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May 17, 2009

The Tradition Comes Alive

It's mid-August on a Sunday afternoon in the year 1940. Inside a modest farm house a pious family is devoutly observing its Sabbath day's rest. They'd been to church earlier that day. After coming home, they dined on their pot roast and potatoes. Mom and Dad sipped coffee with their meal as they discussed the sermon of that morning. The two children stayed quiet as they moved their peas around their plates and chewed on the slightly dry roast.

But now it's mid-afternoon. Dad is reading a devotion book as Mom and the kids are resting in the living room, watching the dust drift lazily through the shafts of sunlight streaming through the picture window. Before long it will be time for Mom to re-comb the children's hair while Dad re-tightens the knot in his tie and they head out for the evening vesper service. It’s just another typical Sunday, a day of rest; a day lived differently than the other six days of the week, a day of not doing much at all in honor of the fourth commandment.

But then, suddenly and shockingly, inside the devotional book that Dad is reading, the words on the page begin to re-arrange themselves! Suddenly a message from God appears on the page, saying that there is a new Cary Grant movie playing at the cinema and the Spirit thinks this family should go take in the afternoon matinee that very Sabbath day!

Now just how do you suspect this family will react to this development? With shock and skepticism, of course. They would be scandalized and so resistive to this cinematic command.

Surely they would want to tell God's Spirit it had made a mistake. This is the kind of thing that Christian people simply did not do. The movies were frowned on every day of the week but on Sunday! Unheard of.

When you are a devout person who wants nothing more than to serve God, then there are few shocks to the system quite as great as spiritual shocks. Just ask the apostle Peter. He knows all about this kind of thing. Peter’s religious sensibilities were being knocked totally off course.

God was asking Peter to throw out all the dietary laws in scripture. To ignore what it said in the Bible. To ignore the teaching that he not associate with Gentiles. To disregard God’s own book, Peter is scandalized. He is confused. What could this all mean?

His brain is still spinning when there is a knock at the door. It's a delegation And they represent a Roman centurion named Cornelius. They are seeking Peter, and just as Peter is about to politely to tell them to go away, the Spirit of God whispers into Peter's ear, "I sent these fellows, so go with them now!"

Peter believed he had a religious duty to avoid Gentiles, or at least to turn them into Jews before having a lot to do with them. This was so deeply ingrained in Peter that when he enters Cornelius' house, the first thing out of his mouth was, "You all know that it's illegal for me, a Jew, to be consorting with the likes of you Gentile types, don't you? I'm only here because God ordered me to come! So what do you want?"

After Cornelius tells the story of his own vision, Peter proclaims the gospel to everyone there in that house. The Holy Spirit is poured out on these Gentiles. Peter cannot believe his eyes, but then again he cannot deny the reality of what is happening. And so he calls for some water so that he can baptize these folks as quickly as possible.

Peter and Cornelius are both very important in this story. They were both led by God to do things that were out of character, out of their tradition, out of the realm of possibility.

But the star of the show is the Holy Spirit, the one who can accomplish God’s purposes in spite of the boundaries constructed by humans, the one who makes great promises and keeps them. The Spirit - wild, unpredictable, and totally beyond human restraint.

So what happens when everything you have known suddenly changes? What happens when your deepest convictions about what is true and right no longer seem either true or right?

What happens when everything you have simply assumed about the way the world works is suddenly different?

I like what William Willimon says about the implications of Peter’s sermon: "If Jesus Christ is Lord, then the church has the adventurous task of penetrating new areas of his Lordship, expecting surprises and new implications of the gospel which cannot be explained on any other basis than our Lord has shown us something we could not have seen on our own.

Faith, when it comes down to it, is our often breathless attempt to keep up with the activity of God, to keep asking ourselves, ‘What is God doing, where on earth is God going now?’"

The God of surprises can surprise us still. God is still showing us things we may not have seen on our own. God is still extending a wider welcome than we would be inclined to give. We are still trying to penetrate the significance of the scriptural witness that Jesus Christ is indeed Lord of all.

It will take time for all of this really to sink into Peter's head and heart, but it will happen.

Acts 10 concludes with something that Peter could never in his wildest dreams have imagined when this story began. After baptizing Cornelius and his household, Peter is invited to stay, actually to live with these Gentiles for a few days: to sleep under their non-Jewish roof, to eat at their non-kosher table. But Peter did it. He stayed under the roof that he barely dared to enter in the first place.

The foundations of his world fell out from beneath him. The truth as he knew it was radically changed. His world would never be the same again. And what did he do? He passed on the faith to this new group of people. He shared his faith.

The primary purpose of the church is to pass the tradition of our faith from one generation to the next. In order to do that we must be open to the winds of the Spirit by which faith comes alive in each generation.

Winds that push us in new directions.

Winds that blow away the dust and reveal something new.

Winds that can frighten and freshen.

Winds that can terrify and teach.

Winds that cause havoc and winds that create hope.

Winds of the Spirit by which faith comes alive in each generation.




Resources: Calvin Theological Seminary Center for Preaching, Article on Acts 10 by Scott Hoezee.



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