Toorak Uniting Church

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No outsiders

John 15: 9 – 17   1 John 5: 1 – 6   Acts 10: 44 – 48
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
17 May 2009

Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit is the title that has been given to the passage we read from Acts in our bibles. From the perspective of Peter and his fellow disciples gentiles would have been people completely outside their frame of reference. They were dirt, outsiders, people they didn’t want to know - or know about. And it would have been totally unimaginable for them to be eligible for a position in any of God’s plans. They just didn’t come into the picture, at all, not in their lives, not in their community, not in their faith.

It comes therefore as a total shock to Peter and his friends when they are called to the house of Cornelius, a roman centurion, and meet up with him and his gentile family and friends, to find the Holy Spirit hard at work in their midst. They see how the Spirit falls on them it says, like a sudden strong gust of wind falling from the sky, like an eagle falling on its prey and lifting it up and out of its natural environment.

This can happen to gentiles too??????

They are astounded! Aghast! Thrown! Struggling for words! Completely fazed! Every concept challenged, their known world turned upside down......

Gentiles! Speaking in tongues and extolling God!

Can you imagine this situation at TUC? People in the cafe speaking in tongues and praising God? Kindergarten mothers speaking in tongues and praising God? Weight watchers, speaking in tongues and praising God? Can you imagine?

Can you imagine it in the footy stadium? A sudden gust of wind.... Can you imagine it in the supermarket? A sudden whisper of the Spirit tickling your spine? Can you imagine it at work? Being lifted, up and out and hearing the Spirit speak through people you would never expected or imagined were capable, open or even suitable for these things?

In my experience however more often than this is exactly how it is: the Spirit speaks in places and through people from whom I least expect it. People whom I did not expect to be anywhere near my spiritual frame of reference, often the people who open my mind and broaden my understanding of Christ and deepen my faith.

Why is this? Why is it that the Spirit often seems to work from the outside in, rather than from the inside out? There are some very famous examples to think about here: The Wesley’s for instance who were pulled out of the Anglican frame of reference by the outsiders of their time, the industrial poor in England. Or Calvin who put the psalms to tunes he picked up from the streets of Geneva leaving a legacy of rhymed psalms deeply embedded in the souls of many Calvinists around the globe by listening to the music of street urchins. Saint Francis of Assisi started a monastic renewal movement in Europe through an encounter with an outsider. And there are many more examples of great saints and Christian revivals started through encounters with outsiders, with people who were outside the norm, outside the accepted frame of reference for what was considered fitting and proper in the Christian context of their day.

And every time it happened it changed the direction of Christianity, and opened doors that let the fresh breeze of the Spirit fall on those who had gathered and were ready to receive it.

Over the centuries the Church has often not wanted to see that and made the mistake to think that the Spirit originates from within the Church and works from the inside out. It is us, we believe, the Church, who have something to offer to the world and who are the ones chosen to "bring" the gospel to those outside our walls. In addition to that also, there has often been a very limited view of who the people are who are in need to receive the gospel from us. As a Church we have looked either for people like us we feel would fit in with us, or we have looked for people we can feel superior to, who could become receptors of our good works and our good intentions which is, really, quite arrogant.

Is it possible that the Spirit is more at work outside these walls than within them? That we are hopelessly behind in our understanding of what is really going on, what God is really doing, right here and now, all around us?
Is it possible that another old perception, like in those very early days of Christianity, about what is seemly and proper and about where Christ and the Spirit are to be found, needs to die? That our world needs turning upside down as much as the world and preconceptions of Peter and his friends, to break barriers we have thrown up?

Love, love, love, love. The word echoes through our two other readings. Love deep and strong enough to even be prepared to die. Some of us will know what that feels like. We will have experienced it for instance when seeing a child, or grandchild suffer with a terrible disease and lose the battle. When another loved family member or friend goes through hell and we would do everything to alleviate the pain. Some of us have experienced what Jesus says when he tells his friends he will give up his life for their sake. Some of us know what it feels like to be prepared to give up our own life for the sake of another’s, a loved one’s, health or well being.

It is that love, that deep and heart rendering love Jesus invites his disciples to become part of. No easy sweet smooth babbling brook of love, but a stream of love strong enough to break down barriers and wash away whatever it is that stands in its way, even death itself. A stream swirling and churning with life. That’s what Jesus, that’s what the Spirit calls us to be part off, that’s what we are invited to become immersed in and surrender ourselves into.

If we do there is no place for a static, stuffy old Church, no place for a Church where strangers remain strangers for at least 25 years and where only those who are like us or adjust to our ways are welcomed in.

No, if we let that stream have its way with us, let ourselves drift on the stream of love, let the Spirit pull us out of our natural environment and lift us to dazzling heights, we will very soon find ourselves in a dynamic environment where the unexpected becomes the norm and the unaccustomed becomes a source of inspiration and fun. We may even find ourselves sitting at a table, somewhere outside these walls, sharing bread and wine with outsiders, in one of our centres or even further afield.

Are you ready for that to happen? Are you prepared to accept it might? Are you ready to hear the Spirit speak through those you least expected it from and be astounded?

Please let us keep our doors wide open to the world, through our centres, through the cafe, through the interfaith dialogue, through the richness and broadness of contacts and relationships with people and places all over the world, we are so fortunate to have in this place. And love, love, love, love, because our life depends on it as well as the life of the world. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2009

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