44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. (New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989.)
THE WORD OF THE LORD.
“Astounded.” That was the word used. “Astounded.” Filled with bewilderment, surprise, and wonder.
The people astounded were the men in the White House in 1907, among them the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. They were astounded that a woman – Mrs. Grace Quackenbos (quak-en-bosh) – (1871-1948) - the first female United States Attorney, went down to Sunny Side, Arkansas (near Lake Village) and wrote a report condemning the plantation owner who forced laborers to work in the cotton fields to pay off their debts. This use of peonage (pee-on-age) – (the bound servitude of laborers because of debt) – caused terrific suffering among the laborers; for they were Italian immigrants falsely drawn there from Italy with the promise of work and a new life in the United States. What they got was a lifetime of servitude.
Theodore Roosevelt was astonished at Mrs. Quackenbos’ work; however, he was not astounded positively. He shelved her report and did nothing about the situation in Sunny Side, Arkansas because Roosevelt years earlier had gone bear hunting with the owner of the plantation (LeRoy Percy), and the plantation owner had written a letter to Roosevelt condemning the female attorney. As Roosevelt wrote – Mrs. Quackenbos’ work was “both hysterical and sentimental…” (p. 126)
This was not the first time people were astounded at Grace Quackenbos. She was among the first 1,000 female attorneys in the United States. In New York City, she set up a “legal bureau for the aid of the poor,” aided destitute women who had been abandoned or beaten by their husbands; and nicknamed “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes” she solved the disappearance and murder of an 18 year old girl in New York, which the Police Department had failed to investigate. (For information see “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes” – non-fiction – Brad Ricca - 2016).
Yes, people were astounded. Grace had broken down the boundaries and the barriers that had existed for milenniums regarding women, the poor, and the immigrants. People were astonished, bewildered, surprised that the familiar boundaries were falling and borders were being crossed. Something new was happening.
“Astounded” is also the word used in our Scripture story this morning. And, like the people who were astounded at the doings of a new female attorney, the people in our Scripture story were astounded that familiar boundaries were falling and borders were being crossed. Was nothing sacred anymore? What happened to tradition, to doing things the familiar way, with people accepting boundaries drawn long ago?
However, the people in our Scripture story were astonished for different reasons than those of the people in the early 1900’s.
To explain, let me describe the situation in our Scripture lesson.
The story is set in the book of Acts, which tells how the story of Jesus expands from its origin among the Jews in Jerusalem, and gains followers all around the Mediterranean Sea. This expansion required growing pains among the initial followers of Jesus who were all Jews. They had – all their lives been taught and followed all the Jewish laws about circumcision, diet, and remaining clean amidst a world full of unclean people and food.
In the story we just read, it tells about Cornelius, a Gentile – meaning non-Jew – who was also a Roman soldier. Cornelius respected God, but he did not follow any of the Jewish customs. Therefore, Jews did not consider him to be religious or among the saved.
However, Cornelius asks Peter, that early disciple of Jesus, to come to his home. Peter goes to the Roman’s home, and they talk.
Then Peter preaches a powerful sermon. Peter says – “I know a Jew is never to associate with a non-Jew. However, now that I have come to your house, I see that God shows no partiality, and that God treats all people alike.”
While Peter speaks, the Spirit of God comes upon Cornelius and the Gentiles.
Then, the story says, Peter and the Jews were “astounded” at what God had done. They were amazed that non-religious people, non-Jews received the Spirit of God.
Indeed, the people were surprised that “God shows no partiality,” and “God treats all people alike.”
If average listeners heard this story, they would not think much about it.
However, for us, Christians in the church – religious people - it is a huge deal. It is a surprising account of how God acts in new and astonishing ways. Here God takes all those beliefs, those laws and rituals religious people kept, all that work people did to keep themselves moral, clean, and saved, and God seems to toss them out the window. In an instant God seems to be letting anyone in. “God is showing no partiality.” There goes the neighborhood.
If we think the truth in this story is just about removing all things Jewish, we would be mistaken. For the Spirit comes upon the people before they are baptized, before they believe, before they even make a confession of faith.
Now if you have a Ph.D. in theology, or if you are a life-long member of a church, this story causes us to re-consider all the systematic theologies we study and write, all the logical creeds we recite, all the traditional rituals we do, and wonder – What is God doing here?
Is God doing a new thing? The answer is yes. God is doing something new. People then, and people now continue to be astounded.
What Peter said in this story about God showing no partiality, was probably more than he knew. People were astonished because they never thought God would do things outside their tradition, or religion, or ways of seeing the world and other people. The truth confronted them that God was beyond their imagination. They saw that God cannot be bound by anything or anyone or any group. God is always tearing down and building up, an evolutionary process by which God continues to surprise us. God crosses all the boundaries between people.
Thankfully, in this story, Peter and the others were not disgusted or turned-off. Rather, they were amazed.
That gives us a clue as to how we should react as events change around us, as things rise and fall, live and die, grow and blossom. We should not be worried or disgusted, but astounded. After all, God is in control. It is God’s show, not ours. We are participants, not directors.
Our Scripture story today opens the possibility that anyone can receive God’s Spirit. By doing so, the story gives us a warning – if God shows no partiality and thereby allows us to receive God’s Spirit, and be part of God’s family, who are we to prevent God from extending God’s blessings to whom God chooses. Who is anyone to stand in the way of God’s love?
Maybe all those noners, people who have no religious affiliation, maybe the millennials, or maybe the ones who decide the church or the synagogue or the mosque or the temple is not for them, maybe they all have something to teach us.
The church, the creeds, and the rituals we use, have helped and served us well on our faith journey with God. They continue to be useful and important to us and to many people, and will probably be helpful for the rest of our lives.
However, that does not mean they are and will always be helpful to others. Let God choose how others worship and serve God in their own time, in their own place, and in their own way.
Let us remember God is always creating – therefore, there will always be new ways for new people to receive and serve God.
Maybe the decline in America and the world of religions and churches now – the mainline, the progressive, the liberal, the conservative, and even the fundamentalist churches - is not the end of the world as we worry it will be. God will always find new ways for new people to worship and serve God. Whatever happens – whatever remains, whatever changes, whatever is created new - there is still One Who survives, and Who will always survive, the Only One Who matters – God – the Creator Who continues to “astound” us all. Amen!