Acts 10:30-35, 44-48; John 15:9-17
6th Sunday after Easter
St Barbara’s; 6.05.18
This evening we shall have a service of choral evensong. We shall be singing the Nunc Dimittis. It is the short speech of prophetic praise from the old man Simeon in the temple at Jerusalem when he encountered the infant Jesus. The Book of Common Prayer version goes as follows:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
Given that this is recorded in Luke’s gospel, I assume that the early Christians knew these prophetic words. The trouble is, at the point at which we pick things up in Acts chapter 10, the new faith of Christianity was absolutely not being a light to lighten the gentiles. Apart from Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch that Tulo talked about last week from Acts chapter 8, Christianity was restricted to the Jews. Given the history and culture of the Jewish nation this was not surprising. For centuries, the Jews had maintained a religious, cultural and racial separateness and they had put together no end of rules, regulations and rituals to keep it that way. It was their default position. So, when Christianity started off as a fork in the Jewish religion, and the first believers were all Jews, there was no natural inclination to share the Gospel with non-Jews. Old habits died hard. Christianity was a Jewish thing for Jews and it was going to stay that way unless God intervened.
Today’s reading from Acts 10 is a record of that necessary intervention. It actually starts a few verses before the reading we had from Acts chapter 10. Peter had a perplexing vision in which a great sheet held by its corners was suspended in front of him and in which was a selection of animals, reptiles and birds. Crucially, these creatures were ones that Peter, according to the Jewish dietary laws, was not allowed to eat. A voice told Peter to kill an animal from the sheet and eat it. Peter refused and said that he had never eaten such forbidden food. The voice rebuked him with the words “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times just before the emissaries from Cornelius arrived.
Without that vision, it is very unlikely that Peter would have agreed to meet the gentile Cornelius because, for the Jews, the gentiles were unclean. Thus, Peter preached the gospel to Cornelius’s household and whilst he was speaking, the Holy Spirit was poured out on all present and they spoke in tongues and praised God.
That was the turning point.
The Jewish believers who had come along with Peter were amazed that even the gentiles received the Holy Spirit. That was the moment where there were the beginnings of acceptance that God’s love, mercy and salvation expressed through Jesus could be for non-Jews as well as Jews. I say beginnings, because as one reads on through Acts, there are later occasions where there is resistance to this idea and it has to be restated. For example, there was a rear-guard action by a group of conservative Jewish Christians. They were insisting that non-Jewish male converts to Christianity should be circumcised. To them it was logical and deeply rooted in their cultural expectations. From 2000 years later, we look back on that and see it as utterly bonkers. After all, if we demanded the same at St Barbara’s how many men would we actually have in our congregation?
For us today reading this passage, there is the obvious conclusion that we as non-Jewish believers are allowed to share in God’s salvation. There is the temptation to say “Hooray!” or perhaps “Halleluiah!” and move on. But that would be to miss the point.
Let me ask you this. Are we any better than Peter?
I suggest not. As he was rooted in his culture and tradition, so we are rooted in ours.
The challenge for us today is to look to see if there is anything in our culture, religious expression, tradition, attitudes or ways of doing things that present a barrier to others coming to know Jesus, or joining with us to worship God.
A good starting point for exploring this is to remember that God’s love is open to all people, regardless of race, nationality, gender or any other category we can think of.
Remember “God so loved the WORLD that he gave his only begotten son” – famous words from John’s gospel and as Paul puts it in his letter to the Galatians “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
It is all very well knowing this. It is our duty, however, to make this a reality. I suggest that the fact that God’s love is open to all should be the lens through which we view our attitudes and practices. Helpful questions to ask include
- “How are we hindering others from knowing and experiencing Jesus’ love and salvation?
- Are there ways in which we expect people to conform that are actually driving them away?”
This will need much time and prayer and I can only flag up three areas in the time available this morning.
The first example is the obvious change of attitude in society towards sexuality and gender. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England & Wales and in more recent times civil partnerships were introduced and gay marriage was legalised. That has happened alongside a growing recognition that gender is a spectrum rather than a binary male-female classification. The church generally has struggled with this and still struggles. I know someone who worshipped at another church in Coventry. He/she was struggling with their gender and was made unwelcome that that church. She no longer worships there.
At St Barbara’s, in our attitudes in these areas, are we making anyone unwelcome?
Secondly, the Windrush generation has been in the news recently. As I was growing up in Birmingham in the 1970s I remember coming across black churches. I later understood one of the major reasons for these churches’ existence was that their members had not been welcomed into the existing local churches. So, for us, is there any hint of racism in what we do or say or think? Is there any reason why someone from a different cultural or ethnic heritage would feel unwelcome here? That is a difficult question to answer if one is from the majority culture. Our cultural spectacles can often obscure rather than reveal. For this and the other issues I think we need to seek the view of the folk at the sharp end, those for whom there might actually be a problem. They will have a much clearer view of the situation.
Thirdly, is there something practical that we should be doing that would enable a greater range of people from our community to join with us to worship God? Maybe there are some tweaks we could make in how we do things that would lower the barrier for some people to join in. Is there some imaginative approach that would make it easier for folk with dementia or related difficulties to engage with our worship?
So, this morning, no answers, only questions, but questions that we really should try to answer. If we follow through and go on to implement any necessary solutions and changes, we shall be fulfilling Jesus’ command from the gospel reading in John 15: “Love each other as I have loved you.”