Grace and peace to you from our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Book of Acts tells the story about the beginnings of the Christian church. It begins with Jesus ascending into heaven, and then the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, where three thousand people were baptized, and the church was born. From there, the Church grows and spreads in remarkable ways. It seems there is a general pattern for how the church grows in Acts. You could break it down into three parts. First, the Holy Spirit moves, usually in a surprising and unexpected way; second, the disciple responds; and third community of believers discerns what the God is up to. Our first reading is one such instance, and a very important one.
In that reading, Peter is reporting his recent experiences to the community of believers in Jerusalem. He tells them that when he was in the city of Joppa, he was praying, and he saw a vision. There was a sheet that came down from heaven, lowered down by its four corners, and on this sheet there were all kinds of animals on it. God told Peter to eat, but Peter refused. He refused because those animals were considered unclean, or not kosher, by Jews. God tells him that what God has made clean, he must not call unclean. Then, the sheet disappeared.
God used this vision to prepare Peter for what came next.
Just then, three men came from the house of a Roman centurion, from the town of Caesarea, named Cornelius. Cornelius was a faithful person and wanted to know God. One day, as he was praying, God spoke to him and told him to send for Peter. This was highly unusual because Jews, like Peter, and Gentiles, like Cornelius, were not expected to associate, and because, to that point in Acts, almost all the followers of Jesus were Jewish. You had to be Jewish first to be a Christian. The disciples sort of assumed that’s how it was going to be. But that’s not what God had in mind. Cornelius told Peter about how God spoke to him. And so Peter told them the Good News about Jesus and the Holy Spirit fell on them just as it had on the Jews at Pentecost, and they believed.
Now, this is a major turning point in the Bible, because, in this story, Christianity goes global. Up until now, the Bible has been the story of the Jewish people, but now it is a story for everyone. Jesus died to bring forgiveness and salvation to everyone. It showed that everybody could believe in Jesus and share in the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Peter explains to the group in Jerusalem, “…as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” The leaders in Jerusalem praised God and agreed that salvation and grace extended to the Gentiles, and thus, to all people.
Who are We to Hinder?
The part of this great story that grabs me is this phrase: “who was I that I could hinder God?” It not only grabbed me, but it has become my favorite Scripture verse of all time. “who was I that I could hinder God?” As he stood there in Cornelius’ house, Peter saw that God was at work in a powerful way, that God was doing a new thing; and, although he may not have understood what God was up to at first, he could see that God was orchestrating all of this, and he followed. In this, Peter – who, remember, was the head of the church – shows great humility and openness to the work of the Holy Spirit. After all, who was he that he should get in the way? Who was he to say, “God, you can’t do that!” Who was he to hinder God? It is a powerful lesson in humble leadership.
God is doing a new thing here at Redeemer, don’t you think? There is a spirit, an energy, momentum, whatever you want to call it. God is doing a new thing here. Do you feel it? As I see it, God is transforming us in the same way he transformed Peter and Cornelius, according to that same three-fold pattern from Acts: the Spirit moves, we follow it, and then discern together how God is at work. Thee are so many examples: Health Ministry, Knitting Ministry, Deacon, Slovakia, Tables of Grace Gala, space for Newcomers, more people sharing their gifts, Youth ministry, Sunday evening worship. Connections are being made, and relationships are being formed and strengthened. I think this vitality has happened because we have tried to give more space for the Spirit to move among us and within us. We have tried to be more attentive to what God is doing in our midst and, when we see it, to act. There are many new things. At the same time, there are some things we are no longer doing, but, letting some things go has given us space to think, pray, discern, and let something new emerge.
This is a special time. And we aren’t the only ones that see it. You should know that other people are excited about what’s happening here and are cheering you on. Diane and I value connections in the Synod, and we enjoy sharing our stories and ideas, and how you all inspire us. People are genuinely interested and want to know what’s happening. People have a real interest and investment in our success: how we will be the church now and in the years to come, the importance of being a strong Lutheran witness in this Boston Metro area and New England. In these conversations, Diane and I often find ourselves at the intersection of larger church trends, developing a network of encouraging relationships. A year ago Diane was contacting other people for information, now people call her. She and I presented at our internship cluster retreat – a meeting of interns and supervisors – on lay leadership and how we support that leadership through adult spiritual formation. All to say, what we do here extends beyond our congregation, and it is enriching for others too. I just wanted you to know that.
The Holy Spirit is continuing to do new things in our midst, and this is really only the beginning. After worship today, we will have a congregational meeting to discuss the prospect of embarking on a capital campaign, which is a big deal…but – I want you to keep this in mind – it is only one part of the larger challenge and deeper work that I believe, and the Church Council believes, we are called to engage. For, this capital campaign is not just about money. It’s not just about bricks and mortar. That’s because when we talk about the roof, the bigger picture is how we become a place of safety and shelter for those that are hurting. When we talk about the boiler, the bigger picture is how we demonstrate the warmth of the love of Christ to the stranger, the seeker, the pilgrim. When we talk about refreshing our ministry spaces, the bigger picture is how we can get the building to be a reflection of the people and ministry and spirit here, and not the other way around. It is about safeguarding the legacy that has been handed down to us. It is about being the Kingdom of God in this place for the sake of the world. It is about the freedom to let the Holy Spirit transform us so that we might, in our daily lives, our daily ministries, transform the world. That’s what all of this is about. If you are going to be daunted by anything, please don’t be daunted by the money, be daunted and humbled, like Peter, about trying to be the authentic church in this place and in this time. And if you do feel daunted, remember that there were few things more radical in Peter’s time than having a Gentile, and a Roman soldier at that, come to believe in Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit. And yet, God did it, and Peter followed, and the church celebrated the growth of the Church’s mission. Our calling is the same as th
at of Peter and those early believers: be prayerful, be faithful, be fruitful, be courageous, and be open and willing to go where the Spirit is taking us.
And so, as we find ourselves in this moment – on this Stewardship Sunday, a day we discuss the prospect of a capital campaign, and the future of the congregation – Peter’s words are, I think, the best possible words that we could here from Scripture today: who was I that I should hinder God? Who are we that we should hinder what God is doing here in our midst? We should embrace it, celebrate it, and support it with every gift we have to give. And we should follow Peter’s example of trust, humility, discernment, his sense of openness, and, maybe most of all, his sense of adventure.
You know, a lot of times when people talk about ministry or congregational life, the image that I get in my mind is like rolling a rock uphill. Like it’s all up to us, little by little, two steps forward, one step back. But my experience of our ministry together is nothing like that. The image I have in my mind of our ministry is like a child running to catch the wind, running with great joy and abandon, running with arms reaching out to embrace the unseen, eyes looking up to the sky, trying to figure out where its going. And when we finally stop and rest and look down and around, we discover that we are in a new place.
And so, the Good News today is that, as we heard from Revelation, Jesus is “making all things new.” Jesus is making all things – you, me, our congregation, our world – he is making all things new. Right now. Who are we to hinder that? Amen.