If the Prime Minister Mr David Cameron were to announce that he had been to see Mr Ed Milliband, and they were now all on the same team, that would cause some surprise and even anger. If St Alex Ferguson were to announce that he and Roberto Mancini were now on the same team and were going to cooperate, he would not expect to get away with it.
The apostle Peter had been into a Gentile home, and then let those Gentiles join the church (for that is what baptism means). It was a surprise, a scandal, an outrage, at least to some.
True, Jesus had said that we should go into all the world and make disciples. True, there were people from all over the known world present on the Day of Pentecost, who had responded to the good news of Jesus. True, there had been new believers added in Samaria. But the firm expectation seems to have been that people would become Jews first, and then be allowed to come to faith in the Jewish Messiah – Jesus. All the male believers up to that point had been circumcised Jews, but there seems to have been a grouping, a party within the wider church, for whom this was a point of principle. Peter has arrived back from Caesarea, and we are told that this party criticised him. His response is to tell them the story of what has been happening to him.
This is a personal journey of discovery. We have followed Peter from Lydda to Joppa. The Roman officer Cornelius has seen an angel who directs him to send for Peter. Peter has a vision of unclean foods being lowered from heaven, with the command that he should kill and eat. This is all carefully recounted once in chapter 10, and Luke repeats key parts here. To repeat a passage in the bible is often an indication of how important an incident is, and that we are to take careful note of it. It seems to me that there are four important points for us to note here.
First, Peter has to learn to be “open for all”. The food laws of earlier times had been important, but they no longer apply, and it is fine to meet and eat with Gentiles. God is opening his salvation to any who believe in Jesus, whether they are ethnically Jews or not. You could almost say that God shows Peter this in three ways – the vision in a trance (and that in itself had three parts!), the apparent coincidence of the arrival of the messengers, and the way that the Gentile hearers are filled with the Holy Spirit during his sermon. This is his “walk across the room” moment. This is where he becomes the “key” who unlocks the church to be open for all, regardless of nationality or background.
Second, we have to learn to be “open for all that God has for us.” Are you tempted to believe that you are not good enough to be a Christian? Or that you need to work hard to achieve a standard so that God will love you, and you will be more easily accepted within the church? Do you live with a secret fear that you will be “found out”? Cornelius and his household learn first-hand that God loves and accepts us as we are. We hear the good news that Jesus has died and risen again, and that he is Lord of the cosmos, and we believe it. In that instant we receive new life. Note that this is not saying that all are welcome, come what may, whatever they believe. This is not saying that all faiths are the same. Rather, Cornelius was drawn to the God of the Hebrews. He had tried the Gods and philosophies of the Roman world, which were at least as varied as they are today; he knew about people who thought that the world had come in to being by chance, or that there was no afterlife to look forward to. The God of the Hebrews was here revealing that we are saved by faith in the Jewish Messiah – Jesus. And Cornelius loved it! This is a very personal message for you – that God loves you, that Jesus gave himself for you, and that his Spirit is prompting you to respond, to let him in.
Third, we have to learn to be “open for all who seek for him”. So often in history the church has found itself reacting in a purely human way, looking out for people to join us who are “like us”. In one way it makes sense that we will have a natural affinity with people from a similar background. The Anglican Church was known at one time as “Tory Party at Prayer”, if you are black you are expected to be Pentecostal, if you are young it is thought that you will only like worship led by a band. Churches grow when they concentrate on a particular group in society; in mission terms, it makes sense to have a focus on people of a certain age, or a particular nationality who have gathered in our locality, or who share an interest. In terms of the church as the body of Christ, however, a church which consciously or unconsciously has only one type or class of people is like a body with four legs and no arms, or four ears but no eyes. (1 Corinthians 12).
We have to make a point of reaching out to people who are different from ourselves and making them welcome. Everything we do is measured up against how well we make it easy for others to join us and to find friendship here, so that they might grow and thrive in their exploration of Jesus. This is not automatic. It was such a big leap for the early church that God did an extreme thing and baptised Cornelius and his friends in the Holy Spirit. He did not wait for a baptism service to take place; they found themselves speaking in tongues and praising God. Peter recognises this as the same experience that he and other more “orthodox” believers have had since the beginning. I have been excited during the past year to see God obviously at work in people. My prayer is that I will have eyes to see what he is doing in the coming year.
Fourth, we have to learn to be “Open to follow him wherever he leads us”. In the words of Jesus from our gospel reading, we must learn to love one another. We learn this precisely through the experience of sharing lives and service, where we will find that we do not always get on. The human response to this has always been to fight our corner. (Judas was not open for all that God had for him …) Notice that the “circumcised believers” criticised Peter. They had it in for him. Jesus calls us to learn a mature love even when we do not agree. A man called Patrick Lencioni has talked about how effective teams know how to “engage in unfiltered conflict about ideas”. For the good of the team, they say what they really think – politely, clearly, openly. They can do this because they have already taken care to build relationships of trust within the team. No human being is infallible. Every organisation and group will prosper with pooled ideas and a shared concern for truth and the good of the whole. In our terms, we need to be a church consisting of individuals who have acknowledged their sinfulness and need of a Saviour, who have a personal relationship with Jesus, and whose driving force is “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”. Some of us have been at this longer, and have therefore made more mistakes and hopefully learned something. Some of us are at an earlier stage, perhaps just exploring.
The bedrock of our faith is the goodness and grace that God has shown us, because he loves us. We reflect the forgiveness and acceptance that we have found in Jesus by the way we treat each other. We act it out with symbols like The Peace. We live it out by the way that we work together, learning to forge agreement and ways of working together. This is how the church will grow: God will reveal himself to those outside (sometimes using us as the messengers), and we will show them his love on the inside, and thus prove to be his disciples.
Are you open for this?
1. What was the biggest lesson you have learned in your spiritual journey? How did this come about?
2. Either: What preconceptions did you have about Christians, before you became one? Or: Who would most surprise you if they became a Christian?
3. What do these passages suggest to you about what God might be saying to us at St Michael’s?