Recently our pastor, Aaron Thiessen, preached a sermon that challenged my thinking. I am pleased to present this guest posting in order that more people are able to gain some fresh insights. Just as it was for Peter, this may be uncharted territory for each of us. But, uncharted territory seems to be the Spirit’s home. The Spirit asks Peter to eat, Peter says ‘absolutely not’…And the Spirit replies, ” don’t call common what I have called holy.”
This, by way of introduction to a challenging word. The following is Aaron’s message.
So, what would you do if you were in Peter’s shoes, when the Spirit appeared in that Gentile home, ‘just as’ the Spirit appeared to the Jews at Pentecost?
It all started with this baffling vision earlier in Acts 10… Peter was hungry, and so in a vision the Spirit showed him a sheet descending from heaven, filled with all kinds of animals from across the globe — and the Spirit commanded him to eat.
Now, this might not seem like a big deal to us today, but this request is incomprehensible for Peter. He was a Jew, and there were things on that sheet that God had commanded Jews to never eat. It was a pillar of his faith, it was a pillar of his culture, it was a pillar of what set the Jewish minority apart from the ever-encroaching sea of Gentile influence. Jews just don’t eat pork.
So Peter sees the vision, sees the animals on the sheet, hears the command to eat… and 3 different times he says, “Absolutely not!”
Peter faithfully resists. As Willie James Jennings puts it, this vision is a moment when “an old word of God confronts a new one,” and Peter has “to struggle to allow his vision of faithfulness to God to expand into uncharted territory.”
Apparently, uncharted territory is the Spirit’s home. The Spirit asks Peter to eat, Peter says ‘absolutely not’…And the Spirit replies, ” don’t call common what I have called holy.”
…Let’s talk about jazz for a second.
So for me, today marks exactly 80 days of physical distancing, [so much for 40 days and 40 nights] and one of the few bright spots in that, is that it’s allowed me to catch up on my Spotify suggestions. So for those of you who don’t know, Spotify is a music streaming service, and as you listen, it’s got
an algorithm that starts to pick up on what kind of music you enjoy, and it will begin to suggest certain artists that it thinks you’ll like. I actually have it set up so that right after I finish an album, Spotify will immediately queue up one of these suggested songs to keep the vibes going on. So Spotify’s algorithms have figured out that I really like jazz — and it’s freaky, it often suggests songs that fit in with why I like jazz.
For me, I love jazz because it gives space for a kind of ‘double-creativity.’ All music is creative, of course… but jazz captivates me because, first, the genre really invites creativity and experimentation on paper — like, with strange time signatures and incorporating dissonance. But second, as soon as that
song has been written down, it gains another life as soon as it’s performed.
It’s almost like it’s created twice, because of improvisation. Improv is a pillar of jazz. It can be obvious, like during a solo… but it can also be subtle — a creative turnaround in the bassline, a unique flair from
the drum kit, a riffing back and forth between the soloist and the rhythm section… and if it’s a live recording, the audience might get drawn into this
creative act as well.
Now, jazz improv isn’t without context . Even when it’s chaotic, it comes from somewhere — it comes from the contours of the chords, from the skills of the musicians, from the performance event itself. But this improvisation, this second creation… it can take a written song to brand new places… changing tempos, altering keys, bending genres… “Don’t call common what I have called holy.”
These words are the Spirit’s variations on what has been written. [“You have heard it said, now I say unto you…”] The song that God has been singing throughout the Jewish tradition… the Spirit has now taken it up, modulated it… kept that ancient tune but complexified the rhythm. The Spirit has lead the song ahead of Peter, upending these ideas of pure and impure food… and Peter doesn’t yet know how to play along.
“Don’t call common what I have called holy.” I imagine those words must have been ringing in Peter’s head as our story continues toward the scene of our second scripture reading. The Spirit leads Peter to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile. Now, this experience was crossing even more lines. Peter himself says it in Acts 10:28, “You understand, it’s forbidden for Jews to associate or visit with outsiders, right?”
And he wasn’t lying. Jewish views of Gentiles at this time were on a bit of a spectrum — and while there some Rabbis that were very generous with outsiders, there were many who had a desire for total separation between Jews and Gentiles. They couldn’t marry, they couldn’t eat with each other… some went so far as to suggest that Gentiles, as a people who worship idols, were themselves a source of impurity. Peter’s comments about the forbidden nature of this encounter suggest he grew up with a more isolationist viewpoint.
But the Spirit’s song has shifted to a new key, and Peter is learning to follow the music… and so here he was… in the home of a prominent (and off limits) Gentile, being asked to share the Gospel. And this time, Peter doesn’t say ‘Absolutely not.’ He goes with it. He speaks, he tells the story of Christ… … and to the bewilderment of the Jews in the room, what they experienced at Pentecost… it happens again.
In the same way that the first disciples experienced the Spirit come upon them on the original Pentecost, the Spirit sees fit to move again, changes keys, alights upon humanity once more — but this time, this time it’s these Gentiles speaking in new languages and praising God. Like, for Jews, Gentiles were one day expected to be adopted into the God’s family, yes, but not so soon… and what about Sabbath, and circumcision, and those food laws? … Now, if the food thing was the Spirit improvising on a jazz number… this here, this Gentile Pentecost… it’s as if the band stops, there’s a break in the music, and the Spirit is the lone soloist carrying the time, suspending and holding everything together in a singular performance. As Wynton Marsalis writes, “[A soloist in the break] is a pressure-packed moment, because you have to maintain the time flow of the whole band by yourself: Our time becomes your time—yours and yours alone.”
So the soloing Spirit absorbs and carries the time of the Church into a radically new space, a space completely unexpected. Or to use a more dangerous analogy… it may have felt to Peter like his Spotify album has come to the end, and the Spirit’s algorithm has now queued up something else — still jazz, still has all the signature elements to it… but this is a new discovery.
So what would you do if you were in Peter’s shoes? I love the way the Common English Bible puts it — it keeps a hint of confusion. Verse 47: “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?” Like, I get this sense of him saying,”well, the Spirit’s set the tempo… I guess we get in the groove.”
If we had time, I would have loved to explore Acts 11 with you all at this point, because that’s the story of Peter going back to the church and having to explain himself. The rest of the church is like, “Hey man, what are you doing? You can’t just baptize Gentiles — like, there’s a few steps that have to happen first. Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” And Peter’s only possible response… is to tell them his experience of the Spirit’s movement in that place. The Spirit went ahead into uncharted territory… and so he faithfully improvised along.
…So what about us? Well, we live in unprecedented times, in uncharted territory. And that might mean the pandemic right now, and the protests in the US… but I also mean before all that, in a larger sense. We are living in a time where the cultural relevance of the church is being questioned. Where the sins of the church’s past have come back to haunt us. Where questions abound about how we pass on faith to our children, or how to do cross-cultural dialogue, or how the church should navigate a fractured
political sphere, or how we can partner to care for the environment. And if you’re anything like me, my response to this kind of uncertainty can sometimes include elements of, “Absolutely not.” And sometimes, yes, that may be the faithful response. Peter’s ‘no’ was faithful.
But if this story reveals anything to us, it’s that uncharted territory is the Spirit’s home. That the Spirit is all about double-creativity. That Pentecost is not a one-time thing, but is something that happens — and is already happening — all the time, even in these ‘out-of-bounds’ places, even if the rhythm is different. This is the holy improv that we celebrate today. May we have eyes to see, and ears to hear the music. May our time become the Spirit’s time, and the Spirit’s alone. Amen.
May 31, 2020, Aaron Thiessen