By: David H. May, Rector
Biblical commentators on the book of the Acts of the Apostles always point out how one of the great themes of this book about the birth of the Church is that God the Holy Spirit is the main actor in what we read there. It isn’t Peter or Paul. It isn’t the sprawling cast of characters with names like Cornelius and Lydia and Dorcus and Titus. The Holy Spirit of God is the headliner, the star, the one who’s responsible for setting peoples’ feet moving down the road, and blowing ships on just the right course, stirring up dreams and visions, building bridges, opening doors, and generally stirring the whole pot. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift of himself “that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, [as his own first gift] to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all”. As I read these stories of the church’s first beginnings – including this story of a tense meeting between Peter and the other apostles – I can’t seem to shake the image of God the Holy Spirit as a divine but clearly meddling and persistent matchmaker who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. The lead up to the confrontation between Peter and his brothers back in Jerusalem is a series of visions and the appearance of an angel and words from above that say ‘you really should meet so-and-so, they’re just perfect for you. I know you don’t get out much but it’s time you did. I tell you what, don’t you worry about a thing, I’ll arrange everything’.
And everyone involved is more than a little reluctant for the match to be made. There are lots of protests, like, That’s really not my thing. I’m not really ready. I like my life the way it is. I’m fine on my own. But there is the divine matchmaker, the Spirit insisting: ‘Trust me. You’re perfect for each other. You just show up where I tell you to and I’ll take care of all the rest. You absolutely belong together.’
The passage from Acts we just heard is the climax to a whole series of events. So let me just recap how we got here.
As this part of the story begins, Peter is in Joppa in a house on the beach. Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, is 40 miles away in Caesarea. What happens next is the Holy Spirit arranging in a sort of sneaky way for them to meet. It begins with Cornelius. In the middle of the afternoon, an angel, plain as day shows up and tells Cornelius to send some men to Joppa to the house on the beach where Peter is staying. They’re supposed to tell Peter to follow them back to Cornelius’ house. Like a good Roman soldier, Cornelius follows orders and sends some of his men off to find Peter.
The next day, Peter is on the roof of his beach house praying before the afternoon meal. And as he was praying, something happens. He sees something. In fact, he sees it three times. It is something like a great sheet lowered down out of heaven by the four corners and filled with a Noah’s ark of animals. And Peter hears the words, ‘Get up Peter; kill and eat.’ The problem was there were animals there that he would never eat being a good Jew. And Peter says, ‘no Lord. No unclean food has ever past my lips’. To which he hears, ‘Excuse me, but do not call unclean what God has made clean’.
It’s hard for us quite to grasp what this meant to a man like Peter. Observing dietary restrictions was a sign of his identity as one of the children of Israel. It was an article of his faith; it was how he showed obedience and gave his life – every aspect of his life – to God. How could he just not do that and still be the same man?
And as the words ‘what God has made clean you must not call unclean’, are echoing in Peter’s spirit, Cornelius’ men show up at his house, right on time. They tell Peter what has happened and how they’ve come to bring him to their master’s house. And the Spirit tells Peter to go with them. And as you go along with them, the Spirit urges him, you must think of it as us and them, but we – no crossing to the other side of the street.
The next day, they arrive at Cornelius’ house, a Gentile’s house, a place he’s not supposed to enter. Some Jews thought of Gentiles as filthy immoral animals the way people do sometimes. Others didn’t hold quite so harsh an opinion, but they certainly kept their distance, walking on the other side of the road. And before Peter knows it, he is in the house with Cornelius and his family and servants and others. He’s right there in the middle of them and they’re all staring at him. Cornelius describes to Peter how an angel told him to send for Peter and that Peter would have something to say to him and to his whole household.
Peter begins by saying, ‘you know I’m not supposed to be here. It’s unlawful for me. I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing. But God has shown me that I shouldn’t call any man common or unclean’. And then, there’s no fancy way to say it, he tells them about Jesus, all of it, how he went about and healed every infirmity and cast out demons, proclaiming that the Kingdom has drawn near, and how he died on a street and rose again to reconcile the world to God. And while he was talking, the Holy Spirit caught up that whole flock of people in loving arms that said, ‘I told you you were perfect for each other!’ So Peter stayed there with them in a house that he used to think was the wrong side of the street, and broke bread with them, for some days we’re told.
Which brings us to today and Peter meeting with his brother apostles back in Jerusalem who were fit to be tied. As soon as he comes in the door they’re all over him. “What were you thinking?! It’s not hard – they stay over there, we stay over here.” And then Peter tells them, step by step, (because he’s probably still trying to piece it together himself), he tells them what has happened. Finishing by saying, ‘who was I to hinder God?’
I wonder how long they sat there without breathing, no one saying a word.
And then a funny thing happens. Who knows who started it. But it looks like one of them started singing, praising God. One by one, they stood and sang like we do when someone sings the Doxology. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Who are we to hinder God?
The Spirit blows where it will, like a meddling matchmaker who doesn’t consult with us about matching us up with folks we’re meant to be with, but just does it anyway: to set our feet moving down the road; to give dreams and visions and angels appearing and heavenly words, to make arrangements for us to find each other because the work of the matchmaker Spirit – with the cry – ‘you absolutely belong together!’, is still arranging unlikely matches, where us and them become we, and we are left singing God’s praise. Who are we to hinder God. Amen.