Have you ever been surprised by God? You expected God to work one way and God did the opposite, the unexpected? In the New Testament, God is constantly pulling surprises: God loves the most unlikely people, and shows up in the most unexpected places.
This is the message of today’s text from the Acts of the Apostles. Perhaps a short Bible study will help us appreciate what is going on in today’s reading. In the second chapter of Acts, we are confronted with the story of the birth of the church. We call it the Pentecost story. On the day of the Jewish festival of Pentecost something happened that no one expected. The Holy Spirit blew through the gathered community and caused quite a stir as people found themselves speaking in various languages and yet were able to understand what everyone was saying. It is a marvelous moment. Diverse groups of people are brought together through an unexpected visitation of the Holy Spirit and community is created.
However, this experience is a limited one. The gathered community is a community of Jews, the chosen people of God. It is Pentecost and the church has been fashioned by God’s spirit. We celebrate this day every year in the liturgical cycle of the church.
A lot happens after this dramatic visitation of God’s spirit. The story is thrilling and I encourage you to read it for yourself in this early history of the church that we call the Acts of the Apostles.
In the tenth chapter of this book a different kind of Pentecost occurs. It has been called the “Gentile Pentecost” because here we have a record of the Holy Spirit visiting Gentiles, the non-Jews of that world.
Now this is a surprise! No one expects God to act in this way. God is the God of the Jews. God’s love is reserved for them. They are the people with the great faith tradition that begins with Abraham and continues through the exodus and the kings and prophets of the Old Testament. It would be only fitting that on the day of Pentecost God would do a special work like bringing the Spirit on the believers gathered at the sacred site of Jerusalem.
But God’s spirit is always larger than our expectations. In Acts 10, that spirit confirms that God loves Gentiles too. The community of the excluded is included. The ones regarded as a “nonpeople” are elevated to the status of God’s children. It is a surprise of monumental proportions! The early church is confronted with God’s view and has to open its life and doors to all the people of the world. No longer can the church live in the comfort of fellowship with it’s own. Now it must make room for all. It is a challenge and a blessing all at the same time.
Such is the story of the New Testament. Reading the Gospels and the Letters of this sacred text one becomes aware of one fact above all others: Jesus Christ is the friend of sinners, sufferers, and Samaritans! Just think about who gets noticed, who gets included in the story: Bartimaeus, the ten lepers, a man born blind, Zacchaeus, a hemorrhaging woman, an insane man living in a graveyard. Their names are legion. No “brightest and best” in this group. No power brokers, no names that graced the local social register, none of the king’s palace advisors. These are the marginalized, the forgotten, and the overlooked. And God loves them all! This is the message of our text for today.
It is a reminder to us that Jesus is constantly moving toward those from whom others are moving away. And it is the good news that you, too, are included in the fellowship of the redeemed! No wonder we call this the gospel, which means, literally, “good news.”
So here we are at church. We are an interesting group. We are the well behaved and the rebels. We are the righteous and the lost. We are the consistent and the inconsistent, the saints and the sinners. And, we all belong! Such is the grace of God that God’s spirit of love reaches all.
I remember making a call many years ago to acknowledge someone’s presence at our church. A woman had attended worship along with her children. I visited her home the following Monday hoping to see her and talk to her about our church. I wanted to invite her to come again and consider joining this community of faith. The woman was not at home, but her husband was. He and I had a pleasant visit at the front door. He told me his name was Bill. His wife’s name was Betty. As I concluded my visit with Bill, I said, “Please tell Betty that we would love to have her visit our church again.” And Bill said that he would. And then, as I turned to walk away, Bill called out, “And me too.” And I said, “Of course . . . and you, too, Bill.”
That scene has remained with me. “And you too, Bill.” That is God’s way. That is Jesus’ example. That is the church when it is at its fullest with the inclusive spirit of the living God! Today the message comes to all of us: And you too! Surprise! There’s room for you, too, in this place of sacred love. No wonder we call this the “good news” place!