Texts: Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
We’ve been reading through the Book of Acts since Easter day. It tells us how the small community of Jesus’s followers began to move from the utter disaster of the cross and grave and the mystery of the resurrection into the community we now know as the church. As we hear the story week after week, I wonder who among the people in this story you most identify with, if you do at all.
For me, especially in these verses today from the tenth chapter, it’s the ones who accompanied Peter with whom I feel the closest kinship. These were people formed from the beginning in their faith, typical Jews of Palestine who found Jesus to be a compelling spiritual teacher. They’d experienced God’s presence moving in Jesus and within themselves, and had been baptized.
After the death of Jesus these people committed themselves to stay together in community. They attended worship at the synagogue and daily practiced what Jesus taught, gladly sharing his good news of forgiveness and new life. They were gatekeepers of a sort, feeling responsible for maintaining the community of Jesus in good order. They functioned much as ministers and lay church leaders still do today.
So, when they were with Peter one day as he shared the good news and prayed, the Holy Spirit suddenly let loose indiscriminately upon everyone present. The problem is that some of those people were not circumcised believers – that is, Jews. Yet the Spirit was with these people too! This was unprecedented. They protested to Peter.
Here were random people filled with the spiritual gift of ecstatic utterance. But without any prerequisites! It was like someone wanting to take communion without going through the steps of baptism, Sunday school, confirmation, church membership. Or whatever rites of initiation the faith community requires. The Jewish believers had no category for what was happening that day. It didn’t fit with the plan, the program, or their expectations. It was a problem.
This reminds me of something… In recent years there’s been curiosity about something that occasionally occurs with organ transplant recipients. Some of them report unexpected changes in interests, habits, or abilities. They attribute these things to their organ donor whom they do not even know, since the identity of organ donors is never revealed, as a matter of medical ethics.
The changes seem most closely associated with heart transplants. A strict vegetarian found herself unable to resist chicken nuggets; a foundry worker suddenly was drawn to classical music; a retired food service manager discovered remarkable artistic abilities. None of these things is earth-shaking necessarily, but the affected people found them unexpected and sometimes disturbing.
Scientific studies about these cases are limited, with fairly small study populations, yet curiosity persists. In 2016 an article was posted on a blog from the University of Melbourne in Australia titled, “Organ transplants: a change of heart in more ways than one?” Citing a handful of known cases, the writer, a computer engineer, summarized theories of what might be happening to people who feel that their donor somehow, unexpectedly changed them.
Skeptics say that a patient might hear some remark in the hospital that influences them to understand a post-transplant change as connected to their donor. This idea is called the “hospital grapevine theory”. Another possibility is the effect of the heavy drug regimen following a transplant. Or the transplant itself is such a major assault on the body that it causes the patient to become open to something they had formerly not appreciated. And despite the anonymity of the donors, people do sometimes learn about them anyway, and perhaps are influenced by that.
Then there’s “cellular memory” theory which is not a specific thing, but rather a general term that encompasses a variety of ideas. Considered pseudoscience by many, the ideas are based in real science. Could protein-based messengers known as neuropeptides be carrying information between brain and organ? Is it something to do with the magnetic fields of our hearts? Or perhaps it is related to a neural function of the heart that is distinct from central nervous system.
There are spiritual theories about all this as well. Might there somehow be soul energy which at the death of a donor can be transferred to the recipient? Or can the dead influence the living?
A surprising effect of a study in Europe was how participants reacted to the researcher’s question about any change they may have noticed. Some were genuinely happy to share their experiences after transplant surgery. Others were reluctant to answer. Some were quite hostile, even mocking the question as completely ridiculous. In other words, reluctance and resistance.
This is a long digression from the Spirit falling on the wrong people one day. But in the end, it’s the same question. How prepared are we to have our habits, perceptions, or abilities altered? Isn’t that what Jesus, first living and then raised from the dead, is all about? God knows we all need transformation.
Another way to say this, is that Jesus is prepared to transplant his own heart to change us, his friends. He befriends us because as our friend he has our trust in ways that a master can never have. Jesus adjured his followers to keep his commandments as a matter of being in relationship with him, just as he kept God’s commandments as his own means of remaining in God. With the heart of Jesus within us, keeping the commandments becomes our new nature.
But when things don’t fit our plans, programs, or expectations we are reluctant. We resist. We are even hostile to the changes that God’s Spirit brings. So it’s humbling and also exhilarating to realize that the Spirit is not prevented by our limitations - including our well-intentioned piety. The Spirit goes through us, and around us if necessary, to bring renewal, blessing, grace.
The art of loving Jesus is to let God get way under our skin. Letting the Holy Spirit infiltrate our minds. God rumbles the ground of our souls, and reverses our polarities until everything in us shifts. Then we can really embrace faith, letting go and becoming so permeable to God that when people encounter us, they see God’s love, feel God’s presence too. And are changed for good. Which, after all, might really be what it means to be born of God and to conquer the world. Blessings!
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.