The Falling Spirit
Our passage begins in the middle of a story. The apostle Peter is giving a sermon and he is suddenly interrupted by an unexpected visitor. To help us understand some of what God is up to in this short passage, here’s some context (from Acts 11:5-18):
Peter had a visionary experience where a large sheet filled with four legged animals, wild beasts, reptiles and birds was lowered from heaven. All of these creatures were not “clean” according to Jewish law and Jews were forbidden to eat them. Yet he heard a voice saying, “Get up Peter; kill and eat!” Peter said to the messenger of God, “No way, Lord; unclean food has never touched my lips!” But the voice replied, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” At that moment three men from Caesarea arrived and the Spirit told Peter to go with them, even though they were Gentiles. So Peter and six of his fellow Jewish Jesus followers went with him, and they entered the home of Cornelius, the Roman Centurion.
Let’s pause here to remember who the Gentiles were. They were non-Jews and ritually unclean according to Jewish purity laws. They were considered outsiders, not part of God’s chosen people, as Jews understood themselves to be. The city of Caesarea, where Corneilus lived, was the Roman capital of Judea and therefore the very center of Gentile power, as scholar Jerusha Matssen Neal points out. So, as Neal says, Cornelius’ was not just a Gentile household but a “REALLY Gentile household.” No wonder the circumcised Jews were so surprised by Peter’s traveling with, and even staying with the Caesarean Gentiles. Now, back to our story.
While Peter was having his vision, Cornelius was having his own. He was told by an angel to send for a man named Peter, who was in Joppa, who would tell him and his whole household how to be saved and have new life. As Peter was sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with Cornelius’ household, he witnessed the Holy Spirit fall upon them. Astonished, Peter says to himself, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”
In their book entitled, “Compassion: A reflection on the Christian Life,” authors McNeill, Morrison and Nouwen describe the difference between Full Time and Clock Time. Clock time we all know, live, and experience daily, welcomed or not. It’s time lived by our calendars, to-do lists, watches, and alarm clocks. Clock time, the authors suggest, breeds impatience, “always makes us depart” and “prevents any compassionate being together.” With the sense of urgency that Clock Time instills, even when we are together, we may still be somewhat a part – either because we’re still thinking about where we just were, what’s left undone, or concerned about where we need to be next, and probably soon.
Full Time is so very different. It’s not driven by our clocks and watches. Rather, it’s “time lived from within….It is this Full Time about which scripture speaks, and in which all the great events of the Gospels” occur. The Apostle Paul writes about this from his own experience. In Galatians 4:4-6, Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent [the] Son…in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And [as God’s children], God has sent the Spirit of Jesus Xst into our hearts.”
In the fullness of time, Paul, on his way to Damascus to persecute the Jewish Christians, was knocked off his horse by the Spirit of Jesus, who interrupted Paul’s urgent Clock Time agenda of violent hatred. Jesus exploded into Paul’s heart and gave him new vision. Paul was transformed in that moment. He ceased seeking to destroy Christians and began a life of “compassionate togetherness,” leading many many others into the same.
Paul also writes in Ephesians 1:9-10: “With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of his will set forth in Christ, according to his good pleasure…, as a plan for the fullness of time, to [bring together and] gather up all things in Christ – things in heaven and things on earth.”
And here in our Acts passage, the fullness of time occurs right in the middle of Peter’s sermon. The Holy Spirit, as if watching the clock, grows weary as Peter preaches on and on. And though he’s preaching the Good News of the Risen Jesus, the Holy Spirit interrupts him, revealing – in the words of biblical scholar Rolf Jacobsen – “the consequence of Easter” – that the Spirit of Christ alive and active, all the time, falling all over upon the least expected people, in least expected ways, times, and places. The consequence of the Easter work of the Holy Spirit has consequences for God’s children, too.
While Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit falls upon the Gentiles gathered there and they become believers. Now filled with the Holy Spirit, they begin speaking in spiritual tongues and joyfully praising God! Peter and the other Jewish Christians are astonished. Up until that moment, the Jews saw Gentiles as unclean outsiders, which Jewish law demanded they stay far apart from.
But no one departed. On the contrary, the consequence of Easter on the lives of those experiencing that Full Time moment was “compassionate being together.”
We have plenty of examples today of people groups kept apart by belief systems, judgment, assumptions, fear, hatred. Right now, violence between Palestinians and Israelis is the worst it’s been in years. In the world’s religions, many are excluded or altogether shunned due to gender identity. In our nation, we are more honestly aware than ever of the effects of structural racism and white supremacy, and the division, hatred and violence against people of color they perpetuate. Walls have been and still wish to be built in places around the world, including on our southern border, to keep the “unclean” and the perceived dangerous ones out. The current political climate in the US leads to an inclusion/exclusion mentality, as we tend to keep company with those who think, believe and vote like us, often avoiding those who don’t.
Pause for a moment. What other examples can you think of, of people set apart due to nonacceptance, misunderstanding, differing beliefs and lifestyles, and fear? How about in your own life – your social circles, workplace, school, or family? Are there divisions? Are there closed off hearts and minds keeping you physically closed off from others?
In Acts 11, Peter concludes his explanation of how he came to stay with and eat with Gentiles for several days. Acts tells us that “Once the apostles and other believers heard this, they calmed down. They praised God and concluded, ‘So then God has enabled Gentiles to have repentance – to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.’” And so it spread throughout the world – the consequence of Easter: the Full Time work of the Holy Spirit, the renewing of minds and hearts, lives enriched, healing and wholeness experienced.
This consequence is for you, for me, for all of God’s children, all of creation. Take a quiet moment right now with God to consider how God may be touching you. Has the Holy Spirit fallen on you, opening you to something new, inviting you into a new relationship with God, with a person or persons who may not think like you, believe like you, look, eat, or live like you? How may God be calling you into compassionate togetherness, not only to offer hospitality, but to receive it as well – to enter into the home of someone with a very different life experience than you own, to experience their food, their aromas, their way of speaking, relating, praying? (Rolf Jacobson, Working Preacher). How have you witnessed, or experienced first hand, healing brought about by the Spirits’ falling on you?
Friends the fervent activity of the Holy Spirit continues, revealing more each day of the glorious consequence of Easter – the gathering up of all things in Christ, that all may be one, as Jesus prayed in John’s gospel. May we remain teachable, as Peter and his critical fellow Christ followers were. May we be interruptible, that the falling Spirit may get our attention, and lead us deeper into communion with one another and with God – our Mother, Redeemer, and Sustainer.