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Sixth Sunday of Easter

St. John’s Lutheran Church
5 May 2024 + Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 10:44-48 (John 15:9-17)
Rev. Dr. Becca Ehrlich

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A children’s catechism class was learning the Apostles’ Creed. Each child had been assigned a sentence to repeat. The first one said, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The second child said, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son…” When he had completed his sentence, there was an embarrassing silence. Finally, one child piped up, “Teacher, the boy who believes in the Holy Spirit isn’t here.”

Ah, the Holy Spirit. The slippery person of the Trinity. We’ve usually feel like we’ve got God the Father and God the Son on lock-down. God the Father, the heavenly parent, creator. God the Son, Jesus Christ, God in human form, who died for our sin and to free us to live abundantly for him. But the Holy Spirit? Ummmmmmm…..

It’s stories like the one we just read in Acts that seem to baffle us even more about the Holy Spirit. Peter is speaking to some Gentiles, non-Jewish people, and the text says “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” The Jewish people there are astonished because even the Gentiles have received the Spirit, when they thought it was only for Jews. How did they know that the Gentiles had received the Spirit? It says “for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” Peter realizes how important this Holy Spirit moment is, and says “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And then the Gentile hearers are baptized.

Now, this story sounds pretty extreme. I mean, let’s think about this. Let’s try putting it into the context of today.

So imagine I’m preaching in front of you on a Sunday morning. Not hard to imagine, right? I’m already up here! Now imagine we have a lot of visitors present. You all get visitors sometimes here at St John’s, right–  especially when there’s something special going on—like a baptism, or another type of special worship service. So you have the image in your head? Lots of visitors, the preacher.

Now imagine while I’m preaching, probably mid-sentence even, the Holy Spirit comes into this place with so much power that all the visitors begin speaking in tongues and shouting praises to God. What would you do?? Would you be astounded like the Jews in the Acts passage? Would you call to have the visitors baptized if they weren’t already, like Peter did?

And if you happen to be a visitor here today (first of all, welcome!), what would you do? Would you be thrilled that you are experiencing God in such a powerful way? Would you want to officially join the followers of Jesus here at this congregation?

Or would both groups of people run screaming from the church because they have no clue what’s going on??

What do you think you would do? Be honest….

The thing is, we sometimes ignore the Holy Spirit, because the Spirit makes us uncomfortable. Shakes things up. Turns things upside down. Those of us here at St John’s today would never in a million years expect something like that to happen here, just like Peter and the Jewish followers of Jesus never expected it to happen. But the Spirit had other plans. Now, I’m not saying that exact scenario will happen here—but it could, if God wanted it to.

Feeling uncomfortable? It’s OK. Many people feel uncomfortable when talking about the Holy Spirit. Why’s that, do you think? I have a theory.

We like order in our lives. We like to know what’s happening, when. We make schedules, set meeting times. We like having things planned out. And when things don’t go as planned, it usually makes us cringe, frustrated, upset.

For example, think about when you travel. How ridiculously annoying is it when you’re trying to get somewhere, and the train/plane/bus is delayed? How much do you want to rip that person’s head off when they announce that there will be a delay before departure can actually happen? I know that I do. And why is that? Because it throws a wrench into our set plans.

We even have a set order here for worship, right? When you came in, you picked up a bulletin, that tells you exactly what’s going to happen when. That’s good. It makes sure people can worship because they can follow along easily.

I never imagined that a worship service could be different than that, until I visited a congregation down on John’s Island, South Carolina when I went on a mission trip down there. When we walked in, we also picked up a worship bulletin that has the order of the worship service in it, like you did. It looked pretty similar to the one you hold in your hands right now, actually. But there was one big difference. At the bottom of the worship bulletin, on the last page there was an asterisk. And after the asterisk, there was a sentence that said: “Due to the movement of the Holy Spirit, the above order of worship may change.”

And I remember sitting there, reading that sentence, going, “WHAT? What do you mean the order could change?? How will I know what to do? How will I know what’s going on??

And truth be told, that one little sentence made me freak out. I remember feeling really uncomfortable, almost unable to sit still in the pew worried that something would happen and… well, I don’t know what I was thinking would happen, or if I was beyond rational thought. I was just freaking out.

But during the service, there were times the pastor and the worship leaders departed from the set order. A song went longer than originally intended. The pastor ended up preaching on something different than what he had prepared. Prayer time was extended for those who needed special prayers.

And you know what? It was OK. It was more than OK. As I worshipped with that congregation, I realized that they were open to the Spirit’s leading during the service in a way I had never seen before. If God was tugging on peoples’ hearts to spend more time in prayer, they did it. If God was moving powerfully through a song being sung, the people didn’t just end the song because that’s what they had planned—they continued singing and playing instruments so that the Spirit could continue to move.

It was like someone took the rule book and threw it out the window when the Spirit was leading.

Right before the passage we read in Acts, there’s a gentile named Cornelius who is a centurion in the Italian Cohort. And while he’s praying, an angel of the Lord appears to Cornelius, telling him to send for a guy named Peter. The next day, Peter goes up to the roof to pray, and has a vision. He sees a large white sheet coming down from heaven. And in the sheet, there were a bunch of animals that were considered unclean by Jewish law. Peter hears a voice telling him to get up, kill the animals and eat. But Peter freaks out. An updated version of what he says could be: “No way, Lord! I can’t eat those animals, they’re unclean!” But the voice answers him: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Conveniently, right after this vision the men Cornelius sent to get Peter show up. And while they’re waiting at the door, the Spirit tells Peter to go with the men that are waiting for him, because the Spirit has sent them. So he does. And when Peter shows up at Cornelius’ house, one of the first things he says is “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection.”

Can you imagine how anxious Peter was when he was on his way to Cornelius’ house? Knowing full well that the rules tell him he shouldn’t be going since Cornelius is a Gentile– but also knowing completely that the Spirit was sending him there? The rule book was thrown out the window. God had amended the original rule book!

And it didn’t stop there, as we know from our reading for today. Peter ends up preaching to the Gentiles gathered at Cornelius’ house. And as we read, the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles, and Peter orders that they be baptized. This is a huge deal— not only was Peter not authorized to preach to the Gentiles, he was most definitely NOT authorized to baptize them. Yet, because the Spirit came upon the Gentiles, it was clear that God wanted them to be baptized. The rule book is thrown out again!

Right after all this happens, the Jewish believers, including the apostles, by the way, in Jerusalem freak out because Peter didn’t follow the rules. But Peter explains what happened—the vision he had, how the Spirit told him not to make a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, and how the Spirit came upon the Gentiles he went and preached to. He says to them: “If God then 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?”

How do you think the Jewish believers reacted??

At first, shocked silence. “When at first they heard this, they were silenced.” But then—THEN—“And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

The rule book was thrown out the window. The early Church leaders recognized the Holy Spirit’s movement and knew that it was time to get rid of those laws that no longer applied.

When I went to Southeastern Pennsylvania’s Synod Assembly a few years ago, Bishop Claire Burkat preached a sermon in the opening worship service. And in that service, she described the early Church and how the early followers of Jesus continued to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ despite the setbacks and rules and regulations.

And she told us we should do the same. She said: “The Gospel does not need institutional approval. The denomination serves the Gospel, not the other way around.”

We have so many rules, spoken and unspoken, that we cling to because they are comfortable to us and order our lives. And many rules are still good and valid for us today. But some are not. The Holy Spirit is ever moving, ever changing our ideas of how things should be. The Spirit did that in the Acts passage we read, and continues to do so today.

What would it be like if we let the Spirit guide us in what we should keep and what we should let go? What if we loosened our death grip on those things that aren’t working anymore, that the Spirit wants to change? Where would that take us?

I don’t know. But I do know that no matter what happens and how the Spirit leads, God knows what God is doing. And when we loosen our grip and let the Spirit in, God will do amazing things. Amen?

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