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Unbelievable Believers

Unbelievable Believers

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I have never been one to keep my mouth shut; which, admittedly, has not always served me well. Most people, when they walk into a new situation, have enough wisdom to get the lay of the land before they start spouting off.

Some people know how to read a room. But not me. For better or for worse, I’ve always been one to speak up if I feel strongly about something, which is why my first year at Smith College was such a complete and utter disaster.

Like most first year students, I spent my initial evening on campus in an orientation session, and a big part of that orientation was centered around diversity and tolerance. I don’t think they use words like “tolerance” anymore, but keep in mind this was back in the 1900’s before - like - smart phones and Hulu and electricity.

The Resident Assistant, who was leading the session, let us all know that she was a lesbian and she hoped everyone would be accepting of her and all the other queer and questioning people on campus. And let me tell you, my friends, I was ready.  Not to be accepting, unfortunately,  but certainly ready with a response.

Most of you know that I was raised in a pretty fundamentalist church, and I’d been warned that something like this might happen. In fact, the good people at Grace Conservative Baptist church had prepared and prayed over me - (ahem) - for such a time as this.

I was calm. I was not combative or the least bit defensive. I simply raised my hand and let everyone know that if we as a community were truly committed to tolerance, than we would have to make room for the fact that not everyone would agree that it was ok to be gay.

I didn’t say what I personally thought about the issue. I wasn’t stupid. But I didn’t have to.  The damage was done.  The mere fact that I’d said anything outed me as a conservative and no one in my dorm spoke to me or included me or even wanted to eat at the same table with me, for the rest of the semester.

(Cue world’s tiniest violin).

No one, that is, except for one person…my R.A.. Whenever I got to the end of the buffet line and scanned the room for any sign of welcome, she was the one who took pity on me. She’d wave me over, even if her table was full, and she always made room.

She didn’t turn her back on me because of what I was, but took the time to get to know me for who I was. She’d ask me about my day or my classes. She’d check in to see if I was getting enough sleep or if I was having trouble with a particular professor. She was kind and curious and caring, just like an R.A. should be. And over time, as she got to know me, I also got to know her.

I don’t know what I thought lesbians would be like up close and personal, but the more we connected the more I realized that she was just a really nice person who was hoping to go on to grad school at some point and do some good in the world…kind of like, um, me.

I don’t know that she set out to convert me, but strangely enough, she did. As a Christian I had one job when I arrived at Smith: to love people like Jesus. But she was the one who showed me what that kind of love looks like. At Smith, all of a sudden I was the outsider and she welcomed me in. I was the one no one wanted to talk to or eat with and she broke bread with me.

She could have treated me like an enemy but instead she risked loving me like a neighbor. She loved me first, and that love changed me. It changed everything I thought I knew about LGBTQ people. And with time, it changed everything I thought I knew about what it meant to be a Christian.

It took me a few more years of serious Bible study to reconcile my faith and my heart such that I could fully affirm queerness in all its glorious shapes and forms, but she was the one who set me on that path. The grace she extended began to change me from someone committed to believing in Jesus into someone more committed to loving like Jesus, and I am eternally grateful.

Her kindness was the most unexpected catalyst, which is why I immediately thought of her when I sat down with our reading for this week.

I didn’t know this before, but this tiny little vignette from the book of Acts is known as the “Gentile Pentecost,” and I’ll tell you right now, no one expected anything of the sort.

I mean, did you even know there was a Gentile Pentecost? I didn’t. I had always thought of the original Pentecost - that story from the beginning of Acts we read every year - as an equal opportunity affair, but apparently I was wrong.

Most of you know the story I’m referring to. You know that after Jesus’ ascension he told the disciples to remain in Jerusalem to wait for the Holy Spirit. You know that they went back to the upper room and when the holiday of Pentecost finally rolled around and Jews from all over the Mediterranean had gathered in Jerusalem to give thanks for the first fruits of the harvest, all of a sudden a sound like a rushing wind filled the house where they were staying.

Tongues of fire appeared over their heads. And the disciples poured out into the streets speaking in multiple languages such that everyone gathered could hear and understand them as they shared the story of Jesus. So far so good, right?

Well, what you might not know is that everyone involved in that first story of Pentecost was Jewish. Not Gentile. Jewish. Which makes sense because Pentecost was a Jewish holiday.  Sometimes people refer to the Pentecost story in Acts as the birthday of the church, but it’s really important to remember that there is no such thing as the church yet at this point in the story. Nor is anyone calling themselves a Christian.

Sure there were Parthians and Medes there, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,- but all of those people, no matter where they were from - were Jewish.

Judaism in the first century, like Judaism now, was a remarkably diverse faith, not just in terms of the countries where Jewish people lived, but also in terms of the political and theological perspectives Jewish people held. In first century Judaism there were Sadducees and Pharisees, Essenes and Zealots, Hellenists and Hebrews.

There was so much diversity, in fact, that it’s quite possible this new movement of the Holy Spirit could have remained within the bounds of Judaism had things gone a little bit differently. But it was not to be.

As Peter and the other disciples continued to preach and heal people, many of their fellow Jews began to join their cause. They started selling off their worldly goods and living in community with one another so they could devote themselves fully to living in the way of this resurrected rabbi called Jesus. In fact that’s what they called themselves, “The Way.”

And in some cases, the more they learned about the story of Jesus the more angry they became with the chief priests who had handed him over to be crucified. As the movement grew, so too did divisions within the Jewish community. As the number of believers increased, so too did the anxiety of some of the Jewish leaders.

They feared that they were losing the respect of their people. They didn’t want to see their synagogues split apart, and so they censured the disciples. But the more they tried to silence, control, or reign them in, the bigger the movement became. (Sound familiar?)

In response, they cracked down harder with arrests and floggings. By chapter 7, we’re reading about how one of the first deacons, a man named Stephen, was martyred; an event that ushered in a time of intense persecution. A devout Jew named Saul, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples” starts rounding up believers and throwing them in prison or worse. But for all the discord, it’s like the movement can’t be stopped.

The Spirit gets to Saul on a road outside of Damascus and all of a sudden he is going by the name Paul and now, even he wants to be an apostle. The disciples are afraid. They don’t know who to trust. The lines of authority are becoming skewed. The boundaries are blurring. Siblings are rising up against siblings. Parents are turning on their children.

It was all a mess of shifting loyalties and alliances, but what I want you to understand is that all of those families and loyalties and alliances… were Jewish.

So when I say nothing, I really mean nothing.

Nothing could have prepared the disciples for what came next.

On a road outside of Jerusalem, the apostle Philip feels compelled by the Holy Spirit to baptize an Ethiopian Eunuch who was curious about Judaism but not officially Jewish. And then Peter has a vision that leads him to the house of another Gentile who is as Gentile as a Gentile can be; a Roman Centurion by the name of Cornelius.

When Peter arrives he finds that Cornelius and his household are already waiting for him…waiting to hear whatever it is the Spirit wants him to say. And when Peter shares the good news with them - lo and behold, the Holy Spirit falls upon them too. We read that:

The circumcised believers (meaning the Jewish believers who had come with Peter, because again up until this point Jewish believers are the only kind of believers there are) the circumcised believers were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.

And there it is; the Gentile version of Pentecost. What had happened in Jerusalem is now happening in Caesarea of all places. What had happened amongst the Jews is now happening amongst the Gentiles of all people. No one can deny it. But that doesn’t mean anyone knows what to do about it until Peter says:

‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’

You might think the obvious answer was “no, of course not. By all means baptize away and pull some more chairs up to the table.” But that answer wasn’t obvious at all. In fact half of chapter 11 will be Peter defending his decision to baptize these Gentiles to the Jewish believers back home.

They are angry with Peter at first and then finally amazed by his testimony; amazed that God “has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

I guess you could say that the Spirit works in mysterious ways. I guess you could say that God speaks to us through the unlikeliest people. Peter thinks he’s been sent by the Spirit to teach Cornelius, but in truth, he learned as much about God on that fateful day as his host.

Cornelius taught Peter that God “shows no partiality,” when it comes to race or creed, “but that in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God” (Acts 10:34-35).

Cornelius opened his home to Peter. Peter stayed for several days, and in that time, Cornelius converted Peter as much as Peter converted him. A Gentile believer taught a Jewish one that the peace of Jesus is for all people because the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus, is for all people.

And friends, as I think about the implications of this story for us,  I know I don’t have to convince you that God shows no partiality. I don’t think I need to persuade you that God can work through the unlikeliest people or that God’s love and peace are for all of God’s children, for all time, no matter what.

But I also know that there are a whole host of Christians out there who would consider your faith suspect precisely because you do believe that.

I know, because I was once that kind of Christian too.

Which makes me realize that you, my friends, may very well be someone’s Gentile believer. You may very well be the person they can’t imagine the Spirit working through because they don’t think you’re really a believer at all. And maybe, according to their standards you’re not.

Maybe you’re not born again or evangelical or baptized or able to speak in tongues. Maybe you don’t believe all the same things or vote the “right” way.

But First Churches, you are filled with the Spirit - the Holy Spirit - and I hope you’ll let that be known. As I have watched you grow - especially this past year -

as I have listened to your stories, as I have watched our church come together to provide for the children of Haiti and the children of Northampton,

welcome refugees to our community and the unhoused into our church,

as I have watched us grow in number but also in spirit and in truth, I have prayed and cried and laughed with people who are Spirit filled and Spirit led.

You are people of “the way,” if ever there was one; a congregation who makes God’s love and justice real with every dollar you give, with every phone call you make, with every prayer you lift and song you sing, with every book you discuss together, ride you offer, and vigil you keep, and I hope you’ll let that show.

When the time comes to bear witness, I hope you’ll show those other believers, the way my R.A. showed me, that the Holy Spirit is alive and well within you. Not with words or debate - we never once argued - but with love and welcome and grace.

Because that is who you are. Your love is a catalyst. Your life is your witness. Your generosity and dedication to our church and all we do together, is your testimony.  You are living proof that the love of Jesus is good news for all people, for all time, no matter what; good news the world still aches to hear, good news even some Christians would be surprised by. Good news for all.

Thanks be to God. And thanks be to you. Amen.

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