A parishioner comes to see the minister. He is thinking about quitting his job and starting a new business. It is an important decision with significant ramifications. It is something he has been praying about for a long time and now believes that God is telling him to make the change. A woman has a premonition that something is wrong with her sister so dials the phone. “How are you doing?” she asks, “God told me to give you a call.” An angry young man straps a homemade bomb around his waist, walks into a hospital, and sets it off. He kills himself and dozens of other people. Why? Because God told him to do it.
Our Christian faith holds that God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit. At one time or another, most of us have responded to what we have perceived to be God’s will. We as a parish listen intently for God’s guidance. For instance, two and a half years ago the Search Committee reported to the Vestry that God had led them to a particular candidate to call as Rector. The Episcopal Church constantly engages in discernment as we seek to bring the Good News to a changing and challenging world. The Spirit can speak clearly to us as individuals, to us as a faith community, and to us as a denominational body. But, we know that not everyone who hears a god-voice is actually being led by God’s Spirit. And there are times we wonder if what we hear is in fact God speaking to us and if what we think we hear God saying to do is actually what God wants us to do.
These concerns have been with the Church from its very inception. Our first reading from the Book of Acts is Peter’s eyewitness account of what is known as “the Gentile Pentecost.” You will recall that Pentecost is the day the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples and they began to speak in various languages as they proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ to all people. That outpouring of the Holy Spirit was experienced exclusively by Jewish followers of Jesus (the text refers to them as “circumcised believers” because they were raised up in and conform to Jewish customs and practices). Their subsequent work and ministry was directed exclusively to people of the Jewish faith tradition.
In today’s reading Peter provides an account of how all of this changed. He shares the details of how Holy Spirit fell upon a Gentile named Cornelius and upon his family. The Spirit manifested among them with the same signs manifested by the disciples at the initial Pentecost.
Peter makes this report at what is now known as the First Council (or assembly) at Jerusalem. Word of what Peter had done spread among the circumcised believers in Judea. They were shocked to learn that Peter entered the home of a Gentile and that he ate a meal there. Both acts rendered him unclean according to the laws of Jewish purity. Peter defends his actions before the council by pointing to his vision, to the timing of Cornelius’ men approaching him, to Cornelius’ own dream, to Cornelius’ devout lifestyle, and – most importantly – to the way the Holy Spirit fell on the gathered Gentiles. Peter, perceiving that the Holy Spirit was a gift common both to those circumcised and to those uncircumcised, recognizes that the Church as God dreams of it will be more widely cast and inclusive than the disciples initially had thought.
A second council will be called in Jerusalem to debate the need for Gentiles to be circumcised and to adhere to other demands of the Law. Both gatherings determine that God’s Spirit is speaking clearly; inviting Gentiles into the faith, but not requiring them to conform to a Jewish heritage foreign to their own upbringing.
Several guiding principles have emerged over the centuries as devout men and woman have sought ways to authenticate God’s leading:
• Is this leading calling you to do something clearly immoral? If so, than it is not God speaking to you. God does not sanction suicide bombers.
• Is it foolishly reckless? God does not want to test your faith by asking you to swim in the Niagara River just above the falls.
• Is it contrary to the will of God we see revealed in Christ? Notice that is says “as revealed in Christ.” We believe that the fullest expression of God’s will is found in the life and words of Jesus. His example of loving your neighbor supersedes an Old Testament figure’s call to kill the enemy. His way elevating the place of woman in His company supersedes Paul’s counsel to a specific faith community that women should be silent in church or that they may never teach men.
• To what degree does the call fulfill an ego desire? The more it is about what you need the more likely the voice is your own and not the Spirit’s.
• Does the prompting have a compulsive power? A compelling call and psychological compulsion are not the same thing. Does this sound like God’s call to you: “I like that new sports car, I want that new sports car, I need that new sports car, I can’t think of anything else but that sports car, I can’t live without that sports car, Hey, I just got a tax refund so God must want me to have that new sports car.” Compulsions leave no room for freedom of choice, but divine promptings can always be refused because God never overrides our free will.
• Does what God calls you to do produce fear, or bring peace and joy? Most callings are accompanied by a certain amount of apprehension, but this gives way as you become more settled and certain in God’s leading.
• What are the consequences of my saying yes? Being able to anticipate the downside and to embrace the challenging aspects of what will or might happen is an important part of the process of responding to God’s call.
• What would be the fruit of my saying no? Again, this aspect of discernment forces us to take off our blinders and really look at the issue from all angles.
Several years ago the educator and writer Parker Palmer faced a major decision. He had interviewed for a college president’s position and had been offered the job. He was part of a Quaker community that practiced group discernment so its leaders gathered in a room with him where all sat in prayerful silence. Slowly and over time, individuals felt led by the Spirit to ask engaging questions to which Palmer would respond. One person asked what he anticipated not liking about the position. He reflected and said he would not like the fund-raising, nor would he care for the faculty politics, nor was he excited about navigating difficult issues with the student body, nor did he care for the job’s public demands that would come at the expense of teaching and research. A long period of silence followed before someone asked what excited him most about being a college president. The response was sure and confident: having his picture appear in the newspaper announcing the new hire. Some time passed before a person asked, “Can you think of any other way to get your picture in the paper?” And with that, Palmer determined that God was not calling him to take the job.
We rejoice that God speaks to us in many and varied ways, that we are led along right pathways, that we are prompted towards acts of courage and compassion. But we also recognize that many times it is not easy to distinguish between what may be God’s call and what may be something else. We in the Church hold that wisdom and discernment resides in the common whole; that God’s will is authenticated more easily by two or three than by one alone. There are times when the one moves the whole into a fuller realization of God’s dream for all people. We see this is today’s reading about Peter. And there are times when the whole corrects and redirects the thinking of the one. It may not always be easy or clean or clear or conflict free, but we see in today’s reading that from the beginning of the Church it is the way God speaks to us and leads us.