Inconceivable (Sixth Sunday of Easter)

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The other night, I was re-watching one of the classic movies from the 1980s – “The Princess Bride.”  As many of you probably recall, at the beginning of the movie, three guys kidnap Princess Buttercup.  As they proceed to take her to an enemy kingdom, they’re pursued by the “Dread Pirate Roberts”, who turns out to be Buttercup’s long lost boyfriend, Wesley.

Inigo Montoya, one of the kidnappers, notices they’re being followed.  Vizzini, the leader of the group, declares that to be “inconceivable!”  And at each point that they fail to shake Wesley, Vizzini continues to declare that getting followed or getting caught is “absolutely, totally and in all other ways inconceivable!”

“Inconceivable” has become one of the famous lines from that movie, as has Inigo’s response, “you keep using that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means!”

And of course, Inigo is right, because “inconceivable” means you can’t even imagine something being possible, let alone actually happening.  But all of the things that Vizzini finds “inconceivable” are not only possible, but actually happen.

Yet, like Vizzini, many of us declare things to be “absolutely, totally and in all other ways inconceivable.”  And this is not new.  It happened in today’s first reading from Acts.  Peter and some of his companions had gone to the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, because Cornelius had seen a vision and been told to send for Peter, who would give him a message from God.

And so Peter began to tell Cornelius and his Roman friends about Jesus and his Resurrection.  And as he did so, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon these gentiles who were listening.

Then it says that the circumcised believers (that is the Jewish Christians) were “astounded” that the Holy Spirit would be poured out “even on the Gentiles.”

The Greek verb is translated “astounded.”  But it doesn’t just mean “surprised”, “taken a bit aback”, or feeling like “wow, this is a bit odd.”  It means to “have one’s mind blown”.  It means, quite literally, to feel that this is “absolutely, totally and in all other ways inconceivable!”

God has done a different thing – and shown his people such a different way of being and living into the future – that they find it inconceivable. 

Why was that?  After all, they came to bear witness to the Resurrection of Jesus – an event that many people to this day find “inconceivable.”  And yet, they already knew that God was capable of things they couldn’t have even conceived of.

Well, I’m not exactly sure why they found this action of the Holy Spirit to be “inconceivable”.  But I know why sometimes I find things to be “inconceivable” in my life.

Sometimes for me, and maybe for you, something is “inconceivable” when:

  • I haven’t personally experienced anything like it before … (this coming Thursday, my seminary classmates and I are getting together on Zoom to celebrate our 30th anniversary of graduation – it seems “inconceivable”, partly because I was 25 when we graduated, and while I could intellectually understand “30 years”, I hadn’t been alive long enough to really experience what that would be like – plus, we DID experience meeting the guys who were celebrating 30 years when we were students, and they all looked WAY older than we do now…!  Maybe this was part of the problem for Peter’s friends – they knew intellectually that God had worked with and through Gentiles in the Old Testament (Cyrus the Persian Emporer is even called “messiah” by Isaiah because he was God’s instrument to return the ancient Israelites to Jerusalem – but they had never experienced God doing this in their own lives, so they considered it “inconceivable”…
  • I don’t want to conceive of something… there are times in my life where I’ve said “I can’t even imagine (or conceive) of living in a certain way or without certain people in my life; but it’s not because I lack imagination or even the experience of having previously had to live in different ways, or without certain people.  I just don’t want to.  And so I resist even considering that God may have a new way for me… This may also have been part of the problem for Peter’s friends; they may have actually had Gentile friends and there were certainly Gentiles they knew who they might consider worthy of being part of God’s people; but these folks were Romans – they were the occupying power.  Maybe Gentiles in general, but NOT these particular people; they didn’t WANT God to include these folks, and so they considered it “inconceivable”…
  • I’m too old and jaded to believe that there really may be a new way forward, and I so I’m not even open to a truly “new” thing…  Often, I hear of a “new” idea being proposed (often from churchwide leaders) which I immediately recognize as an old idea with new names for stuff and a slightly re-arranged structure.  And I think to myself, if it waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck, even if you put a costume on it and call it “ishkabible”;  I’ve had this experience enough times that even when I may see a truly new thing, it often seems “inconceivable” that it could be the way forward … and maybe this was also part of the problem for Peter’s friends – they too had probably been part of so many things that ended in disaster that now, as they saw this new possibility from God, it seemed “inconceivable” that they were actually seeing a way forward…

As we’ve lived through this time of pandemic, though, I’ve got to admit that I’m living in ways that I would have thought “inconceivable” only a year or two ago … (from livestream worship to Zoom classes to ways of working from home…)  Maybe some of the new ways that you’re living in seemed inconceivable to you, too, not so long ago.

And maybe one of the things that God has been showing us in this last year is the same thing that God was showing Peter and his friends – that what’s inconceivable for us is not inconceivable to God.  Often, that which we think is “inconceivable” is not only theoretically possible – it’s actually happened.

So in the end, Inigo Montoya is probably right – we keep using this word “inconceivable”, but it doesn’t mean what we think it means.  Even when we reach an end, and decide that new life, new beginnings or new ways of living are “inconceivable”, that doesn’t mean they’re not possible.  It doesn’t mean God won’t show us the way.  And it doesn’t mean that God won’t make a way for us, even when we’ve lost hope.

And after all, this is the lesson of Jesus’ Resurrection.  The Resurrection shows us that life beyond death actually happens, even when it seems inconceivable to us because we haven’t personally experienced it yet. The Resurrection shows us that new ways of living are possible right now, even when we don’t want to think about it because of the pain and death that precedes it.  And the Resurrection shows us that God’s plan for life and healing happens in our midst, even when we’re too jaded to even hope for it.