Sunday, April 23, 2023

Phil Kniss: God’s big dream

The Spirit of Jesus expands the margins
Acts 10:1-17, 34-35

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The Holy Spirit is a trouble-maker.
From the long view, looking back,
we can usually say it was good trouble.
But trouble, none the less.

The scriptures tell this story time and again.
You see it in the prophets in Hebrew scriptures—
Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, and virtually all of them.
The spirit falls on them,
and they do or say something that seems rash or reckless,
and trouble ensues.

And just look at the story of Jesus!
Starting with his conception.
The Gospels tell us Mary’s pregnancy was from the Holy Spirit,
a pregnancy that caused her all kinds of trouble and grief.
It was the Spirit that sent Jesus out into the wilderness,
for 40 days of suffering and agony and temptation.
When Jesus used the power of the Holy Spirit
to displace evil spirits in other people,
other powers that be turned against him.
In the synagogue, the Spirit of the Lord came over Jesus
when he read from the scroll of Isaiah,
and minutes later the crowd tried to push him off a cliff.

I guess it’s not realistic to think
that things would be any different for early Jesus-followers,
as events unfold in the book of Acts . . .
or that things would be any different for us today,
when we seek to be guided by the Spirit.

When the Spirit moves among us . . . we should be ready for trouble.

We just read a short excerpt of this wonderful story
about Cornelius and Peter in Acts 10 and 11.
Read it all, and you’ll see that eight times—
it says that the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Jesus—
caused this sudden expanding
of the boundaries of imagination in the early church.
An expansion that reflected the goodness and beauty
of God’s big dream for the world,
and . . . that launched the church into a heap of trouble.

The basic shape of this story is fairly simple,
and quite familiar to many of us.
The Holy Spirit was working in two places,
in parallel fashion.
Cornelius, a gentile Roman army officer,
who was a God-fearer, and a praying man,
had a vision where an angel told him
to send messengers to Joppa,
find a man named Peter,
who would show him the way to salvation.
And Peter, one of the pillars of the early church in Jerusalem,
was led, by the Spirit, to go to Joppa, on the seacoast,
and one afternoon,
shortly before Cornelius’s messengers knocked on the door,
the Holy Spirit invited Peter, in a dream,
to eat animals that his scriptures forbade him to eat.

So the knock at the door, and Peter’s disturbing dream, coincided,
thanks to this trouble-making Holy Spirit,
and Peter ends us being the first leader of the Jesus movement,
to baptize a household of Gentiles,
and welcome them into the church.

And then . . . there was trouble.
Well, there was already trouble.
This just made the trouble get worse, exponentially.

The church would end up in a drawn-out, intense struggle,
for generations—
because of what inclusion of Gentiles meant for Jewish Christians.
Not only did they have to make huge cultural accommodations.
Not only did they have to get over a sense of emotional revulsion
that Jewish believers often experienced
when they shared space, and shared tables, with Gentiles.
They had to rework their theology of salvation.
They had to re-read and reinterpret their sacred scriptures.

Yes, the Holy Spirit is a trouble-maker.

From our vantage-point today—
quite obviously, since we benefitted from Gentile inclusion—
we can look back on that and say it was good trouble.

But to those going through it, at the time,
it was hard to find any goodness or beauty in it.
It broke up families and households.
It divided congregations.
It separated communities.
At its worst, it caused civil unrest and mob violence.
People were beaten, imprisoned, and killed.

The miraculous part of that ugly story in the early church,
is that it got written down, and preserved,
and came to be regarded as worthy of including in our scripture.
So today, we can read all about it in Acts, the epistles, and Revelation.
And we can see it, now, for what it was—
a Spirit-directed, and Spirit-inspired
expansion of our imagination of what God is up to in this world.

The truth that continues to inspire and motivate the church today,
is that God’s dream is bigger than our dream.
We can scarcely get our heads around the dream of God
for this world that God loves and wants to make whole.

And sometimes the ones that move this dream along,
are the ones we least expect to do so.

The surprising thing about this story of Peter,
who helped break open the borders and welcome Gentiles,
is that he—the greatest of the Apostles,
the foundational pillar of the church,
the one to whom Jesus gave the “keys to the kingdom”—
was not really the one who carried God’s dream forward.

He continued to struggle with this dream.
And we see, recorded right there in scripture,
his on-again-off-again commitment to include the Gentiles.
Sometimes Peter seems to be motivated by this vision
of the sheet full of unclean animals being lowered from heaven.
Sometimes he seems more motivated
by his need to manage the stress of the system;
keep those with power from getting too upset.
He was inconsistent.

The one that scripture records as being
the out-front leader of this change movement—is Paul.

Paul began as a die-hard Pharisee enforcer of Jewish purity.
An enemy of all Jesus-followers.
And after he switched sides, and became a Jesus-follower himself,
he led not from the center, but from the margins.
He never had the official status of apostle
(he had to keep defending his right to lead).
He was low in the church hierarchy in Jerusalem,
where Peter was in charge.
Paul’s numerous missionary journeys probably had a dual purpose.
They gave Paul an opportunity to spread the Gospel further.
And they kept him out from under the watchful eye
of Jerusalem.
It was a win-win situation for everyone.

So what does this tell us?
It tells us to hold lightly to what we think God is up to.
And be attentive to the wind of God, the Spirit of God.
Those are synonyms, by the way.
Spirit means wind, or breath.
And it blows where it will,
without regard to where we wish it would blow.
To be in tune with the wind of God
requires a great deal of humility and patience on our part.

So in these five Sundays from now until Pentecost,
we will seek to follow the wind of God,
to notice where the Spirit-wind was blowing in the early church,
and notice where it might be blowing in the church today.

—Phil Kniss, April 23, 2023

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