“As the Spirit moves…” is an oftrepeated phrase in the church, giving recognition to the fact that God is working through us to accomplish God’s will for the world. We are not always aware, and when we are, we are not always happy about it. On the day of Pentecost, we are told the Spirit moved in a mighty way and thousands were added to the church. But there were dissenters, people who thought the disciples were simply drunk. If anything, Acts tells us that the Spirit continues to move in the lives of Jesus’ followers, taking us places we never thought we would go. The Spirit surprises us as things are stirred up.
Trying to deal with a new perception of how the Spirit works is a problem for the apostle Peter. In Acts 9, we find Peter in the port city of Joppa, where he has healed the widow Dorcas (or Tabitha), much beloved of the disciples there. In Acts 10, Peter’s path crosses with that of a Roman officer named Cornelius, a pious and devout Gentile who gives alms and prays to God, but who has not converted to Judaism. After Cornelius sees an angel of God, who tells him to send to Joppa for Peter, Cornelius becomes anxious to hear what Peter has to say to him.
Peter, in the meantime, has also had a vision. As he is up on the roof of the house of Simon the Tanner, praying, he sees three times “something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of fourfooted creatures and reptiles and birds of the air” (Acts 10:11–12). Then, Peter hears a voice, telling him to kill and eat these creatures, declared unclean in Jewish law, because God has now deemed them clean. Talk about confusion! What is Peter to do with this puzzling image?
At this point, the messengers that Cornelius has sent from Caesarea arrive in Joppa, looking for Peter. Perplexed, but also intrigued, Peter listens to Cornelius’s emissaries, and the next day, he returns to Caesarea with them to meet Cornelius. As instructed by God, Peter then summarizes the gospel, bearing witness to Jesus Christ as Lord of all. Peter continues the story through Jesus’ death and resurrection, reporting how God allowed the risen Christ to appear to God’s own chosen witnesses.
As Peter speaks, the Holy Spirit falls upon all who hear him – even though his audience is not Jewish. That it is truly a Spirit-giving is shown by the group, who speak in tongues and extol God, traits the readers of Acts would readily associate with the Spirit’s activity on Pentecost. Peter orders the baptism of all who are present, and Cornelius becomes the first Gentile convert to Christian faith.
For the infant Christian church, the recognition and welcoming of Cornelius and his companions in Caesarea as converts becomes an occasion of a new Spirit-giving, a new Pentecost. The same could be said of how God plucks out one Saul of Tarsus (we know better as Paul) to be God’s spokesperson to the Gentiles. Again the Spirit moves to change the great persecutor of the faith into the great evangelist of the faith. That shook a few people up!
As the church moves through the season of Easter toward Christ’s departure on Ascension Day and the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, it is important for us to remember that the discernment of how faith in Christ moves in human lives is not the same in every time and place. What makes Cornelius exceptional, in the mid-first century, is that he is a devout and pious man, but not a Jew – and his gifts are recognized as Spirit-given. What makes Peter so extraordinary is that he is called to a different understanding of who can become disciples through the gifts of the Spirit. Never static, never stagnant, never complete: our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ are ripe for new Spirit-giving as well, and for the opportunities to use such gifts for the furthering of faith in Christ in our own time.
For those who seek in every age to follow faithfully as disciples of Jesus Christ, the recognition and welcoming of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s gifts becomes a new Pentecost, a radiant empowerment for mission and ministry.