EASTER 5. Yr. C Acts 11,1-18; Rev. 21, 1-6; John 13, 31-35
Many of you will have been saddened, as I was, by the news of the death of the entertainer, Victoria Wood. So much of her work as an actor, and writer of comedies and songs, has brought me joy over the years.
Some years ago, I watched a programme about her visiting parts of the British Empire. When she was in Hong Kong, she had a conversation with a dog beautician, who told her that one way rich residents demonstrated their wealth was to buy expensive and rare breeds of dogs as pets – and then serve them up as gourmet meals to their friends. When she visited Borneo, she was presented with another gourmet meal of bird’s nest soup, which she did not enjoy because she had previously visited the caves where the ingredients of the soup were collected, one of which was bird spit.
The expressions of disgust and horror I can see on the faces of some of you must be very like the reactions of members of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem when they heard the description of what Peter had been ordered to eat in his vision. (Acts 11, 1-18) All the foods in the sheet that was lowered – birds of prey, reptiles, and insects – were unclean according to Jewish dietary rules, and observant Jews were forbidden to eat them.
Many religions, like Judaism, have rules about what their members may or may not eat. As Peter’s experience shows, it is a discipline, but also a way of keeping a holy people separate from nonbelievers, since you can only socialise in a limited way with people you cannot share meals with. The food laws were one important strand in defining who was Jewish and who was Gentile, and keeping them apart so that the Jewish religion was not watered down or compromised.
Most societies have conventions about food – for instance the French eat horse-meat, which we tend not to; and they eat snails, which we don’t although we do eat whelks. Many of these are breaking down as societies become multi-cultural, and restrictive food laws are often the first things to be jettisoned when a religion undergoes a liberal reformation.
This is what happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It ushered in a new era, in which the restrictions and regulations of Old Testament Judaism were no longer appropriate. The fact that this event is described in more or less detail three times in Chapters 10 and 11 of Acts, shows how important a decision it was. The Book of Acts shows the disciples struggling with the implications of the new age. This particular extract seems to show that the inclusion of the Gentiles was accepted once and for all after Peter’s explanation. But further reading in the Book of Acts and in the Epistles show that the issue continued to cause division in the Early Church, especially after St. Paul’s missionary journeys brought many more Gentile converts into the church. It took a long time to decide whether those Gentiles who wanted to become Christians had to keep all the food laws or just some of them, had to undergo circumcision if they were men, and had to observe Jewish religious festivals.
We tend to think that deep and bitter divisions about what is essential and what is peripheral to the Christian faith are a relatively modern phenomenon. A careful reading of the New Testament soon demonstrates that divisions were part of the Christian experience from the very beginning.
The food we eat is no longer a major cause of dispute within the Christian Church. But then, it was not really the issue at stake for Peter and Paul in their missionary activities. What was really in dispute was who could be admitted as full members of the covenant community, and that continues to divide Christians. In the past people have been denied full participation (which includes full participation in worship and sacraments and being able to occupy positions of leadership and authority) on the grounds of their race or ethnic origin, on the basis of their age, and on the basis of their gender. Now the burning issue on which some parts of the church wish to exclude others is the issue of sexuality.
The church is both a divine and a human institution, so it is not surprising that sometimes human limitations take over. But God has no such limitations, and the Spirit (as the reading shows) is constantly breaking through those barriers which human beings construct around themselves to make themselves feel safe or comfortable. As faithful Christians we will find ourselves constantly being challenged (as Peter was) to follow the Spirit’s lead to situations and places we would rather not go, and our minds constantly being opened to new possibilities of inclusion in our fellowship.
If we take on board fully the implications of this story, perhaps we will feel afraid. It makes it abundantly clear that the Spirit of God is free to bring about the will of God for the world and to transform it into a new heaven and earth, in unlooked for ways. It makes it clear that we cannot use our conventional short cut of categorising people by race, gender or sexuality in making decisions about them. It makes it very plain that the life and death of Jesus brought about salvation for everyone, and all sorts of people who we may not like, or approve of, are going to be grafted into our community whether we like it or not. It shows that to discriminate against those to whom God has given the gifts of the Spirit is to oppose God, the worst of sins.
It is hard for human beings to keep up with God. And though we may believe that we will follow wherever the Spirit leads, putting this into practice is not always easy to do. We need always to be asking ourselves, “Do we put limits on God’s offer of salvation? Are there groups of people that we regard as ‘impure’ and unworthy to be part of our fellowship? How can we tell if it is truly the Spirit leading us, and not our own desires, or human fashion?”
God does not leave us without guidance, however, The gospel reading, taken from John’s account of the Last Supper, gives us one means of judging whether people are truly Jesus’ disciples or not. The guidance is placed just after the moment in the story where Judas leaves to betray Jesus and the others to the authorities, thus demonstrating that people who betray their friends are not true disciples. Jesus warns his disciples of his imminent death, and gives them a new commandment – to love one another as he has loved them; then he adds that they can tell if others are his disciples by the quality of their love for each other.
This is a very practical yardstick for us to use. It means we have to judge each person individually, rather than relying on human categories. It is also a yardstick by which we know we all fall short: for none of us is able to show the boundless, sacrificial, all-inclusive love which Jesus did when chose to die on the cross rather than resist with violence. So we are all included in the community of the Church by grace, and we have to be very, very careful about excluding others without good reason.
Inevitably, Christians will continue to be divided, as the Jerusalem Church was divided, over where the limits of inclusion and exclusion should be set. The story from Acts gives us some guidance about how we should deal with those divisions. Peter didn’t indulge in a long discourse about the theory behind the dietary laws and how things had changed; he didn’t bandy passages of Scripture with those who challenged his actions. He was honest about his own reservations, but detailed clearly how, after prayer and being open to the Spirit’s leading, a new and unexpected experience had changed his deeply held opinions.
Peter’s experience is a real challenge to many in the Church, who seek to keep themselves in little enclaves of orthodoxy and supposed purity, and refuse to allow themselves to be open to the ministry of those – be they women, or gays, or whoever – whom they seek to exclude.
Of course, being open to the leading of the Spirit is not without risks: but risk-taking love is what Jesus was all about.