4-22-16 - A Bigger Box

Even to the Gentiles. That is what the Jewish Christian believers in Jerusalem concluded when Peter finished his story about why he was keeping company with the “uncircumcised.” God has given “even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” This was shocking, unprecedented (though not really...), outside their categories. And what convinced Peter and, through him, the other leaders, was evidence of the Holy Spirit.

And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 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?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

We see the scene in Cornelius’ house in greater detail in the previous chapter. Peter has arrived, noted that it would not ordinarily be lawful for a Jew to enter the home of a Gentile, described the supernatural occurrences that led him there, and then begins to preach to them. His opener is startling:
‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’ Wow. Is God really that accepting? Even Peter had trouble holding onto this truth, and Christ’s church has ever struggled with it.

As Peter winds into his sermon, something even more extra-ordinary happens: the Holy Spirit comes upon those listening, though they are not Jews nor, as yet, Christians. They begin to speak in tongues and praise God, just as the disciples did at Pentecost. Peter and his companions are astounded.

Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Jesus had told Nicodemus that the Spirit blows where it will. But we’re still surprised when that wind of God carries seeds into ground we did not think prepared to receive it. Where else have we been thinking too small or limiting the way we share the Good News of Jesus Christ? One of the primary excuses people give for not sharing their faith is “people have perfectly good religions of their own.” Some do, some don't - and maybe all might receive the Holy Spirit if we go where God sends us and bring our faith and our love.

It’s not our job to persuade, only to witness to our own experience. As my bishop recently reminded us, new grandparents will tell anyone they meet their good news, but they’re not trying to make other people into grandparents. They’re just sharing their joy. That's our call too.

I wrote yesterday that it is human nature to sort and categorize people. It is also human nature to try to define God and God’s activity. So we read our texts and repeat our stories and make our definitions and pronouncements and try to put God in a box that is manageable and vaguely comprehensible. And the history of God in humankind tells us this: We will always need a bigger box.

Make more space for the Holy Spirit, and maybe we’ll also need bigger baptismal fonts.

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