4th Sunday after Easter
St Barbara’s 24.04.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
I wonder how important your national identity is to you? How important is it that you are British, or maybe how important is it that you are English, or Welsh, or Scottish? Two days after St George’s Day, its maybe not a bad question to be asking.
Or maybe there is another form of identity that matters to you more. Maybe its being a Coventrian; maybe its being part of a particular group or society – the Scouts Association, the Round Table. Who we are – our identity – can arouse passionate feelings.
Just think of the Scottish independence referendum last year. Passions were deeply stirred. It showed how for many, people living in Scotland, being Scottish went to the heart of who they saw themselves; more so than being British. It defined them; it gave them a sense of worth, value. And there was a lot of anger towards those who seemed to be in favour of diluting that identity. Being a separate, distinct people mattered.
Well, magnify that passion many times over and you begin to get an insight into how the Jews of the first century felt about their identity. They were a distinct people, a people who had managed to retain their identity for a thousand years and more, despite being a tiny people in the midst of a region of super-powers, whether Egypt or Persia or Babylon. And now here they were, a subjugated nation, under the yoke of the mightiest super-power of them all – Rome. Maintaining religious and national identity had never felt so important, had never been so hard. The Roman occupation was a huge blow to the national psyche.
And so for the early church, made up entirely of Jews at this point, this would have been their context. A context where they continued to care very deeply about their identity as Jews.
So when rumours begin to spread that Peter, one of the key leaders of the church, has done some decidedly non-Jewish things, alarm bells understandably begin to ring. Criticism begins to mount, and Peter is asked to explain his actions.
You see, he has broken Jewish food laws by eating with Gentiles. Meal-times were important – they showed who was family and who was not – and by eating with Gentiles he had ignored the distinctiveness, the specialness, that belonged to God’s chosen people. And by acknowledging that Gentiles, like the Roman centurion Cornelius, could be believers in Jesus without first becoming Jews, he was throwing up in the air the very notion of what it meant to be God’s special people.
Over the next few years this was to become one of the most important debates in the church. It was to raise its head just a few months later when the church called a big council in Jerusalem to discuss it. Many of Paul’s letters regularly return to this theme. Its so important, that Luke, who writes the book of Acts with great speed, chooses to dwell on the events of the story, and essentially tell it twice, to make sure the reader doesn’t miss it.
And 2000 years on, its still important for us too. It asks the question, who is the Christian faith for?
Peter’s essential position is this: people no longer need to be Jewish to be part of God’s special family. We are accepted into the family of God through faith in Jesus Christ, not by becoming a Jew.
Jesus had brought a huge, seismic change. For a thousand years, God had chosen to work through a special people, the Jewish people, to bring hope and light to the wider world. Their special and unique identity was maintained by such things as food laws – the types of food they could and couldn’t eat. But now Jesus had brought change, not contradicting what God had done through the Jewish people but fulfilling it.
Imagine a parent helping a child to cross a busy road. As traffic is zooming past they will tell the child “stand still”; once the road is clear, they will say “now you can go”. The instructions aren’t contradictory – they are right for that time. The first instruction allows the second to be fulfilled.
For the early church, it was a mind-blowing thought: the kingdom of God, being part of God’s family, no longer required you to be a Jew, or become a Jew. It simply required you to turn to Christ. The road was clear; now the instructions could change.
Well, 2000 years on and the church is overwhelmingly non-Jewish, so what does it mean for us?
The principle remains the same: all who accept Christ are welcomed into the Kingdom of God. The doors are open wide. That view, commonly held at one time, that you are Christian if you are British, and still seemingly held in parts of the States, where God and America are seen as synonymous, is blown out the water. Faith has nothing to do with our national or ethnic identity. I’m not Christian because I am British. It has to do with our personal acceptance of Christ. And thus | have more of a common, shared identity with a Pentecostal Christian in Uganda or a Catholic Christian in Brazil than I do with my non-believing neighbour up the road.
Peter’s message is a warning too to avoid rigid religiosity. There is a temptation to place down rules and requirements if people are to be part of God’s family, to say that you can only belong if you behave in certain ways. But like the prodigal son in the story Jesus tells, all are welcome in God’s family – its just a matter of turning around to receive his forgiveness. Like a few of the Jewish Christians, like some of us too maybe, we look on like the older brother in that parable and resent God’s generosity and grace. We want to put down extra requirements before they are accepted back into the family.
“Hang on,” we may be tempted to say. “I’ve faithfully attended church for years. I’ve put in all the hard miles of coming to church most Sundays, even on those occasions when I didn’t particularly feel like it. Don’t tell me that others who’ve enjoyed themselves to the hilt doing other things but now at this late notice decide to turn to God don’t have to serve some sort of probation period first, don’t have to earn their acceptance.” Well, shocking though it may be, they don’t. Turning round, accepting God’s grace, is all that is asked. In fact, that is good news for all of us: turning round to receive God’s forgiveness is all that he asks of us.
But neither is Peter’s message and Cornelius’ conversion a message that “anything goes” either. Its not a question of thinking that it doesn’t matter what I do – I will always be forgiven. The offer of forgiveness extended to Cornelius, and to us, still needs to be accepted. The prodigal son has to choose to return home. God’s grace, his love, is offered to all – that is Peter’s startling revelation to the church in Jerusalem. But we need to choose to accept it. If we reject the offer of God’s forgiveness, we end up rejecting God.
The story of Cornelius that Peter recounts takes us to the very heart of our faith:
In Christ, the love of God is made open to all.
All that is asked of us, is that we turn to Christ to receive it.
And when we do so we receive an identity beyond all others – we become children of God, part of his family.