Unbridled Spirit

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
May 5, 2024

Scripture: Acts 10:44–48

This past week, at their General Conference, the United Methodist Church lifted its ban on ordaining LGBT clergy and clergy performing same-sex wedding ceremonies and repealed all of its anti-LGBT policies. I don’t mind telling you that I am celebrating this milestone. I attended a Methodist seminary, and I remember the sad experiences of many faithful and committed colleagues who had to hide or lie about who they were in fear of being denied ordination or losing their jobs. I accompanied one friend who spent years in ministry with a Methodist Church, only to be summarily dismissed when she shared with her congregation the happy news of her engagement and wedding to a woman who happened to be the love of her life. I’ve been grieving with them the seeming inability or unwillingness of many in the church to consider the wideness of God’s love and Spirit to include those of whom we disapprove.

These are faithful disciples and ministers gifted with God’s spirit to accept their callings and serve the church. And yet, many in the church looked at them as outside of God’s reach and call. So bound to the traditions, customs, and theological constructs that condemned homosexuality, some church folks thought it sinful and unlawful to associate with LGBT people, that God’s Spirit could not move through the border and boundary of sexuality. I know some will see this action by the United Methodist Church, this acceptance and embrace of LGBT people as ministers and disciples, as an insult to God’s holiness and consecration of what is sinful and profane. But I have the same question today that I had when I first met so many of God’s faithful confronting the church’s rejection: Isn’t God’s love and Spirit expansive enough and unrestrained enough to include the very people we would rather not know? Vast enough to contain the people we consider unclean or unworthy? Are there no borders and boundaries God is willing to transgress for the sake of God’s beloved? How do we prepare ourselves for God to move within and among people we could not imagine bearing the image and call of God?

Today’s scripture text is the account of what happened at the closing of a sermon from Peter, who is wrestling with similar questions as his ministry and the church grow and expand. He had a powerful experience that forced him to confront the expansiveness of God’s love and the unrestrained movement of God’s Spirit. After the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, empowered by God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter, the other disciples, and the followers of Jesus accepted Jesus’ commission to be witnesses. The good news of Jesus Christ began to move beyond the synagogue into the wider Gentile world, drawing to the Jesus movement people they did not expect or planned ever to be a part of the church.

Up to this point, the church they are building is populated mainly by Jews or those who converted to Judaism. Up to this point, those who are part of the Jesus movement are still observant of the rules and requirements of Judaism: circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath observance. Given their experience of baptism and the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, it is understandable that the church would come to believe that everyone else is outside their circle. After all, their customs, traditions, and theological constructs militated against eating with, engaging with, or associating with people outside the faith.

But God’s love and Spirit are far more expansive and unrestrained than they allowed themselves to imagine. Peter’s sermon is all about how God’s unbridled Spirit changed everything. The backstory features a meeting between Peter and the Gentile Cornelius. Cornelius, an Italian centurion, a Roman citizen, and officer in command of about 600 soldiers of the empire, is known among Jews and Gentiles alike as a devout seeker of God and a generous man to the poor, who receives a divine vision to seek out Peter. Peter, the rock on whom Jesus’ church is built, receives a divine vision simultaneously. In Peter’s vision, he is presented with and invited to eat unclean foods forbidden to Jews to eat. When Peter protests, God replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15). And tells Peter to meet with Cornelius. When Peter finally meets Cornelius, he finds himself listening, understanding, and seeing God’s love and Spirit transgress the border and boundary of faith, class, ethnicity, or religion. We see the breaking down of the boundary when Peter tells Cornelius, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28).

There is a shift in Peter’s preaching. Yes, he continues to preach about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Still, he begins this sermon declaring, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34). As he is preaching, the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius, his family, and his community. The Jews who saw it all were astounded to see the Gentiles having the same experience they had. They were surprised because they were looking for the religious and cultural cues that reaffirmed their permission to show no regard for or associate with those they deemed unclean. The faithful were expecting God to reaffirm and reinforce the human-constructed borders and boundaries of their faith. In an insider-outsider culture, where the followers of Jesus began to form the organizational container for their post-resurrection faith, the church could quickly start to believe that the gift of God’s spirit was reserved for them alone.

It was not a mere miracle that opened Peter’s eyes to see the stranger. It was the Holy Spirit, gently but persistently, nudging Peter to make an effort to understand and embrace. God’s love and impartiality and Cornelius’s apparent faith and faithfulness disabused Peter of the idea that the church of Jesus Christ was a gift for only those he knew or understood or who acted and believed as he did. The Spirit serves as a constant reminder and a gentle push to strive for better in our interactions with others. God’s unconditional love and unbridled Spirit will not be confined to one people. Because God’s Spirit is unrestrained, never delimited or controlled, there is no obstacle to fellowship. There is no obstacle to baptism. There is no longer a border and boundary that we must police.

Whatever plans Peter and the apostles had for the church, whatever Jewish Christians thought their faith and experience meant for their future, all had to accept and respect the reality of God’s unbridled Spirit, creating a new reality of unity, fellowship, and community among diverse peoples. This is God’s doing, transgressing every border and boundary of race, sex, ethnicity, or belief we use to separate ourselves. This is not about conversion or repentance. This is about God’s unbridled spirit poured out on all flesh.

That’s why I’m rejoicing at the full inclusion of LGBT clergy and laity in the United Methodist Church. That’s why I love ecumenical and interfaith cooperation and relationships. I love it when diverse people of many backgrounds and beliefs come to worship with us. That’s why I get excited about the purposes of our church that invite and remind us to seek and serve God within, among, and beyond ourselves. Because all of it is evidence of God’s unbridled Spirit moving in our midst, breaking down borders and boundaries between us. This is good news for us today. It is good news to know that God’s love and Spirit transgress the limits of connection, community, and covenant humans create to separate ourselves into sects, denominations, and schools of theology. God’s love and Spirit cannot be constrained or limited by the many theological reasons the church has come up with to justify the exclusion or rejection of others. More importantly, it is God’s love and Spirit that prompts us to connect with others, to listen to the experience of others’ encounters with God, and to be in a relationship across theological differences and approaches. God’s love and Spirit can help us see that God shows no partiality and that all God’s children are called to join together with those we could not even imagine are connected to us.

Indeed, religious communities are always tempted to build themselves up through subtraction. We are tempted to define too crudely and imprecisely who should be excluded in our circles to maintain our identity. The followers of Jesus fell into this temptation, finding it hard to believe that God’s love and Spirit could be gifted to those they saw as enemies or unfaithful or unclean. But as the theologian Willie James Jennings so powerfully describes the way God’s spirit shows up, “The new word that God continues to speak to us is to accept new people, different people that we had not imagined that God would send across our paths and into to our lives” (Acts, 108).

So much in the world drives us apart—race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, politics, ideology. Perhaps God’s unbridled Spirit is the only real presence that can draw us together and prompt us to join together in a beloved community, sharing in the overflow of love, grace, and mercy as one people.

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