St John’s and St Stephen’s Church, Reading. April 25th 2016, Easter 5
Acts 11:1-18, John 13:31-35
What is it that divides you from other people? What are your prejudices? Where are the lines drawn that cut you off from another person, another group? We all have them and sometimes we don’t even know they are there. Race, religion, colour, culture, gender, sexuality, social class, age, even physical appearance. Reading the beginning of Luke’s gospel the other day, I noticed how prejudice nearly killed Jesus even before he had begun his ministry. That bit in Luke 4, right at the beginning of his public ministry, where he stands up in the synagogue in Nazareth and reads from Isaiah. Everyone was amazed at him, but Jesus rather spoiled it when he reminded them that Elijah the prophet, one of their heroes, didn’t go to a widow in Israel at a time of famine, but to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon – a Gentile. Again, there were many with leprosy at the time of Elisha, another prophet, but Elisha was sent to Naaman – the Syrian. The reaction of those godly people? ‘They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way’ (Lk 4:29,30). Hold that thought.
The Acts of the apostles, where our first reading came from, is the fifth book in the NT, coming after the 4 gospels. It tells the story of what happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and how the church was born. It tells of the day the Holy Spirit blew like a storm into the lives of the disciples at Pentecost, literally setting them on fire for Jesus. We learn about the backlash, the beginning of persecution, and we meet a man, a Pharisee, who is changed from arch-enemy Saul to apostle Paul as he meets the resurrected Jesus on the Damascus road. Up until chapter 9 it’s all about Israel, but in chapters 10 and 11 something really, really big happens.
The Jews were, and still are, a very particular race with many laws relating to behaviour, rituals, food and worship. These ways of living were, and are very, very deeply rooted. Food laws in particular are very strong and most of us will be aware that Jews do not eat pork; but there are many more prohibitions than that. In addition, at the time of Jesus it was forbidden for Jews to associate with Gentiles (non-Jews).
In Chapter 10 we meet Cornelius. He was a centurion, a Roman army commander and a Gentile, although we learn he was a God-fearer. He had a vision of an angel, telling him to summon Peter. So he sent 2 slaves and a soldier to get him. Meanwhile, and here’s the really weird bit, Peter is having his own vision. He sees a kind of sheet, coming down from heaven, loaded with all kinds of ‘four footed-creatures and reptiles and birds of the air’ (10:12). What exactly they were we don’t know, but Peter immediately recognised them as unclean – that is, he was forbidden by Jewish law to eat them. But Peter hears a voice telling him to ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat!’ (13). Peter is absolutely shocked. But the voice comes back, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’ (15). This vision happens 3 times. This is challenging some of the deepest roots of Peter’s life up until now. ‘You want me to do WHAT???’
Just then Cornelius’ messengers arrive and ask him to go to Cornelius’ house. Cornelius. Gentile. Unclean. Forbidden to associate. And the penny drops. That vision was to prepare him for this. ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’. So he goes. And he doesn’t just find Cornelius, he finds all his friends and relations too. Cornelius asks him to tell them ‘all that the Lord has commanded you to say’ (33). It’s a wide open door. It’s like a penalty shootout only the goalie is taking a break. So Peter tells the story of Jesus and while he is doing so the Holy Spirit falls on all present, they speak in tongues, it’s a revival meeting. It’s a Gentile Pentecost. ‘The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles’ (45) This good news isn’t just for Jews, it’s for everyone, Gentiles too. Peter gets it, and goes ahead and baptises them. As far as we know, Cornelius and his friends were the first non-Jewish believers in Jesus.
Feathers have been seriously ruffled, and the Jewish believers in Judea criticised Peter and demanded an explanation. So in Chapter 11, today’s reading, Peter tells the story of exactly what happened. Which means, we have the same story twice so that we are absolutely clear how important it is. The reading in Acts 11 ends with these astonished words of the Jewish believers: ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’. (18).
This is a story about crossing boundaries, amongst other things. About moving out of a comfort zone, about getting over prejudices, about even breaking the rules and regulations of a strong religious belief. It was a revolution, a breakthrough, a transformation and as a result of it the good news about Jesus was free to explode into the Gentile world. And it did. A mere 300 years later the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the Imperial religion and the rest is history. It’s why we are here this morning.
That movement to cross boundaries, to reach out to the excluded, the unclean wasn’t new. It’s there in the OT, and I have already mentioned about Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, and Elisha and Naaman the Syrian – but there is much more. However, it’s in the gospels, in the ministry of Jesus, that it really stands out. Think of Jesus healing those with leprosy – completely cast out and excluded from Jewish society. Think too of Jesus reaching out sex workers. To collaborators – the tax collectors. Think of the hero of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan – yes, a Samaritan, not a Jew. To the demon-possessed, to a gentile woman from Syro-Phoenecia.
This movement outwards, to cross boundaries, is an absolutely fundamental part of our faith. This story of Peter and Cornelius puts the flesh on the bones for us and shows us what it looks like. I’ve taken time with this story, rather than glossing over it, because I think it’s only when we can see what it might mean that we begin to get it. Also, to understand that this story is our heritage, it’s one of the foundation stones of our faith.
Moving swiftly on from Peter and Cornelius to the Church of England, I want to say that sometimes, just sometimes, the CofE gets it spot on and they did so this morning. The lectionary – that’s the list of readings for each Sunday – pairs the reading from Acts 11 with John 13, today’s gospel reading. It comes in the lead up to Jesus’ death, probably at the Last Supper: ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (34,35). It is all about love. The best-known verse in the Bible: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…’ (Jn 3:16). It was love that led God the Father to send his Son, to cross the boundary, to become one of us. Love that impelled Jesus to do what he did in reaching past prejudices, to break rules and regulations, to embrace the rejected. If we want to understand what love means, we can look at the life of Jesus, see what he did, who he spoke to, touched, healed and we can say, ‘So that’s what love looks like’. There’s always a moving out, a moving across. And that is exactly what the story of Peter and Cornelius is all about. It was not easy for Peter, not at all. He needed a distinct push in the right direction, an open goal yawning in front of him for him to reach across to an unclean Gentile and tell the good news about Jesus. But he did it.
I wonder what this means for us, both as a church and individually? Well, this church has a long and strong history of people reaching out across cultures, living in another country, learning another language and I can count several people here this morning, myself included, who have done exactly that. The Galpin family are still working in Nepal now. The café too is a place of crossing cultures. As individuals, this outward momentum, fuelled simply by love, should take is towards those in our society and town who are having a hard time. It is so remarkably easy to slip into the ‘comfort’ of a prejudice – I’m thinking particularly of migrants and Muslims – fuelled by the insidious and appalling insults of the right-wing press.
It’s good to know that we currently have an indestructible hero in this regard – notice how often his name crops up – in the form of Pope Francis. He recently swooped into the island of Lesbos, got together with the leader of the Orthodox church, a miracle in itself (the RC and Orthodox churches have been feuding for a millennium), met some migrants, applauded the people of Greece for their fantastic welcome to them at a time of their own hardship, told the rest of the EU off, picked up 12 of them and brought them back to the Vatican as a sign and a rebuke to the rest of us. That is so clearly a deeply, deeply Christian act, rooted in the life of Jesus and the example of Peter and Cornelius.
Well, I’m going to leave Peter and Cornelius there. This story, and the command of Jesus to ‘love one another’ is part of the landscape of our faith, the ground we walk on. May we not lose sight of it.