May 6, 2018
6th Sunday of Easter
Hear again the beginning of our first reading, from the tenth chapter of Acts:
Peter had not finished speaking these words when the Holy Spirit descended upon all who were listening to the message.
When I read that, two questions came to me: First, what were those words that Peter “had not finished speaking,” and, second, who was there listening to his message?
The passage we read today is actually the end of a fascinating story. Here’s the setting. Peter has been staying in Joppa, but now he’s in Caesarea. Both towns are in Palestine, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and not too far apart, probably a day and half to two days’ journey by foot.
Here’s how the story begins:
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2 a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God.
Doesn’t that sound like us? We are devout people; otherwise we wouldn’t be here. We fear God, that is, we worship and seek to love the God of our understanding, as best we can, although not all of our households go along with us in that. We help people in need, and we pray — maybe not constantly, but regularly.
Notice that Cornelius is not Jewish. He’s a Roman soldier. One day, he’s at home around 3 in the afternoon, probably praying, and an angel comes into his house and says, “Cornelius.” He is terrified, but he just says, “What do you want, sir?” The angel doesn’t bother to reassure him — you know how angels nearly always say, “Do not be afraid” — he doesn’t say that, he just plows right in with his message. He says, “Your prayers and neighborly acts have brought you to God’s attention. Here’s what you are to do.” Then he tells Cornelius to send some of his servants to Joppa to fetch Peter, and gives him the address.
Last month, I officially joined the Stewards of Seekers Church at their monthly meeting. The outward sign of this call was the laying on of hands and blessing that I received from the other Stewards, right after I read aloud my spiritual autobiography, which I had prepared over the past several months with guidance from my mission group, Celebration Circle, and especially from Brenda, my sponsor in Stewards. Writing a spiritual autobiography is a way to examine the various paths that have led me to this place and time and to share my journey with the community. There is a binder on a shelf in the Meditation Room upstairs, that holds copies of several Stewards’ autobiographies. No one is required to make theirs available in this way, but anyone is welcome to read through the binder.
Last Sunday morning, after I read before all of you the Stewards’ Commitment and received the historic Swedish ivy plant — which I will do my best to keep alive and healthy for the next incoming Steward — I sat down and had a moment of feeling the weight of my commitment. What Stewards promise, in addition to the commitments of membership in Seekers, is to “take responsibility for the organizational health of Seekers Church.” A community has many needs, and a lot of work is required to keep its organization alive and healthy, as with the Swedish ivy plant. So I had this moment of, “What have I done?” But then I remembered: I am not called to do this alone. Seekers Church is a community, and we are all in this together, thank God.
After the angel leaves, Cornelius calls two servants plus one especially devout soldier from his guard, gives them the angel’s instructions, and sends then off to Joppa. The next day, while they are on their way, Peter goes up onto the roof or maybe a balcony of the house where he’s staying in Joppa, to pray. It’s around noon, and he starts thinking about lunch and falls into a trance. He sees a vision of something like a great sheet, let down from heaven by its four corners, and the sheet holds all sorts of animals, reptiles, and birds. Peter hears a voice saying, “Go to it, Peter — kill and eat.” Peter responds, “No way, Lord. I’ve never so much as tasted food that was not kosher.” The voice then says, “If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.” The same vision occurs twice more — presumably it took three times for Peter to take this seriously. And then, while he’s trying to figure out what it means, Cornelius’s servants arrive downstairs and ask whether he’s there. The Holy Spirit, not taking any chances with Peter, tells him, “Get down there and go with them. Don’t ask questions. I have sent them to get you.” So Peter invites the men in, listens to their story, and the next day goes with them to Caesarea, taking along some of the Jewish Christians from Joppa. When they arrive, Cornelius is waiting for them, along with his family and friends. So there is quite a crowd of Gentiles in the house. Peter says to them, “You know, I’m sure that this is highly irregular. Jews just don’t do this — visit and relax with people of another race. But God has just shown me that no race is better than any other. So, as soon as I was sent for, I came, no questions asked. But now I’d like to know why you sent for me.”
Cornelius tells Peter about his own vision, thanks him for being kind enough to come, and says, “And now we’re all here in God’s presence, ready to listen to whatever the Master put in your heart to tell us.”
Peter fairly exploded with his good news: “It’s God’s own truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from — if you want God and are ready to do as he says, the door is open. The Message he sent to the children of Israel — that through Jesus Christ everything is being put together again — well, he’s doing it everywhere, among everyone.” 1
And then he tells the story, the good news, of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, ending with this: “Our witness that Jesus is the means to forgiveness of sins is backed up by the witness of all the prophets.”
And that brings us to the passage we read today:
Peter had not finished speaking these words when the Holy Spirit descended upon all who were listening to the message. The Jewish believers who had accompanied Peter were surprised that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.
Generally, if you’re preparing to become a Steward, you read your spiritual autobiography to your mission group before reading it to all the Stewards. At the end of mine I briefly summarized my years here at Seekers Church, since making my first commitment to membership in October of 2010. I wrote about coming to Seekers, “where I am welcomed and supported in my call, and where I can support other Seekers … .” After I read this to my mission group, Ken Burton said, “So, Elizabeth, tell us, what is your call?”
Good question. I have struggled with the concept of “call” for years, at least since I began to engage with this church. “Call” is central to Seekers’ identity and how we present ourselves to the world. If you go to Seekers’ website, the first thing you will read on the home page is this: “At Seekers Church … we believe God calls each person to a place of need in the world.”
Often I have wished that an angel would visit me and say, “This is what you are to do.” Some people get a very clear message of their call. Others, not so much. But I have come to believe that each one of us is called because each of us is unconditionally loved and clearly guided, and we can access at any time the place within our heart that is connected to the source of all love and wisdom. All we need to do is to live like Cornelius – to be reverent toward God, help people in need, and be in the habit of prayer. As Peter said, “It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from — if you want God and are ready to do as he says, the door is open.”
Marjory put it this way, in her sermon for Recommitment Sunday last October: “Our commitment is to show up and expect to be changed over time.”
Stewards are not “super Seekers,” as I used to think. We don’t have any more love, or wisdom, or even time than anyone else. We commit to take care of the structures of this community because, in the words of Church of the Saviour writer Elizabeth O’Connor,
The good news is that these structures are the work of ordinary folk. If they were the work of the spiritually gifted or of those who had it all together or were especially wise, the rest of us could pass them by, as not relevant to our lives. As it is now, they let us know that all things are possible. They teach us that at the center of our lives are the vast storehouses of untapped resources needed for the restoration of our communities and our world.2
Amen. May it be so.
- Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (NavPress, 2002).
- Elizabeth O’Connor, Servant Leaders, Servant Structures, quoted on the Church of the Saviour website at http://inwardoutward.org/ministries/