In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3 One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4 He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6 he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8 and after telling them everything he sent them to Joppa.
9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while it was being prepared he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every people anyone who fears him and practices righteousness is acceptable to him.
I’m struck by how clearly Cornelius saw his vision. That’s not really how it works most of the time for me, how about you? I spend a lot of time doing this: On the one hand….but on the other hand….it takes TIME to process any change that comes our way. Maybe Cornelius felt this too, he did stare at the angel in terror…yet we also know Cornelius follows the directions of this angel swiftly and with great confidence.
There’s a lot more to tell in this story too- we hear of yet another entirely different vision sent to Peter, a man of different ethnicity than Cornelius, different religious beliefs, different communities…but the same God made their lives intertwine. How did it work? Both men trusted the strange guidance at work in their lives by a mysterious and ever-faithful God.
You’ve heard me say I’ve wrestled a lot with my decision to resign as pastor of this church. I don’t think I can overstate that wrestling- my heart divided between this church and ministry I love and the vision of my family united rather than split into too many directions. The details of our life together on the ranch are not yet firm…yet I travel with confidence that God has something ahead I can’t see yet. My job is to follow the guidance my internal vision clarifies.
As I read this text from Acts, I very much connect with Cornelius. He’s not yet sure what God has in store for him in Joppa…but he takes this leap of faith anyway. Even when I don’t know what God has in store for me yet, I’m taking this leap of faith. And it’s scary. And it’s hard. And it’s good.
I know the grief of when a pastor ends a ministry within a church is strong- both for the community and for me, your pastor. Yet I keep coming back to the same promises of our faith that have guided us these wonderfully rich 6 years together. As much as you have become my people, my church, my faith family…you have always first belonged to God- and so have I. I hope against hope that the time we have spent together has been as faithful and fruitful and life-giving as it has been for me…even as we experience a season of transition…we affirm that God keeps sending us visions. God keeps expanding our imagination of what is possible. God is why we are the body of Christ, and God is why we’ll keep right on being the body of Christ no matter who takes the ministry lead.
You know what happens because both Peter & Cornelius were faithful in responding to strange visions in their lives? The church of Christ changed dramatically, opening its doors to all people (not only the Jews)…laying the groundwork for even you and I to be a part of God’s big love story. All because two faithful people had the courage to embrace something new.
There’s no way for me to say what the future holds for either myself or for this church…but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is somehow, ever so mysteriously at work even now…fashioning something new in your life and mine. Our best attempt at being open to it like Cornelius and Peter is to continue to be people who pray.
In this age-old story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, remember this: the donkey and baby donkey he rides shatters any illusion that Jesus has plans to become a mighty warrior or glamorous king in the ways of the material world. Unlike the Roman Emperor who would surely have ridden in on a powerful war horse or chariot and unlike just about any other powerful leader throughout history, Jesus deliberately maintains his humility.
Because the Kingdom of God--no matter how much we disciples want it to be-- is not glamorous. The Kingdom of God is about sacrifice and humility, a willingness to let go of all pride and earthly glory....accepting the more life-giving option of humble confidence.
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:
“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” 12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.”
14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did and heard the children crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
Jesus doesn’t always show up the way we expect as our Messiah; he doesn’t promise to save us from suffering and grief in this lifetime. In fact, he faces the same suffering we do- with one distinction. Jesus our Christ moves into his fate with a kind of confidence born from true humility- something I think we humans weren’t capable of before Jesus came…even now as we have the Holy Spirit to guide us, it's STILL so hard to be both humble and confident, isn’t it?
That’s what I love about the image of Jesus on a donkey- in a nutshell, that’s our Lord. He trusts that God is using him for good, AND he knows it’s a call that asks for a real life of sacrifice. He wastes no time after that ride into town, before he begins cleansing the temple of unjust practices. He’s not trying to please anyone here- he’s trying to usher in a new kind of kingdom, one in which prayer and justice are held in equal measure. So what’s Jesus’ motivation? In short, Jesus understanding his life is simply one part of a much larger story. In this scripture alone, he references fulfilling prophecies THREE times. Jesus says, “Go untie that donkey and her colt and bring them to me.” Why? To fulfill one piece of a grand narrative in which God uses all people and animals to make something good of this earth yet.
Jesus says, “Get out of the temple, my house of prayer, you people taking advantage of widows.” Why? To fulfill another piece of this grand narrative in which God uses all people and events to make something good of this earth yet!
Jesus says, “Let the children sing!” Why? To fulfill an important part of God’s grand narrative, in which infants and nursing babes praise the Lord with joyful noises. God using little ones to make something good of this earth yet!
Three times Jesus references fulfilling a story that began from the moment of Creation and continues on in your life and mine. Knowing his fate at the hand of the Roman officials, Jesus parades into Jerusalem with the kind of humble confidence of someone with faith that God’s love WILL win the day. Even when the stretch of suffering is long. Even when we don’t know how it ends. We trust that God is using US to make something good of this earth yet.
Can you see yourself as any of the characters in this story today? Maybe you're the one who runs errands in preparation for Christ’s work-providing transportation to someone in need; Perhaps you’re one of the hosts who sets the stage for Jesus’ arrival with a meal for neighbors and strangers alike. Maybe you’re simply in need of Jesus’ healing touch- and have the courage to approach him in prayer. Or are you like the children singing Jesus’ praise in the temple? Free in your worship of God? Perhaps you’re writing your own role. Even if you don’t see how you fit into the story of Jesus just yet, you will. Give it time- be open, pray for guidance, be present to those around you and see what role Jesus might be offering you.
Each of us is invited to claim Jesus’ type of confidently humble faith as our own. Do you believe this today, that you and I are part of God’s grand story? Can you trust that even when you’re living the mystery of it all, God is making something good of your life yet? Believing this is essential to discovering our role in the story.
If you’re wondering what part you might play in God’s Kingdom today, begin here: take stock of what you’re already good at…the kinds of activities that are life-giving and filled with joy. Think beyond self-comfort and momentary happiness. What is it that leaves you with lasting satisfaction? Do more of that. And the trust that real joy is contagious; no matter what you DO with your life, you will BE a part of God’s grand story. That is what Jesus came here to reveal- God within us, always at work making something new.
May we help one another discover the lasting joy of Jesus as we enter Holy Week. Amen.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.