Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 10/9/2016
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on everyone who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. They heard them speaking in other languages and praising God. Peter asked, “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?” He directed that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited Peter to stay for several days. (Acts 10:44-48, CEB)
Today, I want to talk about the Holy Spirit, specifically receiving and obeying the Holy Spirit, and how that leads to transformation. We talk a lot about the Holy Spirit here in church, but I think we are woefully uninformed as to how the Holy Spirit actually works among us today, and how we can work with the Spirit.
So that’s exactly what we’re going to talk about today. But first, let’s get oriented. We are in the fifth and final week of our series called “A Missional Community.” With this series, we’ve been preparing for our 40th Annual Missions Conference, which starts THIS FRIDAY!!!
So we started by zooming out and taking a big-picture look at God’s mission. But now we’ve zoomed in, and we’re talking about what it looks like to be a community who follows God’s mission.
So in the Scripture passage that was read for you earlier, we can see a clue at what it looks like to be a community who follows the Holy Spirit into God’s mission. And we can especially see it if we hear the wider story of what was really going on there.
First thing we have to know to really get what I think this passage is saying to us is that the categories of cleanliness and uncleanliness were HUGE in first-century Judaism. For them, certain animals were clean, and others were unclean – meaning you couldn’t eat them. Jews were “clean,” meaning they were good, pure, and chosen by God. Gentiles, or non-Jews, on the other hand were “unclean,” so Jews didn’t associate with them.
Now, those categories of clean/unclean might seem a bit dated. But we understand this today – we just talk about it differently. For example, OSU is “clean,” and Michigan is “unclean.” Your political party is “clean,” and the other one is “unclean.” Maybe even USV is “clean,” and Ada is “unclean.” What I’m trying to say is, we still have these categories, just like the first-century Jewish world.
So in that world, Peter – one of the 12 disciples and a leader in the early church – was praying on the roof of a house. While he’s praying, he sees this vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven – a sheet full of unclean animals, animals that Jewish laws said Peter wasn’t allowed to eat. And a voice from heaven, that I take to be the Holy Spirit, tells Peter to kill and eat the animals. Peter, because he’s a good Jew, says “no” because they’re unclean animals, and his faith tells him to not eat them. But the voice – the Holy Spirit’s voice – says “never consider unclean what God has made pure.”
Immediately after that vision, messengers from a man named Cornelius arrive at this house. Cornelius, we are told, is a Roman centurion and a Gentile God-worshiper, which means he worships the God of the Jews, even though he is not a Jew himself, hasn’t been circumcised. These messengers from Cornelius are Gentiles as well, so Peter – as a good Jew – normally wouldn’t have associated with them. But then he remembers that vision he just had. The Holy Spirit starts working in him, and he starts thinking about that line – “never consider unclean what God has made pure.” Maybe these divisions between Jew and Gentile aren’t quite right. In any case, Peter is curious enough to catch this movement of the Spirit and follow them to Cornelius’ house.
So they arrive at Cornelius’ house the next day, and this is a BIG DEAL that Peter as a Jew was in the house of a Gentile – he wasn’t supposed to be there. But he is there, so Cornelius explains to him that he’d received a vision from God telling him to send for Peter and listen to what Peter has to say. Peter then tells Cornelius and all his friends about the vision that Peter had, and explains his revelation that no one is unclean, despite the Jewish laws of his day.
So Peter follows this up by preaching the Gospel message, about how Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and in Jesus’ name our sins can be forgiven.
So in doing all of this stuff, that must have been radical at the time, Peter was receiving and obeying the Holy Spirit. And the Scripture you heard earlier follows this and shows what happened as a result of Peter’s actions.
While Peter was still preaching, the Holy Spirit interrupted him, cut in right when he was probably getting to the good part, and fell on everyone, drenched them with the Spirit like a summer rain storm – EVEN THE UNCLEAN. The Holy Spirit falls even on those it wasn’t supposed to fall on. And they received the Holy Spirit just like the circumcised, clean believers had received it.
And they didn’t stop there at receiving the Spirit. Peter continued to follow the Spirit and baptized the people, the Gentiles, the unclean ones.
So what this story says to me is that receiving and obeying the Holy Spirit results, in a word, in transformation.
You see, it’s a dangerous thing to receive and obey the Holy Spirit. Your assumptions will be shattered, barriers will be broken down, you’ll be proved wrong when you thought you were right. Who you thought you were might not be who the Holy Spirit would have you be.
In a word, transformation. That’s what happens when you receive and obey the Holy Spirit.
And I want to camp out on that word – transformation. It’s a popular word to throw around in church circles, but I think so often we picture a cheapened version of Holy Spirit transformation
Did anyone watch the TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition when it was on? My family used to watch it all the time. It was the type of show that tugged on your heartstrings, you know? Each week, the show would feature a different family who has faced severe hardship. Often, they lived in poverty and were living in a VERY dilapidated, rundown house. And the show would send them on vacation somewhere, usually to Disneyworld, while the house was renovated, overhauled, and sometimes torn down and a completely new house built.
I remember a problem that my Dad had with this show that he would talk about sometimes. Sure, this family’s house was transformed, but did the TV show do anything about the family’s inability to pay the taxes or utilities on the rundown house they had before, let alone this HUGE new house? Usually, the show had one of the sponsors pay the family’s utility bills for a year, which was nice, but it all still seemed like a pretty shallow transformation, you know? I mean, sure, their house was all fixed and looked AWESOME, but the parents might still be unemployed or underemployed; their salary might not be enough to pay for all of the family’s needs, because many families had a lot of kids; the parents or kids might have health issues with significant medical bills. But the show usually didn’t do anything about those deeper issues.
The bottom line is that this show talked a lot about transformation, but in hindsight, it was pretty shallow transformation.
The reason I share that is because sometimes, I fear that that is the type of transformation we look for when we talk about the Holy Spirit. All of us want the Holy Spirit to make us feel good about each other, and feel all warm and fuzzy inside. And we might want the Holy Spirit to help us continue the work we’re already doing, to continue the status quo.
But I have a problem with that. That’s not the Holy Spirit I see in this passage or anywhere else in the Bible. In that story from today’s Scripture passage we just talked about, the Holy Spirit overturned a centuries-long tradition of separation between Jews and Gentiles. The Holy Spirit proved Peter wrong in how he was doing things. The Holy Spirit completely changed the direction of the Christian community. This was no shallow or small transformation. And it all happened because they received and obeyed the Holy Spirit.
You see, if we are to be a community who follows God’s mission, it is essential that we receive the Holy Spirit and obey the direction of the Spirit.
So the question that I lay before you today is this: Have we received the Holy Spirit? We talk about it a lot, but have we truly received this Spirit?
And if we’ve received it, are we obeying the Holy Spirit? Are we truly receptive to what the Spirit might be calling us to do, or what the Spirit might be calling us to change?
We talk a lot about the Holy Spirit around Missions Conference time, but are we truly following and obeying the prompting of the Holy Spirit? And by that, I mean are we looking for transformation?
If I say that I’ve received the Holy Spirit and that I’m obeying the Holy Spirit, but I consistently treat my neighbor like poop and say nasty things behind their back, I’m not being honest with myself. If I say that I’m following the Holy Spirit but I consistently lie, or I refuse to be generous with my money, or I don’t give a care for the poor, then I’m not following any Biblical conception of the Holy Spirit.
Now, that’s not to say that Holy Spirit will make you instantly perfect – radical transformation is usually very frustratingly gradual. But still – if you say you’ve received and that you obey the Holy Spirit, but you haven’t experienced transformation – in other words, if everything looks the same as it always has and you act the same as you always have – then you might want to investigate which Spirit you’re following, because it’s not the Holy One.
Receiving the Holy Spirit didn’t just happen back in Bible times. It looks different now because this is a whole different world from first-century Palestine. But receiving and obeying the Holy Spirit will still lead to radical transformation.
And this is essential if we are to follow God’s mission, if we are to participate in God’s work of bringing all the nations to Godself. If we are to be a light to the nations, if we are to be part of God’s mission, if we are to be used by the Holy Spirit to bring transformation to the world, then we must first learn to receive and obey the Holy Spirit.
How do we do that? That is the question before us now – how do we receive and obey the Holy Spirit and give ourselves to the transformation God is offering us?
I invite you to join me in making a simple prayer a part of your life this week. This prayer is just three words: Come, Holy Spirit. Could you say that with me a few times? (Online-only readers: I invite you to say that prayer on your own a few times) I invite to train yourself to say that, silently to yourself or out loud, throughout your day each day this week. When you wake up, when you’re in the shower, when you’re driving, when you pray before your family eats, when you’re cleaning your house, in between classes. I invite you to infuse your whole day with “Come, Holy Spirit.” This simple prayer brings awareness of the Holy Spirit to every part of your day. It makes you able to see where the Spirit might be working among you, or calling you forward. It makes you able to receive and obey the Holy Spirit, and open yourself up to transformation.
This I know: God is not done with Alger First. The Holy Spirit has work for us to do, new work. Jesus is still, at this moment, calling us as a church forward into discipleship and into a deeper relationship with him. But if we are content with only a shallow transformation; if we are content with doing only the same old things that we’ve always done and not upsetting the status quo, then we will miss out on all the life that God has for Alger First.
So, I invite you to pray that prayer with me this week. Come, Holy Spirit.