Blowin’ in the Wind
Blowin’ in the Wind
In these weeks following Easter here at The Riverside Church, we’ve been talking about building a church, reading in the book of Acts about some of the experiences of the very first disciples as they tried to figure out what a gospel community looked like in the wake of resurrection—how they might institutionalize the gospel message in such a way that it would take root in their communities and do its work of transformation even beyond the borders of what they knew. Today’s building block is the quality of welcoming the unexpected direction of God’s Spirit, creating a community that is nimble and adaptive, in which there exists considerable courage to try something new when together we sense the prompting of God’s Spirit.
Today’s lesson from the book of Acts is a curious little passage from the very end of chapter 10. When you hear it, it sounds a little innocuous; you might never know that it is the tale end of a great story. It’s the end of one of the best stories, in fact, of the life of the early church. To listen to today’s passage from Acts chapter 10, it’s almost as if our lectionary planners have assigned us the last page of a riveting novel, and we listeners can’t really get its full meaning without knowing what came before.
And so, I want to tell you the story:
You may have already picked up on this, but in case you didn’t know, as the community of Christ began to form in the wake of resurrection, there arose some serious dissension. Dissention in the church? Imagine that!
A schism divided two camps, and each felt deeply convicted that their position was the right position. One camp was led by the Apostle Paul, who was of the opinion that the Gospel message was one that should be proclaimed to the whole world—not just in Jerusalem and the surrounding regions where Jesus preached and lived—and that everyone should be welcomed in.
Leading the other camp was the Apostle Simon Peter, main character in our passage today. Peter was convinced: if you decided you believed in Jesus, the first step you would take, of course, was to convert to Judaism. You’d go through all the rites of Jewish identity and assume an upright Jewish lifestyle with all the dietary restrictions and Levitical rules that entailed.
And this controversy was the backdrop for the amazing story Luke reports in the tenth chapter of Acts, the story of Peter and Cornelius.
Cornelius was a centurion of the Italian Cohort, which means nothing to you and me today, but basically this meant that Cornelius was an extremely high-ranking official in the Roman army, not only a Gentile, but a leader of the occupying forces in Jerusalem and surrounding areas. Cornelius was not a Jew, and had no interest in becoming a Jew. In fact, converting to Judaism was grounds for immediate dismissal from the army. But he’s described in the book of Acts as “a devout man who feared God.” And one day, as Cornelius was praying, he heard God’s voice telling him to search out a man called Simon Peter . . . and so he did.
Meanwhile, Simon Peter was staying at the house of a friend on the seashore in Joppa, and he went up on the roof, as was his custom, for his daily prayer time. He also had a vision, but this one was a little stranger than Cornelius’. Peter, devout Jew and committed follower of Jesus Christ, saw a sheet coming down from heaven. On the sheet were all kinds of animals, even animals clearly named in the Levitical code, the Jewish law, as unclean. The voice Peter heard was a voice telling him to kill . . . and eat the animals provided to him for food.
Well, you can imagine how shocking this was. NO WAY was Peter going to breach Jewish law to do something he had learned his whole entire life was unclean and forbidden. Peter knew that there were certain standards for faithful, holy living. And he could recite them front to back.
But then Peter heard the voice again, and this time he knew it was God. God had stern words for poor Peter and they were: “What God has called clean . . . you must not call profane.”
In that moment there was a knock on Peter’s door, and the men sent by Cornelius asked him to come to Caesarea at Cornelius’ request. Peter was so shaken and so convicted by the vision he’d seen that he went to Cornelius’ house. Upon arriving, Peter began to preach to a large, assembled crowd: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
This was shocking—a complete 180 for Simon Peter. He’d dug his heels in to maintain his position of conviction, but miraculously, he’d now revised his opinion.
And this is now when our passage comes into play. As Peter explained his conversion to the gathered crowd, the text says that the Holy Spirit fell on the crowd. Now, I am not sure what that looked like—maybe something like what happened on Pentecost with the crowd speaking different languages. But it’s the end result that’s so deeply amazing.
The community changes course.
The whole group.
The church shifts, the institution revises its direction, in response to the leadership of God’s Spirit.
They looked at each other and said: ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’
God’s Spirit blew right in and the people listened. And their courageous corporate response to what was a fundamental shift swung wide the doors of the church to welcome everyone, and changed the entire future of the Church of Jesus Christ.
This characteristic, this ability to shift direction with agility, is not, shall we say, a particularly common quality in institutions like the church. In fact, one might say that institutions are fundamentally incompatible with this quality of course correction. Institutions, as you know, thrive on static bureaucracy. We like policies. And by laws. And procedures and constitutions and handbooks and rules.
And we need all of these things.
But what happens when these important structures of our life together become less supportive handholds, and more constricting encasements, limiting our ability to shift and respond to the new things that God is perpetually doing within us and among us?
When I think of oppressive bureaucracy, I recall the three (or was it four?) trips I made last fall to the Department of Motor Vehicles here in Harlem. Being a new resident of this great city, I had to acquire a NY State driver’s license, as you do. Despite a meticulous scouring of the website to make sure I had all the right documentation and strategic timing to try to avoid long lines, I still found myself spending much more time than I’d bargained for, waiting around the DMV.
The DMV on 125th in Harlem is quite an interesting place. As I sat waiting I observed several situations of frustration, where customers who spoke Spanish and very little or no English, had a hard time communicating with the staff. There didn’t seem to be translators there, or even very many signs or forms in Spanish.
Some research has confirmed what I suspected when I was sitting there watching: demographics in Harlem are shifting rapidly, and there is a large and growing Hispanic population here in our neighborhood. Almost 30% of New York City’s overall population is Hispanic. And specifically around the area of the DMV office where I waited in line—Manhattan Community District 11 or East Harlem, the 2010 census reports 49.2% of the population are Hispanic. That’s right at half!
As I sat there, back one more time because even I couldn’t fully understand what I was required to do, I couldn’t imagine trying to navigate this process in a language I didn’t speak. The reality is that Harlem’s population has changed dramatically in the last 10 years; it seemed to me that the large and grinding institutional gears of the Department of Motor Vehicles has not quite kept up.
I knew this for sure on my final visit, when I noticed a sign that read: “If you feel you have received less than quality service because you don’t speak English, please see a supervisor.”
The sign was in English.
It’s true that the first disciples didn’t have the years and years of tradition, all that codified theology, a constitution and bylaws, a big temple they were responsible for insuring and maintaining. But as they engaged in the work of building a church, an institution that would embody the gospel message, they surely had set ways of thinking, staunch and unwavering opinions, and even a pretty well-formed idea of how they envisioned this all unfolding.
But, don’t forget, they had just lived through resurrection. If anybody knew that things were always changing, that God is forever engaged in creating something new and unexpected, it was them. And here in this story, the Church managed to do it: to perceive the direction of God’s Spirit, and to pivot with agility.
Two thousand years later, we might do well to watch their example closely. How do we, God’s people, the church, build an institution that is solid and strong, all the while ready to pivot, swirl, even, as the wind of God’s Spirit blows through halls of staid tradition, mussing our hair and ruffling our feathers, spinning us around to see our circumstances in ways we’ve perhaps never seen them before?
We watch for the movement of God’s Spirit. We listen carefully to each other. We hold the past loosely and step into the future with courage. We understand what those first disciples understood in the light of resurrection: God is always doing something new and unexpected.
In fact, maybe even the minute we are sure we know just exactly how to build a church that will contain the good work of God’s Spirit, here she comes again, blowing through our lives and recreating everything we thought we knew.
A healthy gospel community is one that cultivates a culture of perceiving the movement of God’s Spirit and empowering each other to respond to her prompting.
I have never, in all my years of preaching, mentioned the words Mother’s Day in a sermon. I’m one of those preachers who has steadfastly resisted being sucked into what I imagined was a holiday invented by Hallmark for the express purpose of selling greeting cards. Further, on a day when so many are celebrating mothers, the pain of not being a mother or not having a mother, or any number of painful circumstances, can sometimes be breathtakingly debilitating. Who needs to hear about Mother’s Day in church?
But I’m breaking my tradition today, because I realized that the sermon this morning is about the necessary quality in a church of perceiving and responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit among us. And throughout scripture, the Holy Spirit is always feminine, God the mother—maybe Mother’s Day deserves another look?
When I looked harder at the history of the holiday, it turns out that, in various expressions, Mother’s Day was begun by women who felt it critical that they usher in change. Worried about hygiene for soldiers during the Civil War, worried about high rates of infant mortality, desperate to stop the killing of war and usher in peace, and concerned about lack of sanitation in their communities, women began organizing mother’s days to educate their neighbors and change systems.
It turns out Mother’s Day is not really about celebrating a perfect relationship with our mothers or our children; it’s about perceiving a need for change and upending institutions as they are, to bring it about.
Funny. It seems to me that that’s just what the Holy Spirit does with those first Christians here in the book of Acts. She blows in and turns over Peter’s ideas of how things should be done. She shows up in the middle of the crowd and changes peoples’ hearts. She empowers the church to turn and shift, to welcome a new wind of God’s Spirit, to make that institutional agility a key component of their identity as a gospel community.
And so today, Mother’s Day, we welcome God our mother, to visit us, well-meaning disciples who work so hard to care for this institution, to blow into our community and into our hearts until we perceive her here, well at work among us, and until we, together, become a gospel community that responds with courage to the adventure that is the blowing wind of God’s Spirit.
May it be so.