Sermon - 24th April 2016
All are welcome
Scripture - Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
All of us, at some point in our lives, will have had the experience of having something good, positive and exciting happen, but when we tell the story to those close to us, their reaction is anything other than to share in the joy, and we will have been met with a cold, critical, doubtful, cynical, dismissive or even a derisory response, leaving us somewhat crest-fallen.
Sadly also, for many of us, coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans to friends or family may have been met with anything but joy; and for many in our church, your sexual orientation has been met with such rejection and hatred that you have had to flee your countries of birth and seek asylum. Similarly, many of us will have had the experience of ‘coming out’ as a Christian in the LGBT community and be treated differently thereafter.
Peter, in our first reading today, had a similar experience when he returned to Jerusalem, having been part of God’s actions to open wide the arms of the new Christian faith to those who were not Jews. Peter was criticised.
For us, this account from the book of the Acts of the Apostles is perhaps the most important event in the life of the early church. It was the moment at which Christianity ceased being a new branch of Judaism, and it became a universal, world-wide faith, a faith to which we belong. Had it not been for the events in this passage, it is most likely that we would not be here today in this place, and our world shaped by almost 2,000 years of Christianity would be very, very different. We cannot underestimate the importance of the events contained in this passage!
The Acts of the Apostles narrates what happened in the weeks, months and years following Jesus’ time on earth. Since Easter, our Bible readings have focused on the Risen Jesus’ encounters with His Disciples. Two weeks ago, Philip preached on how Peter was restored. Peter was a broken man, broken by his three-fold denial of Jesus; despite the Resurrection and witnessing the empty tomb, Peter returned to his former life as a fisherman on Lake Galilee; yet Jesus re-instated Peter, and Peter resumed his calling as one of Jesus’ disciples.
We do not know from the text how long after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension this event in today’s reading occurred – maybe months, maybe a few years. Peter was in Joppa, a Greco-Roman city in the area where the modern Israeli city of Tel Aviv is located. Peter was there to preach Jesus’ message to the Jews in that place.
Looking at Jesus’ ministry, it was almost exclusively to the Jews with just a couple of exceptions. The Samaritan woman whom He met was part of a faith which was a variant of Judaism. The only non-Jew in Jesus’ ministry was the Roman soldier whose servant Jesus healed. And as we have heard at other times in other sermons, the word for that soldier’s “servant” probably should be interpreted as “male lover”.
Emulating Jesus’ model, it easy to see how the Disciples in the very early church would have concentrated on preaching the Good News to their fellow Jews. Something needed to change so that Christianity would become a universal, global faith… God needed to change the mind-set of Peter and the other Disciples, so God intervened…
We are not Jewish, and we perhaps struggle to understand the barriers in Peter’s mind. To eat food that was not Kosher, that is food which is not on the approved list or has not been prepared in a certain way, this would have been a total no-no for Peter. Similarly, the culture of the time would be that Jews would not associate with non-Jews. In many ways, the Jews of the time lived in closed communities.
The American theologian, Jeffrey Siker, in an article published in 1996 in “Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality”, wrote:
“To be a Gentile was, in the eyes of the Jews and Jewish Christians alike, the same thing as being a sinner, since the Gentiles did not have the [Jewish] Law, since they were by definition unclean, polluted and idolatrous. They first had to repent of being Gentiles and adopt the purifying and transforming practices of God’s covenant people, the Jews, before they could become Christians.”
God’s plan to open up the faith to all humankind had two strands to it. Firstly, God chose a man whose mind was open. (You can read more about this is the previous chapter, Acts 10.) The man He chose was an officer, a Centurion in the Italian Regiment of the Roman Army. The Italian Regiment is an important point: this man was from Italy, maybe even from Rome itself. His Regiment was based in Caesarea, the most important Roman city, the capital of the Roman province of Judea. It was where the Roman governor lived. (From the Easter story, we may have the notion that Pontius Pilate lived in Jerusalem. He did not.) So God chose an open-minded man, a man who was very important in Roman society, and it was to Cornelius that God spoke. In turn, Cornelius sent for Peter…
So part one of God’s plan was accomplished: Cornelius sent two servants and one soldier to Joppa to find Peter…
Second part: Peter. Because of his upbringing as a strict Jew, Peter would have never gone to Caesarea. Even if he had, it is unlikely that any Roman would have opened to the door to an itinerant Jewish preacher. God also needed to prepare Peter. Imagine Peter’s terror had God not prepared him for what was ahead. A Roman soldier and the entourage suddenly at the door would have evoked the same fears that Peter had on that night when Jesus was arrested, and Peter had betrayed his Master.
Interestingly, the Roman, Cornelius, was the one with the open mind, and the one to whom God spoke first. God had a bigger job to do with Peter! God had to get Peter ready to respond to the knock at the door, go with the soldier to Caesarea, set aside his cultural understanding to serve God in bringing the Good News of Jesus to the first Christian-household-to-be in the non-Jewish or Gentile world.
God prepared Peter through a dream, which some translations call a “vision” or a “trance”. God speaking to humans in this way occurs frequently in the books of the Bible. While some may dismiss this, I like to think of dreams as the time when our conscious “filtering software” of our waking hours is switched off, when our brains are quiet enough to listen, rather than filled with the noise of others, the outside world and its cultural norms our own thoughts.
In Peter’s dream, God challenges Peter to eat non-Kosher foods. God challenges Peter’s thinking, and here comes the key verse, the verse on which everything turns:
“The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’” (Acts 11:15)
The number three is textually significant in Peter’s faith journey: three times he denied Jesus; three times Jesus questions Peter to restore him to faith; and three times God challenges Peter and teaches him that nothing made by God is unclean.
The remainder of the story is the happy ending. Peter is prepared, the soldier and two from Cornelius’ household arrived and Peter went with them to Caesarea, together with 6 other Jewish converts to Christianity. From Joppa, that is about 50 kilometres and would have taken about 2 days on foot. I wonder what Peter talked about as he made that journey in the company of those three Gentiles. It was certain that this was the most time Peter had spent in the close company of non-Jews in his entire life. God brought Peter to the house of a powerful Roman official, and with their baptism, the truly universal, world-wide church began.
In his account to the other Disciples, Peter acknowledged God’s sovereignty. In his thinking, he makes the step between the traditional Jewish cultural understanding and universal acceptance. In verse 17, Peter said:
“It is clear that God gave those Gentiles the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ; who was I, then, to try to stop God!”
There is one final matter to be resolved. The passage began with the other Disciples’ harsh criticism of Peter. Had Peter’s account to them fallen on deaf ears, history would be very different; however, God’s changing of mindset went beyond Peter. Our reading ended with verse 18:
“When [the Disciples] heard this, they stopped their criticism and praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given to the Gentiles also the opportunity to repent and live!’”
Sadly, the openness of heart and mind which Peter and the other Disciples had has not continued down through the ages, and certainly not as far as LGBT people are concerned. Robert Shore-Goss, another so-titled Queer theologian, wrote in reference to the story of Peter and Cornelius that “there is a parallel with the moral revulsion of contemporary and evangelical Christians to homosexuals.”
Shore-Goss goes on to say:
“Compulsory heterosexuality has become the new purity map for homophobic Christians. Married heterosexual relationships are pure white while all other forms of sexuality are seen to be abhorrent, sinful and an abomination. It generates the moral revulsion of many Christians against LGBTQ folk… producing a homophobic ‘Creationism’ that allows for no deviance in the fundamentals of gender and sexuality.” [“Cornelius Story, Paul and Barnabas, and the Council of Jerusalem” in “The Queer Bible Commentary” (2006)]
Shortly after he was appointed Pope Francis was quoted as saying, “Who am I to judge gay people?” Yet just a few weeks ago, the Catholic church’s official document on families and human relationships maintained the hurtful position of the closed mind, and the Anglican Church’s decided to exclude their US branch because they now celebrate gay marriage.
Many of us have been hurt in the church by what has been preached. For many, particularly those of you here in our church today, that hurt has been the cause of mental and even physical torture, causing you to flee for your very lives to a place of asylum.
The American theologian Jeffrey Siker was once a Jesuit priest and shared in the anti-LGBT church view. Like Peter, his mindset changed:
“But just as Peter’s experience of Cornelius ... led him to realise that even Gentiles were receiving God’s spirit, so my experience of gay and lesbian Christians led to me realise that these Christians have received God’s spirit as gays and lesbians and that the reception of the Spirit has nothing to do with sexual orientation… I am compelled to ask: ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit?’” [Syker 1996, ibid.]
Our experience of God is a real one, one which we should share. In our church, the United Reformed Church, our diversity is a cause for celebration and blessing. Let us pray for those church leaders where their hearts and minds are closed to the diversity which Peter freely embraced.
The majority of LGBT folk dismiss faith, mainly because of the pain the churches have caused them. That view will not change unless we as LGBT Christians challenge it. Indeed, when it comes down to it, we are talking about eternal life. Jesus said that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. Jesus said that He came in order that we might life – life in all its fullness. God loves the LGBT community and wishes that they all share in His promise of a fulfilled and eternal life.
I will close today by looking ahead to the vision which the early Christians shared, in the face of the persecution that they faced, recorded in the Book of Revelation. In our world of pain, suffering and rejection, born out of human intolerance, greed and self-interest, there is a better way…
“1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the first earth disappeared, and the sea vanished. 2 And I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared and ready, like a bride dressed to meet her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice speaking from the throne: “Now God's home is with people! He will live with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them, and he will be their God. 4 He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain. The old things have disappeared.”
5 Then the one who sits on the throne said, “And now I make all things new!” He also said to me, “Write this, because these words are true and can be trusted.” 6 And he said, “It is done! I am the first and the last, the beginning and the end. To anyone who is thirsty I will give the right to drink from the spring of the water of life without paying for it.” (Revelation 21:1-6)