This week, in light of the season of Easter, we continue our ‘first lessons’ from the book of the Acts. Our text from Acts 10 is part of the larger narrative of Peter’s encounter with the centurion Cornelius and the conversion of Cornelius and his family to ‘the Way’ (i.e. Christianity). When Peter was in the midst of delivering his evangelistic sermon to Cornelius and company the Holy Spirit ceased the initiative and descended on all those who heard and believed. The aggressive nature of the Spirit’s outpouring left little doubt about God’s feeling toward gentiles who turned to Christ–there would be no prerequisites for their acceptance beyond their reception of the Spirit. Those circumcised Jews who were with Peter were astounded at the liberal acts of God’s Spirit–could it be that God is no respecter or persons?! Regardless of their astonishment, the fact of the Spirit’s outpouring remained. It was undeniable. Cornelius and his gentile family were speaking in tongues in the same way the original disciples had spoken in tongues on the day of Pentecost. In many ways the author of Acts present this as a second Pentecost–the gentile Pentecost.
Peter interpreted the events correctly. He rhetorically asked those present how the waters of baptism can be denied people who have already received the Spirit. Receiving no objection he ordered Cornelius and his family to be baptized.
The order of events is significant here. The Spirit descended on the gentile believers before their baptism. In other places in Acts baptism and the Spirit were received together, in yet other narratives the Spirit was not received until sometime after baptism. In ALL cases, however, there was a link between baptism and the reception of the Spirit. The two went hand in hand. The point of the jumbled order is that God is sovereign over the justification and the sanctification of an individual (or group of individuals). Therefore ‘salvation’ cannot be distilled into a simple pattern of steps that one takes in a ritualistic climb toward righteousness. This reluctance of ‘salvation’ to become a possession we control means that we can never determine ourselves the parameters and limits of God’s favor and grace. The Spirit goes where the Spirit goes. It will astonish us in the same way it astonished Peter’s companions. When faced with a bold move of the Spirit our options are to deny the facts (never a safe posture) or to reconfigure our own ideas about the Spirit’s presence and work in the world.
The call to praise God in Psalm 98 is powerful. Get out the instruments, says the psalmist. We need to hear the lyres, trumpets, and horns! Let the earth and its hills and the sea and its floods give praise to God! Why? Because as God’s favor and blessing are all inclusive so should be the praise of God.
The psalmist lauds God’s inclusive blessing and favor. God has “revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations [i.e. the gentiles]” and has done so while remembering “his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.” Therefore “all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God” and we can be sure that “he will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”
Psalm 98 is an appropriate response to the ‘first lesson’ in that as we welcome the gentile Cornelius into the new covenant we witness the victory of God extending to the nations and the very ends of the earth.
1 John 5:1-6
In somewhat circular reasoning John has already proclaimed that when we love God we love our brothers and sisters in the faith, now John doubles back on himself and runs the same track in the opposite direction declaring that when we love our brothers and sisters in the faith (i.e. the ‘children of God) we love God (John links the love of God with the keeping of God’s commandments, which in this passage is seen as love for others and proper christological belief).
It is important to remember that the johaninne community was in conflict with other Christian groups who were defining Jesus’ ‘sonship’ to God in different ways. Some suggested that Jesus only became God’s son at Jesus’ baptism (this is referred to as adoptionist christology). John’s community however had argued that the Christ was pre-existent and eternal (John 1:1). Perhaps this is why John is so adamant about how sonship came to Jesus in the latter part of this week’s lection. John writes, “This is the one [Jesus] who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.” It is likely that John is speaking of the claim of the adoptionists that the Son of God was adopted at Jesus’ baptism (i.e. the reference to water). John says that Jesus Christ actually came not only with water, but with water and blood. Although there are varying interpretations it is certainly plausible that water and blood is a reference to Jesus’ birth. John would be saying then that Jesus’ sonship did not originate at his baptism was present at his birth.
Our gospel lection is a continuation of the previous week’s lection about Jesus being the vine and his followers being the branches. In the aftermath of that analogy Jesus enters into a didactic lesson on loving one another. James Boyce at http://www.workingpreacher.org is helpful in pointing out the thematic switch and Jesus’ emphasis on love in vss. 9-17: “Though reference to love has been completely absent in verses 1 through 8, the repeated reference to it now (5 times as verb or noun in verse 9 alone; 11 times in the lesson as a whole) clearly gives love the center stage.”
Jesus says concerning love that what is true about Jesus is true about us. Jesus has kept the father’s commandments, and thus has abided in the father’s love. Therefore Jesus instructs his disciples to keep his commandments, and thus abide in his love. Jesus received joy by following the commands of God. Therefore Jesus instructs his disciples to experience this same joy in their own obedience. Jesus has loved the disciples. Therefore Jesus instructs the disciples to love each other as he has loved them. Jesus will lay down his life for his friends. Therefore Jesus instructs his disciples emulate him in love.
Finally Jesus reminds the disciples of their special relationship with him. Jesus tells them that they are not uninformed servants but initiated friends. Servants are not always aware of their master’s grand plans. Friends, however, have intimate knowledge of each other’s dreams and goals. The dreams and goals of Christ are a new community where service and love create righteous justice. It is in this new community that the disciples’s joy will be complete.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare you hearts and minds for worship consider the all-inclusive Spirit that pours itself out with reckless abandon and is completely out of our control. This is a great blessing from God, even if it makes us nervous. The challenge for us is to recognize the great diversity the Spirit calls forth and love that diversity with a love that is self sacrificial and servant minded. In doing so our joy will grow and worship will come forth from every corner of the earth and seas.