Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’ While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.
Peter has come to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles – to Cornelius and many (v27) relatives and friends (v24).
Imagine being amongst those visitors – his wife maybe, a niece, or the barely-adult son of a hanger-on. Have you come willingly, or has the wealthy household head summoned you? Do you know why you’re here? Certainly there’s an atmosphere of anticipation, excitement even, emanating from Cornelius.
The man’s talking and what’s this!? Who are the people of Israel? (I thought that nation had disappeared centuries ago.) Somebody called ‘Jesus’ is Lord! (Be careful chum, that would be Caesar.) Not another message of ‘peace’! (The last thing we want is more Pax Romana that was gained through intolerable violence.) Baptism! (what’s that when it’s at home?) He’s droning on but my mind is already a wandering turmoil.
Now let’s ask if church newcomers feel like this – or children and young people. Do they understand our language, the way we do things, and why certain traditions are important to us when we don’t pay attention to what’s important to them? Why is everyone standing up? Why is this music so dull? Why has everyone dipped their heads when the woman at the front is talking? And why is everyone so much more joyful over coffee?
We want new people to come amongst us, but do we want them to be ‘like us’ or are we willing to embrace what they have to give to us? Look at the final verse of this passage – it’s my favourite verse in Acts … while Peter was still speaking God’s own Spirit interrupted him and got on with her work. We need to take care that what we want to say and do isn’t standing in the way of, or putting people off, letting God work amongst them just as much as with us.
Help us, interrupting Spirit, to discern what is truly of you and what of ours we are holding onto so tightly. En-courage us, en-heartening Spirit, so we can understand and embrace the new that you drench us with. Humble us, Holy Spirit of the Living God, until it is your work we spend our time and efforts on … … we ask this in the Name of him who returned to the Father so that You might emerge amongst us and for us. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Rosalind Selby is the principal of Northern College in Manchester.