What?! Those People Too?

One of my favorites movies, probably in my top 5 favorites, is a movie called High Fidelity. It’s about a man, John Cusack, who owns a record store and measures the activities and reactions of his life to the lyrics of music.  And everything is measured on a “top 5” scale.  He has a conversation with his co-workers, one of which is Jack Black, about the movie The Godfather, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Click here for a link to the Lectionary Reading for the day.

Last week we talked about loving our neighbor.  Well, a little more specifically, that if we say we love God but hate our neighbor, that we are liars.  We cannot love God and hate our neighbor.  Those two responses are incongruent… like oil and water.

This week our passage from Acts is like the Part 2 of the story.  It begins as Peter is speaking to a group of Gentiles and the Holy Spirit descending upon them.  There is amazing work being done in the group of Gentiles, make no mistake.  But we need to back up, to zoom out just a little, in order to get the full scope of what is happening in the context of our passage from Acts.

But here’s where my movie High Fidelity comes in.  In the movie, Cusack is talking to his friends listing the Top 5 movies of all time.  In his list is The Godfather, but there’s a qualifier.  The Godfather 2, according to Cusack, is even better than the original Godfather, but you can’t understand The Godfather 2 unless you’ve seen the first one.

We cannot fully understand the gravity of what happens with the Holy Spirit descending on the Gentiles because this is part 2 of the story.  We need to back up, take a moment to read and absorb part 1 first, and then we will have the full picture of why part 2 is just as significant as it is.  We need to actually begin reading at Acts 10 verses 34-43:

37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.  39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

This history, this part 1 of our story, offers Peter sharing with the Gentiles all that happened in Jesus’ ministry.  But what he does first is he brings them in to the story of the Jews.  Look at what he says, “You yourselves know what happened throughout the Judea.”  He is stating that the Gentiles have heard through the grapevine, through rumors and whispers, about this man Jesus doing amazing things amongst the Jewish people.  Peter is affirming to the Gentiles that they aren’t ignorant, that what they have heard is the truth, and simply by Peter talking to THEM rather than to the Jews is important.  He is affirming the FACT that the Gentiles exist!  This is a powerful truth for this culture of people to hear!  Imagine someone telling you, “You matter!  You breathe and feel and exist, and you are valued!”  BUT THERE’S SO MUCH MORE ABOUT TO HAPPEN!!

Peter continues by telling the Gentiles that this man Jesus told His followers to give everyone the Good News.  And that Good News is this from very 43, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through His name.”  The Gentiles know that they are separated from the Jews.  The Jews have their own culture, their own behaviors, their own rules, their own family systems and religious practices.  Gentiles and Jews don’t mix.

But here’s Peter affirming the Gentiles and filling them in on all that has happened to Jesus.  And we need to have understood Part 1 of the story before we come to Part 2.  And here it is!  Verse 44 says, “While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.”  While Peter was speaking.  Even as Peter was recounting all that has happened in the story of Jesus, that the Gentiles already had heard through rumors, the Holy Spirit descends.  The Holy Spirit wouldn’t come unless the people believed.  Peter hasn’t even stopped talking yet, hasn’t asked any questions for clarification, but the Gentiles are believing! 

And here is the bomb that blows everything up for these two cultures! Verse 45 says, “And the believers from among the circumcised (in other words, the Jews) who had come with Peter were amazed because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.”  EVEN ON THE GENTILES!  The Jews, the tribe of Israel, who have always been at the center of the story are now on the periphery.  They are the ones seeing this man who followed their Jesus, Peter, talk to the Gentiles and give them the news of salvation.  In our passages the Jews and Gentiles have switched places, and it is now the Gentiles who receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And Scripture says, “the circumcised…were amazed.”  

I imagine that the Jews stirred up a fuss.  How can these Gentiles get what only we should have? How can this happen? This isn’t fair? We’re the special ones!  I hear the echoes of Jesus telling the story of the Prodigal Son.  The Jews being the dutiful son who stayed home, worked the farm, worked the crops, tended to the father.  And here comes the brother who rejected the farm and the crops and the father.  And the prodigal is getting the same thing the dutiful brother gets: it isn’t fair!

Are we like the Jews who deserve what we want because we’ve been dutiful? We’ve paid our taxes. We’ve voted the right way. We’ve not engaged in deviant behavior. We raise our children right and pledge to the church and recycle and help save the animals.  And here comes those awful Gentiles.  They don’t know what they’re doing.  They aren’t one of us.  They look different and act different and vote different.  They’re embarrassing.  They’ve hurt your feelings before.  They just don’t deserve to be here!

But what does Peter say to the grumbling Jews?  “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  In other words, are you going to deny these human beings entrance into the family simply because your definition of the Kingdom is a country club for elitists?!

New Testament scholar and retired English Bishop N.T. Wright says, “We must remember who is in charge.”  If we are going to proclaim the Good News, if we are going to carry Jesus into the world (and let me be clear: we’re commanded to do so!), we are to carry it to ALL people.  No matter the color, culture, gender, sexuality, friend, or foe.  Is there a barrier or wall or hinderance that the love and grace of Jesus cannot cross?  By all means, NO!  Then we must lay down our own barriers so that we can share that love and grace to others…to ALL!

Let us pray:  O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son:  Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred with infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all actions and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

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