Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
May 15, 2022
Something, Something… Holy Spirit?
Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35
When I was preparing to leave town last Sunday, I was copying pages from Biblical commentaries to read on my travels – by the way, a good way to be sure your seatmate doesn’t strike up a conversation with you is to carry a stack of New Testament commentaries – and I couldn’t quite remember the chapter and verses from Acts for this Sunday. I knew it was a story about Cornelius, with a vision of a blanket holding all kinds of animals – just wait, it’s going to be good – and I ended up copying all of chapters 10 AND 11! Because the story we’re about to hear is told twice! In a book that follows the movement of the Holy Spirit as it races around the Mediterranean setting hearts on fire and planting seeds of faith and starting churches hither and yon – This story is so important it’s told twice! First it’s narrated as it happens, then it’s told again by Peter in the section I’m about to read – Peter’s telling early church leaders something amazing that has happened to him, defending his decision to baptize Gentiles. Listen for a word from God…
(read Acts 11:1-18)
When I was in college, a friend invited me to worship at their Pentecostal church and, out of curiosity and a little bit of FOMO I went, along with a couple of other friends from Model United Nations. The sanctuary was familiar, not unlike the one I’d grown up in – curved wooden pews and soft turquoise cushions, pretty windows and a pulpit. The content of the service I’ve long since forgotten. What has stayed with me is a moment about ¾ of the way through the service, when the entire congregation started speaking in tongues. Like the preacher flipped a switch, and people began to rise from their pews around me, hands in the air, alight with the Holy Spirit. Everyone, that is, but me, and another friend who came with us. We sat in a mixture of awe and incredulity, hearing the waves of prayer rise and fall around us as the ecstatic worshippers called out in a language no human ear could understand. After a few minutes, it faded away; people fell back to their seats, wiping sweat from their brows, and the room was quiet again.
It was a strange experience, one utterly unlike the orderly, predictable worship I’d grown up with. The Spirit fell, apparently, on everyone but me, raised by God’s frozen chosen, and my friend Jose. Looking back, the rational part of my brain wants to say – God doesn’t work like that. But this story from Acts makes me think twice. Who am I to say to limit the work of the Holy Spirit?
In Bible Study on Wednesday mornings, after checking in with each other and reading the text, we always begin by asking – what part of this story stands out to you? Without fail, there is a word or phrase that catches our ear or captures our eye. In the story Peter tells about his encounter with Cornelius, what was it for you? For me, a phrase flashes as if lit in neon lights – It comes after the Judean leaders criticize Peter for sharing the good news with Gentiles, and he tells the story of what happened that led him to baptize Cornelius. As he describes how he saw the Spirit poured out in front of him, how he felt inspired to share the waters of baptism so that Cornelius and his family stood dripping with grace in their living room, Peter asks: “Who am I that I could hinder God?” Who am I to limit God?
At this time, the early church was trying to decide who was in and who was out, forming its criteria for belonging. Who could be a Christian? What makes a person a follower of Christ? Did you have to be Jewish, and follow Jewish customs and law? Or could you be a pagan Greek, a Gentile? The disciples and Jesus’ first followers were all Jewish, and their communities were intentionally separate from the Roman world. But clearly, the Spirit had other plans – because the good news is meant to be shared with everyone!
Here’s how it happens: Peter has a vision that tells him to eat whatever he wants –a sheet falls from heaven filled with non-kosher foods – just as Cornelius is instructed by an angel to call for Peter and listen to him. When he arrives, Peter can tell something is up – Jews like him and Gentiles should not be speaking, much less chatting in each other’s living rooms – but Peter knows enough to realize that the vision of animals in a blanket means the Spirit is at work here. He tells Cornelius about Jesus, and when Cornelius begins praising God. And there, in the living room, Jews and Gentiles together, as he is preaching, Peter can see that Cornelius has received the gift of the Spirit, and so Peter baptizes him. Because who are we to limit God?
Richard Rohr has said, “God is always bigger than the boxes we make for God, so we shouldn’t waste too much time protecting the boxes.” In a conversation with Brene Brown recently, he said – God is infinite love! But we humans have a very hard time comprehending infinity – so instead of leaving space for the infinite mystery, we bring God to our level and anthropomorphize so that God loves like we do, which is conditionally – with threats and punishments. We mistake certainty for faith. But that’s not how God is!
There are a lot of people in our world who claim to know the mind of God. Who is blessed and who is not. Who is right and who is wrong. In Texas, in Florida, in Alabama, and elsewhere, the legislatures are seeking to prevent children who identify as trans from getting age-appropriate gender-affirming medical care, competing in sports, or even using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. But laws like this further dehumanize and harm people who are already made vulnerable by having to spend their lives challenging false binaries the world tries to divide us with. If we truly believe that each person is created in the image and likeness of God, and we are called to love one another… we will work for communities where all can flourish and safely live as the people God created them to be. We will find a different way.
In her book God Gets Everything God Wants Katie Hays tells the story of her congregation of spiritual refugees, the Galileo Church. They are a community of folks who thought they were done with church, who have created a place of love and belonging in which they worship, learn, and serve. She says when something happens they can’t explain in their community, when they stumble on a solution to a particularly vexing problem – and the solution redirects them in a way they never expected, or comes from a surprising place or person, they describe it as “something something … Holy Spirit.” She says, “…God has been inviting people into new understandings of God – where God is, what God does, who God loves – for as long as people have been telling stories about God, and … the Bible… invites us to look for God everywhere, recognize God wherever we can, even if we find God in places (people) that are guaranteed to disrupt what we already think we know for sure…” Like Peter sees the Spirit poured out on Cornelius, and realizes he’s gotta baptize him, right then and there in his living room.
Because who are we to limit God?
So today I wonder: what are the “something, something… Holy Spirit” moments here at Faith? In our own life and work and ministry? The way I felt when Dary and I came to meet the PNC and see the church and neighborhood here in North Baltimore certainly felt like something bigger than us was at work, something something… Holy Spirit. The way the little free library came to be here with the help of neighbors in Rodger’s Forge, and now the Story Walk with its many supporters who want to share a love of books with kids in this area was something, something… Holy Spirit. The way that Christa’s care and the leadership of the session were able to help our congregation heal after pastor Robin’s departure, and the way we came to more intentional ministry of welcome as wide and inclusive as God’s love out of that painful experience – that, too, was something, something Holy Spirit too, wasn’t it? And now, our vision of an urban forest instead of an expanse of concrete, the willing partnership of Blue Water Baltimore and interfaith partners for the Chesapeake to plant trees to help us and our neighbors breathe easier feels like the Spirit just blowing through this place. Something, something, Holy Spirit.
My prayer for us this week is that we will open our hearts and minds to the work of the Spirit in and among us. In our church, in our living rooms, in our learning and growing. That we will follow the leading of the spirit in our advocacy, in our outreach, in our service, as we plant trees and share books and live life together. And in all these things, we will act out of love: our love for one another, and our love for God. May it be so!
 Rohr, Richard, in conversation with Brene Brown on Unlocking Us, “On Spirituality, Certitude, and Infinite Love,” part 1 of 2, April 20, 2022, https://brenebrown.com/podcast/spirituality-certitude-and-infinite-love-part-1-of-2/#transcript. This paragraph and the following connection with dehumanizing legislation grew out of their conversation. I commend it to you!
 Hays, Katie, God Gets Everything God Wants, Eerdmans Publishing Co: Grand Rapids, MI, 2021, pp. 71-78
 Ibid. p. 78.