A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles (10:44-48)
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.
1 Sing to the Lord a new song, *
for he has done marvelous things.
2 With his right hand and his holy arm *
has he won for himself the victory.
3 The Lord has made known his victory; *
his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.
4 He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel, *
and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
5 Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; *
lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.
6 Sing to the Lord with the harp,*
with the harp and the voice of song.
7 With trumpets and the sound of the horn *
shout with joy before the King, the Lord.
8 Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, *
the lands and those who dwell therein.
9 Let the rivers clap their hands, *
and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord,
when he comes to judge the earth.
10 In righteousness shall he judge the world *
and the peoples with equity.
A Reading from First Letter of John (5:1-6)
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (15:9-17)
Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
These are not easy times for churches – but then I don’t remember Jesus ever promising that things would be easy for those who follow him. While more than 90% of adult Americans say that they believe in God, actual participation in the life of a faith community has dropped dramatically over the past half century. At one time regular attendance at church or some other place of worship was the norm. Today, we “church-goers” find ourselves in a distinct minority.
This transformation obviously poses many challenges for us who affirm the importance of a life of faith. Now, by “life of faith,” I am referring not to the generic “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual” approach, one which seems to be little more than an attempt to avoid any genuine commitment, but to an honest life of faith, one that sets the agenda and priorities for whatever we do.
Attempts by churches to address these changes in our society usually focus on the question “How do we get more people to do the things that they used to do?” Basically, “How do we fill our churches again?” Some of the mega-churches have managed to do that, often by abandoning the radical challenge of the gospel and substituting for it a shallow, entertaining, feel-good experience. But most churches have found more and more that their members form a minority group in our society.
That can sometimes be discouraging for us who find participation in a faith community to be such an important part of our lives. But maybe it’s not all bad. It might even be the work of God’s Spirit calling us back to an earlier vision of the church: one which, like Judaism before it, saw itself as a permanent minority, but a vitally important one. That approach saw the church as a minority existing for the sake of the majority: for the sake of the wider world. Its role, to use one of Jesus’ images, was to be the leaven that leavened the far bigger loaf around it: to be the source of light and hope, not for itself, but for the rest of the world.
Embracing or even exploring such a different vision of the church is a hard thing for us Christians to accept. It goes against a model of Christianity that has been often taken for granted: one that focused on getting everybody to be a member of the church. It directly challenges our understanding of ourselves and our role in the world. But then, the Spirit has often challenged the church’s self-understanding and its pre-suppositions and has taken us to places that, on our own, we would probably never have chosen to go.
Consider, for example, today’s first reading. It comes at the end of a long story from chapter ten of the Acts of the Apostles. When that narrative began, the first Christians were convinced that the life of following Jesus was limited to practicing Jews. It was the fulfillment of the Jewish faith, in which believers accepted Jesus as God’s Messiah, come at last. The 613 precepts of the Jewish Law were still binding, and new members of “the Way,” as it was called, were required to accept them.
But in the course of this story, Peter and his companions watched in amazement as the Spirit of God descended on the non-Jewish, Roman centurion Cornelius and his family, even though they were not Jewish and had no intention of becoming Jewish. The Spirit did something that was completely unexpected. More than that, the Spirit did something that was directly contrary to multiple passages in the scriptures. Acts tells us that the Jewish believers “who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit has been poured out even on the Gentiles.” The Spirit of God working in and among the Gentiles? That simply was not supposed to happen. But it did.
In the disciples’ defense, it was still early in the church’s life, and those early Christians had not yet come to expect the unexpected from the Spirit. Gradually, the church came to understand that surprises of the Spirit were and always would be a permanent part of its life.
The same thing had happened even during the ministry of Jesus. According to the gospel according to John, Jesus had found some of his earliest followers among the Samaritans: a people who were not considered by most Jews of the time to be any better than pagans. One of them, the Samaritan woman at the well is even portrayed as an apostle to her people: the first time anyone had fulfilled that role. And then there was the pagan, Canaanite woman who challenged Jesus’ limited view of his ministry and whose daughter Jesus then cured. If the Spirit could surprise Jesus, why not Jesus’ followers?
God has a way of doing things that we human beings have decided God just would never do. God has a way of shaking up the church from time to time so that it might more effectively and more faithfully serve the world in God’s name.
In ancient Israel, the anonymous prophet of the second part of the book of Isaiah insists that Israel’s mission was not to close in on and focus on itself, and certainly not to make everybody Jewish, but rather to be a light to the nations so that God’s glory might shine forth to the ends of the earth. Israel did not exist for its own sake. Israel existed for the sake of the rest of the world.
Maybe God is giving us the same sort of reminder in our time. Maybe God is at work in our present challenges, reminding the church that we exist not for ourselves, but to serve the rest of the world in God’s name. Maybe we, too, are intended by God to be a minority in the world, but a minority with a vitally important role to play for the sake of the majority.
New Testament scholar and Methodist Bishop William Willimon, in commenting on this story from Acts, observes: “This is the way it sometimes is in the church. If Jesus Christ is Lord, then the church has the adventurous task of penetrating new areas of his Lordship, expecting surprises and new implications of the gospel which cannot be explained on any basis other than our Lord has shown us something we could not have seen on our own, even if we were looking only at Scripture. This does not mean an undisciplined flight of fancy into our own new bold ideas or the pitiful effort to catch the wind of the latest trend in the culture under the guise of seeking new revelation. Rather, it means that we are continuing to penetrate the significance of the scriptural witness that Jesus Christ is Lord and to be faithful to divine prodding. Faith, when it comes down to it, is our own often breathless attempt to keep up with the redemptive activity of God, to keep asking ourselves, ‘What is God doing, where on earth is God going now?’”
That, I suggest, is the great question, not only for this week, but for all weeks. It was the key question for the church in Acts, and it is still the key question for the church in our time: “What is God doing, where on earth is God going now?”