In his blog post last week, Steve Pankey pointed out that gospel lesson for 5 Easter and 6 Easter are two chances to preach on the same theme—abiding. Well, I picked last Sunday to talk about that, and now I’m fishing for something else. Before I even read this week’s lessons in depth, I was already leaning toward something other than the gospel, and I give thanks for thelesson from Acts.
It’s a short little story that gives remarkably understated insight into the growth and development of the early church. Do you remember that amazing story from the early part of Acts 10 when Peter falls into a trance and sees a sheet come down from heaven full of unclean animals, which he is directed three times to kill and eat? Well, that’s the bells-and-whistles part of Acts 10. What we have for this Sunday’s reading is the even more powerful conclusion: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Sometimes contemporary analogies for biblical illustrations are easily found. When Jesus touches the leper and makes him clean, we know that he’s not specifically reaching out to individuals with Hansen’s Disease. Instead, we can tell that same story as if Jesus were reaching out to people with HIV/AIDS or to pedophiles or to some other excluded members of society. But the church’s debate over whether to include gentiles into the faith is harder to translate into our modern experience. Who are the ones we couldn’t ever imagine showing forth the gifts of the Spirit? What sorts of people are the last ones we would welcome into our fellowship?
Honestly, I don’t know. The first issue that comes to mind is one of class. It’s true that we do have a hard time welcoming people who are poor or homeless or “unpresentable.” But I don’t know if that’s the right angle to take with this. At issue in the early church are religious divisions. Perhaps a better analogy is to talk about sharing worship with Muslims. But I don’t know many examples where that relationship is bearing fruit as it did in Acts. Is the Holy Spirit really leading us to unite our faith with Muslims? Probably not—at least not in the same way that the Jewish and Gentile Christians came together.
My favorite part about the reading from Acts is Peter’s question? “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing?” The Spirit has already done its work. These people are already showing forth evidence of conversion. All that’s needed is the formal adoption process by which the Church accepts them. In a real way, it’s the Church that undergoes conversion in this story. The work in the gentiles is already done. It’s Peter and his Jewish counterparts who need converting.
From whom is the church withholding its blessing of inclusion? Who would we say are Spirit-filled followers of Jesus whom the church won’t recognize? Where is the gospel’s work being carried out in places the Church so far refuses to go? What conversion do I need to undergo in order to recognize more fully the Spirit’s work?