Monday in Whitsun Week


A revised version of this collection of commentaries, entitled Stir Up, O Lord, has been published in paperback format and as an e-book (for all major e-readers) by Sacristy Press. Buy now »


God, who as at this time didst teach the hearts…
For the Epistle
Acts 10:34-48
John 3:16-21

Unfortunately, the passage from Acts is not a continuation from yesterday, giving us Peter’s first great sermon; instead we have the Acts passage used on the Monday in Easter with the addition of five verses dealing with the Spirit and baptism.

Having understood his mission to the Gentiles (Paul’s dichotomy in Galatians 2:7 is somewhat self serving), Peter, accompanied by Jewish followers, preaches to the household of Cornelius. the Holy Spirit descends on the listeners and the Jews are surprised that the audience is behaving in much the same way as the Jews at the Feast of Pentecost; the Holy Spirit, it seems, does not discriminate between the two groups. In spite of the incident of the Syro-Phoenician woman (cf The Second Sunday in Lent), the election of Greek speaking deacons (cf St. Stephen’s Day) and, perhaps most shockingly, Jesus’ marked sympathy for Samaritans (Luke 10:29-37, John 5), not to mention numerous Scriptural inklings and very specific commands from Jesus, this still comes as a considerable shock. How the survival of a strong Jewish element in the Church might have affected its development in the second half of the First Century AD is an interesting question but the crisis defused at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) was effectively snuffed out by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD even though there are traces of it in the way that Matthew sets about his task (cf The Sunday next before Easter).

Through Peter, the Holy Spirit endows the Gentiles with visible gifts which they offer to the Jews in the form of prophesying which in itself must have been yet another curious experience for people accustomed to their prophets fulminating against Gentiles. Then the narrative takes a profoundly sacramental turn. The descent of the Holy Spirit in Acts both pre-figures the detailed theology of Baptism and Confirmation which, along with Eucharist, are the three traditionally combined elements of Christian initiation but which have now been so separated from each other that there is both a debate about the order of Eucharist and Confirmation after Baptism and as move to re-combine the three for adult converts. There is no record of Peter breaking bread (the first records after the Ascension refer to Paul in Acts 20:7-12; 27:35)) but there is little doubt that he would have done so on this occasion.

There is a tendency to think of the Spirit almost entirely in terms of Confirmation and Ordination but the presence of the Spirit is integral to Sacramentality: we only have to think of the Eucharist which cannot be celebrated without the Epiclesis, the calling of the Spirit to bless the elements of consecration; or of the Spirit moving on the waters (Genesis 2:1) which pre-figures Baptism. The Spirit is indispensable for the ordination of every member of the Royal Priesthood of God (1 Peter 2:4) which takes place in Baptism, cleansing the candidate with the water of life. This is the metaphor for the sacrament used by Jesus in his talk with the Samaritan woman (John 5) and in that part of his discourse with Nicodemus which precedes today’s reading (cf Trinity Sunday). The first part of Chapter 3 makes an attractive pairing with Acts because of the natural fit of the imagery but the second, more reflective part, takes us much further. Mission, comprising Word and Sacrament, exists within the embrace of God’s purpose for humanity: God sent his Son to save not condemn; and, if we believe, we will not die. These promises lift religion out of its traditional Jewish dimension. Even for Nicodemus who, as a Pharisee, believed in the resurrection of the dead, this message is startling because it is personal. We do not rely upon God in a detached, universal way but speak to him as an individual through our relationship with Jesus. In a strange way, Cornelius probably found the message of Peter easier to absorb than Nicodemus listening to Jesus. In the gentile world the span of the pantheon stretched from a God-The-Father-like Zeus to the extremely earthly imperial line and so the notion of an intermediate entity between the one and the other would not have been unfamiliar; but for Nicodemus the split between God and humanity was radical.

Jesus says that he was sent in love to save which renders condemnation redundant; there is no point in it. That is why we need to ask what use it is in our own lives. It might make us feel superior but that is no justification for hurting people. Further, what do we really mean, to take the most obvious case, when we condemn the cruelty of an authoritarian regime? Is our condemnation a noble but futile attempt to change behaviour or is it the exercise of our moral faculty for our own self regard? In any case we are operating from a position of ignorance; just as we do not know the circumstances under which individuals make moral decisions, the same is true of governments. What happens after the overthrow of a dictator (e.g. in the former Yugoslavia or in Iraq) can be worse than what happened before. Condemnation and the consequent exercise of moral authority are not only morally doubtful they are also fraught with uncertainty of outcome. On a personal scale we are only now beginning to learn about the detrimental effects in adulthood of the authoritarian rearing of children. We must be careful to avoid a similar syndrome in our dealings with all humanity; for we are all children of god.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. In what way is the Holy Spirit central to Sacramentality?
  2. Trace sacramental development in the New Testament
  3. Contrast the different attitudes to the relationship between the human and divine in paganism, Judaism and Christianity
  4. If Jesus was sent to love and not condemn, why do we find it so difficult to imitate him?
  5. Is moral superiority adequate justification for aggression?

Want to read more? Buy Stir Up, O Lord (available in paperback and for all major e-book readers)