The Acts of the Apostles
THE EXPERIMENTAL CHURCH: Powered by the Spirit
“An Experiment in Yielding” Click here for audio
Pastor Donna Buell
At the end of my sermon last Sunday, I promised that this morning I would talk about the direction or trajectory of God’s intention for followers of Christ. That direction is outlined clearly at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles where we find Jesus’ final words to his disciples before his Ascension. Jesus told them, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Any good literature teacher would call these words foreshadowing, for they tell us what it is we are going to read about in the rest of the book; and in many ways these words do provide the framework upon which the entire book of Acts is built.
The Holy Spirit does come upon the apostles who are waiting together in the city of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. And the Spirit does empower them to share the message of Christ in the many languages of the people who are present in the city that day. And after that, the apostles and other disciples do begin to take that message out from Jerusalem to the surrounding regions of Judea and to Samaria, and through the work of people like Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy the gospel message continues to spread throughout the known world.
There is an outward movement or direction here, for the gospel message, the message of God’s love as it was revealed in Jesus Christ, was not meant to be kept in Jerusalem. It was meant to be shared with the whole world.
But this outward movement is not only geographical. It is also a movement outward from the center of Jewish faith and culture. What began with Jesus as a movement within the Jewish faith spread by the power of the Spirit. It spread to other Jews who also became followers of Christ. It spread to Gentiles who were willing to convert to Judaism – to be circumcised and to follow the laws of the Jewish faith so that they might be baptized as followers of Christ. And eventually it extended even to Gentiles who did not choose to embrace Jewish faith and practice as they became disciples. And the scripture reading Charlie read for us explores an important moment that helped to further that outward direction and movement of the Holy Spirit – an outward movement that required Peter and others to yield to the Spirit’s leading.
In this passage Peter was called before the believers in Jerusalem to answer for his behavior – for he had gone to uncircumcised men, associated with them and ate with them in violation of the Jewish law. How often, when someone criticizes us about something, do we try to argue and debate the relative merits of our differing positions? But Peter wisely chose another method. He told them the story of a convergence of experiences that happened to him while he was in Joppa that led him to do what he did. He wanted to make clear to them that this whole thing was not his idea. He didn’t get up one morning deciding that he was going to extend the gospel message to the Gentiles. No, Peter believed it was the work of the Holy Spirit. And at each step along the way, Peter yielded to the Spirit’s leading.
First there was that strange vision of all the different animals coming down from heaven on a large sheet. Now if that vision had happened once, he might have attributed it to indigestion. If it had happened twice, he might have found it odd or curious. But when he had that vision the third time, he had to wonder if someone was trying to tell him something. Perhaps you’ve had a similar cluster of experiences which have led you to think in a new way about something. While some call it coincidence others call it “God-incidence,” for they sense that somehow God is at work in this convergence of experiences.
The voice that accompanied Peter’s vision instructed him to get up and kill and eat from all of the animals. And of course Peter resisted, for some of those animals were considered, by Jewish law, to be unclean. But the voice persisted, telling him: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
And along with that vision came an instruction to go with a group of men who were at that very moment coming to look for him. Those men were Gentiles who were coming on behalf of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. (If you want to read this whole story, of which today’s reading is Peter’s summary, you can find it in Chapter 10.) The Spirit told Peter to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. How often do we make distinctions between them and us – us and them. And how often have those distinctions kept us from engaging with those who we consider to be other. So in these two back to back experiences, Peter was being told to make no distinction between clean and unclean animals, or between Jews and Gentiles.
Again Peter yielded to the Spirit, and went with the men to the home of Cornelius in Caesarea. And when they arrived at the home of Cornelius, they discovered that the Spirit had also been working on Cornelius, telling him to send for this man named Peter. Again, Peter yielded and he witnessed to Cornelius and to his entire household about Jesus. And even while he was speaking, Peter, and the other men who had come with him, witnessed the Holy Spirit coming upon these Gentiles, just as it had come upon the apostles on the day of Pentecost. In chapter 10 Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And in chapter 11 he tells the apostles and other believers in Jerusalem, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” So Peter came to see that yielding to the Spirit wasn’t only about being willing to witness to the Gentiles, it was also about not hindering the will and intention of God.
All along the way Peter yielded, because he believed that this convergence of experiences was the work of the Holy Spirit. And as he shared his experience with the believers in Jerusalem that day, those other believers yielded as well. Luke tells us that they were silenced when they heard this. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
This story marks an important moment that helped to further that outward movement, that outward trajectory of the Gospel message – from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth – from the Jews to the Gentiles – from the circumcised to the uncircumcised – from us to them.
This outward movement of the Spirit was not exactly a new thing. Remember that God called all of creation very good. Remember that Abraham was told that he and his descendants would be blessed so that they might be a blessing, and so that by them all the families of the earth would bless themselves. Remember that the Spirit was very much present in Jesus’ life and ministry, guiding him to associate openly with all kinds of people, with scribes and Pharisees, with tax collectors and sinners, women and children, and Samaritans, despite the traditions of his faith and the resistance he encountered – all of which ultimately led to his death on the cross.
Throughout the fall we have been reading from the Acts of the Apostles in a series we are calling the Experimental Church: Powered by the Spirit. And each week we have examined different ways in which the followers of Christ have experimented, so to speak, with what it means to be the church, not only in those earliest days of the church’s formation, but throughout the history of the Church. And today I’ve been using this word yield to describe something that is required of us if we are to follow the leading of the Spirit in our lives and in our world.
We are always responding to the leading of the Spirit. Sometimes we fail to recognize the Spirit’s leading. Sometimes we choose to ignore it. Sometimes we actively resist it, digging in our heels, holding fast to our particular beliefs and strongly held notions of what it means to be faithful. Sometimes we respond by tightening the rules, circling the wagons, building walls that divide one from another, us from them. And sometimes we have the courage to yield. Sometimes we yield by letting go of ways that no longer serve the way of Christ, which may include long held beliefs, practices, or misconceptions. Sometimes we yield by opening ourselves to new ideas, new experiences. Sometimes we yield by embracing life-giving ways that have long nourished God’s people. Sometimes we yield by welcoming the stranger and taking the risk of engaging with the other. Sometimes we yield by continuing to say yes to the call of Christ upon our lives, persisting despite any obstacles. Sometimes we yield by risking being the lone voice crying in the wilderness. Sometimes we yield by keeping silence, or by getting out of the way so that there is time and space for the Spirit to work its’ way through others.
And because we all respond in all these different ways, sometimes the people of God move with the Spirit, and sometimes we hinder the Spirit, and often we get caught somewhere in the struggle between the two. But the Spirit keeps urging us; keeps inviting us, nudging us, guiding us, leading us onward and outward, so that the love of God that was revealed in Jesus Christ might be shared widely and extravagantly, without distinction, without barrier, without hindrance. And that to me is an essential part of the task we have as people of faith…not to make everyone else like us – not even to make everyone else Christian. The task for the church is to follow in the way of Christ. I like the way it was stated in our opening prayer today from the World Council of Churches; a prayer that ended with these words, “…that the Church may bear a true and loving witness to the one it calls Lord.”
Yielding to the work of the Spirit isn’t for the faint of heart, or for those who need to be right, or for those who need to see short term gain. It is a life-long task, and it always has been. And as I have thought about the direction or trajectory of the Spirit, I’ve found myself returning again and again to words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When questioned about how he could keep on keeping on despite all the resistance that he and others in the civil rights movement experienced, he expressed his unconquerable hope. He said, “We shall overcome, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And in much the same spirit I would say that the arc of the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed is also long, but it, too, bends, it bends in a particular direction…it bends toward love, it bends toward grace, it bends toward forgiveness, it bends toward compassion, it bends toward justice, it bends toward shalom, it bends toward abundant life for all. So in our lives as individuals, and in our life as an experimental church, let us yield to the power of the Spirit, that we may walk in the way of Christ that leads to life, and bear a true and loving witness to the one we call Lord.”
Let us be in a spirit of prayer.
Perhaps, as I have been speaking about yielding to the Spirit in our lives, there are things that have come to your heart and mind: questions, concerns, or stirrings in your own life, in the life of our church and community, in the life of our world. I invite you to bring that issue or concern to mind now and to hold it in your heart. And breathe.
Hold it lightly. Release that white knuckled grip with which you have been holding it – that need to know now what to do, what to say, how to respond. Remember that resolution doesn’t depend solely upon you. So give yourself permission to sit with it, whatever it is, for a time. And breathe.
And during that time hold it not only lightly, but hold it up before God. Examine it from all sides in the light of God’s steadfast love made known to us in the amazing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And yield to the Spirit’s guiding and empowering presence, trusting that in time the way will become clear, or at least clear enough for you to take the next step.
And pray. Come, Holy Spirit, come among us as you came among those first disciples, empowering them to bear witness to the good news of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ. Help us to discern your intention for our lives and our world. Guide us as you guided the early church that we, too, may walk in the kingdom way of Jesus – the way that leads to life. Amen.