Changing Course in Mid-Sentence | Acts 10:34-44 | Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013

Changing Course in Mid-Sentence  by: Rev. Rob Elder

Acts 10:34-44            Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013

Before I can really get underway with this sermon, I really need to say a word or two about the scripture passage for the day, especially on a day when we might have thought we would be hearing about tombs and frightened disciples and stones rolled away and Jesus’ missing body, and Mary standing, weeping asking the gardener in the cemetery where they had taken Jesus. Of course, there have been, and there will be, other Easters for the reading of those passages. Inasmuch as this is likely to be my last Easter in this pulpit with you, I thought I’d choose for today a lesson that concerns one of the outcomes of those first sightings of the resurrected Jesus, as the disciples began to make their way into the world with the word about his resurrection and all that it promised.
The very first disciple to move beyond the Jewish people with this new saving word about salvation through the risen Christ was Peter, who found himself drawn to a Roman centurion’s house, a man named Cornelius. He wasn’t sure why he was going but he felt called to go, and once there, he was welcomed and he began to preach to them. Then Luke tells us,
While Peter was still speaking,
the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.
I just love this verse from Acts. It was a moment in which everything about our faith was made new, and made available for the whole world. Any preacher who thinks he or she is in charge of worship, or in charge of much of anything in any ultimate kind of sense, is always taken aback by the Spirit that came storming in “While Peter was still speaking…” I imagine Peter, in mid-sentence, Peter who had delivered a 500 word sermon earlier in Acts about the living Christ, Peter was only getting warmed up here in this story from his visit to Cornelius’ house, Cornelius: the first non-Jew to be converted to Christianity. He didn’t even get to deliver any clever sermon illustrations. He had no more than started to speak, when WHAM! the Holy Spirit took over, and what could he do but step aside?
This kind of work of God, which interrupts us in mid-sentence, brings on the surprising news that is really new, not the tired old stuff of human invention. I once read a headline on the front page of our Presbytery’s newsletter that declared boldly, “Presbytery Approves Discovering God.” Now, where was the controversy in that decision? Was it a split vote? But when I read on, I discovered that the story had to do with an upcoming design for the Presbytery’s work, called “Discovering God’s Call.” Oh. Well, that’s not quite as funny. I am always in hopes that God’s surprising word will intervene in the mundane places in our lives with a sort of newness that interrupts us mid-sentence, especially if the sentence was about to say some bland and predictable thing about a God who is author of something completely unbland and non-predictable, like resurrection of the dead, something we don’t just see every day.
Late in the life and ministry of one of those folks who was sometimes called a “preachers’ preacher,” Pastor Edmund Steimle was working up a sermon on one of the scripture passages for Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. He read from Lamentations chapter 3, which declares: “God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” As he worked his way through the passage Dr. Steimle thought to himself, “At my age, this promise of newness every morning is at best a mixed blessing. I have come to the point in life when I really don’t want anythingnew in the morning. I want my slippers right beneath my bed where I left them the night before. I want my orange juice and bran flakes for breakfast, as normal. In my advanced years, I can do without a lot of newness, especially in the morning.”[1]
Maybe he would have sounded like an old crank to some of us, but to others of us, he declares the sort of thing we may have said just this morning. And, of course, Easter is the ultimate in total morning newness. How can we cope with it? We may think we have something to say about it, but just as we begin to speak, the Spirit may intervene with the kind of new thing that saves a day we thought could never be saved.
One fact of Easter that is inescapable is that God is forever demonstrating something new God has in mind, something that it is likely we did not expect. When it was created, did the earth expect dinosaurs, orangutans, poison oak, Boeing 737s, $5.00 cups of coffee at Starbucks or that there had once been water on its next-door neighbor planet? With God, as Roseanne Rosanadana used to say, it’s always something. We might like to be in our accustomed place, slippers on the floor next to the bed right where we left them. We Presbyterians like to have votes and debates about whether we should approve discovering God, if only God would stay put where we could get a bead on him. We might have preferred sameness, we like things to stay where we put them, we like to think we have the world under control, but things have a way of getting rearranged by a God who, at the very least, seems to have a unique sense of inventiveness if not humor.
Roman guards dozing beside Jesus’ tomb expected a dead body to stay where it had been deposited, and their slippers to be right where they left them the night before. Peter, who grew up in an orthodox household, expected non-Jews always to be where they belonged in his thought-world, on a lower rung in the kingdom of God than those who were children of Abraham. But then along comes this shake-it-up God, and BAM! Even a pagan Roman officer of the occupying army receives the very Spirit of God, along with everyone in his unclean, non-kosher household.
I imagine Peter, standing slack-jawed, mid-sentence, when, as the scripture said, he “was still speaking,” and “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” All. All as in every single person, Jew, Gentile, clean, unclean, tall, short, fat, skinny, the one who just passed the bar exam on her first try and the one who can’t pass a bar. God seemed to be making no distinction, showing no partiality as Peter had begun to understand when he started his little speech about Jesus, who was crucified and then rose from the dead to call forth disciples in his name.
Isn’t it just like God, when we have no sooner found our slippers and stocked up on orange juice and bran flakes, to pull the breakfast rug out from under us and declare anew thing? Here are two poems, both by a modern English poet, Steve Turner, who, as is generally the task of poets, takes us to a place where we may receive fresh views on seemingly tired subjects and make them new every morning. First, this take on Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ crucifixion:
The Nail Man[2]
by Steve Turner
Which one was it
that held the nails
and then hammered them
into place?
Did he hit them
out of anger,
or a simple
sense of duty?
Was it a job
that had to be done,
or a good day’s work
in the open air?
And when they
clawed past bone
and bit into wood,
was it like all the others,
or did history
shudder a little
beneath the head
of that hammer?
Was he still there,
packing away his tools,
when ‘It is finished’
was uttered to the throng,
or was he at home
washing his hands
and getting ready
for the night?
Will he be
among the forgiven
on that Day of Days,
his sin having been slain
by his own savage spike?
Secondly, Steve Turner’s take on Easter Day, the Day of resurrection:
Poem for Easter[3]
by Steve Turner
What came first
Easter or the egg?
Crucifixion or daffodils?
Three days in a tomb or four days
in Paris? (returning
Bank Holiday Monday).
When is a door
not a door?
When it is rolled away.
When is a body
not a body?
When it is risen.
Why was it the Saviour
rode on the cross?
To get us
to the other side.
Behold I stand.
Behold I stand and what?
Behold I stand at the door and
knock knock.
Can you even resist wanting to call out “Who’s there”? And the instant you say it, even in your mind, you know the answer: “Jesus.” Ever new, ever alive, ever willing to save the nail-driver who filled his body with pain as readily as saintly people who feed the poor in a soup kitchen. All. Christ will have all. God shows no partiality, that’s what Peter said he was beginning to realize. We can realize it too. It’s a good Easter Sunday realization.
The account of Peter’s visit to a Gentile soldier’s home in Caesarea is filled to the brim with newness, it has the newness of grace for all, fairly bursting from the page as we read it. Especially in this day as we see the resurgence of tribalism and clanism in places like Iraq and American politics, Peter’s very first words in Cornelius’ house are startling. An impartial God? I don’t know, I might like to find my slippers right where I left them.
Then again, I might like being found even more.

Copyright © 2013 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Quoted in “Growing Old and Wise on Easter,” by Tom Long, Journal for Preachers, Easter 2001, p. 33.
[3] 2002 rejesus ltd.

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