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Acts 11:1-18
"When On the Boundary"

 A slight disclaimer: What follows is the basic text (minus the occasional digressions) of a sermon that I preached at Comox United Church, Comox, B.C. on May 15, 2022. It is not an essay. It is written to be spoken and in a manner that reflects my preaching style, which I suspect might be described as “informal.” Nor does it have the full assortment of citations, acknowledgements, and footnotes normally (and quite reasonably) expected in a more formal work. Please forgive the grammatical peculiarities!


Phil Spencer 


"When On the Boundary"

 It became clear to me a long time ago that the work of the Holy Spirit is often a bit messier than I’d prefer. The Spirit rarely moves in ways I’d predict, and the directions are sometimes ones I don’t even necessarily approve of. I really should be consulted first! To make matters even worse, the Spirit has an alarming habit of bringing about change—change in the Church, change in me—and that’s frequently uncomfortable. Or, put another way: when it seems that I’ve figured out what’s clean, what’s pure, just what the limits of behaviour are, the boundaries concerning who’s included and who’s not, when I pay attention, I can sometimes hear the whisper, “Are you really sure about that?” To state the obvious, a Church without the Spirit is as dead as Marley’s ghost, so perhaps the hopeful question for us is always to be: “What’s the disruptive Holy Spirit of God doing with us today?” And when the water gets choppy—and it’ll always get so in a Spirit-led church community—what are we to do? How are we to be?  

At first gloss, the issues of dietary laws and circumcision and the Sabbath seem a little past-their-sell-by-date. This concern about “what’s in and what’s out,” what’s clean and what’s unclean, those things seem to be a million miles away from us sophisticated new age people, except they’re not really, are they? Try coordinating a dinner for a large group of people and you’ll quickly see how fast we get divided by diet. Hence we had non-dairy ice-cream from my son’s spouse last Saturday night! Diet’s a big deal to lots of people—omnivores are getting a bit thin on the ground—and judgments have been known to be made on what you eat or don’t eat! So, while the players and issues have changed, we live in a time and place where “what’s in and what’s out” are still subjects of debate. I present to you social media, in all its outraged glory at … well … something! But even in theologically “generous” denominations and churches like our own, where there’s usually a bit of leeway for differences in understanding there are some things that are “in” and some things that are “out,” there are some boundaries that exist and some lines that aren’t to be crossed. Furthermore, the paradox is that we’re not very tolerant of intolerance and things can become rather muddled as a result of that tension! But mostly, we welcome a pretty broad group here. "All are Welcome” is a claim we make at Comox United, though it should be noted that we’re also part of a denomination that has statements of faith that suggest some matters of concern are in, and some are not. We make those statements because we also know that “Christian” is defined more carefully than being a person aware that they’re on a spiritual journey and trying to be good human. While I do believe that all human beings are all on a spiritual journey and that there are some universal virtues to be embraced, Christianity is more specific than that. The “Jesus-is-more-than-a-great-moral-teacher” component does complicate things.  

Yes, inclusivity—wanting to draw a wider circle—is baked into our faith, but then again, a circle without a centre-point and a boundary isn’t a circle, it’s an empty space and our faith is by no means an empty space. And so, along with reason, tradition, and experience, we look to Scripture for guidance—acknowledging that it has some authority over us—and we attempt to live faithfully into that Scriptural story, a story that we occasionally distill into a more concise and memorable form, like A-not-so-New- Creed we just said together—now 54 years old. This reminds us that the Church is bigger than those who just happen to be alive at present, reminds us of whose we are, and what we believe to be true, reminds us of what it is we hold to be within the circle. But then there’s also the Holy Spirit that’s regularly checking us, pushing us, demanding we take another look at what we thought were the edges, the limits. Why? Because it’s usually at the boundaries that Christ seems to be especially active, doing powerful work. Want to know what God’s up to? A reliable rule is to check the edges of the church life to find out. We live within this dynamic process within a constantly shifting and changing world keeping an eye on where the centre might be, and what might be the boundaries and from what I can see and have experienced, that can make things messy.

 Simon Peter knew where the boundaries were. He was a faithful Jew—probably to his final breath—and the Jewish faith had been defined by having some clarity about boundaries, about what and who was “in,” and what and who was “out.” The Hebrew Scriptures reveal a God who had moved to create a “light to the nations” through the Jewish people by giving them a particular identity and requiring the observance of some boundaries. They weren’t to be like everyone else and so some things were “in,” and some things were “out.” That was how they survived in a world that was constantly moving to subvert them, how they pushed back against the pressure to evolve those strict laws into “guidelines,” to quote the now out-of-bounds Captain Jack Sparrow. When they succumbed to that pressure—and, oh they did—things would go south. They’d end up worshipping Baal, sacrificing their children, neglecting the poor—really, really bad stuff. So, keeping on the task that God had chosen them to be about, through the observation of the Law, in the keeping a kosher home, in the maintenance of the Sabbath, these things reminded them of whose they were. They’d had some spectacular failures—the exile to Babylon and the destruction of the first Temple being the most painful example of where that failure led—but after the return from exile there was a strengthened commitment to “getting it right,” of minding those boundaries, hence the popularity of the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. They weren’t going to make those same mistakes again. Of course, Peter knew the boundaries. That’s why the dream he had that’s described in Acts chapter 10 and retold in today’s reading, his encounter with some Gentiles, some non-Jews, that led to their receiving of the Christian faith, the validity of that evident in their own receipt of the Holy Spirit, just like Peter and the other disciples had, that experience shook Peter to his very foundations. Remember that Peter—as best as we can tell, like the other Christians of the time—understood that this faith was simply the maturing of the Jewish faith, the natural next step, a recognition of the long-awaited arrival of the Messiah. Logically to them, to be a follower of Jesus required one to be a Jew, which meant following the dietary laws, and observing the Sabbath, and more. Yet, here were these Gentiles hearing the good news of Jesus and being filled with the Holy Spirit! This was completely unexpected, but this presence of the Spirit did worryingly suggest God’s approval, because how else could they be filled with the Holy Spirit of God? So, Peter baptized them. Baptism, the official rite of initiation into the Church, showed Peter was—on behalf of the Church—was indicating, “All are Welcome,” all because of the uncomfortable, but undeniable movement of the Holy Spirit. 

As we heard in our passage today, Peter was called on the carpet to explain himself when he got back to Jerusalem. Members of what were referred to as the “circumcision party” (and forgive me for saying this but that doesn’t sound like a party to me, though your mileage may vary) those who were really, really committed to maintaining all the traditional elements of the Law in this fledgling Jewish Christian Church, they called him to explain his actions, for his baptism of non-Jewish believers. You heard him go over his story one more time for them, even adding some details not covered in Luke’s first telling in Acts chapter 10 but the vital evidence was the Holy Spirit, of the way the Spirit was revealed to be fully present in these Gentile believers. One of those new details was how he remembered the word of Jesus, how he’d said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If God gave them the same Holy Spirit— and here’s the show-stopping line: “… who was I that I could hinder God?” Ironically, if we were to read ahead a few chapters, Peter actually gives into some pressure by the “you’ve-got-to-keep-all-of-the-laws-of-Moses” folks, and will backtrack on this decision, that is, until the Apostle Paul convinces him and them otherwise. But for the moment he’s convinced. It’s the presence and evidence of the Holy Spirit that seals it. The circumcision party on this day just sat there in silence for a while, and then in my mind anyway, someone laughs and there’s some shaking of heads, and then they began to praise God. “Hallelujahs” abound! The next thing you know someone says, “I guess it’s finally happened! God’s finally bringing in the other nations—repentance is leading even them to life!” All of which makes me wonder for the umpteenth time: do any one of us really know where the Holy Spirit’s blowing, where it’s going to lead us next?

 This congregation is in the midst of a change, but for some truth in advertising, show me a congregation in this town, in our country that isn’t, because every church is in the midst of change, and it’s ever been thus. I think the difference for us right now is that we know it, simply because we’re in in the midst of some change in pastoral leadership. Yes, the report that we’ll be discussing after the service is one that we trust is being led by the Holy Spirit, but we’re also under no illusions that while it’s our best effort of discerning the Spirit, do any of us doubt that there won’t be some surprises along the way? That the Spirit will, in his or her own way, emphasize some things that we might not expect? That the plan forward isn’t so much a blueprint, but more of a faithful declaration of direction of where we think the Spirit’s leading us? It’s pretty much a sure thing that along the way there’ll be some twists and turns we didn’t expect. Changes, surprises, the unforeseen … these are things that can make us a little nervous, can unsettle, can make us uncomfortable. 

 As I look at what seem to be healthy and faithful churches who find themselves in times of change and surprise and facing the unexpected it seems to me a couple of things happen. Those churches and those disciples (and by the way, as daunting as it is, I suspect that “disciples” is a more helpful word for us than “members.” Yes, we are “members” of the body, but the activity of those “members” is “following,” which is the very point of discipleship. If Jesus said “Sign this membership card here” it wasn’t recorded … but do I know he said, “Follow me” a lot) in times of change will find themselves examining the boundaries by the Spirit, will be drawn to uncomfortable places, will be called to consider some new things, will find themselves associating with—in many ways, “dining with”—some surprising ideas, even surprising people, people on the edges. It might even look like some rules are being broken. But who are they to hinder God? 

 Here’s what makes them healthy: their direction, where they’re facing, who they’re looking towards. I know that you’ve talked about the nature of the Trinity lots of times before I set foot in the place, and you’ll surely need to keep coming back to the internal workings of the Godhead in the years to come. One of the key characteristics of the Trinity is how they defer to one another, how they love one another, always pointing to the other in delight. The term the pros use is that juicy Greek word, perichoresis—and do try and use it this week!) perichoresis, literally a “going around,” what’s been described as the eternal dance within the Godhead. The Scriptures are filled with references to this relationship—and I’ll use traditional Trinitarian language here in that I’m quoting Scripture—in Mark 9:7 God points to the Son, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him! …the Son pointing to God in John 14:11, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” and just 5 verses later, the Son pointing to the Spirit, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate [the Spirit!], to be with you forever.”1 The Spirit? The Holy Spirit inevitably draws attention to Christ, and the first person of the Trinity, God our Creator. Healthy Churches will—in those uncomfortable times and places out on the boundaries of church life, in changing and adapting to new circumstances, in expanding to find ways to include unexpected people—those healthy churches have their eyes firmly fixed on the centre, on the person of Jesus Christ, the one we dare to call Lord. 

 In verse 16 of our reading today Peter said, “Then I remembered the word of the Lord, the word of Jesus …” Do you see what he did? He turned toward Jesus while out there at the boundary. And so, my prayer for this congregation, particularly in this time of change is simply this: let’s agree keep our eyes on the centre. And the centre will take care of the boundaries. Amen? 

1.  John 14:16