Astounded by Grace – Sermon on Acts 10:44-48 for Easter 6B

May 6, 2018

Our readings from Acts during this season of Eastertide have given us a glimpse of the early church. We have seen a healing miracle provide a way for disciples of Jesus to tell others about their personal experience of Christ’s resurrection. The Holy Spirit has been on the move. Thousands have come to believe in Jesus.

Last week, you heard how the Holy Spirit nudged Philip to follow a chariot on its way to Gaza. Inside that chariot was an African eunuch – just about the last person on earth a good Jew would engage in conversation.

This African Gentile is a eunuch, or as my friend Pastor Shawna says, “a person of questionable sexuality.” Jewish law would have specifically forbidden coming into contact with such an unclean person. Yet Philip did, and the newly baptized Ethiopian eunuch becomes the very first missionary to the African continent.

In between last week’s story and this week’s reading are the conversion of Saul on his way to Damascus, and the raising of Tabitha from death in Joppa (ch 9). It’s been a busy week for the early church.

Peter has stayed in Joppa with Simon the Tanner, and one day, as he is praying around noon, he has a vision of a sheet full of animals being let down from heaven. A voice tells him to kill and eat – but there’s a problem. All the animals in the sheet are … unclean. Peter insists that he can’t do what the voice commands. He’s never eaten an unclean thing in his life. The voice tells him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (10:15) This happens three times. Peter can’t figure out what it means.

Meanwhile, a Roman centurion from Caesarea has had a vision of his own, and being a God-worshiper, he is obedient to the vision. He sends messengers to Peter in Joppa and asks him to come to Caesarea.

Peter doesn’t know what to make of this, either, but he senses it has something to do with the vision of the unclean animals, so he goes with the messengers from Cornelius. When he arrives in Caesarea, Cornelius has assembled his entire household to hear what the Lord would have Peter speak to them.

Just as Peter begins to explain about Jesus being the Son of God who was crucified and rose again, and that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (vs. 43), something astonishing happens.

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 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, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. 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. Then they invited him to stay for several days. (Acts 10:44-48)

First, let’s notice some connections between this story and the one from Chapter 8 about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.

For one thing, there’s the city of Caesarea, a Roman port on the Mediterranean coast. Peter comes to Caesarea at the request of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. Philip headed toward Caesarea after the Spirit picked him up and dumped him at Azotus.

Both the eunuch and the members of Cornelius’ Gentile household praise God in response to their baptism. This tells the Jewish Christians that Gentile salvation is from God. The covenant God made with Abraham, that all nations will be blessed through his offspring, is being fulfilled.

And in both cases, the candidates for baptism are the ones who provide the water. The eunuch points it out and asks what can prevent him from being baptized. When Peter asks the same question, Cornelius provides the water, as a host to his guests.

But there are some differences, too. Cornelius and his household receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit before they are baptized in water. This is a first. The Jewish Christians who accompany Peter are astonished when the new converts start speaking in tongues, just as the Jewish believers did at Pentecost. In fact, this event is often referred to as the “Gentile Pentecost.”

Another contrast in this story might make us uncomfortable. Sometimes, the faithful insiders resist God the most, while “those heathen” outsiders respond to God’s grace with eager obedience. In this story, Peter resists the Spirit, but eventually submits. Cornelius responds to the Spirit immediately, then waits to see what will happen.

Peter’s vision about unclean animals being okay to eat has to happen three times before he gets the hint. Even then, it takes him some time to figure out that the messengers from Cornelius are connected to this vision.

Gentiles are not on Peter’s radar yet. He is still thinking as a Jewish Christian, the only kind of Christian he knows. He is astounded, along with the other Jewish believers who have come with him, that the Holy Spirit would move so dramatically and quickly among these “unclean” Gentiles.

Cornelius, on the other hand, immediately responds to his vision by sending for Peter, no questions asked. When Peter arrives, Cornelius is confident that God intends to speak through Peter. He waits in anticipation of whatever God is planning to do, but he remains open to what that might be.

Let’s face it, church. We are often the “faithful insiders” in our chapter of this story. How have we, like Peter, resisted the Spirit when it didn’t match our expectations? How do we respond when the Holy Spirit interrupts our well-thought-out plans with a new direction?

Because one thing is certain: holy interruptions are always disruptions.

Peter has preached this sermon at least a couple of times before, and he’s seen good results. At this point in church history, he is the most effective preacher ever. He probably has a great closing statement in mind, and expects to see God use his words to inspire great faith. And then, the Holy Spirit interrupts. God’s Spirit doesn’t wait for Peter to get to the end of his sermon.

God acts, whether we are ready or not. And when God acts, there is no distinguishing between insiders and outsiders. Everyone experiences this holy disruption.

Notice that the “Spirit fell upon all who heard the word” (v. 44). The effect on the new believers is immediately evident: they start speaking in tongues and praising God. The effect on the Jewish Christians who have accompanied Peter is … astonishment. They have suddenly been given the ability “to see with new eyes and capture a new vision of the kingdom of God.”[1]

What surprises us most isn’t always the grace God extends to us, but the grace God shows to others with a capital “O.” We place boundaries around ourselves, often with good intentions. But boundary crossings are the Holy Spirit’s particular area of expertise. When we allow the Holy Spirit to eliminate divisions between “us” and “Other”, we can see grace poured out – and some of that grace might even splash onto us.

We have just heard about God’s grace at work through the Healthy Church Initiative. For many of us, this process has been a holy disruption. While we were carefully considering next steps and measuring progress, the Holy Spirit jumped in and shook us up a bit. It has not always been a particularly comfortable journey.

But here’s the good news: God is not done with us yet. A new chapter is unfolding. We are becoming something new through the transformative power of Jesus Christ. We have experienced a Holy Spirit interruption, and God is still interrupting us.

God is still asking us to consider how we withhold the water of baptism from people who are not yet on our radar. Who are the people around us who are so different from us we can’t fathom God working through them the same way we sense God working through us? How can we break down the barriers in our minds that separate “Us” from “Them”?

Because when we can eliminate this idea of “otherness” we can begin to see the Holy Spirit at work in ways we have not yet imagined. Katherine Grieb writes, “In case we missed the point, the last line of the story underlines it for us one more time: “then they invited him to stay for several more days.” (10:48). The inclusion of the Gentiles is not a reluctant, perfunctory toleration of the new group; full inclusion implies getting to know them, hearing their stories, accepting hospitality from them in their homes, sharing the same table.”[2]

In other words, the host becomes the guest, and the guest becomes the host. … The one who came expecting to give becomes the one who receives. The one who asks to receive becomes the one who bestows. …

We see this vividly today as we celebrate Holy Communion. We may think we have set the table and invited Christ into our midst, but in fact, Christ is our host, inviting us to his Table.

We need to stop seeing ourselves as the benefactor, and recognize that our place at the table is made possible through Christ’s grace alone. The ones we think of as needing our help have something to offer us, if we will only pay attention to the Spirit’s interruption.

So, go ahead. Be astounded by grace – not only when it is poured out on someone else, but when you see that grace poured out on others is splashing back on you.

[1] Jeffrey D. Peterson-Davis, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, 482.
[2] A. Katherine Grieb, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, 483.

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