A Sermon by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Readings for this Service: Acts 11.1-18
After the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, what event has changed the world more than anything else? Pentecost and the creation of the church? Maybe – but without our New Testament reading today most of us wouldn’t be sitting here, St Martin’s and most churches around the world wouldn’t have been built, and the church would still be a tiny sect within Judaism only reaching out to other Jewish people. Imagine a world without the global church. Today’s Gospel reading is probably the most important event we never think about.
One of my greatest mistakes in my first year as a university chaplain was thinking that I could bring a microcosm of world peace on campus. In retrospect, I think my problem was mostly that I tried to do it through a party for the Eurovision Song Contest. If you are not familiar with Eurovision, one of the initiatives to maintain peace following the Second World War was to start an annual singing competition between European countries. However, as I discovered, different countries treat it with wildly different levels of seriousness. I’ll save you the details but more than one group found the UK commentator so offensive that they left early.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Roman Empire in the time of the New Testament was trying to bring the world together. Pax-Romana – Roman peace – crushed any dissent or distinctiveness in the areas they occupied.
Human plans to bring world peace have always ended in impotence or oppression.
This was never what God intended.
The theological story in the Bible is that humanity started united. God created humanity in love, taught us to delight in difference and to care for the world and each other and to walk with him.
However, human pride had other ideas. It’s not long after the story talks about rebellion against God that the first murder happens. In Genesis chapter 11 we read the story of Babel – human beings try to work together but to build a tower to make a name for ourselves and take on God. Human pride results in them being scattered, suddenly speaking different languages and unable to work together.
But God is committed to bringing the world back together again. God the Son comes to us to live and die with us that we might be raised with him. After Jesus has gone back to heaven, the disciples gather to mark the feast celebrating the giving of the Jewish law. Suddenly God the Holy Spirit falls on them and they are enlivened with a new boldness to share the story of Jesus. They also find themselves speaking in other languages that they couldn’t speak before. People could understand them and they were able to understand each other in new ways. Babel had been reversed. They are all set to go out and fulfil their commission to share the good news with every nation.
But, hang on a minute, how will they share this with the wider world when God has only chosen the Jewish nation and set them apart from other nations?
Let’s look at our New Testament reading from Peter’s point of view.
Peter’s hungry… he’s waiting for a meal to be prepared for him when he has a vision. In this vision, he sees a group of delicious looking animals – ox, sheep, doves, animals that Jewish people can eat, animals that Jewish people believed were religiously clean.
But wait, they’re mixed up with a load of unclean animals, pigs, reptiles, lobster.
There is no way Peter is going anywhere near them.
It’s hard for us to understand why this was so important for Peter.
Imagine a religion where everything is based on the idea that God has chosen your ethnic group to have a special relationship with. It’s not because you are better or more important than any other group but God has chosen you and revealed something of what God is like to you. Part of the deal is also that you live in such a way that you make the rest of the world stop and think by the way you live. Your people have been through a tough time that could have wiped them out so it’s more important than ever to stick to the way of life that makes you distinct.
This infiltrated everything, from the first words Peter prayed when he woke up – thanking God that he had not been made a gentile, to how he got dressed and what he had for breakfast. Five minutes could not go by without some reminder, a prayer, a distinctive practice, that would remind him that he is part of God’s chosen race and he has a duty to act like it.
A voice in the vision tells him to get up and eat some of the animals. Peter responds as I think I would: he doesn’t get it.
You want me to eat pork?
How could he eat unclean things? How could he even eat the animals that have touched these unclean animals?
But then the voice says to him (and this is the key phrase in the whole story) “What God has made clean, do not call unclean”.
Eventually (after the vision being repeated a couple of times) Peter gets the point. So that when people came from Cornelius a Roman centurion, a non-Jew, Peter invites them into his home to rest (and presumably have a bite to eat) before the return journey. Then Peter goes with them to Cornelius’ house where he stays as a guest for several days… possibly having the first bacon sandwich of his life.
We pick up the story in our reading where he’s having to explain himself to the other disciples and various other leaders in the early church who understandably are a bit confused.
Peter’s response is striking for two reasons.
Firstly he lets God expand his horizons of how wide the welcome of God is.
This welcome really is for everyone.
If God was to give you a personalised vision to challenge your prejudices, I wonder what would be in the sheet. Maybe it would include a piece of clothing that represents a particular nationality, maybe a particular flag or a political party rosette? Who do we think of as unclean?
We all have prejudices, sometimes understandably because we’ve been treated very badly. The Romans, particularly the Roman military like centurions had brutally oppressed the Jewish people. Who is it that, if they walked into this room right now, you would struggle to kneel at the communion rail with?
It’s a hard thought, isn’t it?
In fact, it’s even worse than that. God’s welcome isn’t just about Peter welcoming Cornelius the individual into his church, assuming he would learn the rules and fit in with everyone else. Peter discovers that God’s welcome means that Peter has to be welcomed into Cornelius’s home, with Cornelius’s customs and norms where, it turns out, the Holy Spirit is also setting up shop.
This isn’t even about us condescendingly sharing our access to God with them.
The Gentiles have been given their own Pentecost.
The second thing that’s striking about Peter in this account is that once he’s worked out that God is at work, he goes for it. He is fearless in throwing caution to the wind and staying in Cornelius’s house for a while.
When he’s called to account he doesn’t try to make a case he just says what he has experienced. He lets the work of God speak for itself. Verse 17: “So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
And it works. That was all they needed to hear… It’s rare it works that fast. The church has spent the past 2000 years feeling anxious about inclusion, worried that we’ll lose the thing that gives us our unique calling if we extend it to this people group, if we express it in this cultural expression. But eventually, maybe after decades or longer, it hits home. There’s something powerful about the work of the spirit when you see it that’s hard to resist.
Like a lot of schools, my school was deeply divided. Different year groups didn’t mingle. Certain paths you could only walk on if you were in a particular year at school. You could only walk on the grass if you were a prefect. Certain year groups were permitted to wear certain clothes. All through the school, there were markers to say you are different. You are more or less powerful your neighbour.
Then we added our own markers. There were the sporty group, the cool lot, the geeky group, the arty folk. Pretty quickly in your time in the school you worked out where you fitted and you spent all your time with them, going to lunchtime clubs or hanging out in parts of the school that related to your group …and you weren’t welcome with the others.
And this continued until I went to the Christian meeting. I saw something I didn’t see anywhere else in the school. I saw the sporty prefect going around with the biscuits offering them to the little first-year geek. Remembering her name. Saying “Great to see you again” rather than “get out of here, you swat.”
It was a miracle. It was a living depiction of the Gospel.
In a church like this, we take it for granted but we are living in a miracle. Look around you. I’ve yet to discover the cliques at St Martin’s… are there any? It’s striking how much like family everyone feels.
It’s a miracle.
So let’s live out the miracle together. Is there anyone here who is different from us who we can take time with over the coffee after the service? If you’re here for the first time or you’ve never felt brave enough to make it downstairs for coffee, you can come with me – it’s only my second week.
By developing habits like this we can be a picture to the wider world of what God is like.
And even more powerfully we live this out, as Richard is about to lead us into in a few minutes. God invites us whatever atrocities our people have done, whatever we have done or not done with our lives so far, to kneel (in our hearts whether or not our bodies let us do it physically), because Almighty God, Lord of the universe, invites us all to gather to have a bite to eat, with him.