by Rev. Joe Connolly
“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” — Acts 10:44.
As was mentioned earlier, yesterday we, this church, this community of faith, held the memorial service for Virginia Breed here in this space. Some of you knew Virginia, some of you did not.
She was a member here for 67 years, but health issues kept her from attending on Sunday mornings for at least the last 10 years. Virginia died just short of her 103rd birthday. She was born in 1912.
By any standard, that’s a long life. And that fact led me to give some thought to the length of our lives, our finite existence.
It also led me to thinking about what things were like 102 years ago, in 1912. So, before I get to how finite we are let me try to put that date, 1912, into some perspective since the length from that year to today spanned the life of one of our own parishioners. I think that exercise might help us understand the finite and how things do change.
In 1912 William Howard Taft was the President. The Titanic went to the bottom. Fenway Park opened. Both the Girl Scouts and the Sea Scouts were founded.
After being land simply owned by America, Alaska finally became a territory, a step on its eventual road to statehood. Large swaths of this country still did not have electric power. From the perspective of the law, women were mere property. Women could not yet vote.
This next fact not only sounds funny, the humor in it might help us put some history in perspective. It’s something I recently saw on line, on the web. The actress Betty White, now 93 years old, is literally older than sliced bread.
Betty White Was born in 1922. In 1928 Otto Frederick Rohwedder invented the machine used to slice commercially sold bread. Betty White may be older than sliced bread but anyone who is 88 or older is also older than sliced bread.
Well, let me step back a little and place things in perspective on an even bigger time scale. Are some things in American pretty old? Why, yes. Harvard University was founded before Isaac Newton worked on devising calculus.
While it was not published immediately, Method of Fluxions, Newton’s book on calculus, was written in 1671. Harvard was founded in 1636. Harvard is 35 years older than calculus.
Stepping back yet again, here’s another fact which places dates in perspective. Cleopatra lived closer to our era today than the building of the Great Pyramid. The Great Pyramid of Giza was completed around 2540 Before the Common Era.
Cleopatra was alive in the year 30 before the Common Era. You can do that math; it’s simple. Cleopatra lived about 2,040 years ago. The Great Pyramid of Giza was completed about 2,500 years before Cleopatra.
That’s not even close— Cleopatra lived nearly 500 years nearer to our time then to the completion of that pyramid. And by the way, historians believe the Great Pyramid was the tallest structure on the face of the earth for over 3,800 years— history, perspective. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in Luke/Acts in the section known as Acts: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” (Slight pause.)
I look at all those as fun facts and even facts which might help us sort things out put history, or at least known history, in perspective. And these facts lead me to yet another place. When I do wedding counseling this is a question I often ask: do you happen to the world or does the world happen to you?
Given the known history of the world, in all its length, given our own personal history, and the changes seen in just one lifetime, the answer should be obvious. Not only is our time, the present, quite finite. Seeing things on a larger scale places how finite things really are into a new perspective for us. And the lesson is or should be the world does happen to us.
I need to note, American theology— please notice how I said that— American theology— claims we happen to the world. But saying we happen to the world is akin to saying we are in control of everything. And we are not.
Both Christian theology and classical philosophy recognizes the obvious: the world happens to us. Further, we have a choice. We can either welcome the reality that the world happens to us and work with it. Or we can ignore that reality as if it did not exist— by the way, good luck with that: ignoring reality. More power to you.
All this brings me to today’s reading. Peter has an agenda. There’s no question about that. Peter’s agenda is to proclaim the Word.
Perhaps Peter thinks he is going to happen to the world. Or at least he thinks his preaching is about to happen to the gentiles to whom he preaches. He thinks he is in control.
But who, effectively, interrupts that proclamation? The Spirit of God. The Spirit of God breaks into history.
Please note: I am not saying the Spirit of God changes history. I am saying the Spirit of God breaks into history. (Slight pause.)
Week after week in the Season of Easter a reading from Acts is assigned. Why? Among many themes, one of the main ones is the Spirit of God gives new life: Easter— new life.
Indeed, in this story even the closest associates of Peter are astounded at the audacity and freshness of the work of the Spirit. You see, the mission to the Gentiles is outside their understanding, since they are all Jewish.
But the mission to the Gentiles is clearly a focus in the proclamation Peter offers. On top of that, the Spirit of God suddenly becomes manifest to and for these gentiles.
And this is clear: Peter is not happening to the world, which is probably what his friends believed at the start. The action of the Spirit is not Peter’s doing.
It’s also clear the associates of Peter and Peter see the message as their personal burden to spread. But this is not their personal burden. They may be participating in the message but the message spreads because of the Spirit.
Additionally, what has become really urgent is the message the Spirit wants all to hear, all including us. That message says the universal love of God is for everyone.
Put another way, the universal love of God does not include just those who Peter and friends thought should be included. And one more thing: Peter and the others also need to be aware, be sensitive to the fact that the Spirit does act, is acting. The Spirit of God is alive and real. Therefore, there is a requirement mace of them. That they trust the Spirit.
And here is yet one more way of looking at this. There’s a purpose behind God’s Spirit interrupting Peter. God’s Spirit interrupts Peter to empower the Apostle. And the Apostle, just by being there, becomes a witness through the Spirit to the salvation history God offers. There is one more thing I need you to notice there. There is a difference between mere history and salvation history. And it’s a difference we often fail to understand.
History, by definition, is confined to what has already happened, the past. The message of salvation is meant to be spread. Hence, it is not just about what has already happened. Salvation is an ongoing process. Salvation is about what God offers us, what God is doing with us, about what will happen.
And, indeed, this is where Christian theology speaks about us engaging the world, us happening to the world. This is where Christian theology starts to be about what we can do to affect our world, even when all around us the world feels like it’s happening to us and is, in fact, happening to us. (Slight pause.)
Theologian John Dominic Crossan says this: we are invited by the Spirit to participate in the Dominion of God. We are invited to do the work of God, now and in the days to come.
We are invited to do the work of justice in the world. This includes economic justice and social justice. We are invited to do the work of freedom in the world. This work opposes all kinds oppression from class oppression to oppression based on race or faith. We are invited to do God’s work.
In fact, all of this says, the message of salvation is not only about history or only about what has happened. However, the thing we need to be careful about is, if we don’t know what has happened, if we don’t know about God taking the Hebrews through the Sea of Reeds, if we don’t know about God bringing the Hebrews back from Babylon to Jerusalem, if we don’t know about the life, murder and resurrection of Jesus, it is in fact much harder to know what to do as we go forward because all of that will help us to be open to the Spirit. (Slight pause.)
Well, if there is a message for us in this reading it seems to me it’s a simple one. Just as Peter eventually did, we do need to trust that the Spirit will act and will act with us as we move through history. (Slight pause.)
Coming back to were I started: yes, we are finite. But that also means we need to assess the slice of history that is ours and strive to collaborate with the Spirit of God, trust that Spirit of God will lead us to do the work and the will of God.
And, perhaps occasionally, if we do that, what happened to Peter will happen to us. The Spirit will break into history, the Spirit will break into our history, as we strive to do the work and the will of God. And perhaps, occasionally, because of the work of the Spirit, we will be empowered to do things greater than we can imagine. Why? How? Well, yes— we are finite. But the Spirit of God— the Spirit of God is infinite. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “The known universe as I have said here before is 13.7 light billion light years across. That’s big. You know what? We don’t have to worry about that. We just have to be concerned with the current reality, what God calls us to do here, right now. The work of God’s justice, here, right now. Not our justice— God’s justice.”
BENEDICTION: May the Holy Spirit inspire our words, and God’s love in Christ empower our deeds, as, in Christ, we are no longer servants, but friends, learning to love as we have been loved. And may the peace of God which surpasses our understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge of God, the love of Jesus, the Christ, and the companionship of the Holy Spirit, this day and forevermore. Amen.