In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
This weekend, the General Assembly of our Church of Scotland is meeting, and will continue to meet until Friday. On this Sabbath Day, there is no business done. Instead, commissioners will attend worship at St Giles to hear a sermon from the Moderator- and, no doubt, some very fine music. We have no commissioners from this congregation this year, but most of our St Stephen’s Church Choir will be taking part in a less formal act of worship, as part of a massed choir at Heart and Soul, an excellent event which showcases the work of the church and other Christian organisations in Prince Street Gardens, in the heart of our capital city. I’m looking forward to hearing how they enjoy that event.
The General Assembly is basically one enormous Church meeting. But not everyone likes meetings for business. Quite often people will say nowadays, ‘I don’t like organised religion’. But Christianity has always been a social faith: from the very beginning has been an organised religion. 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. And that means getting organised and having meetings has been part of the life of the Church from the very beginning.
As St Luke tells us, no sooner had Jesus left than his followers created a movement. They chose leaders, and began to organise themselves. They met, not just for business, but for prayer, worship, and mutual encouragement. They organised so that they could get on with the business of preaching the Gospel.
And yet 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 divisions. Today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles is a story about trying to deal with a major controversy in the early church. How they dealt with it can perhaps help us today, whether we are in a local Church or a General Assembly.
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.
And so some questions were inevitably asked: did all the rules of the Jewish Law, like male circumcision, or rules about eat, apply to Christians, too? Did that mean that to be a proper a Christian, do you had have been born to a Jew, or become a Jew? Did a man who was a Gentile need to be circumcised in order to be a follower of Jesus? And if the Gentiles wouldn’t keep the rules, were they sort of second class Christians, or not really Christians at all?
At the start of our Acts reading, we hear that Peter (who had been the leading disciple of Jesus) has got into trouble over this:
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!”
In his enthusiasm to welcome the Gentiles, some people thought that Peter had overstepped the mark. The old 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.
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 stood accused of consorting with Gentiles, 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 about a dream he’d had.
Peter explains that he had a vision in which God told to eat the animals which were classed as ‘unclean’ in Jewish law. But Peter, as a Jew, had been brought up to believe that such food was ‘unclean’- horrified, he refused to do it at first. For the Hebrew Bible is quite clear in saying that God has ordained that certain animals are never to be eaten by Jews.
For 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. But 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 of God. 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 at Peter’s house, 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, is doing a new thing:
‘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?’
Peter has learned that the Gentiles are not second class Christians. God has called them, despite their non-Jewish background. And so Peter’s story changes the mind of the traditionalists:
They stopped their criticism and praised God, saying, “Then God has given to the Gentiles also the opportunity to repent and live!”
The old laws had seemed like unchangeable doctrine. It seemed as if Gentiles would always have to settle for being second class Christians. But Peter convinces his fellow Jewish Christians that God has given the Spirit to both Gentile and Jewish Christians. This is such an important story, that Luke tells it twice in the Book of Acts. For it has 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.
Yet it was not easy for the Church to come to this conclusion. Three times, Peter refused to hear what God was trying to tell him. And when he told others of his new insight, it caused an argument in the Church. But the Church got there in the end. And the clincher was the human factor. When the traditionalists saw that the Gentile Christians were filled with God’s Spirit too, they finally accepted that God was doing 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’.
Yes, being in the church is messy and difficult. We do get argumentative sometimes. But 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. This is a lesson we need to bear in mind as we make decisions at church meetings today- whether at General Assembly, or in our own congregation.
Peter’s experience was that 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.
Jesus commanded his followers to love one another. But how can we love one another if we make some people second class Christians? How can we love one another if we refuse to be in fellowship with people just because they are different? 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, people who have a different feeling about their sexuality. 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. And today, we are to do likewise, and make sure that we welcome everyone. For if the Spirit of Christ is doing new things in the Church, who are we to try to stop God?
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
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
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo