The story goes that on a particular Sunday morning a man of, shall we say, “Pentecostal persuasion” wandered into a Congregational church just as the morning worship service was getting under way. And this man was, to say the very least, an active participant in worship, especially during the sermon; whenever the pastor made a point, this visitor would get all excited and start waving his hands in the air and he’d be shouting things like, “Praise God! Hallelujah! Amen!” Now generally speaking, that’s not considered the “norm” in this particular tradition, so the man’s behavior had become more than a little bit unsettling to the rest of the folks in the pews; so much so, in fact, that a few of the Deacons had already gathered at the back of the church to decide what was to be done about it!
Finally, the chair of the deacons went down the aisle to where this man was sitting and whispered to him, very politely, “Sir, you’ll have to keep quiet! Our pastor is in the middle of his sermon!” But the man replied, “Keep quiet? How can I keep quiet? I’ve got the Holy Spirit in me!” To which the deacon replied, “Well, you didn’t get it in this church!”
Well… I’ve been thinking about it; and let me just say that while we are by no stretch a Pentecostal church around here, it can be never be said that “we don’t get the Holy Spirit in this church.” Because one thing has always been very clear to me in my three and a half years at East Church, and that’s that the Spirit is alive and well in this place! In fact, I would take this one step further, and suggest to you this morning that when we’re being the church God intends for us to be, it can not only be claimed that we’ve got the Holy Spirit, it can also be said, very truthfully, that the Holy Spirit has got us!
And I don’t say that lightly! Because friends, when the Holy Spirit has gotten you, what that means is that God’s been busy in your life; busy stirring you, moving you, shaping you and occasionally even nudging and pushing you along pathways you might not ordinarily go; and all of that has a way of being invigorating and terrifying all at the same time! But that’s the very nature of God’s Spirit; which is pretty interesting, considering that a whole lot of us – even us good church people (!) – do have this tendency to want to keep that Spirit in what Thomas Tewell has referred to as “the nice, neat, tidy confines of categories and barriers,” as though we could “put God in a box.” The Holy Spirit can be bold and wild and unpredictable, and it most decidedly can move outside of our comfort zone; but the truth is, as Tewell goes on to say, that “We want a God in the box. We’d like a God who’s safe. We’d like a God who’s predictable.”
It all too easily – no matter what your denominational affiliation (!) – becomes our human condition.
The funny thing is we weren’t always like that. When we were children, for instance, we totally “got” the Holy Spirit, and that’s because children, by their nature, understand the awesomeness and wonder of that which is bigger than they are, including and especially God! But when you and I become as “grown-ups” we tend to lose that.
The late Mike Yaconelli talked about this in his book Dangerous Wonder; in it, he tells the story of one the preschoolers in his congregation who presented him with the heartfelt gift of a picture she’d colored in a coloring book. Yaconelli said that the little girl “was very proud and excited,” and anxious for his response, and he did respond by saying, “Oh, thank you so much for this beautiful drawing, it’s so special.” But, he confessed, “part of me was thinking, this is terrible. Is red the only color you could use? How about yellow? Blue? Green? None of your strokes are even close to being within the lines. What’s the matter with you? Take this back and draw it again – only, do it right this time!”
Of course, that’s not what he said, because, he went on to say, this little girl “exhibited grace, the grace of a child who knows it is okay to color outside the lines.” Now God, said Yaconelli, God would look at the little girl’s coloring and say, “Hmmm! You certainly like the color green! Lots of passion in that stroke. I really like it!” That’s because God’s grace is “so outside the lines of our understanding that we can only stand in awe and wonder… the grace of God is preposterous enough to accept as beautiful a coloring that anyone else would reject as ugly.” Our God, you see, is the God who is ever and always coloring outside the lines!
Proof of this can be found all through scripture, from a birth of a Savior announced to, of all people, a motely group of shepherds; to an empty tomb that hails the good news of resurrection glory. Again and again, what we discover is that whenever we try to fit God into some little category of our own design, God will always break out of it! God colors outside the lines; and moreover, God calls us to do the same thing.
That’s what we find in our reading this morning from the Book of Acts, the story of the meeting of Peter and Cornelius. Here we have a classic example of God “doing a new thing” in the life of the new church, and of two people who are not altogether sure they can deal with that new thing; that is, until the Holy Spirit “gets to them.” It’s a story that actually has to do with a big issue at that time, which was the inclusion of Gentiles as well as Jews in the kingdom of God: in those days, you see, for Gentiles to become Christians they had to first become Jews, adhering to all Jewish laws and rituals. The very thought of a Gentile being baptized as a Christian, without first becoming a Jew, was unacceptable and offensive to the Jewish believers in Christ.
But now, just prior to our reading this morning, we find that Peter, who’s been up on the rooftop praying, has gotten the idea in a vision that maybe God actually wanted the Gentiles to be baptized and part of the Kingdom! So this was a radical change of thinking; but this vision is confirmed soon thereafter by the arrival of a group who’d been sent by Cornelius to invite Peter to his home in Caesarea. Now, Cornelius himself had also seen an angel of God who’d instructed him accordingly, and he wasn’t feeling any more secure about this than Peter was; but when an angel speaks, you listen, and so now here they are, face to face.
Peter’s skeptical, to say the least; in fact, one of the first things he says to Cornelius – even after Cornelius had bowed down in reverence before Peter, which ends up every bit as awkward as you’d think it’d be – is, “You know ‘that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile.’” Technically speaking, I’m not even supposed to be here… so why have you sent for me; what is this all about?
And to this, Cornelius explains what’s happened and says finally, all of us are here “in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.” And what’s interesting is that although the situation had just become, in many ways, all the more complicated, immediately any doubt that Peter had about it is gone! In fact, the Greek word that’s used here is katalambano, which means “an idea took hold of his mind.” The Spirit got a hold of Peter, and he immediately knew what God wanted; which was for all to understand that “God shows no partiality … [and] that anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
You and I might not think a great deal about the significance of that – after all, as Christians we already understand that all those who believe are baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ – but imagine what a radical idea this was back then when this huge part of the population who had previously been excluded from the fold is suddenly, by God’s express intent, welcomed with opened arms! This flew in the face of everything Peter or anyone else at the time understood to be true; but then that was God’s intention all along! God was doing a new thing in their midst; truly, God was coloring outside the lines of life! And now, by virtue of that graceful creativity, so was Peter!
This story tells us something about the true nature of God, and ultimately about the kind of church that God intended to build, and still intends to build in, through and upon you and me today. It is good news indeed, but our challenge within that good news, friends, is for us to remember that just as God is not reluctant to color outside the lines, neither should you and I, as followers of his Son Jesus and people of his Spirit, ever hold back from doing the same thing.
I remember reading about an elderly Baptist preacher at a church down in Atlanta, who every Sunday used to start his worship services the same way: every week he’d raise up his arms and pray, “Dear God, may something happen in our service this morning that’s not printed in our church bulletins!”
I love that (!), because it shows us something about being open to the Holy Spirit blowing its new wind blowing in our midst; about how God could well be doing something new here and now, and even in the church! Truly, one of the great mistakes we make in the church today is that we believe we’re in control of things; but the simple fact is, we’re not! We’re called to be good stewards of what we’ve been given in the church; we’re called to be effective leaders as Christians and as a congregation; and we’re very often given choices as God’s people as to which way to go, either to our blessing or detriment. But we’re not, as they say, at the wheel of control; despite any rumors to the contrary, God’s in control here. And it’s only when we are open to God’s passionate movement in our lives, only when we give ourselves over to what God intends to have happen in and through us that we truly become the church of Jesus Christ in this place; only then can this seemingly random group of people who show up here every Sunday morning become transformed and nurtured into a truly Christ-centered, Biblically-focused, prayerfully-minded and lovingly directed group of disciples.
And that’s the goal, is it not? Isn’t that vision for our life together as the church of Christ? And ultimately, isn’t that our joy?
And the thing is, it all starts with “getting the Spirit.”
Like I said to you before, one thing I can say with absolute certainty that you and I here at East Church are part of a church family that has most definitely “gotten the Spirit.” I mean, how else can you explain how a “little church” like ours can not only maintain, but even grow, a full time thriving ministry, if not by the Holy Spirit? How can we understand the incredible response that always seems to follow a call to mission and outreach, from the CROP Walk to School Kits to food baskets, if not as a result of the Holy Spirit in this place? And what can we say about all the commitment, hard work and utter joy that’s shown by all of the people around here, in our worship and fellowship, through all the fundraising and stewardship efforts we’ve been involved in, and quite simply in how we love one another here at East Church, if it isn’t first fueled by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit?
Beloved, I don’t say this to you often enough… but thank you; thank you so much for all that you do. But moreover, thanks be to God in the Spirit that moves you!
Oh, to be sure, we have our quirks here at East Church (!); sometimes personalities clash, there are moments that we might not always agree and we have to work our way through that; we are the church, after all, and we’re only human, so there’s bound to be the occasional bump in the road on this journey we share. But the good news is that as we allow ourselves to go where God is taking us, then the first and most important thing to change and grow will be… us! And along the way we become what God wants us to be and the world needs us to be, people who will willingly and joyfully color outside of the lines all for the sake of God’s kingdom.
So how about we get started on the next part of our journey… trusting in the promise, and following God’s Spirit where it leads.
And as we do, letting our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry