Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Risen Christ, your wounds declare your love for the world and the wonder of your risen life: give us compassion and courage to risk ourselves for those we serve, to the glory of God the Father.
Eternal God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life: grant us to walk in his way, to rejoice in his truth, and to share his risen life; who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
Praise the Lord from the heavens; •
praise him in the heights.
2 Praise him, all you his angels; •
praise him, all his host.
3 Praise him, sun and moon; •
praise him, all you stars of light.
4 Praise him, heaven of heavens, •
and you waters above the heavens.
5 Let them praise the name of the Lord, •
for he commanded and they were created.
6 He made them fast for ever and ever; •
he gave them a law which shall not pass away.
7 Praise the Lord from the earth, •
you sea monsters and all deeps;
8 Fire and hail, snow and mist, •
tempestuous wind, fulfilling his word;
9 Mountains and all hills, •
fruit trees and all cedars;
10 Wild beasts and all cattle, •
creeping things and birds on the wing;
11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, •
princes and all rulers of the world;
12 Young men and women,
old and young together; •
let them praise the name of the Lord.
13 For his name only is exalted, •
his splendour above earth and heaven.
14 He has raised up the horn of his people
and praise for all his faithful servants, •
the children of Israel, a people who are near him.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
Sermon on Sunday – Easter 5
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’
A news item on Friday sparked some thoughts regarding this reading from Acts. President Trump is wanting only educated English–(presumably the American version)–speaking people to enter the United States. No longer does it seem that the United States will entertain “the poor, those huddled masses, yearning to be free” as the people who can enter that country. This is not a new phenomenon in the present and the previous century, nor is it peculiar to that country. The same sort of debate has been raging in this country for many decades.
‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Peter was asked. The “uncircumsised” is a circumlocution for “the different”. They are unlike us. The uncircumcised are men who are not Jews, they do not conform to what the Jews expect. In our towns and villages, we are afraid of the incomer, the stranger in our midst. You need only think of how long it took you became a member of the community to see that this is true.
The stranger, the poor, the helpless, the sick, one of the LGBT – These are all people who are different, so different we do not wish to associate with them. Even the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church divides itself into them and us, the conservative evangelicals will not have anything to do with the pentecostalists, the Romans will have nothing to do with the Anglicans, and so on. Fear is at the heart of all of this – those other people are just so very different from us, aren’t they? We have our own ideas of what they are and that idea makes it impossible for us to understand them. Isn’t this what Peter is saying in his own defence?
That great sheet that descended in his vision contained all created things. The voice said they were all licit. He should choose something to eat from that sheet. Peter balked at this, for had always obeyed the law, never had he transgressed the dietary laws, he says.
But now there is a new law, isn’t there? Peter can now eat anything, anything from that cloth is allowed. This new law is inclusive, not exclusive. All things can be taken in. This is a metaphor, isn’t it? Peter speaks of the dietary law in terms of his vision, but we must take it further, as Peter does, when he justifies his sitting down with Gentiles.
How can such an upstanding Jew as Peter sit down at table with a Gentile? They are impure, aren’t they? They eat pork at the very least. Those Gentiles are so very different to us Jews – “we Jewish christians should have nothing to do with gentiles, should we?” asks the other apostles.
That argument reveals a closed community, people who are afraid of anything, or any person, not within the bounds of “the law” – that law ultimately boils down to our own expectations, and we then say what we want is what is right.
What is “right”? Is it something objective or something we feel in our hearts? Is what is right only personal, something that is right for me? That is a more philosophical discussion than we need at this moment, but it is something which everyone should consider now and again.
Anyway, let’s return to our reading from Acts.
Peter said to his inquisitors, “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” Peter went with those three men from Caesarea, those gentiles, with six of the group with him. When Peter began to speak to the people at Caesarea, something happened, didn’t it? They began to speak in tongues, this fundamental event in the history of the Church, what is called the birth of the universal Church, an event claimed by every denomination claiming Christ and the Holy Spirit as their own.
How, Peter asks, are they any different from us? They have heard the Word, they have believed and the Spirit has been given to them. Everything happens for a gentile as it does for a Jew, so why should there be any distinction at all?
This story must be founded on something fundamentally new, and our gospel reading points us to what it is. The new commandment Jesus gave. It was given to the Jews who had originally gathered around him, that we love one another just as he has loved us. That love, of which I have spoken time and again, transforms everything. Love makes no distinction between one and another. All are of equal value.
The new commandment is certainly very different from the old law, isn’t it? It is inclusive, so there is no distinction in Christ between male or female, gentile or jew, rich or poor, … the list goes on. The distinction the Jew made between themselves and the gentiles, Peter argues, is no longer applicable. The law of love which Jesus taught – no, the law of love Jesus commanded – turns the world upside down. Inclusion, not exclusion, is the mark of this new community.
Inclusiveness has become a byword today, hasn’t it? Though, I am afraid, we are failing the ideal in so many places. I won’t give any examples, because it is too depressing. Let us just say that it is the case.
We are not showing the love, are we? We are making distinctions for the sake of separation, not the celebration of diversity. If we were merely describing the nuances which make up that rich tapestry of life, that life in all its fulness which we celebrate as the Church universal – everything would be so very different! The Kingdom will have come, just as we pray for it.
So to return to the beginning with that news report from Friday morning. – As a US citizen, I am disheartened by the reported pronouncements of the President, but as a christian I am even more dismayed, for if I am to love my neighbour, how can I accept only someone who is just like me? So many neighbours would be left out, that is for sure. How could I love my neighbour and exclude any person from my company? I want to show that I love others as Jesus has loved me. How can I do anything but invite everyone to sit at table with me? The larder may be bare, but what a happy life it would be, because we show the love and feel it, and better yet, feed it.