The Holy Spirit and Church Conflict: A Sermon by a Colleague

So... I feel very blessed: At St. Peter's, Lewes, I get to worship with a wonderful mix of folk, assisting the Rector of all Lewes, Fr. Jeffrey Ross, preaching and teaching occasionally and working with the young people and with outreach concerns. One of the real blessings is being on staff with The Rev. J. Carlyle Gill whose long and faithful ministry finally led her to this little village by the bay where her ministry continues. She preached this last Sunday. Her sermon is a reflection on Church conflict and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Here it is:

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. J. Carlyle Gill, May 6, 2007, St. Peter's, Lewes, Delaware

Acts 11:1-13

I am comforted by church conflict…old church conflict, that is. Way old, like early church conflict. It helps me feel a (little) better about the Anglican Communion's situation today.

You remember. Five minutes after Paul left most of the little churches he founded; they were in conflict of one sort or another. Corinth, probably the most notorious of them all, really had problems. Corinth was a very, shall we say, worldly place. It was the Baltimore of its day, the old Baltimore, before they cleaned up the Inner Harbor, that is. Corinth was a port city with all the high life that port cities often offer. But soon after Paul left their little church was divided into factions – each claiming it was better than the other. And if that weren't enough, they divided into whose spiritual gifts were better. Some spoke in tongues. Some prophesied. Each thought they were more spiritual than the others. Paul had to write back quickly and disabuse them of all of these notions.

The church in Galatia was a little more sophisticated. Theirs were theological differences. One group argued that the law was sufficient for salvation. The other faction argued that grace was all that was needed for salvation ….God's grace, that is.

Paul had to write to them right away and put an end to this debate. (In case you don't know the end of that story, Grace won.)

Paul hadn't even been to Rome and they were already in trouble! Rome was a very cosmopolitan city and already had many differing philosophies vying for first place. Paul had to gently and politely set them on the right path. Jesus Christ, he said, was the path to true knowledge and salvation.

But the biggest and most important conflict in the early church is the subject of today's story in Acts. The resolution of that conflict is why you and I are here today. Peter's associates in Jerusalem were horrified that he associated and ate with the uncircumcised. With Gentiles, that is.

Scripture, reason, and tradition had informed them that associating with Gentiles was not okay. Peter himself acknowledges as much in chapter ten of Acts when he says to Cornelius the Roman centurion, "You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile…" BUT Peter continues, "God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean." Peter then began to preach…an inspired sermon, I might add. He began by saying, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality…" And while he was preaching the Holy Spirit fell upon all the circumcised who heard Peter and they knew, more than knew, were astounded that the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.

But Peter's associates in Jerusalem had not had this experience and were horrified that he associated with, baptized, and even ate with Gentiles. Peter explained to them his own conversion experience in the matter, that the Holy Spirit had told him "to go with the Gentiles and not to make a distinction between them and us." Who was I, Peter asked, to hinder God? His cohorts in Jerusalem were silenced because they recognized that God was at work here. They began to understand with Peter that "God shows no partiality…"

You and I are here this morning because the Holy Spirit revealed to Peter that God shows no partiality. We are member's of St. Peter's because Peter prevailed.

But memories are short, especially church memories. Most of the early church's conflicts have been revisited time and time again throughout church history. And again, we are in the midst of one similar to that ancient dispute in Jerusalem: who is included and who is not? This time the issue isn't between those who are circumcised and those who are not or those who are men and those who are women. Each of us is only too aware that today's struggle around inclusion is about gay and lesbian people. Are they (or shall I say we) fully included or not? Does God show partiality or not? It is a profoundly important theological question. If Peter were here in the flesh, we know what he would say: the Spirit continues to act, the Spirit profoundly changed me. And he might offer us the first line of his sermon back then, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality…." Not I think, or I'm almost sure, but "I truly understand…"

A contemporary New Testament scholar says this about our Acts text:

"If those early disciples who stood much nearer the Christ-event than we were not prepared for the Spirit's fresh initiatives, how much less prepared are we? If Peter's generation of Christians could be astounded, what might the Spirit have in store for us?"

I think we know the answer to that question which is why our current conflict in the Anglican Communion is not all bad. In fact, it is about the work of the Spirit.

That same scholar goes on to say, "Although we may not be prepared for the Spirit's every expression, we may count on the Spirit to be motivated by no other concern than love for that humankind for which Christ died. So the Spirit's seemingly astonishing movements are all quite consistent, expressing God's love for this world in ways that we, limited by our own frail powers, could never do."

So we are at the Gospel for today. Jesus said before he died,

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Jesus said this to his disciples, in other words, to the church, not to the world. What a challenge for the church. This challenge was in front of the early church. It is in front of us today.

Jesus commandment to love one another as I have loved you has the capacity to make the church look bad. I have friends who wonder why I am a part of such an organization. But whoever said love was easy?

The early church struggled to be faithful to the Gospel, the good news of God's grace. Even Peter, the one upon whom Jesus founded the church, had to experience the Spirit's continuing action in order to be open to those different from himself.

I am more than comforted by our current struggle in the Anglican Communion. Rather than comfort, it gives me great hope. We too are witnessing the work of the Spirit, the Spirit of Love. And I am sure that the Spirit will prevail.



  1. Mark--please give my thanks to Mother Gillfor her fine sermon. This message is so important---more than any other story in the Bible, this one tells me that God does new things in the world.

  2. my commentary on this text:


  3. How nice to hear this voice - one I first heard when she was Assistant Chaplain at Sewanee and I was a seminarian. And what a wonderful and difficult concern: how in the current arguments are we to love one another as Christ has loved and still loves us.

  4. I concur with both wormwood's doxy and thomas bushnell, bsg. I bopped right over to reloquus.blogspot.com and read what Brother Thomas had to say. Good stuff. Thanks for directing me to it.

  5. She is right that God shows no partiality. He is merciful to those who are harming themselves and others (whether through homnosexual practices or in other ways) and he leads them to healing and into the ways of love and life and wholeness. He accepts and embraces them.

  6. But the idea of progressive revelation is so "Catholic"!

    FWIW, this sermon was sent to me by a RC monk (who liked it)

  7. Christina Brennan Lee12/5/07 9:26 AM

    How important it is to know our own history! I commend it to those of you who preach regularly to remind or indeed initiate those in the pew of the importance of the historical background of the Gospels and how it all relates to the institution of "Church". Thanks to Mark for sharing and Mother Gillfor for her words, let those words reverberate through those of us who live as the Church in the world.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with comment moderation but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.