Pastor of Mt. Zion UMC Peach Bottom
(Preached at the West District Conference, May 6, 2018)
Listen to the word of the Lord from Acts 10:44-48. In this passage the Holy Spirit comes down upon the Gentiles after they hear the good news, just as the Spirit had come down upon those first followers at Pentecost. They would be changed forever.
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 has 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.
I am retiring in July after being at Mt. Zion of Peach Bottom for over 14 years. I asked my United Methodist clergy friends on Facebook what were good studies to make the transition easier. I got back ideas for several good studies: Max Lucado’s Anxious for Nothing was the first choice; but we had done that study during Advent at Mt. Zion. Next came the Book of Acts, followed by the book Who Moved My Cheese. The church’s Administrative Board and I decided to combine those two studies for our last Bible study together. We are using Max Lucado’s Life Lessons from Acts and Dr. Spencer Johnson’s book, Who Moved My Cheese.
When BK Chung, our District Superintendent, asked me to preach he gave me the topic: “We will all be changed,” which is main theme for Annual Conference this year and is, of course, a reference of how becoming Christians changes us.
In Life Lessons from Acts, Max Lucado remarks that the disciples were changed when they received the Holy Spirit. Yes, they look the same. They have the same names, the same faces and the same mannerisms; but they are not the same disciples.
On the surface they appear no different. Peter is still bold and impetuous, but in a different way. Nathanael is still reflective. And Philip is still calculating. The fellows you got to know in the Gospels, these are the same ones; but they are different.
You see it in their eyes. You hear it in their voices. And you feel it in their passion, Lucado tells us. Are these the same guys who doubted in Galilee, who argued in Capernaum, who fell asleep in Gethsemane and who ran away when the soldiers arrived?
You see, they are different because they sat at the feet of the resurrected Jesus and stood face-to-face with the son of God. Within them dwells a fire that is not found on earth. Christ has taught them. The Father has forgiven them. The Spirit dwells within them.
They are not the same. They are witnesses to the world for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died on the cross for our sins, and who rose again for our redemption. And because they are different, so is the world from then on.
Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to be one of those first witnesses for the risen Christ? Do you think it would have been easier or harder than it is today to witness to the good news of Christ? I suspect that even the first disciples had days when change was difficult. That’s why I chose this lesson from Acts as my text for this sermon (isn’t it a coincidence that it is also the lectionary reading for today; or is that a God-incidence?)
You see, Peter had been preaching to a group of Gentiles at the home of Cornelius. Both Cornelius and Peter had had visions: Cornelius had a vision that he must send for Peter to listen to what he had to say about God.
Peter had the vision about the large sheet coming down from heaven with all kinds of animals, reptiles and birds in it, and a voice that said, “Peter, get up and kill and eat.” Peter protested because some of the animals were considered unclean and Peter would never have eaten those animals before.
But God showed him and told him that nothing God has made is unclean. When Cornelius summoned him, Peter realized that, through that vision, God was calling him to preach the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles, not just to the chosen Hebrew people.
In verse 44 it says, “And the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the Gentiles would be receiving the Holy Spirit without following the rules of the temple to be circumcised, and other dietary laws and such. The scriptures tell us: “We will all be changed.” And the Gentile believers were baptized that day, and from then on, baptism was extended to all God’s people, not just the Hebrew people. And all are changed with the Holy Spirit dwelling within them.
We humans are prone to dislike change. Change to include those who are not like us, prone to turn away from the changes that affect us the most. That’s why I also picked the book by Dr. Spencer Johnson.
The Who Moved My Cheese story talks about those who resist change, those who are slow to accept change, and those that move forward with change, going with the flow. Where do we as believers fit in this scenario?
I suspect we fit in all three categories. Some of us are impetuous like Peter, and we accept change quickly. We listen to the Holy Spirit’s nudgings and move forward with the changes before us, like the characters Sniff and Scurry, looking for a new way and adventure, not staying stuck in the past.
Some of us resist change and want to hang onto the past as long as we can, like the character Hem. He refused to move forward, expecting things to come back and be the same as before.
And some of us accept change very slowly, like the character Haw. We ponder things awhile before we can accept the changes.
I suspect there are many of us who deal with changes in these ways. The circumcised believers were astounded that God would send the Holy Spirit to the uncircumcised, those unlike them in tradition and belief. But those believers realized that others wanted to know the Lord Jesus Christ, too, and that God accepted them as his own. The Gentiles, too, wanted to praise God for his great love and to spread the good news of Christ.
In Acts 4, a beggar born lame was healed by Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate in Jerusalem. He was carried to the gate each day, and he asked those who entered the temple for alms. It was the only life he knew. But when he asked Peter and John for alms, they didn’t give him money. They took him by the hand and healed him by the name of Jesus Christ. And they all went into the temple praising God, the beggar, jumping and walking and praising the God who healed his legs!
The people of the temple knew this beggar very well, and they were amazed at his healed presence. What a witness Peter and John and this beggar were to the temple congregation! They were all changed. Their opinion of Jesus was changed that day because of this miraculous healing. The disciples used the power of Jesus’ name to heal this man born lame. What a miracle to witness that was!
Do you have a miraculous healing story in your life? Do you have a story of how God changed your life, a story that needs to be told?
Some of you probably have a story of your becoming a Christian. I don’t have a story about when I first became a Christian. I was brought up in the Methodist church, and I don’t remember a time when I didn’t believe in Jesus. But I do have a story of God’s amazing work in my life.
I remember when I was co-chair of the Council on Ministries at First Church in Millersville. We had just added a new kitchen with commercial appliances to our remodeled fellowship hall. The Lancaster Meals on Wheels director lived next door to a church member, and she suggested that we start a Meals on Wheels program in Millersville. My co-chair and I went to visit the Lancaster program, and I walked out of there having a burning desire to run a similar program in Millersville. I had no experience running a nonprofit or preparing meals for a group any larger than my family of four. But God had other plans.
I went to the first board meeting in 1988 to explain what the program was all about, and I found myself volunteering to be its first director. Much to my surprise, the newly organized board agreed. I did that for seventeen years, and I was a volunteer the first few years until we figured out how to pay staff. I really thought I would retire from that position; but again God had other plans.
God called me to pastoral ministry, but my worst fear was public speaking. So I bargained with God. I enrolled in a local pastors school course on preaching; and I told God if I managed to pass the course, I would pursue pastoral ministry. As you may have guessed, I did pass the preaching course, and proceeded to enroll in the local pastors school. Yes, I know I did that backwards, but they let me, anyway.
I then waited for a couple of years to be appointed to a local church. Three years later, I got a call from the district superintendent that he had two churches for me in Lancaster County. By that time, I was enrolled in Lancaster Theological Seminary, and I wondered how I was going to manage taking classes and being a pastor of two small churches.
God is amazing, for I think I was actually better organized during that time, than I am now with only one church part-time. You see, God can use each of us in a variety of ways, and we will all be changed by the work of the Holy Spirit within us.
These are the stories we must tell others of God’s amazing love for us and God’s guidance in our lives. We all will be changed by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. We all will be changed to see things in a new light, just as Peter saw the Gentiles in a new light, for he now saw them as children of God, ready to receive the good news of salvation and the unconditional love of God.
Your story is worth telling others about your relationship with our Lord. It may be as simple as telling someone how you felt at peace because you gave your burden or problem to the Lord.
Or it may be the comfort you felt because others were praying for you. It doesn’t have to be a major change in your life. Trust in the Lord to guide you in sharing his love with others through your story.
Are there people whom we judge to be unworthy of God’s love? The Holy Spirit continues to work a powerful transformation among us as to who is “in” and who is “out”, just as the Spirit intervened to allow the Gentiles to become part of the inner circle of Christians. The boundaries keep widening and Peter realizes that God shows no partiality. We must continue to widen the inner circle through sharing God’s love with all.
Are there people who need to hear our stories of God’s love and care? Absolutely. There is no doubt in my mind. Are there people we may look down upon, even though we know Jesus would welcome them with open arms?
I pray as we move forward toward Annual Conference that we will be open to the Spirit’s teaching and guidance as we proclaim, “We will all be changed.” I know God has some amazing plans for each of us, for our churches and for this conference and for The United Methodist Church.
Let us trust in the Lord to give us wisdom and guidance to build up the kingdom of God here on his earth, wherever and however we can. God’s grace is for all, no exceptions.
We will all be changed through the Holy Spirit that lives within us.
May it be so.