Sunday, May 19, 2019

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 11
11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’
15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with[a] water, but you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

From the “you know you’re old when” file, I asked my son about House.

Not the dwelling, not the show, but the musical genre. My satellite radio is constantly trying to lure me away from TV-news-on-the-radio to various music channels—like House. I can’t recall Isaac’s exact definition, something like ‘mellow electronic dance music’ or some something like that, and popularized by artists such as Deadmau5—that’s mouse spelled in German with a 5 instead of an “S.” Oddly, Deadmau5 lives near Lang, so maybe Lang would be a better person to ask about electronic dance music. Our picnic is sounding more interesting all the time.

Intrigued, I wanted to know more. So there is Techno, with the same four-on-the-floor beat as House (not sure what that means) but with more “atonal samples and dystopian atmospheres.”* Or Dubstep, with a two-step beat and a sound that has been compared to “demon growls” or “a blender full of pennies.” I don’t think they’re selling it very well.

Finally, there is Trance. If House and Techno had a baby, in Germany, in the 90s, it would be called Trance. The name more-or-less describes the genre, with repeating phrases that can put you into, well, a trance. It’s obviously not for driving. I share all this because the passage Bob read includes a famous example of a trance, and because I presume you are planning the rest of your weekend, and it may include a little clubbing.

So what about Peter’s trance? The words we heard this morning—the trance and the blanket covered in creatures—is an exact retelling from the previous chapter, events that happened in the home of Simon the Tanner, and involve a certain centurion named Cornelius.

Chapter 10 begins with a vision: Cornelius is a God-fearing member of the Italian Regiment, attentive in prayer and generous to the poor. God speaks to Cornelius and says “send for a man named Peter, who just now is in Joppa, staying in the home of Simon the Tanner.

Meanwhile, in Joppa, Peter is hungry, and waiting for the noon meal to be served. He retreats to the roof of Simon’s house to pray, and he falls into a trance. The heavens open and down comes a blanket, held by four-corners and covered in “four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds.” Then a voice saying, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter said. “Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
The voice spoke from heaven a second time and said to Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Pondering his vision, doubtless still hungry, the Spirit speaks a third time and says ‘Peter, there are three men downstairs waiting for you, so go with them, for I have sent them to collect you.’ Greetings are exchanged, the words of the Spirit are shared, and the next day they set off. It’s 33 miles from Joppa to Caesarea where Cornelius is posted, so after a couple of days on the road the group arrives.

Peter enters a full house. Cornelius has gathered family and trusted friends, and Peter addresses them all: ‘You are well-aware,’ he begins, ‘that it is against our laws for me to visit the home of a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. For this reason, I came without objection. May I then ask you, then, why you have invited me?’

Cornelius explains his vision—the Spirit who commended his devotion to prayer and the poor—and the command to summon Peter. “So I sent for you immediately,” Cornelius said, “and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”

Peter shares the words we heard in Easter Sunday: God loves those who fear God and do what is right, from every nation. God sent Jesus, anointed with truth and power, but the people could not receive him. He died on a cross, but God raised him on the third day, becoming life to those who believe. As Peter spoke, the Spirit descended on the household, members and guests, and all believed. “No one,” Peter said, “can stand in the way of their baptism. They have received the same Spirit we have.” He then baptised them in the name of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit made is seem so easy. A word here, a vision there, and trance thrown in for good measure. And it turns out that this, indeed, was the simple part, because our lesson this morning comes with the sub-title “uh-oh.” Word of the whole episode has reached Peter’s colleagues at Church House (in Jerusalem) and they object: “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them?”

Peter’s response is simple: tell the story, emphasize the places where God (in the Spirit) has acted, and defeat them with one question—”So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”

Who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?

This past week, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Matt Skinner, who teaches at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. Professor Skinner spoke on Acts 16, the time Paul and Silas land themselves in jail, and the parallels between that story and this story are striking. They are both stories about “hospitality in the homes of the newly baptized,” stories where “strangers become friends,” and stories where God saves surprizing people—jailers and centurions—as we look on in wonder.**

Reading through the Book of Acts—according to Dr. Skinner—we can see “what becomes possible in a post-Easter world." A member of the occupying army is welcomed into the household of God. A jailer witnessed the power of God as chains are loosed and the prison door is thrown open, and then the jailed asks, “what can I do to be saved? Even the Ethiopian eunuch—perhaps the best modern equivalent would be a member of the trans community—is embraced by St. Philip. Remember the end of the story?

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And nothing can stand in the way, as Philip baptized him immediately.

It is the questions—Who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way? What can I do to be saved? What can stand in the way of my being baptized?—it is the questions that define what becomes possible in the post-Easter world. And the answer is anything—with God all things are possible. Strangers become friends, outsiders become members of the household of God, and anyone who calls on the name of the Lord can be saved.

I’m still thinking about Peter’s trance, and the extent to which he entered that altered state to see a vision of a new world. In a world without sirens and horns, blaring televisions or electronic dance music, maybe you needed a trance to move from a relatively quiet world to a place where the Spirit could speak. For us it might be simpler, maybe just some silent prayer to open ourselves to the Spirit. And what would we hope to hear, what vision might we see?

Like Acts—the other time the church was confronted by so much confusion and indifference—it may be a glimpse of what God is already doing around us. Strangers become friends, outsiders become members of the household of God, and anyone who calls on the name of the Lord can be saved. Amen.

**Festival of Homiletics, 2019, Minneapolis.


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