Readings: Acts 10:44-48, John 15:9-17
Let us pray: Open our hearts, our minds, our very souls to your word for us O God and may we know both challenge and affirmation in our responses. Amen.
One of the commentaries on our Acts reading of today, the story of Peter baptising the Gentile house of Cornelius, suggested that this passage, if it was ever to be made into a feature film, would be a powerful and action packed story filled with conflict, tension, relationship struggles, surprise and surrender and even a touch of the supernatural that changes lives forever. The writer, Jacob Myers1, further suggested that it would take an extraordinary actor – his words were “a profoundly emotive thespian” – to play the role of Peter – and he suggests Ton Hanks or Denzil Washington!
What makes this such a powerful story? First of all we have Peter, a conflicted character torn between everything that he has ever learned – from his mother’s knee so to speak – and what he is being instructed to do now. All his upbringing, all his religious teaching has been about excluding those who were unclean ie the Gentiles and now he is being instructed directly by God to include them. He is finally having to get to grips with Jesus teaching that this gospel good news is for all people not just the Jews. Whilst his head may have picked up this distinction – it is pretty obvious that it hadn’t yet sunk in, become a habit. Remember when the road rules were changed a month or so ago – experts warned that the danger would come not from the days immediately following the change when we were all on high alert, but in the time after - before the changed rules became a new habit and the old habit died. Peter was still engaged in his old habit - in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, four times he said he was speaking to his fellow Israelites. Acknowledging that Christ was for all people still hadn’t sunk in. This tension was not helped by the people who had come with Peter – showing disbelief, astonishment that Peter should do this thing, even in the face of the evidence of the Holy Spirit – and he was to face further criticism on his return to Jerusalem by the circumcised believers. And yet Peter ordered their baptism – for he was convicted by the presence of the Spirit descending on these people - and stayed to enjoy their hospitality for some time after – also a radical decision in light of the laws of association in the Jewish community.
We read on in Acts 11 that Peter came before the believers in Jerusalem to defend his actions and explain how he came to do these things. And his bottom line defence was: If God, by giving the Holy Spirit to these people, welcomed them into the faith community, who was he to gainsay that! It might not still be an imbedded understanding but he was going with it, because of his faith in God. So there we have it: conflict, tension, new understandings and new relationships, persuasion, following the heart, and commitment - all the elements for a potential block buster, you agree?
So how do we bring the drama and depth of this story about Peter, his associates and his new friends into focus for today and for us? I am sure that already you are picking up on some possibilities – here is what immediately came into my thoughts as sub-scripts,
- that of constantly revisiting what it is we believe always in the light of the love and commandments of Christ,
- that of both mind and heart accepting the truth of the statement “we welcome all people” - without limitation
- that of standing strong for what we believe even if it means putting ourselves into a position of isolation,
- that of letting go of the head sometimes and recognising that there are some things that we just don’t understand or that we might be wrong on,
- that of a growing and deepening understanding of who God is – forever challenging and drawing us on into Christ-like living in relationship with God and each other.
I invite you to expand on that further. But for the moment I would like to develop what I consider a common thread of all those points – and that is that all of these teachings from the story of Peter and the coming of the gentile household of Cornelius to faith point to this place: the place where Christ says “I no longer call you servant but friend”. There is almost a sense of Peter growing up at this moment – of sloughing off a skin that has been constricting him and walking in the freedom of friendship with God.
The difference between servant and friend in this passage is defined by Jesus as the difference between living obediently in the law of God or living in the full knowledge of the purpose and will of God, where laws were always measured against the command to love God and one another. Ludicrous as it seems to say about Peter the Rock, the one who had been through every test, every character building moment and emotion possible in his faith journey, Peter had still had something to learn of this distinction between servitude and friendship.
So how might it look for us to be friends of the living God:
We are to measure all that we say and do in the light of that love – so if we find actions or rituals or attitudes that contradict that purpose we have to question why we are doing it and often let them go. For Peter it was the necessity for circumcision before baptism, for us it might be doctrine that excludes, or ways of living that hurt and harm or exploit others
We are to welcome all people – for Peter it was the Gentiles, for us it might be those who are angry, or ragged or disrespectful or irritating, those who disagree with us or those who do it differently.
We are to stand strong for what we believe in – even if it puts us at odds with others and even if we don’t totally feel comfortable with it. Transformed living means we will often be standing in a very different, and often contrary, place to those around us – but we can do this because we are convinced of the way we are following, heart and mind both.
Interesting though isn’t it? Peter didn’t try and convince others of his new understanding with deeply complex and unassailable arguments of theology – he simply told them what had happened, that God was present in that situation and so he believed. It is in our actions and attitudes, our convictions that we offer real proof of the purpose of God in this world.
There are times when the evidence of our eyes, of the presence of God assaults our long held opinions and we have let go of them or modify them. For Peter it was giving up a whole way of living – a culture as well as a faith that told him to not associate with the uncircumcised – a major rethink of his attitudes – but he was able to do it because of a greater direction in his life – that God’s love was for all people in all places regardless of their ethnicity, their cleanliness, their behaviour or their genes.
Makes you realise, doesn’t it, what a great movie script our lives make when we too walk with the integrity and purpose in the knowledge of God made known in Christ and through the Holy Spirit. There is no doubt there will be sub-plots of conflict and tension with ourselves and others, there will be scenes of uncertainty where the only way forward is in faith and trust in others, there will be times where we are challenged by the establishment and have to find ways to respond, and where our vision is not the vision of everyone else.
But if we, like Peter, can learn trust the working of the Spirit way beyond our imaginings and comforts, if we are truly living in the knowledge of the one who calls us friend then we are presenting the world with a captivating and inspiring script for how we might re-image this world and all who live in it – in the love of God. Thanks be to God. Amen