Some people have the idea that the Bible is a rather monolithic book- a book of unchanging rules, set in stone, unassailably infallible, without contradictions. It is, in fact nothing of the sort. It is, rather, a book full of stories about people who change their minds.
Today’s reading from the Book of Acts is a good example. Acts is the second volume of writings by the author of the Gospel of Luke. Its full title, ‘The Acts of the Apostles’ is the story of what the earliest Christians, and their leaders got up to. It’s the story of the beginnings of the Church.
As Luke tells us, no sooner had Jesus left than his followers created a movement. They went out together to tell people about who Jesus was and why he was important. They choose leaders, begin to organise themselves. They meet, not just for business, but for prayer, worship, and mutual encouragement: ‘They spent their time in learning from the apostles, taking part in the fellowship, and sharing in the fellowship meals and the prayers’ says Luke (Acts 2.42).
Nowadays, we hear that people don’t like organised religion. And some people give up on the Church, and try to be Christians alone. But Christianity, from the very beginning has been an organised religion. Nowadays, people say that it’s spirituality which is important. But from the very beginning, Christians have organised themselves for the sake of their spirituality. The writers of the Bible would not be able to imagine how anyone could be a Christian, and not be part of the Church. For Christianity has always understood that the Christianity is not an individualistic faith, but a communal activity. As far as the Bible is concerned, you can no more be a Christian and not part of the church than a car could run without an engine.
But the New Testament does not present a sanitized Church. Like the Church of today, the early Church had its divisions, its arguments, its disagreements, its division. Today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles is a story about trying to deal with a major controversy in the early church. And, by way of what is almost a parable, it shows how the earliest Church overcame that problem. As it happens, the problem is not a burning issue for today’s Church. But it’s one of those stories about how God changes people’s minds, about how tradition develops, about how people gain new insights. And that makes it a very relevant story.
Early on, the first Christians had to deal with the fact that there were two kinds of people joining their movement. Jesus was a Jewish teacher. He started off as someone seeking to reform the Jewish religion. But even before his death, many people who were not Jews were attracted by his teachings. So a movement which began as an attempt at a reformation of Judaism quickly found that non-Jews- Gentiles- were attracted to it.
So did that mean that in order to become a Christian, you had to become a Jew first of all? Did all the rules of the Jewish Law, such as rules about food which could be eaten (many of which had a basis in the Bible, the Hebrew scriptures) apply also to Gentiles who wanted to become Christians? In particular, did a man who was a Gentile need to be circumcised in order to be a follower of Jesus? After all, the Bible was quite specific on the point- no man could worship the God of Israel unless they had been circumcised, for that was the sign of that he belonged to the Covenant community.
So it seems a situation developed so that there were, in effect, two classes of Christian. If you were a Jewish, all was fine and dandy. Your faith in Christ was added on to your Jewish heritage. You carried on keeping the various Jewish laws and traditions, which would mean, for example, that you would not eat with non-Jews- including- potentially, Gentiles who had, like you, found faith in Jesus Christ. Which meant that, in a way, the Gentile Christians were a separate class of Christians.
At the start of our Acts reading, we hear that Peter (who had been the leading disciple of Jesus) has got into trouble: ‘The apostles and the other believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. When Peter went to Jerusalem, those who were in favour of circumcising Gentiles criticized him, saying, “You were a guest in the home of uncircumcised Gentiles, and you even ate with them!”’. Peter had overstepped the mark. The rules were quite clear- no Jew should be eating with uncircumcised Gentiles, even if those Gentiles had heard the Word and come to faith in Christ. So what we might call the traditionalist camp- those who thought that the old Jewish Law still held for them- were outraged.
We might think it petty that someone might refuse to sit down and share a meal with them on the basis that they belong to a different religion. Especially if both people shared the same faith in Jesus Christ- why would you treat a fellow Christian differently because they came from a different background? But this a fault into which Christians constantly fall. We tell ourselves that there is some reason why we cannot fully participate in Church life with other Christians.
When Christianity came to South Africa, many black Africans embraced the faith. But the white settlers did not feel comfortable worshipping together with the black Christians. In the case of the Dutch Reformed Church, they set up separate churches for blacks and whites. They even said that it wasn’t right for different races to worship together, and they developed a new doctrine to justify it- they called it apartheid.
There’s a tale about a ship which comes across a desert island accidentally, and discovers a Scotsman who has been marooned there for years. Like Robinson Crusoe, he has worked out how to survive- he’s built a house which is a home from home. He has even built not one, but two churches. ‘Why’, the ship’s captain asks the Scotsman, ‘have you built two churches?’ ‘One of them is where I go to worship God. And the other’s the one I’ll never set foot in again’. Any excuse for a schism.
Peter stands accused of consorting with Gentile, and so throwing hundreds of years of tradition out of the window. He responds to his traditionalist critics not by arguing with them, but by telling them a story. He’d had a dream- a vision of various animals which, as good Jew, he would never think of eating. He seems to hear God telling him to eat the animals. But Peter, as a Jew, had been brought up to believe that such food was ‘unclean’- horrified, he refuses. For the Hebrew Bible is quite clear in saying that God has ordained that certain animals are never to be eaten by Jews. And Peter can’t spurn his Jewish heritage quite so easily. After all, if any of us are asked to change something which we has been part of our tradition for years, something we take for granted because it is part and parcel of our religious tradition, we feel uneasy about changing our minds. We have always done it this way. We will lose so much if we change this. To do this would be to disobey God, and insult our ancestors. That’s why our churches fossilize, why we will not hear when God is trying to lead us on to new things. We close our minds to new insights. God gives us a vision for the future, we reject it.
Three times, Peter thought he heard God saying he should abandon the old Jewish food laws: ‘Do not consider anything unclean that God has declared clean’, says the voice. Three times Peter refused. Three times, Peter is offered a new insight by God, and three times he refuses to listen.
And at this point, the human element enters into the situation. Some fellow-believers arrive, and ask him to come to the home of a man named Cornelius. Something impels Peter to go with them: ‘The Spirit told me to go with them without hesitation’, he says. Cornelius- a Gentile- has been seeking God, and claims an angel told him to send for Peter. And so Peter goes to the house of this uncircumcised Gentile, a man who regularly eats what Jews would describe as ‘unclean’ food. Peter tells the Good News of Christ to the family of Cornelius, and they are baptized, and Peter is powerfully aware that the Spirit of God is present. He recalls the words of Jesus: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’.
This is Peter’s answer his critics, those who accused him of breaking with tradition by treating Christians of Gentile origin exactly the same as those of Jewish heritage. God, he says, ‘gave those Gentiles the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ’. The Gentiles are genuine Christians. God has called them, despite their non-Jewish background. ‘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!’
The Book of the Acts of the Apostles tells this story twice (see also Acts 10). In our reading, Peter is retelling the story to his critics. And we are told that they were convinced: ‘they stopped their criticism and praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given to the Gentiles also the opportunity to repent and live!’ They have changed their minds. They have changed what they though was unchangeable doctrine. And they have opened the way to Christianity becoming a world faith, a faith open to people of all nations and races, open to everyone whatever their background.
By the time Luke, the author of Acts, has given us Peter’s version of the story, he has spent as much time on the story of Cornelius as he did on the story of Pentecost, the story of when the Holy Spirit came down on the believers for the very first time. It’s as if Luke wants to say that this is a second Pentecost- that the Spirit of God can come upon non-Jews is as important as the original Pentecost. And for Peter the other believers to learn that God can work on people who are not like them is a world changing insight. And yet it did not come easily to the Church. Three times, Peter refused to hear what God was trying to tell him. And when he puts his new insight into practice, he causes an argument in the Church.
Peter thought he was having a vision, and thought that maybe God was trying to tell him something. But it was the human fact which finally convinced him. Dreams, visions, theological reasoning if often not enough. It was when he met Cornelius, and saw the Spirit at work in a Gentile, that he finally got to the realisation that God was telling him something new.
A few years ago, I was at the General Assembly, where once again we were having a debate about sexuality. I had a coffee with someone I hadn’t really seen since we were students together. The sexuality issue came up, and I remembered that my friend had had a reputation for being a conservative at University. So he would not be in favour of changing the church’s doctrine then, I suggested to him. ‘Well, Peter, a few years ago, a young man in my church, a serious Christian of faith and integrity, leader in our youth group, came to me one day and said, “I don’t know what do to, but I think I am gay. I don’t know how to fit that with my faith- can you help me?” And that young man, Peter, made me change my mind about homosexuality’.
Yes, being in the church is messy and difficult. We do get argumentative sometimes. But I was reminded this week that conflict, handled properly, can be a way to grow. It’s when we talk to others, share our stories, listen to one another, that we discover how the Spirit of Jesus it at work today. That was Peter’s experience- he saw the Spirit at work where he didn’t expect it, and eventually had to say, ‘Who was I, then, to try to stop God!’ It became the experience of those who were horrified that he seemed to be dumping tradition- they had to agree with him: ‘they stopped their criticism and praised God, saying, “Then God has given to the Gentiles also the opportunity to repent and live!”’ It can be our experience, if we seriously believe that God is speaking to us today through people who seem very different from us.
Today, those different people might be refugees, or people not of our social class, or folks who worship in another church, or people who are much younger or older than we are. The first Christians had to learn that God was calling lots of different kinds of people to faith in Jesus Christ. They had to learn that when Jesus said they were to love one another, they were to do so regardless of the background of their fellow Christians. We also need to learn that, again and again. Like the board game men on the order of service, we may be lots of different colours, but we are all playing the same game.
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The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
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All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2016 Peter W Nimmo