Texts: John 15:9-17; Acts 10:44-48
It was an improbable scene. The extended family and close friends of Cornelius had gathered in the courtyard of his large house. This was in Caesarea, a port city along the Mediterranean coast. They were there to listen to a speaker that Cornelius had invited from Joppa, a town further south on that same coast. When the speaker arrived, the second thing he said was, “You know it’s illegal for me to be here.”
The illegality was not based on the law of the empire, but on the local and ethnic law of the visitor’s own community. He would not have come, he said, for he respected the law, except that he had had a vision. Cornelius responded by saying that he had had a vision as well. In his vision he had been told explicitly and precisely to send for a man named Peter who was staying with a tanner in a house by the sea. And so, he said to Peter, you have been kind enough to come and we are gathered here, now tell us what God has given you to say.
Peter began with a confession. He said, “[Now] I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Peter was referring to Cornelius and his household. Because Cornelius, like most of us, was not Jewish. He was one of those, like us, grafted onto the tree of God’s ambassador people. The life that Cornelius led gave evidence of this. He had a deep reverence for God. He gave alms. He prayed regularly.
Cornelius was not a member of God’s people by birth, but by the calling of God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit is often at work in people and places we would not expect. How God’s Spirit works is mysterious, but the fruit of that work is unmistakable. It is growth in love, as John’s gospel makes clear. But also, as we read in Galatians, it is evident in joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5).
It took a dramatic vision for Peter to believe it was possible. But with that vision, corroborated by the devotion of Cornelius, Peter understood that God shows no partiality. It is an anti-racist moment. It was a spiritual conversion. And so Peter went on to tell Cornelius and his household the story of Jesus. He ended by saying, “the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Everyone! Everyone in their individuality and their cultural heritage. Everyone!
While Peter was speaking, the presence of God became so thick that it was as though the Divine Spirit had fallen like blanket. Peter, along with the Jewish followers of Jesus who had traveled with him, was astounded! The presence of God, which they associated with the temple and the tabernacle—their temple and their tabernacle, the spaces their ancestors had built and funded—the Spirit of those sacred spaces was now clearly in the home of a gentile army officer. He may have prayed and given alms, but Cornelius was still a colonizer. He was an occupier, both wealthy and privileged. But the Spirit of God fell like a blanket.
The friends and family of Cornelius began to praise God. They began speaking in foreign tongues. In those early days that was considered a sure sign of divine blessing. What surprised Peter and his traveling companions was not that these outsiders knew of God. They would not have been entirely surprised that Cornelius practiced a spirituality they recognized. And I doubt they were entirely surprised that Cornelius had been addressed by an angel of God. All of that had happened before.
What surprised or, as out text says, “astounded” Peter and his companions was that God’s Spirit had shown up so evidently to a group of people who had not fully embraced a Jewish way of life. The Companion promised by the rabbi Jesus had shown up on the other side of the lines.
Yes, Cornelius and his household believed in God and practiced their faith, but the men were not circumcised. They had not embraced the ethnic depth practice of God’s ambassador people. God’s Spirit was indicating that they didn’t need to. It was, in a sense that is strange to us, illegally inclusive. Illegally inclusive—you don’t have to think about that for long to see both wonderful possibilities of liberation and the troubling potential for blessing just about anything.
This is a challenge that the spiritual tradition of this congregation, Anabaptism, has carried since the 16th century.* Others have too. It’s not unique to Anabaptism. However, some early Anabaptists, saying that they were guided by God’s Spirit, claimed new revelations. On this basis some joined violent guerrilla armies. Some practiced public nudity. Some believed God had called them to use arson as divine judgment upon the rich.
And so, quite reasonably, many our spiritual ancestors became skeptical of the Spirit’s work. They emphasized the Bible and the person of Jesus and steered clear of the person of the Spirit. Many of the individuals or communities that did look more purposefully for the work of God’s Spirit ended up leaving or being pushed away. Sometimes that pushing away happened in the moment and sometimes in retrospect.
One interesting, and very early example, is that of Margaret Hottinger. She came from a village near Zurich and was one of the first Anabaptists baptized there. As a woman, and as a peasant without formal theological training, she was not an obvious candidate for leadership or for public ministry. And yet we know her as the leader of a circle of women who exercised prophetic gifts, who called for reform, and who denounced the civil religion of their day. Hottinger’s views were illegal, and she was imprisoned for a time.
However, Margaret Hottinger was confident that the Spirit of God was leading and guiding her. Apparently many in her community agreed. She preached. She offered spiritual guidance. She became quite influential. Yet before long, Anabaptist communities restricted church leadership to men. Subsequent historians pushed women like Hottinger to the side, saying that they were spiritualists and not Anabaptists at all. Like Peter and his companions, our Anabaptist communities have struggled to accept the movement of God’s Spirit beyond the cultural lines we have drawn.
We can be sympathetic to our Anabaptist forbearers if we want: some of Margaret Hottinger’s friends did stuff that still wouldn’t pass the bonkers test. The illegally inclusive actions of the Spirit can be hard to gage.
Let’s return to the book of Acts. Peter was convinced that, even though it felt like coloring outside the lines, what he was seeing was clear evidence of God’s Spirit. He threw caution to the wind. He asked his traveling companions if there was any reason that the friends and family of Cornelius should not be welcomed into the community of Jesus’ followers. They were not circumcised. They had not embraced the ethnic practices of God’s ambassador people, yet the Spirit welcomed them anyway. This is where Easter had led them.
The book of Acts goes on to show that it was largely through outsiders like Cornelius that the church grew. We should not be critical of the Jewish community from which Peter and the others came. Even after Easter, even after the inclusion of the gentiles, the heritage of the Jews and their Hebrew ancestors remains the tree’s trunk. We must be unwaveringly thankful for our Jewish brothers and sisters.
At the same time, we know that it is the work of the Spirit that revitalizes and refreshes our own community. We would do well to pray for this—in our individual lives, in the life of our community of faith and in the life of the church as a whole. We need God’s Spirit. We need to be refreshed and revived. We need to be called into new things. After all, Peter thought he already knew his calling. Yet the Spirit called him into something new.
We’ll end with this: The calling of God’s Spirit is sometimes astounding, sometimes illegally inclusive. But it is always calling us further into the shape of Jesus Christ. The voice of God’s Spirit’s is recognizable. The summoning song will move us and redirect us, but it always harmonizes with love, and with joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things, there is no law.
*For more on Anabaptism and the Holy Spirit see the following:
Pitts, Jamie. “Historical Anabaptist-Mennonite Pneumatology: A Review of Confessional, Catechetical, and Devotional Materials, 1525-1963,” The Conrad Grebel Review 36,no. 1 (Winter 2018): 24-53, online at https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_36-1_pitts.pdf
Snyder, C. Arnold, and Linda A. Huebert Hecht. Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers. Waterloo ON, CA: CCSR, 2006.