Saturday, May 12, 2012
A Spirit-Led Church (Easter 6, May 13 2012)
Homily: Yr B Easter 6, May 13 2012, St. Albans
Readings: Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
A Spirit-Led Church
If you were to take the booklet that most of you have in your hand and start reading from the beginning, you’d see that one of the first things that we say about St. Albans is that we aim to be a Spirit-Led church. I’m wondering if you’ve ever given that much thought. Do we actually want to be a Spirit-led church? Do you want to be part of a Spirit-led church? Have you ever thought about how shocking and scandalous, how uncomfortable and dangerous that could be? What does it even mean to be led by the Spirit?
I think one of the best illustrations of what it might mean to be a Spirit-led church is something I heard at a conference on vital church planting that I went to in February. The speaker was a man named Dave Male, and the image he used was that of competitive cycling. Has anyone here ever done any serious cycling?
If you have you know, that the key to doing well, in fact the key to surviving a long grueling race, is to identify a leader and then to get within centimetres of that person in front of you without colliding. In the language of cycling this is called riding in the slipstream, or drafting. You get into the low-pressure, low-resistance area created by the rider in front, and you’ll find that the effort required to maintain your speed is reduced.
You literally get this close to the person in front of you, and his or her effort makes it easier for you to cycle. Now that doesn’t make it easy. You still might have to work really hard to keep up. You’ll need to focus in order to maintain the closeness that is required. And you certainly have to trust that the leader knows where he or she is going. But it is essential to keep in the slipstream, because if you fall out of that slipstream, then you’ll get left behind.
That’s an image of what it means to be a Spirit-Led church. We need to ride in the slipstream of God. We need to stay close to the Spirit and follow where the Spirit leads, to get in the slipstream and work hard to stay there.
In some ways that’s what the book of Acts is all about. During this Easter season you might have noticed that our first reading every Sunday has been from the Acts of the Apostles. Some people think that the book of Acts is the story of how the disciples of the early church, people like Peter and Paul, how these disciples spread the gospel throughout the world. But if you look a little more closely that’s not quite it. What Acts really is, is the story of how God’s Spirit spread the gospel throughout the world and how the disciples scrambled to catch up with what the Spirit was doing. Acts is the story of how the disciples had to scramble to stay in God’s slipstream.
Last week for example we had the story of the unlikely encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, the story of how an angel told Philip to get up and go from the big city of Jerusalem to a wilderness road in the middle of nowhere. There, Philip encounters one solitary individual, and again prompted by the Spirit, he overcomes racial and legal barriers to proclaim to him the good news of Jesus. The Ethiopian in turn carries that good news with him to the horn of Africa and today there are more than 50 million Christians in Ethiopia. All because Philip stayed in the slipstream.
This week we get the tail end of an even more astounding story. This time it is Peter, the acknowledged leader of the early church, scrambling desperately to keep up with what God’s Spirit is doing. Today’s story from Acts is not only the decisive event in the history of the early church, it may well be one of the most decisive moments in world history. Unfortunately, our reading cycle lets us down a bit today by giving us only the last four verses of an astonishing event, the story of the unlikely relationship between Peter and Cornelius, and the early church’s scandalous decision to admit the Gentiles as Gentiles. So let me tell you the story.
Peter of course we know. Peter is a disciple of Jesus and a good, faithful Jew, circumcised, a keeper of the Jewish law. Cornelius on the other hand is a Gentile, a foreigner. Worse than that, he is a Roman, a citizen of the occupying empire. Worse than that, he is a centurion, an officer of the military force that occupies and terrorizes the Jewish people. Remember what happened the last time Peter encountered the Roman military? It was in the garden on the Mount of Olives, when the soldiers arrested Jesus, took him away and executed him. There was no love lost between Jews and Roman soldiers.
Our story begins in the late afternoon, when Cornelius, who is a devout man, has a vision by which he is instructed to send for Peter and told where to find him in a nearby town. The vision fills Cornelius with terror, but he sends a delegation to seek Peter. The next day, as the delegation is on its way, Peter also has a vision. Peter is hungry and wanting something to eat, and he sees the heavens opened and something like a large sheet lowered down, filled with all kinds of creatures and reptiles and birds, and he hears a voice commanding him to “Get up, kill and eat.” He refuses. The animals in the sheet were considered by the Law to be unclean and profane, and Peter as a faithful Jew had never eaten anything unclean or profane in his life. But the vision is repeated a second and then a third time, each time ending with the voice that says to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
And just then, there’s the sound of men calling from the gate of the house where Peter is staying. It is Cornelius’s men, calling for Peter. And the Spirit tells Peter to go with them, and Peter goes, despite his misgivings, even though he knows that it’s unlawful for a Jew to visit a Gentile.
And when he gets to Cornelius’s house, Peter starts to tell them the good news of what God has done in Jesus. But before he can even finish, while he’s still speaking, the Holy Spirit falls upon these uncircumcised Gentiles and pours out its gifts upon them. And we are told that the circumcised believers who had come with Peter are astounded.
It’s hard for us in our day to get a grasp of how astounding this was. It’s hard for us to understand how controversial it was to baptize Gentiles and admit them as full members of the people of God without requiring them to be circumcised. We are so far removed from the days when the military ruler Antiochus Epiphanes tried to assimilate the Jews by decreeing that circumcision was illegal, and Jewish parents had their babies circumcised in spite of this decree because it was the sign of God’s covenant with the Jewish people, and those babies were then taken away be soldiers and killed.
My friend and colleague Gary Hauch has written the following:
“Admitting the Gentiles as Gentiles [that is, without requiring circumcision and adherence to dietary laws] was a shift of seismic proportions in how the traditions were perceived and handed on. Yet it was precisely this shift that the Holy Spirit guided the early church to make in order for it to embody and hand the story on faithfully.”
Peter’s decision to baptize Cornelius and his Roman family was a complete reversal of everything that Peter had been brought up to believe. And it was controversial. When Peter returned home he was met with immediate criticism. He had acted unilaterally. He had ignored the teaching of scripture. But ultimately the Spirit prevailed, and Peter and the rest of them scrambled to catch up. To get in the slipstream. To follow where God is leading.
That’s what it means to be a Spirit-Led church. We have to get close to God, to listen to the voice of the Spirit and to go where God is leading. And if our reading of the Acts of the Apostles is meant to give us a picture of what that looks like, chances are God is more likely to lead us somewhere uncomfortable and disturbing than somewhere comfortable and familiar.
Do you still want to be part of a Spirit-led Church? If you do, then keep in God’s slipstream and get ready for the ride of your life.