When Christ calls us to follow, when the Spirit fills us to serve as Christ, God is always on the move, leading us to unfamiliar and sometimes challenging places, but always so God’s love is known by all.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fifth Sunday of Easter, year C
Texts: Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Do you realize Jesus is usually on the move when he says “Follow me?”
Sometimes he stops for a moment, often for a meal. Whether it’s a large picnic on a Galilean slope or breakfast on the beach, sometimes Jesus sits still.
But then he’s on his way. “Follow me,” he says to Nathanael, and heads off. “Follow me,” he says to the brothers fishing, and he’s moving up the shore. “Follow me,” he says to Matthew at his tax booth, and Matthew has to move quickly not to lose him in the crowd.
Jesus’ ministry was one of movement, trying to get to as many people and as many places as he could. “Follow me” meant, keep up, we’re going.
And after Pentecost, the newborn Church realized following the Spirit was going to be the same.
Acts is the story of the Church trying to keep up with the Holy Spirit.
At first, they’re all gathered together, ten days after Jesus ascended. He did tell them to stay in the city until they received power from on high, but it was also pretty easy for them to stick together, inside.
Then came the Holy Spirit, with the sound of a roaring wind, pouring fire into their hearts, into their limbs, into their very voices, and they were on the move. Going outside and preaching to representatives of nearly every people on earth. Baptizing thousands, establishing a community of mutual love, preaching God’s raising of the Christ: the Spirit moved and the Church went along.
When Christ caught Paul on the Damascus road, in only a couple days he was sent out to witness. When the Christian community in Jerusalem grew large enough some people were missing out on food, the Spirit raised up deacons to organize Christ’s ministry of loving each other. When an Ethiopian eunuch struggled to understand Scripture on his journey, the Spirit literally carried Philip to where he was needed.
There’s no sitting around when God is out and about. If you’re called to follow, get ready to move.
But, as with Jesus, the Spirit usually leads the Church into challenging places.
Today Peter faces angry criticism in Jerusalem for eating and drinking with Gentiles while up north in Joppa. Peter moved outside the boundary of what is acceptable to those faithful to the God of Abraham, and his fellow Jewish Christian believers want an answer.
This particular movement of the Spirit is so important to Luke, he tells the story twice. In Acts 10, he narrates the story of the Roman centurion Cornelius, his vision sent by God that he should seek for Peter, and Peter’s vision of the lowered sheet of animals. And the most astonishing part: while Peter’s proclaiming to Cornelius and other Gentiles about Jesus’ teaching, death, and resurrection, the Holy Spirit pours out on them exactly as at Pentecost. These Gentiles start speaking in tongues and praising God, just as Peter and his companions had experienced.
Today we hear the same story in the next chapter, Peter’s telling of it. Luke wants his readers to clearly understand this sequence of events: God called to Gentiles, sent them to Peter, gave Peter a vision saying this was acceptable, and then, as Peter proclaimed Christ Jesus, God’s Spirit poured into them.
This is all God’s doing, Luke says. And Peter wisely recognizes it. “Who was I to hinder God?” he says. The Holy Spirit was already there. Of course I baptized them. Of course I ate with them.
That’s the problem with a moving God. You can’t control where God moves.
The Jerusalem believers comfortably sat in their city, proclaiming Jesus to Jewish people, rejoicing in the Spirit’s blessing of their ministry. Things were going well, nothing threatened their faith practices.
But that comfort is ending. Peter, the leader of the original twelve, has crossed a line, claiming to follow God. Paul, the persecutor turned apostle, has gone off to Asia Minor believing the Spirit has led him to embrace Gentiles into the body of Christ, without circumcision and food restrictions.
As long as the Spirit was going on familiar roads, following comforting rules, doing things that felt right, following was fun. But now this seems too far.
To their credit, in a few chapters they’ll have a conference in Jerusalem where they prayed to the Spirit and approved the mission to the Gentiles, with a few restrictions.
But it wasn’t up to them where God would make the body of Christ. It wasn’t their conference decision that moved the Gospel to the whole world. The Gospel was already there, already moving, carried by the Spirit to every corner of the earth. Remember: both Easter and Pentecost happened during major Jewish festivals, with Jerusalem full of international visitors. Twice, huge numbers of people went back to their faraway homes and told what they had seen God do in Jerusalem. The Spirit always meant for this. But now the Jerusalem believers realized the impact on their lives.
We could learn from their experience ourselves.
We hear Christ call “follow me” in our seats. We love to sit and talk about what that means, chat about the limits and challenges to following. Like the Jerusalem church, we assume we have control over God’s work as we gather in congregational meetings and in synods and in churchwide assemblies to decide the mission we will do.
But our only mission is to look up and see where the Spirit is already going, and either follow or quit. We often pick on Peter’s stumbling, but after Pentecost he followed only one path, the path where he saw the Spirit leading. Whether it’s in a trial, or in jail, or watching uncircumcised Gentiles aglow with the Spirit speaking in tongues, Peter has the wisdom to say, “I’m not getting in God’s way. I’ll go there, too.”
Our challenge is to see the new places, even the hard places, the Spirit is leading us.
Here at Mount Olive we can get a little full of ourselves. We think we’re loving, progressive, welcoming, and Christly, and sometimes we are. We all could make long lists of Christians we think haven’t heard Christ’s message to love and welcome all, Christians we wish didn’t call themselves that.
But we are not the epitome of what Jesus had in mind when he ascended into heaven. Whether it’s our latent racism we really don’t want to admit, or our participation in systems that crush and oppress, or our instinctive sexism that subtly affects how we look at women and men in general, and in leadership, even if we deny it, the Spirit is moving to places we’re often not ready to follow.
We need the Holy Spirit to awaken our vision to see these new paths and give us courage to follow. It’s too easy to be complacent, saying, “Things are going well, we see God everywhere, and what’s great is we don’t have to change anything hard about ourselves.” But that’s not how the Spirit works.
So please, pray about where God’s Spirit is leading you that you’re not ready to go. Jesus commands you to love as he loves, the only commandment that means anything to Jesus. That’s where the Spirit is leading you. Ask the Spirit to show you those whom you don’t love, so you can learn to love them, go where the Spirit already is, even if it’s challenging.
And together, let us pray, because the Spirit isn’t just calling individuals to follow.
We are called as a community by the Holy Spirit to go and love as Christ loves, to keep up with where the Spirit is blowing, to find those the Spirit has already blessed and rejoice with them. We can’t sit back thinking we’ve got this Christian community thing solved. Cornelius is looking to hear of Christ from us, there are outsiders, even some we don’t like, whom the Spirit needs us to love and proclaim Christ with our lives.
Peter shows us it’s not complicated, just keep your eyes and ears and heart open to where the Spirit is moving. But be ready for moving. Following means getting on the road and, well, following.
But following God’s Spirit means the Spirit is always with us on the road, giving courage and strength to go to these new places. We’re not alone, so all will be well. But it’s time to get moving and follow.
In the name of Jesus. Amen