Acts 10:44-48. On Easter Sunday, we read the first half of this story, the story of Peter in the household of Cornelius. In turn, this is just a part of the larger story of Acts 10, the story of the spread of the faith to Gentiles. The first part of it is about a vision Peter has, and how the men sent by the Roman Centurion, Cornelius, come to fetch Peter. The next part is Peter’s sermon to the household of Cornelius (that’s the text for Easter). The reading for today is the culmination of the whole narrative: The Gentiles Receive the Holy Spirit.
It’s not as if we couldn’t see this coming: the spread of Christianity to Gentiles. There is the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman (Mt. 15, Mk. 7). There’s also the story of Jesus and the woman at the well of Samaria (Jn. 4). Both stories involve not only Gentiles, but also Gentile women. At the very least, this seems unusual, so we tend not to pay too much attention to it. We all know the status of women in ancient times, and we also know that the people of Israel saw God as their God, so Gentile converts to Judaism were a real oddity.
And suddenly, here it is. The story smacks of the Pentecost story in a way (go back and read Chapter 2 of Acts). For me, it’s the suddenness of the whole thing which catches and holds my attention. What about you? It seems to break in on us with no warning and with incredible power, like a sudden thunderstorm. So, here it is again: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” No waiting for it to sink in. No time to deal with objections from a few. It’s just Bang! It’s there! It happens in a flash. Have you ever had a moment like that in your life?
And the surprise isn’t just over the suddenness of it; it’s also over the fact that it was happening to Gentiles. Though I’m sure everyone there was surprised, the text mentions that the “circumcised believers” who had come with Peter were surprised. It doesn’t say who they were. It doesn’t say whether they were in Jerusalem at the time of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. I’m guessing that their surprise is over three things: 1) that it happened again and 2) that it happened in the same way it did in Jerusalem—speaking in tongues and praising God—and 3) that it happened to Gentiles. But there it is. It happened.
There’s another suddenness: the baptism. Is this a pattern? That’s what happened with the Ethiopian eunuch: “Here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Well, as is so often the case, there’s the hierarchy, the people at the top, who might prevent it. And I’m sure that Peter and those who were with him thought of that: “How are we going to tell the people in Jerusalem? Will they object?” In any case, as with so many things of the Spirit, you don’t deliberate; you do it. And they did. (By the way, go to the very next chapter to read the story of Peter reporting back to the church in Jerusalem.)
Some commentators say this was the first baptism of Gentiles. But what about the Ethiopian eunuch? Isn’t he a Gentile? My Bible dictionary says a Gentile is a “non-Hebrew (non-Israelite) person.”
The last sentence of the reading suggests something important. The newly baptized, those who had newly received the Spirit, wanted to know more: “Then they invited him to stay for several days.” I know it doesn’t say so in so many words, but why else would they have asked them to stay? I’m guessing they wanted to process what had just happened, and they felt Peter would be able to answer their questions.
Psalm 98. “O sing unto the Lord a new song!” That’s exciting. We know that the psalms were sung in worship; they still are. They’re sung in plainsong, in Anglican chant, as hymns. There are even specific more recent compositions. I once sang in a choir which performed a version of that psalm as written by Norman Dello Joio—and he was in the audience!
For all the talk about a “new song”, that expression occurs several times. Seven times in the Hebrew Scriptures (six in the psalms and once in Isaiah), twice in Christian Scriptures (both in Revelation), and twice in the Apocrypha (both in Judith). So, how new is “new”?
At least one commentator, Jair Hoffman, refers to this psalm as a “mosaic” of common biblical themes. That may be so, but it’s exciting poetry. Verses 1-3 are an invitation to praise the Lord because of a victory. Verse 1 contains “new song”. Is it new because it’s for a new liturgical occasion? The praise is because the Lord “has done marvellous things.” What “marvellous things”? It doesn’t say. No specific enemy is singled out, but given the cosmic scope of the invitation to praise, could it be the very act of Creation, the driving back of chaos?
Verse 2 “The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.” The word translated as “vindication” is tsedaqah, which normally means ‘righteousness’, but in poetry, it can mean ‘bounty, beneficence’. Is this the sort of “vindication/beneficence” which we see in Psalm 23 (which we looked at on Good Shepherd Sunday)?
Verse 3 “All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.” And here we are again. The ends of the earth include Gentiles—just like the Ethiopian eunuch and the ones in the household of Cornelius. And indeed, verses 4-6 are an extension of the invitation to “all the ends of the earth” to sing praise to God.
But does it stop there? Not on your nelly! Verses 7-9 call on all of Creation to sing praise. So, what is the victory? I’m going with the defeat of chaos. Come to think of it, isn’t death chaos? Are we talking about the Resurrection here? That drives chaos back. I’m just saying.
1 John 5:1-6. We see a lot of John in the post-Easter season. Here’s yet more; not only is the gospel reading from John, but so also is the epistle. Once again, the topic is love. You know, love is not easy, especially when we don’t like the person we’re supposed to love, remembering, of course, that love is not so much how we feel about a person; it’s also—primarily?—about what we do to/for the person. It’s hard to treat a person with love when we can’t stand them.
I’m going to step back from that for a minute. It’s easy to love God. Or is it? Well, loving God is almost an abstraction. It’s not so easy to love God when things are going wrong, when we feel God is working against us—when a dear friend of family member has died? When a fervent prayer has apparently been denied? Maybe it’s not all that easy to love God either.
I do love God. God has given me and all my family and friends life. God has sustained that life—until the time when the life had gone terribly wrong—through disease (and suffering) or just old age. I remember my brother, as he was dying, saying to a friend, when the friend was praying fervently that he would live, “I’m tired.” That’s the point when I knew I had to let go. I would be sad, of course, but praying for his life to continue would have been selfish. And that’s also the point when I knew I should just leave it in God’s hands. The same was true at the end of my parents’ lives. There just comes a point. And suddenly, I’m not angry/annoyed with God. So, when I stop trying to control everything, God’s way looks best after all.
When asked about the “greatest commandment”, Jesus answered with the shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And the second (who asked for a second?) is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” You know, in Mediterranean society, family is the centre of life. They say, “Love me, love my family.” The two are intertwined; you can’t separate them. The same goes for God. God is the father of all. Love the parent, love the child. It’s all one piece.
What’s the litmus test for love? Obedience. You know the saying, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”? In real imitation we become the person we imitate. If we do that, we serve them. If we serve them, we obey them. It’s not hard to understand. What is hard is to serve, in the first place. It’s hard to put someone else at the centre; the way of the world is to be self-centred. You see? Love is not easy. There is one thing that can make it easier: look at Jesus. Even then, will you find it hard? Will you ever stumble? I do.
We just said, Look at Jesus. Jesus died rather than fail his friends. In his place, we have the Holy Spirit. The Spirit supports us in loving, especially when it gets hard. When we’re tempted to give up, the Spirit hoists us up. We do succeed, we do love, with the help of the Spirit.
John 15:9-17. And just when we thought it was finished, here it is again. Love and obedience. I’ve met many non-Christians who understand that love is the core value of Christianity, and we’ve already said that John’s gospel embodies that—in spades!
Today’s reading continues where last week’s left off. It starts, literally, with the very next verse. Last week, Jesus laid heavy emphasis on abiding; here we go again. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Commandment. That entails obedience—but just at this point, Jesus switches things on us. Servants obey; friends have a choice, and Jesus is now calling his disciples his friends. But that being done, Jesus issues a challenge: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” First of all, Jesus is about to model that; in just four pages more, Jesus will lay down his life for his friends. Second, Jesus is saying, “The choice is yours, but that’s how serious being a friend is.” I think I already mentioned this, but it’s worth saying it again. A couple of years ago, we were talking with some of the kids at our church. I remember asking them for a concrete expression of love, something that would make it real for them. One of the kids gave a simple, but very elegant, answer: “Be a friend.”
All we need to do is to abide in the vine. It supports us, it nourishes us. When we abide in the vine, we bear good fruit. We love.