There Runs a River

There Runs a River
Photo by Echo / Unsplash

The movement of the Spirit of God in the world is like the current in a fast-moving river. We are all in the water. We might try to build dams or find oxbows in which to hide, but these are folly. We cannot hinder or hide from the outpouring of the Spirit. We, realistically, have one choice to make: Will we swim with the current, carried along in its force and trusting that it will lead us where and how we need to be, or will we fight against it, trying to swim upstream against this powerful flow? 

In either case, we will end up where the Spirit intends to take us. If we fight the current, we will arrive exhausted, scarred from the rocks we’ve clung to, beaten, and worn. If we move with the current, we arrive exhilarated, refreshed, and filled with wonder at what we have seen and experienced in this incredible rush, flying down the river in union with the Spirit.

This was true for the early Christ-believers in first-century Judea just as it is true for us. The inevitability of the Spirit’s movement—and our being swept up in the journey—is an uncomfortable idea. Most of us would much prefer a domesticated God; the sort of house pet that might wreak havoc in one’s living room, but is ultimately confined to the house.

We’ve seen the Holy Spirit building up steam throughout our reading of Acts this Eastertide. In the last few chapters, we’ve seen this early, small community of Christians growing. St Stephen has been martyred for his witness to the good news; St Philip has preached and seen the Spirit convert hearts to Christ in Samaria; last week we remembered the story of St Philip and the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch. Between those events and today’s story, Saul has been blinded by a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus and is now fully committed to serve the Church he once persecuted. 

Immediately prior to today’s passage, a Roman soldier named Cornelius—both a foreigner and a Gentile—has a vision from God and, following the instructions in it, sends for Peter to come to his home. Cornelius is a God-fearer; one who worships the God of Israel without being a Jew himself. On the journey to this home, Peter has a vision where God lays out before him all of the animals listed in the Law as unsuitable for eating. God instructs Peter to eat, Peter refuses, and God explains that these animals are clean. What God has declared clean, Peter has no business declaring profane. Peter is puzzled by the vision but begins to understand when he meets Cornelius and his household. Peter begins to preach about Jesus Christ, the crucifixion, resurrection, and forgiveness of sins. Peter also preaches about his growing understanding that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10.34b-35) And this is where today’s passage picks up.

The Holy Spirit interrupts Peter’s preaching, breaking in just like a coursing river through a dam, pouring out on all who are gathered there. This is the pattern we have seen throughout the Acts of the Apostles this Eastertide. Where Jesus’s followers go and preach the good news of the resurrection, the undeniable and inescapable presence of the Spirit is quickly known. Peter preaches in Jerusalem and thousands come to believe and are baptized. Stephen speaks the good news while distributing food and causes such an uproar that he is martyred on the spot. Philip goes to Samaria, of all places, and still more are caught up in the Spirit’s current. Philip is sent by an angel to meet the Ethiopian eunuch and through the eunuch’s preaching and witness when he returns home, his queen and all of her people will be overcome by the Spirit and baptized.

In today’s passage, while Peter is preaching, the Spirit falls upon Cornelius, his friends and family, and all the others gathered for the sermon. Those from Judea who have accompanied Peter are stunned by what is happening before them. The Holy Spirit—the spirit of their God—has been poured out upon people who are both foreigners and Gentiles. After all of the debate in Jerusalem about the admittance of Gentiles to the covenant and whether they would need to be circumcised and made Jews first, here in their sight is the undeniable power of God made known. These people know God and have heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Peter asks “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people?” (Acts 10.47) We can hear Peter’s tone: Who would dare deny what they have seen here?

Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people?

I am sure that after this scene there were at least a few in the group who went away grumbling. Unconvinced, even after witnessing the Spirit at work before their very eyes, that these people were really children of God. Doubtful that they could really be joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s so hard to give up old grudges, especially when they’re so central to our sense of identity. How often have we heard “We are not them and they are certainly not us.” No statement of what we are, but an identity founded on opposition to something else. One we think is worth maintaining, even at great cost. Even at the cost of denying the work of God in our midst. Even an attempt to hinder the course of the Spirit by damming up the rushing river.

Hindrance of the Spirit is an important bit of reflection and meditation for us today. Peter challenges the group, after Cornelius and his family are overcome with the Spirit, by asking “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people?” Would anyone here dare hinder their baptism with water having witnessed their baptism with the fire of the Spirit? Fight the current if you will, but the river will run and your efforts will not hinder the Spirit.

Again and again the apostles call the world around them to witness the possibilities opened to us by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Again and again the Spirit roars through their midst. Again and again there are those who would hinder that flowing current of life and renewal. Again and again the voice of Christ is heard in the mouths of his followers, denying death, proclaiming life, in sure and certain hope of what has been done for them. This pattern repeats for twenty-eight chapters throughout the Acts of the Apostles right up until the last word. Unhindered. In spite of the efforts of kings and tyrants against these disciples of Jesus Christ, even unto their deaths, the river’s strong current runs and they move with it toward the kingdom of God, boldly and unhindered.

Andrew Rampton

Andrew Rampton

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