ways to be God’s people. God was gathering in all peoples together. God was doing a new thing, a marvelous thing.
And it is that new thing, God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to those gentiles, which brings us here today. You see, those gentiles are our ancestors in the faith. If the first circumcised believers hadn’t recognized and followed God’s will to baptize them and teach them God’s Word, and do the same for all the Gentiles who came after them, we would not be here today. We owe our faith, our relationship with Jesus, to their willingness to follow God even when God was doing something surprising, something new, something that changed and challenged their assumptions. Thank God for Saint Peter, who saw God’s Spirit working and followed where it led even through his astonishment. Thank God that he was willing to baptize and teach people who were different from him. Thank God that Peter later support Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles.
The question for us here is, what new, surprising, marvelous things is God doing today? What new songs is God calling us to sing? How is God pouring out the Holy Spirit in today’s world? Are we willing to recognize the work of the Spirit if it comes in forms—and people—that don’t look like what we’re used to? No matter how much we like things to stay the same, our world is changing. Our culture is changing. Young people today act and think very differently than their grandparents did. And thanks the ease of modern travel and communications, many people of all ages have friends who come from different cultures, countries, and faiths. Church attendance is decreasing all over America, and we hear a lot of doom and gloom about that. But I think the pessimists are wrong. I think we have extraordinary opportunities to do ministry. We have the opportunity to be like Peter and his band of circumcised believers, going out to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the gentiles.
But that depends on us being willing to see the Holy Spirit in unexpected places, and recognizing that God sometimes comes in places and people we don’t expect. People who aren’t like us. And that’s harder than it sounds. The story of Pentecost is coming up in a few weeks. At Pentecost, God sent the Spirit to a large group of believers. But some of those who were there, and saw this miracle, dismissed it out of hand. They saw the Holy Spirit working, and assumed people were just drunk. God was there, and they didn’t see him because they didn’t want to see him. If we are not careful, we can miss the Spirit’s presence and see only what we expect to see.
God was with Peter, and God was with those first gentile believers, and God is still with us today. God is still gathering all peoples to himself. God is still doing new things. May God open our eyes to see the work of the Holy Spirit in the world, even in places and people that astonish us.