The Impatience of the Holy Spirit:
Forging a Path between "Us" and "Them"
by Teri Daily
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, `Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' But I replied, `By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' But a second time the voice answered from heaven, `What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, `Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, `John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
The New Testament may have been written almost two thousand years ago and half a world away, but human nature hasn’t changed very much. In the passage from Acts on the left, Peter goes up to Jerusalem to visit with other followers of Jesus – some of whom had been with Jesus from the very beginning, some of whom had been part of the dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the early Church. You may remember the story of Pentecost. The disciples were in hiding after Jesus’ ascension; they were frightened outsiders in a world they didn’t understand. But with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples gained the boldness and courage to proclaim the gospel and become the Church. By the time we reach this passage from Acts, what happens to many outsiders who eventually find themselves in power seems to have happened to the early followers of Jesus. They have gone from being outsiders to being the establishment. They have become insiders, gatekeepers of their own new community.
When Peter reaches Jerusalem, the “circumcised believers” in Jerusalem confront him with the news they’ve heard: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” In other words, why are you cavorting and eating with unclean people? Peter tells them how he came to be in fellowship with the Gentiles – how it is that he ate with them and baptized them.
Peter had been praying in the town of Joppa when he received a vision. A large sheet came down from heaven with all these creatures – four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds. These were animals that Jews were forbidden to eat based on the dietary laws in Leviticus. Peter hears a voice say, “Get up. Peter, kill and eat.” Peter replies, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” He then hears the voice say, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times. When men from Caesarea come to Peter’s home, Peter follows the instructions of the Holy Spirit and goes with them to the home of the Roman centurion Cornelius. When Peter arrives at the home, he begins to speak the gospel, but before he finishes the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and his family. It seems the Holy Spirit is not a fan of long sermons.
There are, I believe, two big takeaways from this passage, things we need to hear as badly today as we did two thousand years ago: 1) In God, there is no “us” and “them.” We debate and pass statements about whether or not we should cross the divisions that we have constructed, as if we were the gatekeepers. We so often fail to recognize that God has already crossed all the barriers. As Peter said, who are we that we could hinder God? 2) Wherever we go, God is already there. The Holy Spirit always precedes, not follows, us.
There has never been a time when we needed to hear these words more than we do today. As a nation we are more divided than we have been since the Civil War. Since 1994, the Pew Research Center has been asking survey questions about political “values” such as the role of government, the social safety net, immigration, issues about race and sexual orientation, etc. The findings are not surprising. Not only have the two major parties become significantly more divided on these and other specific issues, but they have also become more hostile to one another. 
It’s not just political division that’s increasing; our country is also becoming more divided in terms of net worth. The three wealthiest individuals have a greater combined wealth than that of the “poorest” half of Americans. This gap is only getting worse.
Perhaps one of the most striking divisions in this country is between those who are incarcerated and those who live in “the free world.” Currently 2.2 million people in this country reside in prisons and jails. We have an incarceration rate that is the highest in the world; it’s more than three times the incarceration rate of Saudi Arabia and more than five times the rate of China. Incarceration is an issue that’s shot-through with racial discrepancies. Although African-Americans make up twelve percent of the total US population, they account for thirty-three percent of adults in prison in the United States.
We are a country divided between those who live within prisons and those who live outside them, between red states and blue states, between the affluent and those without enough money to buy a home or send a child to college.
Such divisions or separations are never neutral. We inevitably end up attaching a greater value to one side than to the other. Isn’t that what’s going on for the circumcised believers in Jerusalem? They have formed their identity around being circumcised not uncircumcised, Jew not Gentile, chosen not non-chosen, clean not profane.
When we form our identity in this way, we usually attach greater value – even God’s favor – to the category to which we ourselves belong. We tend to depict God as blessing those things that we bless and condemning those things that we condemn. It’s been said that “we know we’ve made God in our own image when God likes all the same people we do.” We often place ourselves above others and consider them unclean.
But the Holy Spirit breaches all the labels, barriers, and subgroups that we set in place. The Holy Spirit tells Peter to go with the men and to make no “distinction between them and us.” The whole Bible has been leading us to this earth-shattering understanding of God’s grace; the biblical story takes us in ever-widening circles – beginning with Abraham and Sarah, to their descendants, to a people, to a nation, to the foreigners within their borders, and ultimately to all nations as the Holy Spirit can’t be contained in Judea but pushes the walls of election ever further and further out.
This all-inclusive love of God seems such a simple concept, and yet there’s nothing harder for our minds to grasp. It goes against everything we’re taught and every way we know to function in the world. We continually lose sight of the fact that, in God, there are no insiders and outsiders – in God’s economy of grace, the center is everywhere.
We think of ourselves as coming to church to be fed and strengthened so that we can serve God in the world – and that is one reason we come to church. We are charged to participate in the work of the Spirit in the world. The problem comes, though, when we see ourselves as the ones who take the Spirit to other people and other places. The work of God is not and never has been confined to any single domain. Wherever we go, we will find the Holy Spirit already present and at work there.
So how is it that we can be faithful not to what we want to do in the world, but to what God is already doing? And how will we recognize the Spirit when we do encounter it? The believers in Jerusalem had experienced the Holy Spirit themselves at Pentecost, so they recognized the Holy Spirit at work in Cornelius’ family. For us, though, it’s usually not as obvious as having visions or witnessing people speaking in tongues.
Still, we have experienced the work of the Spirit in our own lives and in the life of our community. We meet Christ face to face in the Eucharist, we hear about God at work in the world in scripture, and we see God at work in the people around us. These things help us learn to recognize the presence of the Spirit when we meet it in the world outside these doors as well. Just as this recognition of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world was part of the maturation of the early Church, I believe it is part of the maturation of our own spiritual lives as well – a crucial part, given the camps in which we have become so firmly entrenched.
What if we were to challenge ourselves to look for the Holy Spirit at work in the world in all places, but especially in places and among people that we may be tempted to call “them” (instead of “us”)? The Holy Spirit transcends any barriers that we construct. Instead of making our own agenda the priority, why not join in the work that God is already doing in the world, even in what might seem to us to be the most unlikely of places? In doing so, we may find ourselves trusting more and more in the generous love of God, a love that exceeds any boundaries of our own imagining.
 Pew Research Center, “The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider,” October 5, 2017, https://www.people-press.org/2017/10/05/the-partisan-divide-on-political-values-grows-even-wider/.
 Inequality.org, “Wealth Inequality in the United States, https://inequality.org/facts/wealth-inequality/.
 Prison Policy Initiative, “State of Incarceration: The Global Context 2018,” https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/2018.html.
 CNN, “5 Facts behind America’s High Incarceration Rate,” April 21, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/28/us/mass-incarceration-five-key-facts/index.html.