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On the Road Again
May 11, 2015
We are in a time of transition at UPC and the future seems unsure. But what we are facing does not even begin to compare with the transition occurring in the early Church in these days following the resurrection of Jesus.
Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church today from the 10th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles:
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.
A close reading of Luke’s gospel and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles is a revelation of how much of the action takes place on the road. Luke always seems to have someone going from one place to another. There, on the road, the Spirit finds Jews and Gentiles, believers and non-believers, and their lives are never the same. For instance:
- One of the last sermons San preached from this pulpit was from the gospel of Luke, chapter 24. There, on Easter evening, we watch two of the disciples trudging along the road from Jerusalem to their home in Emmaus. They are despairing because they do not know that Jesus is alive. Jesus joins them on the road, but they do not recognize him until they arrive in Emmaus, sit down at table, and break bread.
- If we had read last Sunday’s lectionary from Acts, we would have heard the story of an Ethiopian court official who is on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, reading the Word of God. There, on the road, Philip joins him and guides his reading of the Word and then in an extraordinary moment in Christian history Philip baptizes a Gentile into the Jesus movement.
- The lectionary skips over chapter nine this year, but those of us who know the story of Acts will recall that the a man named Saul is on the road to Damascus to continue his mission of persecuting Christians when he is struck blind and encounters Jesus and discovers his true calling in life: to be a witness to the risen Lord “to the ends of the earth.”
- Then, in chapter ten, a Roman military official named Cornelius is in Caesarea and he sends two of his servants and one of his soldiers on the road to Joppa where Peter is praying on a rooftop. Like Philip, Peter is confronted with a moral crisis that will rival Philip’s moral crisis and lead to yet another extraordinary moment in Christian history when Cornelius and his entire family are baptized into the covenant community.
One way to read the Bible is to read it as a narrative of the people of God on the move, walking somewhere, On the Road Again. Willie would be so proud! God’s Spirit seems to be on the road, always on the move. And God’s Spirit cannot be contained because God’s Spirit is always on the move and almost always ahead of us on the road.
Today’s text from Acts follows immediately after the story of the conversion of both Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius is the “outsider’s outsider” if there ever was one. He is a hated Roman, an occupier of Jerusalem, and a Gentile. This is the one Peter baptizes along with his entire family. Peter, on the other hand, is the “insider’s insider” if there ever was one. He, too, is converted in his encounter with Cornelius: he is converted from believing that certain people deserved to be saved because they were born into the faith and adhered to the law of Moses and others would be condemned because they were not born into the faith and were outsiders, were unclean, were not chosen. Now Peter has been converted. The Holy Spirit “falls” on all who hear the Word of God. Peter is amazed, because as our text says: “the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” Even on the Gentiles! Rarely has the word “even” changed the course of history, changed the course of our history, so dramatically.
If there is one consistent theme that runs through the Acts of the Apostles, it is this: God’s Spirit is always out in front of the Church. God’s Spirit is already there when we arrive. God’s Spirit is always challenging those of us who consider ourselves insiders to look at our deeply held convictions and ask ourselves if they are of God or if they are simply our own construction. It is then when God puts someone on the road again and confronts them with a moral crisis, much as God did with Philip and much as God did with Paul and much as God did with Peter. How often is it that the ones who need conversion are the believers!
When I agreed to serve you briefly as Acting Head of Staff, I did not realize that my first sermon would be on Mother’s Day. Which along with Christmas and Easter is one of the three most important liturgical days of the year! This text from the Acts of the Apostles seemed so inappropriate as an expression of the powerful influence our mothers have on our lives. Then I remembered a new statue Linda and I saw in the National Cathedral in our old hometown of Washington, D.C. a couple of years ago. The statue is of the Civil Rights pioneer, Rosa Parks.
Most of you will remember Rosa Parks as the quiet and dignified African-American seamstress who, on December 1, 1955, refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Like Peter baptizing Cornelius, Rosa Park’s refusal was in violation of the laws of the state of Alabama.
What you probably don’t know is that Rosa Parks’ own mother was terrified about her daughter’s decision to defy the law of the state and stake her life on a moral law. It is scary to watch one you love put their life in the hands of the Living God and join the Spirit on the road to who knows where? Which is exactly what Carter and Karen did a moment ago when they allowed their precious Lucille to have the waters of baptism splashed onto her head and essentially professed their conviction that Lucille’s life belongs to God for the rest of her life.
So how did Rosa Parks honor her mother? Like Philip on the road to Gaza and Paul on the road to Damascus and Peter on the road to Joppa, Rosa Parks shattered dividing walls of hostility that had separated the races for centuries. God’s Spirit was, is, and always will be far ahead of the Church.
The Spirit of the Living God who was at work in Philip and Paul and Peter, the Spirit of the Living God who was at work in Rosa Parks, the Spirit of the Living God who is now at work in Lucille, is still at work tearing down dividing walls of hostility, walls that we humans erect in the fruitless attempt to keep us pure and safe and predictable. As events in Baltimore and my hometown of Garland demonstrate, the Spirit still has a lot of work to do.
I do not know what the future holds: for you, for me, for University Presbyterian Church, for the world where we live out our lives. What I do know is that it is both scary and exciting to put your hand into the hand of the Spirit and hit the road. What I do know is that God’s Spirit is always on the move and cannot be contained. What I do know is that we, the Church, are always trying to keep up with God. What I do know is that whatever future the Spirit leads us into, it will be God’s future. So, let’s hit the road together and buckle up for the next great chapter in the life of UPC. AMEN