A sermon preached at the First Baptist Church of Christ at Macon on Acts 11:1-8
On the Friday afternoon after Easter Sunday, I picked up my three-year-old daughter, Merrill, from daycare. As we rode home, Merrill asked about our plans for the weekend. Still high off of egg hunts and candy and other Easter festivities, she said with excitement, “Today is Friday, and tomorrow is Saturday, and then it’s Sunday! It’s Easter again!” And she clapped and cheered.
My first thought was, “Bless her heart, the little minister’s kid. She just can’t help it.” And then my second thought was, “You know, she’s right.” And so I answered her, “Yes, Merrill, Sunday is Easter all over again.”
Her instinct was right. Easter is not just that one celebratory Sunday in the church year, when we all deck out in our finest and gather with our family and friends and proclaim “Hallelujah! Christ is Risen!” As people of the resurrection, we celebrate Easter every Sunday.
In our worship these last weeks since Easter Sunday, we have been exploring ways to live out that conviction. How might we “practice resurrection” so that our lives become a testament to what happened on Easter? We have looked to those in scripture who can teach us best – those disciples and first followers of Jesus whose lives were literally changed on that morning that the tomb was found empty.
These last couple of weeks in particular, the early Christians whose stories are told in the book of Acts have guided us. They were forging a new community.
What did Easter mean for them?
How would it shape them as a people?
What was the essential belief and practice for followers of Jesus?
What about their traditions and customs?
What did it mean to practice resurrection?
Here we find Peter in our scripture reading today. Peter returns to the church at Jerusalem, fresh off of a life-altering experience. And it landed him right square in the middle of controversy. It was the church’s hot button issue – just how far should this new Christian faith reach? To be a Christian, would one have to be a Jew first?
The dilemma Peter brought to the table was not just about the table – what was on it or who was seated around it. In a period when the church was facing one of its greatest crises of identity, they were trying to come to terms with what it meant to be the faithful people of God in the world.
Now, close your eyes and imagine with me for a moment. What is the one thing that for you that draws the line between Christians and other people? What is it that makes us who we are, that we cannot let go without giving up our whole identity as people of God? Have you figured it out? Now, get ready to give it up. That is what Peter did. The Spirit of God came to him and changed everything he had ever believed about who he was and how he was supposed to live. There, in his wildest dream, God’s Spirit showed Peter a new possibility. He found out that God was doing things bigger than he had ever imagined.
That’s how the Spirit works, you know. It’s all through the book of Acts, blowing and changing things in every direction. Seems like every time the wind blows, there it is, stirring up notions that are inconceivable.
Barbara Brown Taylor calls the book of Acts “the Gospel of the Holy Spirit.” “In the first four books of the New Testament, we learn the good news of what God did through Jesus Christ. In the book of Acts, we learn the good news of what God did through the Holy Spirit.”
We usually symbolize the Holy Spirit with a dove. We see it right here in our sanctuary windows, where Jesus is baptized, and back in the narthex over the door. The dove represents how God’s spirit comes to us, bringing peace and tranquility. We also talk about the Spirit as a Comforter, language which led one of the children in our discipleship class a few weeks ago to picture herself wrapping up in the comforter that covers her bed. She talked about how God’s Spirit surrounds her to warm her and protect her.
But the Celtic Christians have a different image for the Holy Spirit. It’s another bird, but it is just about the furthest thing from a dove. The Celts describe the Holy Spirit as a Wild Goose. Noisy and rowdy, untamable, unpredictable, free. A wild goose is always on the move, stirring things up and keep us on our toes.
It seems that the wild goose version of the Spirit is the one that showed up in Peter’s story, pecking him, prodding him, chasing him in a direction he did not want to go. The wild goose Spirit is not the part of God that wraps around us to protect us from harm. She is the part of God that pushes us beyond our comfort zones. She calls us to imagine possibilities that are beyond our scope.
The question for us is whether we still believe in a God who acts like that. Is our God old and tired, content with the way things are, someone to which we address our prayer requests but not anyone we really expect to change our lives? Or do we keep on our toes, just in case the Spirit of God decides to chase us like a wild goose into some new possibility we have not yet imagined?
Truth be told, some of us have gotten complacent about what God might do in our lives, if given the chance.
• A relationship has grown stale, and we just don’t see how to freshen it up.
• An old would has festered and the pain goes deep. We think it is beyond healing.
• Our work is no longer meaningful, and we simply go through the motions because paying the bills seems more necessary than finding fulfillment.
• We have waited and waited for God to break through in a situation or to answer a prayer, and we have grown weary of waiting for something to happen.
If there is any truth in the “Gospel of the Holy Spirit,” it is this: the wild goose is on the move. And she changes things through the stories and experiences of people. Take Peter: How did God choose to deliver this pivotal message that would alter the history of the church? A stone tablet? A miraculous natural occurrence? No! God’s Spirit chased down Peter and changed him. And through his story, God’s spirit burst through the boundaries of the church to extend salvation to the entire world.
God uses people to bring forth the gospel. Even people like you and me. This can be frightening, because it voids our excuses that we are not good enough, not gifted enough, not old enough, not whatever enough to get the job done. All that stuff doesn’t matter when the Spirit is on the loose.
What new possibilities might God be imagining in you? You may not be able to answer that question, because you have not dreamt it yet for yourself. But if you open yourself to practicing resurrection, and you look and listen for the Holy Spirit, you just might see some vision of where God is leading you to go next.
I have to admit, though, even more amazing to me than Peter’s openness to the vision God gave him was how the church leaders in Jerusalem responded.
Now, I will be the first to say that change is hard. Change in the church is particularly challenging. And changing a long-held, deeply-valued tradition, such as these Jewish Christians were asked to do, is downright nearly impossible.
But as Peter told his story, the wild goose got ahold of the church leaders as well. They could have said, “You are out of your mind.” Or “we’ve never done it that way before.” But they changed their minds because Peter’s story changed their hearts. The Spirit gave them the ability to listen and to imagine new possibilities.
As right and as necessary as some things have been in the past, time and history move on. Is it possible that one way of living the faith can be vital at one point in history but can actually be a hindrance to God’s movement at another point? Dare we change lest we abandon our identity and no longer know who we are?
Perhaps the hardest part of practicing resurrection is embracing the idea that in Christ, everything becomes new. “Behold, I am doing a new thing,” wrote the prophet Isaiah. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!,” wrote Paul. And Revelation tells that the one seated on the throne proclaims, “See, I am making all things new.”
The gospel of the Holy Spirit says that the status quo cannot and will not contain the Gospel. It means that no matter how well-conceived our ideas are or how deeply entrenched our practices have become, the Spirit of God may chase us into a new place. This does not mean that our traditions and past experiences are not valuable or should be thoughtlessly cast aside. But it does means that the Gospel does not exist for the sake of preserving tradition, even good and valid tradition. It exists for the sake of calling people into relationship with God in ways that might even be in spite of tradition.
So what new possibilities might God be imagining for our church? Where might God be calling us to go next? I don’t know, exactly, but the best I can imagine is that wherever the Spirit blows, she is shooing us outward. She is stretching our boundaries, redrawing the lines that we have set about who’s in and who’s out. She is calling us to ask hard questions about what we have always been and done, things that in the past may have given us identity, but might now have become barriers to carrying out our God-given mission. She is daring us to open up rather than cling tight, to resist the temptation to define what is clean and what is profane. Like Peter, who are we that we could hinder the movement of God in our midst?
When we practice resurrection we embrace the possibility that God can do a new thing in us. After all, God has not called us to try to say where the Spirit may or may not blow. God has asked us to try to keep up with wherever it goes.
So, put on your waders and prepare to get messy. Get ready, because we are not peering through binoculars observing the movement of a docile dove who safely flitters in and out of our view. We are going on a wild goose chase. She may lead us through muddy waters, or over rough terrain. We may have to run to keep up, and we might even bleed in the process. But in the end, if we are faithful to listen to the distinctive call, then she will take flight, and we will see where to go next. And it may just be somewhere beautiful over the horizon that we have never imagined before. Amen.
To hear the audio of this sermon, click here.