31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
June 20, 2021
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Things had been uncertain for a while there ; chaotic even, seeming to change every single day. First Jesus was alive. Then Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified. Buried in the tomb, his disciples didn’t expect to ever see him again, and then Jesus was alive again! Alive and with them, but then, Jesus ascended to heaven and wasn’t with them. And just as they began to get used to this new normal, amazingly, they were blessed with the Holy Spirit, filled with confidence and the ability to heal. Finally, things settled down and the disciples understood the path forward. They were being called by God to be apostles, messengers of the good news.
Certain, settled, can feel really good. Knowing what to expect can be really comforting. While we are not a Christian tradition that has a lot of ritual, we have more than you would think because ritual, familiarity and knowing what to expect, is really comforting – especially in times of crisis, loss, and uncertainty.
Jesus’ followers, his disciples turned apostles, endured so many changes over a short period of time that when they received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, they must have felt like – this is finally it. This is the last change. The last surprise. We have arrived. All is settled and known.
Simon felt ready to embrace his role as the rock, the “peter” on which Christ would build Christ’s community. After stumbling and making mistakes, falling down and getting back up, Simon Peter believed he had a sure footing now. He knew his mission. He knew his purpose – to share the good news of Jesus Christ with all the……Jews.
That might sound surprising to you; however Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah – was the fulfillment of the long awaited Jewish Messiah. It just makes sense that if Jesus came to save the people of Israel, that Jesus’ messengers would be called to share this good news that the Messiah, the Savior, the Christ had come and share it with the people of Israel.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Simon Peter was sure as to his mission and purpose. And then……..God came to Simon Peter in a vision, a strange vision to be sure – reptiles and birds and all kinds of four-footed creatures lowered down from heaven on a blanket and God’s voice saying, “kill and eat”. Peter, a devout and faithful Jew, had to have been stunned and appalled at the idea of eating non-kosher food. ‘No, no, Lord. I have never even tasted, let alone eaten food forbidden by Jewish law.’
Three times, this vision happens – down from heaven comes this blanket with all sorts of foods that Simon Peter, in his faithfulness to God, is not supposed to eat, and three times, God says ‘if I say it’s okay, then it’s okay.’
And “Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen” (Acts 10:17). Was this a literal message? Were Jesus’ followers supposed to begin eating non kosher food? Or was this a figurative message? What did the food symbolize?
Peter did not have to wait long though to understand what God was saying to him. The arrival of Cornelius’ messengers, hearing about Cornelius’ vision from God, and most of all, witnessing the pouring out of God’s Holy Spirit upon these non-Jews, this household that had not even been baptized, Peter realizes immediately what God is saying. Peter understands that God shows no partiality, no favoritism when it comes to love and blessing. Through this vision and experience with Cornelius, Peter sees that God’s blessing isn’t a controlled, orderly, expected three step process of one, proclaim Jesus to devout Jews; two, baptize those devout Jews; three, those newly baptized devout Jews receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
In this moment, Peter discovers that God’s love and blessing aren’t like that at all. God’s love and blessing are more like a sparkling, ball full of glitter– bursting out everywhere and on everyone. God’s love and blessing are like Oprah giving out cars: You get a blessing! You get a blessing! You get a blessing!
While it might have been tempting for Peter to resist…. After all, the new is challenging and this was very new and highly irregular. For generations, Jews had not associated or socialized with non-Jews. It would be very human to resist; however in face of these signs and God’s will, Peter simply said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) When God has blessed all people, who are we to create boundaries and stand in God’s way?
And this new community that would become the Church of Jesus Christ began to take a new path. They discovered through their faithful openness to God’s continued revelation, their faithful openness to God’s still speaking voice that they were not being called to be rigid like a rock. They were being called to be open, to go forth, to expand – like a sparkling, glitter ball, bringing healing and blessing wherever the Spirit lead.
Our beloved church community, the First Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Bristol, CT, once upon a time was equated with a rock. One of our pastors decades and decades ago called us a sleeping giant upon the hill. Maybe we were comfortable; maybe we were settled; likely we thought we knew what God expected of us – to have open doors for those who found us and wanted to come in.
As comforting, as familiar and known as it might be, we cannot be a rock when the Spirit is so clearly moving in our lives and in our world, calling us to be a sparkly glitter ball of blessing.
And while the pandemic is awful, simply awful, while much loss has happened in this past year and continues to happen, I was reminded a few weeks ago that God can take even the sin and brokenness of COVID and redeem it, bringing blessing, sharing blessing.
God is still speaking to us. It might not be a vision of animals on a blanket. It might not be clear words spoken; however God is still speaking to us. God is calling us to new ways of ministry, new ways of being the Church. As we walk this journey forward, we might be called to new forms of worship – in person or digital, like a 15 minute quiet contemplative service or a dinner party service or a style of worship called ‘messy church’.
We might be called to streamline our committee structure and use technology to help us become very efficient with our meetings and in collecting congregational insight. Already, our ministry partnerships with Gloria Dei and Zion Lutheran Churches and with St. Vincent DePaul are inviting us to expand out and bless more and more people. And If you live close to Bristol, I invite you to get in touch with me and pick up a yard sign to help share our prayer ministry.
God is calling us to be made new, to embrace new ways of being the Church, new ways of ministry. As God showed Peter, God is calling us to let go of ‘how we have always done things’ or even ‘how we expect things to go’. Instead, God is calling us to ground ourselves in the rock that is Jesus Christ and his love.
As uncertain and unknown as the journey ahead is, we go with mission, we go with purpose, like an ever expanding spirit-filled ball of blessing, generously and abundantly sharing the good news of God’s inclusive, amazing love with all.