The Sixth Sunday of Easter for Year B (May 10, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Acts 10:44-48

Let’s be honest…most of our work and worship in the day-to-day of serving God is pretty mundane. Good, pleasant, important — but not that “out of the ordinary.” I think much the same was true of Peter and the other apostles (and, probably dating back to their days with Jesus.) Every day, you get up and go do the work that lies in front of you. For Peter, that often seemed to include speaking to groups. On this day, in the midst of his everyday activity of speaking, something rather “out” of the ordinary happened: the Holy Spirit fell on an uncircumcised (read, non-Jewish) group of believers. The text says those who were with Peter and witnessed this event were “astounded.” Stuff like this had never happened before.

What did it mean? It seems that, in this post-Easter context of the continuing spread of the message about Jesus, God’s blessing and presence (which is what the Spirit symbolizes for all of us) is available to anyone. Absolutely anybody. Hmmm, go figure. That’s probably what was so astounding to them. Like us, they were tempted to believe that God’s blessing was certainly for us — and for people like us. But those who are “different?”

Upon whom would the blessing of God need to fall in order for you to be astounded?

Psalm 98

Psalm 98 is clearly a “thanksgiving” song in celebration of God’s deliverance of Israel (from Egypt, from battle, from exile, etc.) But notice that it is celebrated in the context of “the nations, the earth, the peoples.” God’s work — even when it is carried out in the particular — is always also universal.

1 John 5:1-6

In this world, there is trouble. You don’t need anybody to tell or prove that to you (and neither do the people in our pews!) John’s audience knew this for a fact — everyday life was hard! But, the beloved apostle told them that there was One who had “overcome” or conquered or subdued the world and all its troubles. That One is, of course, God — who has now through Jesus opened our lives to the same conquering power.

Again, it is not “we” who overcome — it is God. Our faith is in God and is activated by God, lest we get too cocky and think we can simply “name it and claim it” and be done with the world’s troubles. More to it than that, methinks.

I like the shading of meaning for this word that connotes “endures” or “holds on till the storm is over.” Not every victory is triumphant and shiny; many of them are gritty and hard-fought. But either way, it is the strength and presence of God with us, in us, and among us (hence, abide, in the following gospel lesson) that sustains.

John 15:9-17

Jesus’ whole modus operandi, according to John, was based on his observation of and cooperation with the One he called, “My Father.” Since the Father had loved him, he loved his disciples; since he obeyed the Father’s commands, he asks his disciples to obey his commands. The natural outcome of such love and actions is the agricultural image of “bearing fruit.” A nice, wholesome, healthy image, don’t you think? Who doesn’t like a tasty bite of fresh apples or tangy peaches right off the tree in season?

Jesus also illustrates this working of love and obedience as “laying down” one’s life for friends. Wow…what gift is more valuable than the gift of your life? I sense that “laying it down” is not always necessarily the willingness to die; few of us will be called to exercise that option! But, “giving it away” seems an apt comparison — a kind act or service at a time.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you….” Just how HAS Jesus loved you and me? Let us go and do likewise.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

And the circumcised believers were astounded because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the gentiles”

                                                                                                            Acts 10:45

In the fall of 1976 I started studying for the ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. (I was not a Baptist.  Like most American Protestant seminaries at the time, Southeastern was open to students of all traditions.  I was a United Methodist.)

We had chapel every day at about 10 am.  Most days a professor or an upper class student preached, occasionally we had special guests. On this particular day, it was the very new, and relatively young, Roman Catholic bishop from Raleigh just down the road.  Also in attendance, along with 400 or 500 students, were the members of the area’s African-American Pastor’s Association, whose monthly meeting included attending chapel and dining in the cafeteria.

Well the bishop, who was from somewhere up north, was in the middle of a carefully researched and written homily on Christian unity when he said something like, “No matter what our differences we are united in having been saved by the blood Christ, and made alive by the gift of the Spirt;” at which point several of the pastors got up, waving handkerchiefs and shouting, “Amen, Preach it!  That’s Right! C’mon!”  Manuscript pages shot up in the air and fluttered to the floor while a flustered and somewhat embarrassed bishop said gracefully, “I’m sorry.  You have to understand.  In the Catholic Church, no one says “amen” unless it’s written in the worship book.  I’ll be ready next time.”

“And the circumcised believers were astonished because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the gentiles”

The good bishop was not the first person to be astonished at an unexpected manifestation of the Holy Spirit.  Those whom the writer of Acts calls “the circumcised believers” were absolutely floored at the idea that the Holy Spirit, the spirit of YHWH, the god whom they understood to be the God of Israel and nobody else, had “fallen upon” these gentiles.  This was, to them, simply unbelievable.  And yet; it was true, it was real, it was a fact – it was happening right in front of them.

Luke uses “circumcised believers” to refer to these folks for a very good reason.  He wasn’t trying to avoid the word “Jews,” he was not trying to avoid being anti-Semitic.  After all Peter and Paul and James the brother of Jesus, and Jesus himself, were all Jews. No – the point here is simply this: up until now the believers had thought that what Jesus had done was about the Jews and about being the Jewish Messiah, so their logic said, “If you want to be a Jesus follower, if you want to be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit – you need to be a Jew first.  And becoming a Jew involves being circumcised.”  So their thought pattern went like this – everyone is welcome – as long as you first become a Jew by being circumcised, then you get baptized, then you get the Holy Spirit.

And God said, “That’s nice.  But oh so very wrong.  Let’s just skip the first parts and go directly to the bestowing of the Holy Spirt, shall we.”  And the Spirit came down, and the gentiles started waving handkerchiefs and shouting, “Amen! Preach it! That’s right! C’mon!” and pages shot up in the air and fluttered to the . . . – wait a minute – I’ve already told that story.  Or is it the same story; a story that has happened over and over again, down through the ages?

“And the circumcised believers were astonished because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the gentiles”

Throughout history, people have misinterpreted their calling from God.  They believe they have been chosen for privilege instead of purpose – they forget that they have been called to carry the word to the rest of the world, they begin to think they and those like them deserve to be God’s special ones, and that those other people, well they do not.  Women can’t preach, pagans don’t have souls, slaves are not really people, Native Americans are savages, etc. etc.  And even if we make them Christians, they must first become like us, they must cut away that which is the uniqueness God created when God created them. And God astonishes us and skips over all our objections and bestows the Holy Spirit on whomever God will, regardless of our rules and our prejudices.

It is not much of a stretch for us in the twenty-first century to accept the idea that God wants to extend the Kingdom to gentiles.  After all, that’s who most of us are.  When we hear Peter ask,

“Who can withhold the water for baptism for these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  we must ask ourselves, “From whom are we withholding the waters of baptism?”

Almost none of us would do it on purpose, but do we do it accidentally?  Have we decided that some people would rather not be a part of our type of church?  Has our invitation to the community failed to be as open to all as we want it to be?  Our calling today is to move beyond saying we’re open to all and beyond believing we’re open to all – to going out into the community and genuinely inviting anyone and everyone to be a part.  And I warn you – no matter how much you try to prepare yourself – you will someday find yourself astonished when the Holy Spirit falls upon that very person you had written off.  Just like some people were astonished when it fell on me and on you.

Amen and amen.

2 thoughts on “The Sixth Sunday of Easter for Year B (May 10, 2015)

  1. Amen! Amen! Preach it brothers. I am always amazed at well meaning “Christians,” how they want to convert you to a denomination and not to being a believer. As soon as I ask them if they would like to join me and take their evangelism into prison I usually get, “I get back with you on that.” I really do enjoy reading and listening to “the Bubbas,” and hope one day I get to meet you in person. If either of you ever make it to Jasper, Texas you are welcome to preach at Trinity Church.
    Les+

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