Sermon for Sunday, May 10, 2015 || Easter 6B || Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98
“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” Today’s psalm begins with these glorious words, and for me it begins with a question. Why does the song we sing have to be a new one? Why can’t the song be an old song, one that has stood the test of time? “Amazing Grace,” perhaps? Or how about “In the Garden?” While these songs are beautiful and wonderful and should never, ever be lost to the ages, I think the psalmist feels the urge to sing a new song because he or she has discovered a fundamental truth about God’s movement in God’s universe. God is always doing something new.
God’s ceaselessly creative hand did not stop molding and shaping the universe at the end of the sixth day of creation. God continues to breath new life into this ever-expanding cosmos: at the grand scale of galactic expansion and at the small scale of simple, daily interaction. In the playroom next door, the twins do something new seemingly every day. Amelia loves to eat real food. Charlie has started climbing. We have several parishioners who have recently moved from their homes into assisted living facilities or whose recent medical interventions have led to new lifestyle choices. They are faced with newness of a less joyful kind, but we still fervently hope that their new situations will lead to much better outcomes than they could have expected before.
The simple fact that spring has sprung reminds us that God is always doing something new. In my life. In your lives. In the life of the church. The world. Creation. We believe that God’s reign is constantly and continually reshaping existence, bringing all things into closer connection with God, as creation was always intended to be.
The newness that trumpets God’s closeness is borne on the wind of the Holy Spirit. Not all new things are of God, but the Holy Spirit helps us discern when and where God is birthing those new things that do lead to closer connection for all people. When we allow ourselves to be open to the newness dancing along in the Holy Spirit’s wake, we become people who are less afraid to try new things, to risk, perhaps to fail, but to know that in the attempt a new shoot of possibility has sprung up from the ground. When we do succeed in living into God’s reconciling newness, the result is deeper connection with God and a more expansive understanding of God’s love and God’s generosity.
One climactic example of this success happens in our tiny first reading today. It is the most extraordinary event in the history of the early days of the church. You might think it would be a dramatic conversion or a miraculous healing or a mystical vision or a memorable speech, but while each of these happens in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, none is the event I have in mind. No. The most extraordinary moment of reconciling newness in the early days of the church happens when one person simply realizes he is wrong and then changes his mind.
That person is Peter. And we might expect Peter to be a hardliner, sticking to all of his positions and presuppositions just because he had been with Jesus from the beginning. After all, Jesus did give Peter the figurative keys to the kingdom. What could be more human of a reaction than for Peter to lock out anything new that threatened the integrity of the in-crowd? As I’m sure we’ve all done from time to time, Peter could have stuck his head in the sand, ignored the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and resisted any opportunity for growth, for reconciliation, or for new possibilities.
But that’s not what happens. So here’s the story, beginning with just a bit of background. The society in which Peter grew up was divided between Jews and Gentiles. There wasn’t necessarily animosity between them, but there was indifference and a lack of connection. Society was just built in this divisive way, so no one really questioned the structure.
That is, until one day when Peter is hungry. While a meal is being prepared, Peter receives a vision from God. All of the animals that observant Jews aren’t supposed to eat appear before Peter, and a voice directs him to kill and eat. Peter balks at the command: “I’ve never eaten anything that’s profane or unclean.” But the voice counters: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times until the vision has finally sunk into Peter’s bones.
When the vision ends, Peter meets a trio of Gentiles who invite him to meet a Roman named Cornelius, who has also had a vision from God concerning Peter. Never fearing that he might be walking into a trap, Peter goes with them and meets Cornelius and his whole household. And then Peter preaches a fabulous sermon that proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ.
This is where our passage for this morning picks up the tale. While Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit encounters all who hear him. Peter’s companions, who are Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, are astounded that the Holy Spirit of God would deign to manifest itself through unclean Gentiles. “But what about our in crowd,” they seem to protest. “We thought we were the special ones. We thought we were the ones that had the Holy Spirit.”
Then Peter remembers his vision of the now clean animals. And he finds himself standing at the precipice of a decision, at the precipice of something new trying to break into reality. His society, his upbringing, and everything he has ever known pulls him to reconfirm that Jews and Gentiles can never be united, that the good news of Jesus Christ is for Peter’s people alone. But that same Holy Spirit, which is even now dancing around Cornelius and his Gentile family, pulls Peter in a new direction toward unity and acceptance and radical welcome of the estranged other. And this time Peter doesn’t balk. He baptizes all the Gentiles present and charts a new course of acceptance in this new and nascent religion soon to be called Christianity.
This particular type of newness – welcome of the other, whatever makes that person other – keeps encountering the church again and again. Over the centuries, Christians have failed to be swept up by the wind of the Holy Spirit’s newness too many times to count, but every once in a while, we trim the sail just right and succeed in ushering in God’s reconciling newness. Just in our lifetimes, we have expanded opportunities in our church to many groups who had been shut out before – allowing women to be priests, for example; or blessing loving relationships of any orientation with the sacrament of marriage.
When you are trying to discern how and when to lean into the newness shimmering on the horizon of your life, how do you feel? Terrified? Excited? Saddened by what is fading away? Joyful for what is breaking in? All of the above, probably. In any case, like spring blooming in a riot of color every year, newness is just a part of life. In our own lives and in the life of the church or our nation or the world, the newness that comes from God will always lead to deeper connection, greater reconciliation, more hope – maybe not today or tomorrow. But the path will lead there someday.
The next time you are at the precipice of a decision like Peter, stop for a moment and pray. Take a deep breath and feel which way the wind of the Holy Spirit is pushing you. Ask God what new thing God is trying to birth through you with this decision. How will it lead you closer to God or another person? God is forever speaking words of reconciliation and renewal into this creation. Each day, we have the opportunity to hear them anew and to choose the course towards closer connection and to leap off the precipice and to soar on the wind of the Holy Spirit.