Acts 11 : 1-18 Sermon

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1 Acts 11 : 1-18 Sermon Imagine a church being riven apart by different personalities leading different groups each trying to pull it in different directions. Imagine a church whose future is threatened because increasingly those who make up its membership care little for its traditional principles and beliefs. Imagine a church which is being crushed by a pressure to change and adapt to a new social reality, change which seems too rapid and too dramatic for it to handle. For the avoidance of doubt I should make it clear that I am not talking about this congregation. And I m not talking about the Church of Scotland, though perhaps, some would argue, I could be. What I am describing is the church whose story we are following from the book of Acts. I know there is a tendency to look back to that movement as a more authentic expression of Christian faith than anything we have today, and that may be right. Certainly it was bursting with life and faith and people willing to put themselves on the line for the sake of the gospel. But it was also a very human organisation, troubled by by many difficult and divisive questions, struggling to cope with the demands of a changing membership and a changing world. It may be rather depressing, or it may be rather reassuring, to know that such troubles have been part of church life since the very beginning, but the good news is that they found a very positive way forward, and that they did that by focusing on the very core of their calling. Here and now, for the church in Europe, our problems stem may from decline rather than growth, but it is good for us to go back and be reminded of the focus which held them together, and let them thrive. The story which we read this morning turns out to be a key moment. For the story of how Peter changed is a microcosm of how the whole church had to change, and we should not underestimate how difficult that must have been. Peter's story is first told in Acts 10, and that fact that it is then repeated almost in total in chapter 11 reflects how crucial it was. It tells us of him having a vision where God called him to kill and eat animals which were prohibited under Jewish law. Peter is naturally horrified at the very idea, "Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or

2 unclean". But God responded, "What God has cleansed, you must not call unclean". Can we get what a huge thing this was? God is rebuking him for holding firm to his historic faith, to the very laws which God had given to his people through Moses. This is not just about what you eat, it went much deeper than that. The food laws were seen as a sign of holiness. Obeying them fully and faithfully was evidence of your ability to distinguish between right and wrong, what was good and what was evil, what was pure and what was defiled. How could he go back on what he had always known and believed and lived by? Yet God calls him to do exactly that, and finally he is convinced that this is a change he must make. He had to learn to give up his deeply held religious convictions, because there was something else that was more important. He had to learn, not just to eat certain foods which would have seemed disgusting to him, but to accept all sorts of things which he had always been taught to avoid any contact with and therefore to accept all sorts of people he had always been taught to avoid any contact with. God calls him to do that, and as if that were not enough he then has to back to Jerusalem and convince everyone else in the community that they must do it as well. I m sure many of you have gone into meetings with a difficult policy to push through, but I m not sure you will have faced a challenge like that too often. I wonder if there could be anything in our belief systems which could be as basic and fundamental and apparently obvious as those laws were Peter. He could have gone to the scriptures which he had, our Old Testament, and found plenty of verses to justify standing firm on his old beliefs. There would have been plenty of support and justification for him to resist such change as a step too far. But he was willing to change because there was something else that was more important. He was willing to change for the sake of the gospel. Perhaps at some point he recalled the words of Jesus about how those who try to cling to their lives will lose them but those who are willing to lose their lives for the sake of gospel will find life. This was a huge thing to expect of him, but in the end, he was ready to let go in order to let God. That is familiar language for anyone developing a

3 spiritual awareness. We discover how important it is to let go: to let go of our anger, to let go of sense of entitlement, to let go of, our pride, to let go of the picture of reality which our egos create. We are familiar with the need to let go of that which we clutch in order let God have space to do his thing in our lives. But here is something different, something perhaps even more challenging. It is the call to let go of our religious conviction to let go of our treasured traditions, to let go of our faith as we define it, in order to let God do his thing in us and through us. Our religion and our tradition and the definitions of the faith which we have learned about and adhere to, these are indeed precious things. Without those structures being built around the core message of the gospel it is hard to see how the message of the gospel could have survived and been passed on so successfully. But the spirit of God still finds ways to interrupt our certainties and to remind us that the structures are not actually the gospel, and to prompt us to wonder if they might actually be getting in the way of the gospel, just as laws about circumcision and food would once have got in the way of the gospel. Perhaps we are prompted to wonder what there could be in the forms and practices and structures of church that we know, the ways of being church and doing church that we know and perhaps occasionally love, which might get in the way of the gospel. I am reminded of a tale of a tall man sitting in a cinema who noticed that a rather small boy was sitting directly behind him. He turned and asked the boy if he was able to see the screen, and the boy said that he couldn t. Well don t worry, the man said. Just watch me and laugh when I laugh. There is a sense in which the church says to the world around us, are you looking for hope and purpose and meaning and love, well just come and do what we do, and it will all be ok. Just become like us and everything will be fine. Just as Peter might once have said to similar seekers, just stop eating everything on this list, learn about how we worship, get yourself circumcised, and you'll be ok. Just become like us and everything will be fine. But of course it is not about what we do. It has never been about what we do. Even our most deeply held convictions and most deeply engrained practices have only ever been there to serve the gospel. And serving the

4 gospel is the only thing we must hold on to with any firmness. That is the one guiding principal which should inform our actions and our decisions in any time of difficulty, even if the cost look and feels very high. We know there is one fundamental command which Jesus gave to those who would follow him; the command that we should love one another, that we should love one another the way he has loved us. Even that could sound cosy and safe. We can form small groups of like-minded people who care and support one another, and there is nothing wrong with that. But we know that Jesus also clearly taught that we should love our neighbour, the one who might be very different from us. Jesus also clearly taught that we should love our enemy and there is nothing cosy or safe about that. And the church is always challenged, as Peter and his church were surely challenged, to keep the focus on the most important thing to keep the focus on the loving, and to be ready to let go of anything else. Of course that gospel message will always need to have organisations and structures to support it and protect and enable it. Of course traditions will always form around the way we do that. But the structures will always be temporary, and they will always need to be expendable, and they should never become the centre of our effort or our devotion. If they get in the way of our ability to love one another, or if they stop people from seeing that our priority is to learn to love as Jesus loved, then we must be ready to let go of them. In that sense letting go of our religious convictions not the end of faith, it is an expression of faith. To be ready to let go of things we may have felt the need to hold on to very firmly, because we trust that God will always find new ways to express his love, because we trust that we will find new ways to express his love. We don t remain faithful to the saints who have gone before us by protecting the structures and practices which they developed in their time. We remain faithful to them by imitating them as we develop new structures for our own time. That may be the hard calling for the church today, but it is certainly no harder than that given to Peter. And as we make our way through our own difficult times, with leaders who seem to pull us in different directions, with younger members having different outlooks from

5 older members, with society changing so rapidly all around us, we have no shortage of problems to face up and deal with. Yet we also have a wonderful opportunity, to be part of that process of getting back to what is really important, to rediscover for ourselves what it means to simply obey Jesus, to love one another as he has loved us, and to see what wonderful consequences can still flow from that. A wonderful opportunity to just reach out to one another, with humility and with compassion. To pass on what we have experienced of a relationship with God, and to rejoice in all the new things that we may discover as we do so. If, like Peter, we can let go of what is no longer as useful or relevant as it once was, and hold firmly to the gospel of love, then we too may be part of a very exciting story.

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