Saturday, May 4, 2024

Love one another - including those not like us!

 Texts: Acts 10 and John 15

Today’s reading from the Book of Acts is part of the story known as the Conversion of St Peter. You may like to read the whole of Acts 10 when you get home.  This is not conversion in the sense of being persuaded of who Jesus was.  Peter already knew that - in his bones.  No, this is conversion in the sense of a deep and radical transformation in his thinking, and in his attitudes.  It suggests to all of us that however long we have lived a life of faith – as Peter had done in the company of his Lord – it is never too late to have our thinking and our attitudes converted by God’s spirit working within us.

The context of this story – of which we’ve only heard the last few verses – is this.  Peter had had a vision of something like a sheet, containing animals of every kind, being lowered down from heaven. He had heard a voice saying ‘Get up, kill and eat’.  Peter had resisted this call – because there were very strict rules about what a good Jews should eat.  To place it in our context, it would be like Clare (who is a vegetarian) being commanded from heaven to go and eat a ham sandwich.  Initially, it’s likely that Peter thought this vision was pointing him towards being tolerant of people who ate forbidden foods.  But other things were happening. 

At about the same time, a Roman centurion called Cornelius, a Gentile, was having his own vision.  Cornelius was a good man, who was known to worship YHWH, and to give generously to the poor.  He had a vision – about the same time as Peter’s vision – in which he was commanded to invite Peter to come and speak to his household. 

 It is difficult for us nowadays to appreciate how wide the chasm was that separated Jews from Gentiles in that time and place. The Jews knew very well that they were God’s chosen people, but instead of humbling them (as it should have) to become God’s servants to the world, their status as chosen people was turned into a thinly-disguised spirit of favouritism and superiority. True, they knew that God had promised that through Abraham he would bless all the nations of the world. But in their minds and hearts that meant that everyone else in the world would become Jews.  In their minds, to be pleasing to God one had to be a Jew; to enter eternal life one had to be a Jew. It was a toxic misunderstanding of biblical theology which became a witch’s brew of racism and spiritual pride. They regularly referred to Gentiles as “dogs,” – indeed even Jesus, brought up in a Jewish household, used the same language on one occasion.   Jews thought of Gentiles as crass idolaters, unclean and immoral.  A Jew would no more enter a Gentile home, or sit down to a meal with a Gentile than they would eat a ham sandwich.

Peter himself admits this when he says to Cornelius and his household, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation…” Again, there was nothing to this effect in the Law of Moses. It was not unlawful, but it was the way that the Jewish lawmakers had defined the law. If you don’t want to eat unclean food or be rendered unclean by touching unclean things, it is better just not to enter a Gentile house or even associate with them.

But Peter, still reeling from his vivid vision, finds himself reluctantly in the home of Cornelius.  Led there by events outside of his control, he finds himself preaching the good news of Jesus Christ to this Gentile household.  And then, the most amazing thing happens – the Holy Spirit descends upon the whole lot of them.  They start speaking in tongues, and praising God for Jesus Christ.  Peter is dumbfounded and perplexed.  He can’t believe his own eyes.  But neither can he deny what he is seeing.  God is obviously, and dramatically, breaking into the lives of these Gentiles.  He is baptising them in the Holy Spirit.  He is sealing their salvation, just as Peter’s own salvation has been sealed. 

This is Peter’s conversion.  It’s a conversion away from previous certainties.  It’s a conversion away from thinking that what he had learned and been taught throughout his life was the only way to think. It was a conversion away from rules and regulations, and towards the much greater, foundational rule of God’s love for all humanity.  It’s Peter’s realisation that when Jesus taught (in today’s Gospel reading) that his followers should love one another, he didn’t just mean that we should love people who are like us, who think like us, who believe the same precise theologies as us.  As Jesus himself said in an early chapter of John’s gospel, God so loved the world – not just the Jews.

So, what does this mean for us – in our context, today?  Today, the church across the world is being torn apart by a new kind of pharisaism – specifically over the complex issues around human sexuality.  The Anglican Church is split down the middle between those who advocate tolerant, loving acceptance, and those (such as the church in Uganda) who support prison sentences and even the death penalty for gay people.  The Roman Church is split over the recent teaching of the Pope, that gay couples should be able to seek God’s blessing.  Even in our own country, there are priests and people who are resigning from the church over the issue – and especially over the recent decision of the General Synod to permit prayers of love and faithfulness for gay couples.  Frankly, I weep for those who are so sure of what they believe God has commanded, and what God desires, that they are prepared to give up belonging to the very church that loved them, nurtured them, trained them and sent them out in love to the mission field.   

To such people, I ask, humbly, that they consider the test of Cornelius and the conversion of St Peter.  Peter saw God at work in the lives of Cornelius and his household.  He could not deny that God was blessing them despite their lack of adherence to the ‘the rules’ as Peter understood them at the time.  The same principle has to be true for us. 

So when I meet someone whose sexuality is different from mine, or whose gender identity is not within the boundaries of what society calls ‘normal’, or (on the other hand) when I encounter someone who is angry about non-binary people asserting their rights  – I find myself asking a very simple question.  Is God’s love manifest in this person’s life?  Are there signs of the Holy Spirit blessing them?  Are they growing in faith?  Are they becoming more, or less loving towards others?  Are they speaking in the strange tongues of the language of love, or do they cling to society’s normal language of division, separation, and the innate sense of the superiority of one deeply considered moral position over another?

My brothers and sisters, I want us to be known as the kind of congregation, the kind of church, that welcomes everyone, with whatever they bring, and whoever they are, and whatever expression of the complexity of human life they inhabit.  I want us to welcome all, baptise all who seek it, bless all who ask for it, and accompany anyone who asks us to walk with them on the journey of faith.  And most of all, I pray for the same conversion, in heart and mind, that St Peter experienced.  I pray for a conversion away from dogma and pharisaic rules, towards the kind of open, all-embracing Love of Jesus Christ that was poured out on the household of Cornelius. Amen.


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