Sunday, 28 April 2013

The clue is in the command...

Acts 11:1-18
Peter’s Report to the Church at Jerusalem
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.”

John 13:34-35
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.”

Earlier this year, when I visited Krakow, we toured Schindler's Factory and had a wonderful guide who explained to us the effects of World War 2 on the population of Poland and Krakow in particular. Her account was illustrated by the various exhibits at the museum that now inhabits the factory building.
The part I found most moving, though, was her account of the years after the war. The time when one might have thought that life would return to some form of normality. But, in fact, life became even more difficult for the residents of Krakow. Continued political oppression saw the university city once populated by academics and artists becoming steadily industrialised.
Relationships that had broken down during war time, were further fractured under a communist regime and oppression of minority groups continued to be a feature of the People's Republic.
In the museum, this was portrayed by inviting visitors to walk across a shifting surface - a spongy, wobbly floor. This instability symbolised the uncertainty and upheaval of the post war years in Poland as everything shifted and was shaken up even more than in the war years, as folk jostled for position, formed and broke relationships in all areas of life, were tossed around and had difficulty knowing which way to turn.
While processing the historical information intellectually it left quite an impact to experience something of that instability physically too.
There had been too much upheaval for folk to simply pick up the pieces and move on.
In Acts, as we explore the early church, we find the early Christian community undergoing a similar seismic shift as folk assume positions of responsibility and as roles are assumed and rules made for their common life together.
It was a whirlwind season of change.
Of discovering life together as a community and forming rules around which that community could exist and grow.
Rules for a community springing up from the example and teaching of Jesus.
And, as if that wasn't radical enough, the community was also being guided and directed by the Holy Spirit.
And so, in our reading this morning we find a huge challenge to some of the rules by which folk lived.
Rules about food and rituals and what can be considered clean and unclean.
As well as who could be considered clean and unclean.
Who was in.
And who should be excluded from this new way of life.
Because the new way of life is based on the teaching of Jesus.
A Teaching that stretched the boundaries.
A Teaching based on love, a love that freed people from rules that sought to contain.
A love that encouraged folk to embrace their new found freedom to make a difference for others.
A teaching based on that passage that we read in John: Love one another.
Although the folk in those early Christian communities were clearly trying to live by that command - they were loving, they looked out for each other, they shared what they had- though they practised that new command that Jesus had given them, they didn't quite go far enough.
Because their community was exclusive.
It was a community of loving and caring and sharing.
But it wasn't open to all.
And that's what we find the new community of believers wrestling with this morning.
Widening the community.
Stretching the limits.
Being open to the guiding of the Holy Spirit that is urging them to contemplate new horizons.
But this is no gentle nudge.
It's full on and urgent.

In The Acts passage we read of a threefold confirmation of the call to extend the gospel to the Gentiles.
This was a huge shift for the early Christian community, pushing back the boundaries to previously inconceivable limits.
A community just getting to grips with being a community - being asked to make room for others - folk with whom they would not ordinarily have associated.
That's a major shift for any community, never mind a community in its infancy as these followers of Jesus were.
But Peter's vision wasn't something they were given the option to think about and pray about, weigh up the pros and cons and then come to a decision.
The challenge, once made, had to be acted on immediately.
And it was a challenge that this early church community embraced, though kicking and screaming.
Guided by Peter, prompted by the Holy Spirit, this tiny, fledgling community were able to shed years of tradition and culture and embrace a whole new way of living, a radically new way of being.
They were able to look at others whom they'd always considered as too different to belong and to realise that, in Christ, they belonged together.
Because Jesus said: I give you a new commandment - that you love one another.
We cannot underestimate what a shift that was for those early Christians.
To include those they considered unclean because of their practises and customs.
People like you and me in fact.
But it was a shift they were prepared to make in the light of Jesus teaching.

The church today finds itself with the same kind of opportunity to shock the world around.
To continue to demonstrate how radically different it is to be Christian.
To be open and welcome and affirming of those who are different from us.
Those whom God does not exclude.
Can we catch that vision today?
And can we respond as radically as the early church did?
Of course there were those who disputed.
There were those who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this new notion of community.
But, at the end of the day, they picked up and ran with Jesus' command - to love one another.
They showed that they were followers of Jesus by the way they lived with love for each other.
It all seems very simple, doesn't it?
And yet, right now, we have churches tearing themselves apart over wanting to decide who is in and who is out, who belongs and who should not.
We make the simple extraordinarily complicated.

The love of God comes to each of us unconditionally - and is not exclusive.
How then can we place conditions upon that love and exclude those whom we consider different?
Jesus said: 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.”

May it be so today.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

No comments: