Monday, May 4, 2015

The Uncontainable Spirit


Every once in a while, all of the readings fall into place. For me, it’s a good feeling to start Monday morning by reading the lessons for the upcoming Sunday and feel a clear connection between them. The danger, though, is in plowing ahead through the week without listening for how the Spirit might be convincing me otherwise. But, for now, I hear a single voice calling out from the lectionary, and I want to explore it here with the hope that my ability to hear that voice will be refined over the coming days.

In these first moments of sermon prep, I’m drawn deeply to Acts 10:44-48. It’s a short, epiphanic moment that brings clarity to Peter and others. For starters, go read the rest of Acts 10. It’s one of the most exciting, powerful, theologically significant passages in scripture—perhaps even in all of literature. It’s the story of the Holy Spirit connecting Jewish-minded Peter with the God-loving Gentile Cornelius through parallel visions. Once connected, Peter, on behalf of the whole church, discovers that God is working in unexpected ways—ways that transcend ethno-religious boundaries. The authors of the lectionary, however, have distilled all of that story down to a simple moment of clarity: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

That’s a powerful question, and it’s one that reaches out into the present day with as much power as it held in the first century. Baptism is our symbol of full inclusion into the life of the church. It’s how we say to someone and to the world, “You belong to God.” Peter and his contemporaries wrestled with the question of what it takes to belong to the Jesus movement. Baptism is the culmination of that belongingness. Surely there are steps to take before the ritual inclusion is expressed. What about conversion to Judaism? What about keeping kosher? What about circumcision? Shouldn’t all of those things happen first—before someone can become a true disciple of Jesus? But God didn’t wait, did he? The power of the Holy Spirit had already fallen upon these Gentiles. The evidence is plain. It doesn’t matter what the rulebook says. It doesn’t matter whether it makes sense. If God has demonstrated his inclusion of these Gentiles, who can even hesitate to administer baptism? No one, of course.

This passage is the confrontation of human expectations with God’s power. In the church, we are supposed to be vehicles or vessels for God’s power. Too often, however, I’m afraid we act as dispensers or regulators of the uncontainable power of God. I’m sorry, madam, but we have policies and procedures for things like that. But who can stand in the way of God? No one, of course. So shouldn’t we get out of the way and celebrate it?

As the collect for Sunday states, God has “prepared for those who love [him] such good things as surpass our understanding.” We start with that premise. As people of God, we begin in that place that acknowledges that God’s power cannot be contained. As Christians, it isn’t our job to portion out God’s power and blessing. It is our duty to recognize it, draw attention to it, promote it, and confirm it. God isn’t waiting on us to develop a protocol, and he isn’t holding back his Spirit because our old institutions haven’t adapted yet. God is working in our lives, in the church, and in the world in bold and powerful ways. If the church doesn’t embrace those ways, then others will. And the true church is the one that is filled with God’s Spirit.

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