Have any of you had someone do a surprise birthday or anniversary thing for you? Eira and I did a marvellous surprise party for my Mum and Dad’s 40th Wedding Anniversary which they celebrated in Melbourne away from other members of the family.
We don’t do these things anymore because we have learned that for most people there is as much joy, sometimes even more, in the anticipation of a special event. Getting ready and imagining what will happen and who will be there has its own dimension of pleasure.
We all know that the Day of Pentecost is a couple of weeks ahead of us and the Lectionary is trying to get us ready for it in the selected readings we have.
Today we have a story that comes at the end of that famous story of Peter and Cornelius. Let me remind you of it.
Cornelius was a Roman soldier – captain of “The Italian Regiment”. Not all Roman Soldiers were Italian; they were drawn from the locals of the many countries incorporated into the Roman Empire. Who knows, a couple of centuries later there may well have been a “British Regiment” controlling the barbarians of some place or another.
The Jews hated the Romans, especially the Italian ones. One wouldn’t be caught fraternising with such people.
Anyway, Cornelius was having his usual siesta nap after lunch and had a dream – a vision in which an Angel of God told him to send some men to nearby Joppa and find a Jewish man there, named Simon Peter.
The next day, Peter, visiting friends in Joppa, was having his own siesta nap after lunch and he has a dream, too – a vision of a sheet being let down from heaven in which there were a host of animals generally considered by Jewish people as “unclean” or unfit for human consumption. He hears a voice commanding to kill something and eat it, which he refuses to do, thinking he was thus passing the test. The voice then tells him that if God says something is “clean” then it is no longer to be shunned.
He had this vision three times – a powerful symbolic number – and then, of course, the men from Cornelius knock on his door. When they tell their master’s story to Peter, he suddenly understands what God was trying to tell him, so he agrees to go with them the next day to meet Cornelius.
Peter then tells Cornelius what he has just understood himself about the Gospel – that the Good News Jesus brings is for the gentiles as well as the Jews. This is where our reading of the story began. All of a sudden this despicable Roman person was clearly filled with the Holy Spirit in just the same way as they, the Apostles and Jews were on the Day of Pentecost – they started speaking in tongues.
I don’t think we can comprehend the “Wow!! factor” of that event. But this story is at the heart of a game-changing moment in the history of the church.
In this story, Luke is making it clear that it is the nature of the Holy Spirit to remain unbridled – it cannot be controlled by any one of us let alone the Church. He is bringing to light the intentionality of God in the most astonishing and unexpected ways.
This moment is leading the way towards a new understanding of the family of God. The family of God in the old dispensation was Israel – the sons and daughters of Jacob. But Jesus, who was one of these sons, breaks that container and welcomes all people into the family. We can no longer look on one group of people and say “They are clean!” and declare another group of people “unclean”. We never know where the Spirit of God is going to pop up next.
This is why, for a little while now, there has been a little sign at the entry of the church that says we are an inclusive church. Back in 2003 the Social Responsibilities Commission reminded the Diocese that we, as Anglicans, really do believe in an inclusive Church. We live in a world that thrives on categorising people into one group or another. Indeed, the church throughout its history has been especially good at determining who is in and who is out – who is clean and who is unclean.
This story of Cornelius is scandalous. It is scandalous because in it the Holy Spirit lays hold of the most despised or hated person in the eyes of a Jewish person (early Christian) and declares in no uncertain terms that he is one of us – he is welcome.
So, what I want you to do this morning is to think of a person or a group of people who you think is most unlikely to ever grace the chairs of this little church – a person you think is most unlikely to be welcome in such a place. I suspect we all have an idea of such a person in our mind – and I am not going to suggest one person or group in particular. Now, I want you to visualise that person or such a group of people coming very tentatively into the back of church here one Sunday. How easy it would be for us to be cautious, or judgemental and make such a person feel unwelcome.
But the Gospel expects the opposite from us – for two reasons.
Firstly, because the Holy Spirit is so completely unpredictable that we had better be on the lookout.
Secondly, because we don’t know the end of this person’s story, and we have an obligation to do as much positively as we can to draw that person towards God, rather than pushing them away.
It is so easy to push them away with all our little rules – our requirements and rewards for those who are “good enough”!! None of us is “good enough”!! So who are we to shun another fellow traveller?