Where do ideas come from? Not just the clear, logical, expected progressions of thought. I mean those really far-out-there, who-could-have-thought-of-that ideas. I mean, the Snuggie makes sense. My mother, who likes to read in bed, has been talking about a blanket with sleeves since I was four. But what about those crazy ideas that no one has even come close to thinking of before? Where do they come from? Are they the product of our own intellectual ability? Is there an external force (e.g. Holy Spirit) that reveals something to us?
In Acts 10:1-16 (today’s NT lesson in the Daily Office), Peter is praying on the roof of a house when God shows him something in a trance: “He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners.” You remember the story… On that sheet were a bunch of unclean animals, and a voice told Peter, who was hungry, to rise, kill, and eat. Peter, a faithful and observant Jew, objected, saying, “No, Lord. I have never eaten anything that is unclean.” But God repeated the vision and the command three times until Peter got the message.
Of course, at that time, Cornelius’ servants were knocking on the door to ask Peter to come and tell their Gentile master and his household the good news of Jesus Christ. The same Sprit had instructed the “centurion of the Italian Cohort” to seek out Peter. God, it seems, brought the two men together so that what was previously thought to be incompatible—Jews and Gentiles, Oil and Water—could become one. That idea was so completely foreign to Peter that God had to use a dramatic vision to get the point across. Or perhaps another way to tell the story is that the mixture of Jew and Gentile was so counter-intuitive that the idea could only be explained as to have come as a direct revelation from God.
Some might argue that the bible adds some supernatural details to explain what religious sociologists and anthropologists would call a natural progression. The Jesus-movement didn’t collect enough converts from the Jewish community and, when the synagogues began to split between Jew and Christian, it was natural for the followers of the Way to recruit Gentiles. Well, maybe it happened like that. Maybe there wasn’t a vision of a sheet coming down from heaven. Maybe Saul didn’t see a blinding light on the Damascus Road. Maybe the Spirit didn’t come down from heaven like tongues of fire, enabling the apostles to speak in the languages of the whole known earth. But somewhere, somehow, the Christian faith was built upon principles that run so counter to human expectations that they can only be explained as having come directly from God.
Who looks at a crucified criminal as someone worth worshiping? Who thinks God can be fully united to human flesh and contained in the womb of a virgin? Who thinks that there is power in weakness? Who thinks that the poor, miserable, and oppressed within our society are really the fullest expression of God’s purposes in the world? Who believes in life not only after death but life within and through death itself? What sort of religion is based not on rewarding people with what they deserve but on giving even the most terrible sinner a share of God’s abundant life? These ideas aren’t logical. They don’t come from within us. We don’t reach them on our own.
Jesus had to hide from the authorities while his ministry was just getting started because his message was so counter-intuitive that they were threatened by it. As soon as he appeared on the public stage, his poor-first-rich-last, sinners-in-elites-out message got him killed. The world could not handle his gospel truth. And it still cannot handle it.
If you think the Christian faith makes sense, you’re not getting it. If you think it’s easy to be a follower of Jesus, then you’re not walking down the right path. If you think that free grace isn’t costly, then you haven’t really been forgiven. The world (and those of us in it) don’t know how to deal with the real other-worldly nonsensical message of Jesus. It isn’t like anything we’ve ever thought of on our own. Our faith—our ability to walk the path of Jesus—is itself a gift from above. The only way we’ll ever be able to embrace that which we cannot understand is if the Holy Spirit leads us.