The Sixth Sunday of Easter
The Rev R. Bingham Powell
The God of Surprises
Throughout this season of Easter, we have been hearing snippets each week from the Book of Acts. The Book of Acts is part II of Luke's great story. Part I is the Gospel, telling of the story of the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Part II, Acts, picks up with the Ascension and tells the story of the first Christians, followers of The Way as they were first called, as they figured out what it meant to be Christ's disciples in light of their encounters with the Risen Lord, a community baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus.
There were a lot of things they were trying to figure out in those early days: how to organize themselves, who to include, how to live as a community, how to love one another as Christ had loved them as we just heard about in the Gospel, among many other issues.
Our installment today of this story in Acts tells of Peter's encounter with a group of Gentiles - Cornelius and his companions. Cornelius has had a vision to go see Peter. Peter had a vision to talk to Cornelius. When they meet, Peter shares with Cornelius and his companions about Jesus - how Jesus had come to preach peace, do good, and heal. He told them about how Jesus had been baptized and anointed by the Holy Spirit. He told them about how Jesus had been put to death on a tree, but had risen on the third day and appeared to him and others, and that he and the other witnesses now had to share this Good News.
While Peter was sharing this story, his stump sermon if you will, the Holy Spirit descended upon Cornelius and his companions, as we heard in the reading today. And "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." Even on the Gentiles. That is the key phrase in this reading. The Holy Spirit - God - is present, even with the Gentiles. This astonishes, amazes, surprises Peter's companions because this is not where they understood that God's presence could be found.
God's presence was only expected to be found within the Jewish community, among those who followed all of God's laws as outlined in Scripture, and most importantly those who entered into the covenant with God, the covenant given through Abraham, which required the men to be circumcised as a sign. That covenant and the requirement to be circumcised had been affirmed and re-affirmed throughout scripture. But here, God's presence is found in the most surprising of places, even among the Gentiles, the uncircumcised, those outside of the bounds of the community.
In some ways this should not have been a surprise for those who knew Jesus, for Jesus constantly surprised and disoriented his disciples by showing them insights like that the Reign of God could be compared to the most unlikely of things, such as a seed and a weed; that God's presence was among the most unsuspecting of people, such the prostitutes and the tax collectors; and that God's glory was paradoxically found in a cross. Do you remember when Jesus taught them that one? It blew their minds. Peter even rebuked his master? And Jesus had to say "get behind me Satan" to his most important disciple. Jesus constantly surprised them with his teaching.
And Jesus himself was a surprise. Can anything good come out of that backwater, blue collar, rural town of Nazareth? No, people thought. But it did. How could a man with no formal training speak and teach with such authority? How could the tomb be empty?
We have a God of surprises whose breaking of expectations, whose shocking inbreakings into the world, goes back much further than Jesus, for we see God showing up in the most unlikely places throughout Scripture, like in an old man and an old woman, too old to bear children, yet still becoming the ancestors of a great nation; like in the trickster Jacob and his vain son Joseph; like in the stutter and murder Moses; like in the foreigner Ruth; like in David, whose limitations and iniquities are too many to number.
The God of surprises shows up not in the earthquake or fire as Elijah expected, but in the sound of sheer silence. God shows up in the building of the temple, but also surprisingly in its falling. God shows up in bringing the people into the Holy Land, but also surprisingly in pushing them out.
The God of surprises shows up in the too young Jeremiah, and the too disobedient Jonah. God shows up in an unwed pregnant teenager, and in a stable and in a manger. God has always shown up were people did not expect God to show up.
So, why were they surprised and why are we always surprised when God shows up somewhere new and unexpected? But we are. We think we have it figured it out and then God surprises us again.
In hearing this passage today, the question for us is not whether the Holy Spirit can show up in Gentiles. That question has been settled; Gentiles soon became the dominant group within the church and no one is surprised anymore by their presence. The question before us is what surprising place will God show up next? Where will the Holy Spirit show up today and be revealed to us? Can we let go of our expectations long enough to recognize it? And are we ready to welcome that surprising entrance into our lives?
Peter often gets a bad rap. He often comes across as a bumbling fool in Gospels, but here he gets it right. He baptizes them and he welcomes them into the community, he welcomes them into his life, he welcomes them into his home for several days. Can we be as open and receptive to the movements of the Holy Spirit that are still blowing? Can we be prepared to welcome that Holy Spirit?
For God's Spirit is entering our lives every day. We just need to recognize it. God's Spirit is showing up in unexpected places for us as a community, the wider community of the Church Universal and as the local community as St. Mary's Episcopal Church. And God's Spirit is showing up in surprising places for each one of us personally.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, open your eyes and your ears to recognize God's presence. Open your hearts to welcome God's presence. For in recognizing and welcoming God's Spirit, you will find your life renewed and transformed as you align your life with God, and you will bear lasting fruit that will nourish the world. Amen.