Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Jun 27: Acts 10:44-48 Gentiles Receive the Holy Spirit
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
Sometimes, doing the right thing is doing the exact opposite of what you’ve been taught to do your whole life. Ruth Coker Burks learned that. In 1984, she was 25 years old and visiting a friend, Bonnie, in the hospital. She would end up visiting the hospital often enough that she noticed a door with a red bag on it. According to one article I read, she’d seen the nurses draw straws to see who would go tend to the patient in that room. It was obvious that they didn’t want to go in there. Burks, who has said, “God put blinders on me so I didn’t see danger,” decided to slip into the room one day. She also isn’t sure if it was simply curiosity or the Holy Spirit leading her. Whatever it was, the visit to that room would change her life.
In 1984, there was still so much that wasn’t known about what they were calling, at the time, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, the virus we now call AIDS. When you pair a frightening new virus with the fact that many of the first people who got it were gay men and transgender women, conditions were ripe for fear-mongering and hateful treatment of those who grew sick, and harsh treatment of people who were in the most vulnerable communities. Many of the first people who got AIDS were already disowned by their families. In some cases, people died so quickly that the support networks they built of friends couldn’t always take care of them. So many ended up in hospitals, like the one Ruth was visiting in Arkansas, with no family visiting and minimal care from staff. The young man whom Ruth met in that room with the red plastic on the door was one of them. Despite her calls to them, his family refused to see him because he was gay and viewed his diagnosis as punishment from God. Ruth stayed with him through his last 13 hours when his mother would not. And, when they also wouldn’t claim his body, Ruth made arrangements for him, finding a funeral home 70 miles away that was willing to handle his remains, and burying his cremains in her family cemetery.
Ruth would eventually bury 43 more men in her cemetery and help hundreds in their last days. Word spread that she would support people who didn’t have anyone else and essentially function as a hospice provider. It wasn’t easy to be known as someone who helped people with AIDS. People, including members of her church, chose not to speak with her. Pharmacists wouldn’t touch her pen after she signed paperwork. People spread rumors about her, too. But, she never wavered, offering compassion and kindness to strangers while so many people though she was irresponsible and misguided by doing so. There were some members of her church who would slip her money to cover expenses. Grocery store employees would share good, but expired, food with her to pass along to her patients. Drag shows would be organized as fundraisers to cover funeral expenses and fund medical care. On her real estate salary, with a little help from others, she would do right by people with few advocates left in the world. When all the local pastors refused to help with the funerals, she and her little daughter would just preside themselves, knowing that God was with them and surely would bless their simple services.
Ruth Coker Burks heard the same messages as the members of her church and her neighbors in the community: This virus was scary and most of the people who got it probably deserved it. They were taught who was and wasn’t righteous and who did and didn’t deserve their concern. Thank goodness that Ruth Coker Burks knew that sometimes doing the right thing is doing the exact opposite of what you’ve been taught to do your whole life. She said, in an article written in February of 2020, “God calls us to love people. It is very easy to do the right thing; it might be harder to deal with the consequences of that decision, but it is always worth it.” Thank God Ruth Coker Burks listened to that Holy Spirit nudge that sent her into the room with the red plastic on the door.
I’m really glad Becky told us some of the story that comes before today’s reading. It reminds us that, since the very earliest days of the Christian movement, people who follow Jesus have had a hard time really living out the wide welcome the Gospel promised. The earliest arguments were about how Gentiles might follow Jesus. Remember, Jesus was Jewish. His first followers were Jewish. His mission was deeply rooted in Jewish law and prophecy. In the book of Acts, he is understood to be the Messiah as prophesied in Isaiah. As this story shows us, for Jesus’ earliest followers, it wasn’t always clear how non-Jewish people fit into God’s kindom.
When you are a group that has been colonized by multiple empires, empires that have destroyed your holy city, installed puppet kings, take your money and call it a “tax,” and have soldiers harass you at major religious festivals, the rules of your religious faith and symbols of your culture take on a special weight. They help you maintain a sense of community in the midst of empire that would be happy to destroy you. When you have to work so hard to maintain an identity in the face of the empire, it can be difficult to discern what rules are necessary to follow God and what rules can be relaxed in order to better follow God. The fact that the Holy Spirit directed Simon Peter to go spend time with a centurion, someone outside of his religious community and a literal agent of the empire that threatened their homeland, would have been a surprise, to say the least.
Simon Peter says to Cornelius that it would usually go against his religious traditions to spend time in a Gentile household, but, as Peter says, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So, when I was sent for, I came without objection.” Simon Peter teaches Cornelius and his whole household about Christ. And, something incredible happens. In what the scholar Jerusha Matson Neal, in her commentary on the text, says is known as “The Gentile Pentecost,” the Holy Spirit falls upon all who would hear, and this Gentile crowd, like the multi-ethnic Jewish crowd on Pentecost, begin to speak in tongues and speak of God’s goodness. And, Peter, echoing the Ethiopian eunuch, says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” The answer, thank God, is no. As Ms. Burks said, it is worth the risk to push past the boundaries that we have learned to love people like God asks us to. Peter says to baptize the Gentiles. And, they are.
The scholar Choi Hee An says that this story reminds us that, through the Holy Spirit, baptism builds the Body of Christ across boundaries we often think are impenetrable. She says, “Our individual cultures are not erased, but we and they become one, in the sense of living with one another in mutual respect and support... There are no more others.” This is the kind of marvelous thing God can do when we are willing to listen to the Holy Spirit, who calls us to visit centurion’s homes and young men’s hospital beds. God’s welcome is always wider than we can imagine. May we never withhold welcome to the ones whom Christ would invite right in.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Two articles about Ruth Coker Burks:
David Koon: https://www.out.com/positive-voices/2016/12/01/woman-who-cared-hundreds-abandoned-gay-men-dying-aids
Gary Hines: https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2020/feb/02/ruth-coker-burks-20200202/
Commentary on the text:
Jerusha Matson Neal: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-acts-1044-48
Choi Hee An, "Sixth Sunday of Easter," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
One Heart and Soul: Acts 4: 32-35
“The Resurrection is a relational event!” That’s what Dr. Mitzi Smith says in her commentary on this passage. The Resurrection is a relational event. What does she mean? Not even Jesus himself was resurrected by his own will. Just as he called disciples as co-workers in his ministry so he would not work alone, Jesus’ resurrection was not his own act. I won’t, in one sermon, try to untangle Christian ideas about God and the Trinity. I will say that God, the force that is in Jesus but also something other than Jesus, raised Jesus out of Death. And, in the same way that the disciples were co-workers with Christ before the resurrection, they became witnesses of the Resurrection after. And, Jesus, the resurrected Christ, gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit, that force that is within Jesus and is God but is also something else. And, the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ Spirit, God’s Spirit, is with the disciples, as they share the good news of the Resurrection as told in the book of Acts.
The Resurrection is not a solo activity. It is relational. The movement that became Christianity began in relationships. First, the relationships within God. Then, the relationships between God and humanity, Jesus and humanity. And, eventually, in the relationships among people who had witnessed the resurrection and the ones to whom they testified. This is why the Apostle Paul would eventually come to call Christ’s followers a body... not one of them could function alone. All the parts have to work together in the body. All of the followers of Jesus must work and preach and pray and eat together to become the Body of Christ. The Resurrection was born of relationships and the church is being born all the time through relationships. As Dr. Smith says in her commentary, the Resurrection shows that God can defeat that which is death-dealing. The disciples learned this good news through their relationship with Jesus. And, they would tell others what New Life was possible. And, they would show others that new life was possible by living a new kind of life, one where they shared all they had together.
Olive Elaine Hinnant, in her commentary on this passage, says that it’s important to pay attention a couple ways that Israelites organized community in order to understand just important it was for the early Jesus’ followers in Acts to live in communal care and ownership of all they had. First, Dr. Hinnant notes that embedded in Jewish scripture are two particular sets of stories that show God as a God of abundance and ample provision: first, the creation stories, where animals, land, and heavens are made in joy and then turned over to the stewardship of humanity, and second, the Exodus story, which ends in God leading the people to a land flowing with milk and honey. Foundational to Jewish ideas about the divine is this sense that God provides a great abundance for the flourishing of God’s people. If people tended to the abundance well, there was no poverty among them.
According to Dr. Hinnant, the trouble came when people came to live in a way that was out of balance, and took more than they needed. In order to make sure that all could live in God’s abundance, a system to redistribute that abundance became part of their shared tradition. This is the second community principal Dr. Hinnant thinks we should remember.
At the beginning of the book of Luke, the book to which Acts is a sequel, Jesus says that he is fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, who said that God would send someone who would, in part, let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is a reference to two practices ancient Israel developed, the sabbatical year and the jubilee. Dr. Hinnant says that these practices were used to maintain an equitable distribution of God’s abundance. Every seven years, during the sabbatical year, the land would be left fallow to regenerate and not be over-farmed, debts within the Hebrew community would be cancelled, and all slaves would be set free and paid for their work. The jubilee year, which was celebrated every 49 years, would include those three things and added the provision that every family would retake possession of their ancestral land. This means that no one wealthy family could keep amassing land that they would only pass along to other members of their family.
If the community was truly practicing the Jubilee years as was described in Leviticus 25:13-34, impoverished people would gain the opportunity to rebuild and wealthy people would not be allowed to hoard wealth. Dr. Hinnant claims that, by the time Jesus came along, declaring the time of Jubilee, his community had lost the regular practice of both sabbatical years and jubilee years, even as they occasionally left land fallow for regeneration. In the book of Luke, above all the other Gospels, Jesus expressed a particular concern for impoverished people. It makes sense, then, in Acts, as the disciples and new believers built a community of Christ, that the material situations of the believers would be tended to. Jesus proclaimed the Jubilee. The believers in Acts would show us a way to live it out.
My church history professor from seminary, Dr. Bill Leonard, wrote an article that he shared this week that reminded me of this passage from Acts and how truly hard it has been for the Christians who have followed those earliest believers in Christ to continue to live in Jubilee. The article is about current efforts to suppress voting rights and all of the shouting about critical race theory done by people who don’t actually understand what it is. In the article, Dr. Leonard shares a quote from 1643 by Roger Williams. Rev. Williams was a Puritan minister and early English colonizer, who, compared to many people in his ethnic and religious community, argued for a more fair and generous relationship the first peoples who lived on this continent. His ministry scandalized our Congregationalist ancestors enough that he was kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay colony. He would go on to found what would become the Rhode Island Colony and start the First Baptist Church in America in Providence.
In his work titled Key to the Language of America, Williams describes the hospitality he received when interacting with members of the Narraganset nation and other tribal communities. A note: He will use a term to describe indigenous people that is now widely named as racist. I still think it is worthwhile to share his entire quote as Dr. Leonard did. Here’s what he wrote:
They were hospitable to everybody, whomsoever cometh in when they are eating, they offer them to eat of what they have, though but little enough (is) prepared for themselves. If any provision of fish or flesh comes in, they presently give … to eat of what they have. … It is a strange truth that a man generally find more free entertainment and refreshing amongst these Barbarians than amongst the thousands that call themselves Christians.
Now, clearly, Rev. Williams had been targeted by his own community and expelled from the colony because he spoke truthfully and named the sinful ways they were treating the indigenous people of the land they were colonizing. He had been a target of Christians, even though he was a Christian. No wonder he would be so clear in his critique. As Dr. Leonard states in his article, “The people who claimed to bring Christ and the kingdom of God into a ‘heathen wilderness’ were actually shamed by the very ‘Barbarians’ they sought to conquer, convert and ultimately displace.” Unfortunately, Rev. Williams quote continues to feel timely, though it has been 378 years since he originally wrote it.
Yesterday (Saturday, June 12th) was the fifth anniversary of the massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Nearly everyone who was killed in that mass shooting was Black or Latinx. Nearly everyone who was killed was a member of the LGBTQ community. Part of the reason this particular mass shooting continues to hurt so deeply for so many members of these communities is that bars like Pulse often become sources of communal care and acceptance, especially for people who have been rejected by their families, many of whom are devoutly Christian. When the church has taken away your family, your ability to house and feed yourself, even your self-confidence and your creative imagination to see a loving, vital future ahead of you, historically, so many bars gave back what has been taken. When a bar, which has been a sanctuary, was attacked, people felt like all their safe spaces were unsafe again. Again, those who claim Christ continue to be shamed by the ones they seek to convert and displace.
Thank God that we have this example from the book of Acts that show us what following Christ can look like. “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul... there was not a needy person among them.” May all of our testimonies to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus exist alongside this kind of communal care. Scripture shows us that our testimonies are incomplete without it. Resurrection is relational. May we live a faith of Jubilee. May we act as like we know our God is Abundant.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mitzi Smith: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-acts-432-35
Olive Elaine Hinnant, "Second Sunday of Easter," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
Bill Leonard: https://baptistnews.com/article/critical-race-theory-voter-suppression-and-historical-negation-the-irony-of-it-all/?fbclid=IwAR1gGw8oL7yk-OuMlkdT4e2QvB07Pdjc9ClFfW3G3VR7wjR5kZE0ECiW4FA#.YMVjbKhKjHo
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.