Holy Interruptions

Who likes interruptions?  For most of us, interruptions are a frustration, meaning we have to stop what we are doing in order to give our attention to something or someone else.  I’m especially frustrated with interruptions when I have limited time with which to finish a task.  These days, most all of us seem to be working with limited time.

Is there a way to understand interruptions in a different way?  What are interruptions?  Simply put, it is something or someone who disrupts an order of things – be it our current task at hand or a systematic course of actions we have come to rely on.  Take for instance my day, today.  I have the family van in service to correct the malfunctioning automated sliding doors that do not close properly.  Each time these doors close incorrectly, our family trip is interrupted as one of us must get out of the car and manually close the door.  But today, I was planning on the service work being completed by noon.  That’s what the service center told me upon dropping off the van.  Then they called letting me know they needed a part that wasn’t in stock.  They needed to run to a dealer in Colonial Heights to get the part, delaying the completion until late in the afternoon.  Which would be OK but then Beth reminded me that the kids had dentist appointments at 3:30 this afternoon.  It was an appointment I scheduled six months earlier, at their last appointment.  Who knew then what my day would be like today?  She couldn’t reschedule her patients last minute – I would need to take kids.  This required a jockeying of our one good car and a major change of schedule.  Could I afford to miss some of the work I planned to complete today?    Interruptions can be frustrating and can be a source of anxiety.

But certainly, there are welcome interruptions, too.  When an old friend drops in to say hello.  When your called out of a company meeting that has no end in sight.  When the ice cream truck shows up during a hot afternoon of yard work.  When it comes to interruptions, good or bad, I guess it all depends on our perspective.

In a culture that values productivity, interruptions just won’t do.  Our value is based on what we can produce.  We have no room for interruptions.  After studying the gospels and Acts, however, I am convinced we follow a God of interruptions.  After all, what was Jesus to the powers and authorities of his day other than a disrupter of the status quo?  He often appeared to interrupt those he encountered – calling folks to follow him who were busy at their trade; fishermen and tax collectors alike.  He then would interrupt those he called when they thought they knew best.  Examples like urging children to come near when his disciples wanted to send them away or when Peter wanted to stand in his way of the cross.

In Acts, we see Jesus exit the earthly scene early on but in his place comes the promised helper, the Holy Spirit, in whom Jesus told the disciples they would do even greater things than he.  And if Jesus was disruptive to his disciples’ plans, the Holy Spirit would be even more unpredictable in the way it showed up, where it showed up and in whom it showed up.   I mean, the Holy Spirit first shows up during the Pentecost festival, filling the disciple’s voices with languages in which all the visitors in Jerusalem could understand.  No, the disciples weren’t drunk, but would they have even dreamed this sudden baptism up, even if they had the choice?

Following this scene, Peter heals a crippled beggar at the temple gate (at three o’clock).  Peter could have easily dismissed him.  Certainly, there were many beggars who gathered there daily.  Rather, he heals him and testifies to Jesus’ resurrection.  Peter and John get arrested due to this scene, certainly an interruption.  The Spirit interrupts Ananias and Sapphira, when they make a big deal about giving all they made from the sale of their land.  They are suddenly struck dead when it is revealed that they secretly held back some of the proceeds for themselves.

The whole fledgling community of believers are interrupted when Stephen, one of the first deacons, is stoned to death for his commitment to Jesus.  This interruption had always proven effective in past movements.  Make an example of one, send fear among the rest, watch them scatter and return to the “normal” way things were.  But while the community of believers scatter, the power of the Holy Spirit remains active wherever Christ followers are found.  Which included once unthought-of places and people like the Samaritans and the Gentiles.  Through this disruption, Philip, also a deacon, begins to bear witness to the Spirits movement among Samaritans, he hated rivals of the Jews.  And then suddenly Phillip is summoned to a desert road to interrupt an Ethiopian official on his chariot ride home, explaining the scriptures he was reading and baptizing him.  Even Saul, one of the leading persecutors of Jesus’ followers is interrupted on his way to intimidate more followers when he is struck blind on the road to Damascus Road.

So today’s lesson on Holy Spirit interruptions merely continues a trend.  At this point, one thing is clear:  no one can control or predict the moving of the Holy Spirit.  And in this scene, more walls of tradition appear to be crumbling.  Particularly for Peter.  Peter, raised a Jew, at least had the life-altering experience of knowing Jesus and seeing him crucified and raised to new life.  Then, there was the aforementioned Pentecost scene.  At this point, couldn’t anything happen?  Still, the vision of unclean animals suddenly being acceptable was confusing for Peter.  Do I turn my back on what I’ve been taught?  Whether this vision just serves to prepare Peter for Cornelius’ visitors or not, the tension of the moment has been exposed.  How far does the good news of Jesus extend?  Just to our Samaritan “cousins?”  Or to those who occupy our homeland (Romans) and to those who eat food deemed unclean?

The Spirit bids Peter go and find out.  So he makes his way to the home of the centurion, a God-fearing man and a person who it seems has already heard a word from God (10:3).  Peter’s reception must have been enough proof that he begins to preach the good news of Christ.  Here is where the interesting thing takes place: being already deemed worthy by God, the Spirit once again interrupts Peter’s sermon, lest he think he was saving this family.  All the Gentiles present begin to speak in tongues and praising God.  Peter, who just days ago was struggling to relinquish the tradition of clean and unclean meat was now ready to approve what was already clearly happening – Cornelius’ family was filled with God’s Spirit.  “Can we withhold baptism from this family?” he seems to ask no one in particular.  And more walls that separate God’s children crumbled.

  • What are barriers that keep us from knowing our neighbors today?
  • In the story,  what prompted Cornelius and Peter to cross established boundaries?
  • How do we become present and aware of the Spirit that is at work in us and all around us, even in people and places we least expect?
  • How do traditions provide insight into faith?
  • When do traditions stand in the way of maturing faith?
  • How do we pass on meaningful traditions while remaining open to the wind of the Holy Spirit that will blow where it will?