Sixth Sunday of Easter
The first line of our short Scripture lesson today is delightful; there is no other word for it. Luke says, “While Peter was still speaking.” How wonderful is that! Peter, in the midst of yet another sermon, is interrupted by the movement of the Holy Spirit. I would love to be interrupted like that.
I once guest-preached for a Pentecostal friend of mine. Those people interrupted me right and left. And it wasn’t just the occasional “mmm” of agreement or “yes sir!” or “amen!” No, they’d just talk to me like this is supposed to be a conversation; “Tell me more about that,” kind of comments. What? That’s not how this works.
I would love to be interrupted, but by the movement of the Holy Spirit. I want to be interrupted like Peter is interrupted; like the way the Spirit has been interrupting Peter throughout this larger story. The interruption here is only an exclamation point on the bigger interruption Peter has been experiencing lately. All along, the Spirit has been interrupting what Peter thinks God is like with what God is actually like. And it all concludes with Peter, trying to preach yet another sermon, only to hear God say, “Shush Peter, I’ve got this.”
I want to be interrupted like that. We should all want to be interrupted like that. We should all want our limited, closed-minded vision of what God is like and what God is doing to be interrupted so that we might see what is True; we all, like Peter, should want to say, “Now I truly understand.”
There is a relationship between the story we heard from the Book of Acts last week and the story we hear today. In a roundabout way, last week’s story leads to this week’s. Last week we heard about a man named Philip, who was a doer. God nudged Philip to go and walk with an Ethiopian eunuch, and Philip did it. And my point last week was that we need people like that in the church: people who are spiritually nimble enough to hear the Spirit’s “nudge” and do what the Spirit says to do.
Peter used to be like that, remember? Remember when Jesus met Peter (he was Simon back then) by the lake where he was a professional fisherman? Peter was literally at work. Jesus walks by, and what does he say? “Follow me.” And what does Peter do? He follows him. Luke specifically says, “They left everything and followed him.” That is a spiritually nimble person; maybe even too nimble; Luke doesn’t say what “everything” was. But that was when he was Simon the fisherman; he’s Peter “The Rock” now. A Rock can’t just flitter about, doing whatever the Spirit nudges him to do. Good thing we still have Philip.
But here’s the thing: maybe they’re both right. The Church needs the Philips (and Simons), but the Church also needs its Peters too. Philip is nimble, he can hear the Spirit’s nudge to walk with and share the gospel with the most unlikely of people. Did I mention last week, what Philip was doing before he shared Jesus with the Ethiopian eunuch? He was in Samaria, sharing Jesus with the Samarians! Samarians, I tell ya! Those people! The people the Israelites had been hostile toward for generations! And Philip goes and shares Jesus with those people; and what’s more, they receive it!
Remember, this was early in the post-Resurrection Church; they didn’t even yet realize that they were supposed to share Jesus with outsiders people. But there’s Philip, doing it anyway, not only outsiders, but with people who they were hostile toward. Then off he goes to do the same with an Ethiopian eunuch: a person who was every bit as much an “outsider” as a Samaritan. He didn’t ask permission first, he was just following “the nudge.” Although I admire his free-wheeling attitude, what if he was wrong? What if it was just Philip’s idea, he just thought it was God’s? What then? As it turns out, he wasn’t wrong; but that’s what Peter is for. If Philip is the doer, then Peter is the Elder.
Once again, Sharon has drawn a winner as far as Scripture readings go: no weird, foreign words, and best of all, it was short. This is a delightfully short Scripture reading if you’re the liturgist, but it’s only the end to a much longer story. As I said, when the Spirit interrupts Peter, it’s the culmination of what God has already been doing in Peter. Peter has watched what Philip was doing: he knows about the Samaritans; in fact Peter was in on it a little. But those were Samaritans: they are outsiders, but they’re not outsiders-outsiders. Jesus talked with Samaritans. But what about real outsiders? What about Gentiles?
And then one day, apparently after skipping breakfast (the most important meal of the day), Peter passed out from hunger. While they were making him brunch, he had a vision. You might remember the vision: a picnic is laid out before him, made of nothing but yucky food. A picnic full of “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” That may not sound that weird to you, but Moses forbid eating those sorts of things, so Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Then the voice said to him three times, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
And here is where the story gets interesting. Hunger dreams are one thing, but suddenly there’s a knock on the door. Last week, someone’s phone rang as I was starting to pray; which doesn’t bother me, I think it’s kind of funny. What rattled me the most was the thought, “Should I make a joke about this during the prayer.” “Lord, can we put you on speakerphone?” I didn’t make a joke, but it’s funny because God so rarely calls us on our cell phones. We don’t expect God to knock on the door when we’ve had a weird dream either. But knock God does. Well, not God exactly. It is a delegation of Gentiles, sent from the most outsider person we’ve met yet in this story: a Roman centurion (no less) named Cornelius has sent people in search of this Simon Peter, because Cornelius has also had a vision that he should do just that.
I think you probably see where this is going: Peter, of course, goes and Peter, of course, sees that God has a plan for this Good News that extends well beyond his own people; but it takes him time to figure that out. Somewhere along the line, Peter has become an Elder; Peter has lost his impulsiveness, but he’s gained discernment. Ironically and fortunately, what Philip just jumped in and did, turned out to be what God had been doing all along.
There’s a thing I often say as we prepare to celebrate Communion. I wonder if we always hear the implications. Often I will remind us that this is the Table of the Lord. In my mind, I usually think about it in terms of visitors; you know, so they know that all who put their trust in him are welcomed by him to this feast that he has prepared. But you know, there’s more to it than that. These words are also a reminder to those of us who already know we belong here. It’s a reminder that we don’t get to choose who is in and who is out; this is not our Table. This is the Table of our Lord. He gets to choose who will be gathered around it. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that those he would gather here might just surprise us.
What is so remarkable about the Spirit of God interrupting Peter and pouring out into this Gentile crowd, isn’t even so much that these are unlikely people. What is remarkable is that this is nothing new! We should have seen this coming. We should have remembered the words of the Prophet Joel: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” [Joel 2:28] This story doesn’t describe the changing mind of God. This story describes the moment Peter finally sees what God had been doing all along! And sure, it took him a while; just like it takes us a while. But may we be surprised by the interrupting Spirit. May the Spirit show us we’re wrong about who needs to hear about Jesus. May we have eyes to see what God has been doing all along and we welcome them here as our Savior welcomes them here. And may we all celebrate what the Spirit of our Risen Savior is doing even in us.