Sunday, May 17, 2009

It Fell Upon All

Acts 10:44-48
Joel 2: 28-29

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

This phrase comes in the middle of a scene, a vision, or death and destruction, of desperate times for the people of Israel. The most important bit for us to read, however, isn’t the predictions of blood and fire and columns of smoke. Because of pre-millennial theology (the Left Behind system of thought), even those of us who are not believers in such things are conditioned these days to read such things into it. No, the most important bit is that there will come a day, in the future from Joel’s day, when God’s Spirit will descend on all flesh without regard to any separation.

In the future from where Joel sat as he wrote. We as Christians have scriptures that fill out that future. It happens In the book of Acts. In the second chapter, in the event we celebrate at Pentecost, it happens first, to Peter and the disciples and all the followers who have been meeting in the temple, sharing their goods as any had need. But it also happens here, chronologically later, in the 10th chapter of Acts, in an event some call the Gentile Pentecost.

This event took a little more work for God, because what was about to happen had not happened before. The Holy Spirit coming as fire to people who were not Jews was brand new. The person to bring the good news to the gentiles was chosen to be Peter. He’s in the town of Joppa one day, out on the coast.

He’s out on the roof of a house, waiting for lunch, enjoying the sea breeze, when he falls into a trance and sees this vision of a large sheet descending from the sky. And on this sheet is all manner of food (remember he’s hungry!). The thing is, this sheet has all kinds of food. Good kosher foods like beef and chicken and sweets and vegetables and grains, but also things he’s not supposed to eat, like pork and reptiles, and things where meat and cheese are mixed together. In the vision, a voice says to Peter “kill and eat”. Well, of course, Peter refuses, saying “I have never eaten anything that is profane and unclean!” and the voice says back “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And to emphasize the point, the vision repeats three times. After it ends, he’s still up on the roof, thinking about what has just happened. The Spirit whispers in his ear, "OK, there are these three guys in town. They are looking for you, go with them.”

These three guys are servants of a Roman Centurion, an Army officer of some rank, who has sent them all the way from Caesarea, some 40 miles away up the coast. He’s also had a vision. An angel has come to him and said "send some men to Joppa, and find a guy named Simon, who is also called Peter, who is staying with another Simon, who works with leather. Find him and bring him back to your place.”

I need to mention that Cornelius was a strange guy. He was this Roman officer, commander of hundreds of soldiers, the apex of Roman respectability, but he was what the Bible called a “God-Fearer;” he prayed to God and helped the poor in God’s name. The Jews all knew him to be a good man.

So, these men of Cornelius’ find Peter, and tell him that they have been sent to find him because of a vision Cornelius has had. You’ve got to think Peter says “oh, that’s what the vision was about!”

The next morning, they all head out from Joppa back up the coast to Caesarea, with some of the Joppa Christians along, as well. They get to Cornelius’ house the next day (40 miles, remember—at best they are on horseback or in carriages), and Cornelius has a house full.

Peter tells them: You know, I am not usually supposed to be in a gentiles’ house, but I have recently had this vision that tells me that I’m OK. Can you tell me why you sent for me?”

Cornelius says “I had a vision, too, and the angel in it told me to find you and bring you here. All of us are now gathered to see what God has sent you to us for.”

And Peter says, "OK. Then. You know about Jesus Christ, the man who died recently. Well, he preached peace, and that he was the Lord of everyone. He taught and healed all over the countryside, and we saw it all, and we even helped sometimes. He was put to death, but God raised him from the dead after three days, and we saw him again. He even ate and drank in our presence! He has sent us out to do what he did before he died, in his name, and to tell people that he is the judge of all, living or dead. This is who the prophets spoke about.”

And at that point, Peter was interrupted. Those blue flames of fire appeared again, and that roaring wind came back. And the Gentiles began to speak in tongues! The people who had gone with Peter (they're called "the circumcised believers in the Bible) were surprised to witness that what they had experienced at Pentecost in the Temple was now happening here among Gentiles, in a house in Caesarea. But they couldn’t dispute what was happening before them. Peter, now understanding that the vision was so that he could be flexible enough to serve God in this moment, asks for water and baptizes the whole crowd assembled in Cornelius’ house, and they stay together several more days.

The Holy Spirit fell on Gentiles, just as it fell on Jews. The arc of the next four chapters of Acts are the adjustment that the Jews make to accept that God is going to claim Gentiles as well, and that they need to be included. If the Holy Spirit can fall on all flesh, they had better get used to accepting everyone.

It took some adjustment, and the destruction of prejudice, but they did it. Peter and Cornelius both were flexible and open to the spirit’s leading, even when it led outside their culture, their society, everything they’d been taught since childhood.

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

The Holy Spirit works on all, it is God’s plan. The question is not whether God loves all people; it is how well we listen in our time, we the inheritors of the message that Peter gave. Can we be as flexible as Peter was? Can we accept those who we consider unclean without judgment? Cornelius, we think didn’t stop being a Roman centurion. God loves people as they are who they are, and as he created them.

How are we doing with that?

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