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May 10th, 1998 (St. George's URC, Hartlepool)
Easter 5 (RCL - year C )

Readings:   Acts 11:1-18    "Holy sheet!"
                  Psalm 148    "Come on everybody - Praise the Lord!"
                  Revelation 21:1-6    "A new heaven and a new earth"
                  John 13:31-35         "Love one another as I have loved you"

"Even them...."

A story so important that Luke tells it twice.  A story so important that it leads to a major Jerusalem conference - an emergency meeting of top church leaders.  A story so important that after it was told, the Church would never be the same again...

A slightly odd story... visions on rooftops... a sheet full of animals... a whole roomfull of people speaking in tongues...

It all sounds a little bit exraordinary to us doesn't it?  It all sounds just a little bit extraordinary that big cheese christian leaders like Peter could really believe that God did not have a place for God-fearing Gentiles... that God did not have a place for people like Cornelius who prayed constantly and lived his life with a generous, Godly spirit.  This is the same Peter who had walked and talked with Jesus for three years.  This is the same Peter who had seen Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well, had heard first-hand the parable of the Good Samaritan, had seen Jesus bring the Centurion's daughter back to life, had heard Jesus say that this centurion had more faith in his little finger than most of the Jewish leaders of his day put together...

And here he is, Peter, with stoneage views about God.  Here he is, Peter, who actually believes that God is bothered about nationality or about whether someone is circumcised or not.  Here he is, Peter, the one who had failed and been forgiven by Jesus time and time again; the one who was welcomed back into the fold and called the rock on which the Church would be built.  Here he is sincerely believing the crackpot idea that God might not have a place for the likes of Cornelius.

It sounds crazy to me and you doesn't it?  It sounds crazy to me and to you that flying in the face of all the evidence that Cornelius and so many more like him were God-fearing and devout people whose lives were filled with gentleness and with prayer and with love and generosity, despite all the evidence, Peter and those in authority in Jerusalem could not bring themselves to believe that God might have a place for Gentiles.

They took the issue very seriously.  By New Testament times it had become a matter of great importance for the Jews not to mix with the Gentiles.  It's not difficult to see how it all came about.  The people of Israel were led out of slavery into the wilderness for 40 years.  They got used to being God's chosen ones, they developed their own distinctive lifestyle - what was appropriate dress, what it was right to eat, how men and women should interact - all based on what they believed God was calling them to be.

At the end of that long and dusty road through the wilderness though, came the promised land. In the promised land there lived a wide variety of other cultures - peoples and nations who had worked out their rules for living in myriad different ways.  Suddenly, the people of Israel were exposed to other ways of living.  The more they engaged and interacted with other cultures, the more they found their people choosing different lifestyles - worshipping other gods, wearing different kinds of dress, experimenting with forbidden foods...

The obvious answer was to throw up a protective fence around themselves, a system of rules which strictly limited the contact possible with people of other cultures - you may not go into their houses, you may not eat with them, you may not intermarry...

One consequence of all of this is, of course, that any other culture, because forbidden comes to be seen as an enemy, perhaps even as evil.  And so by Peter's day, the term Gentile had ceased simply to mean, "of a foreign nation", now it was a term of abuse, a scornful term used by the Jews for anyone considered to be outside their community, outside their culture, their way of life.

It is a drawbridge mentality.  Let's pull up the drawbridge - keep everyone else out and we can live safely in here free from the challenges and threats of outside influences.

So God had to take the initiative once again.

God realised that without his intervention, these early Jewish Christian leaders would never grasp the idea that his gospel message, his Good News was for all nations, for all people.

And so we have the story as we have read it.  God speaks to Peter and to Cornelius and he brings them together.  In Peter's vision, God prepares Peter for the idea of going into the house of a Gentile.  Peter will have to stay over a few days, and so will probably have to sit down and eat with Cornelius.  God sweeps away any excuse that Peter might have about forbidden and unforbidden food.

But I want you to concentrate for a moment not on Peter or Cornelius, but on the church leaders back in Jerusalem.  They got to hear about what Peter had done and they were outraged - they called him back to Jerusalem to explain himself.

The account that Janet read for us was the way Peter described it to the Church leaders in Jerusalem.  By now, Peter was convinced that the gospel was for Gentiles too.  He and six witnesses had seen God's Spirit at work amongst Cornelius's whole household and gathered friends.  Now he had to persuade the Christian Council.

Sitting as I have done on many church councils of varying size and importance, I never cease to be amazed at the reaction of this Jerusalem Church Council.  They listened to Peter's story, realised that God was at work in a way that they had never imagined and never believed possible, and Luke writes:

When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, "Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life."

I'm sure there must have been a bit more argument and a bit more questionning, we are just reading the minutes of the meeting.  Today we would would write, "After much discussion it was decided to paint all the pews red and install a jacuzzi in the pulpit"  And it did take a few years before all the Christian leaders fully accepted the fact that the gospel was for the Gentiles too, and that their fellowships should be open to all people regardless of race or culture, but even taking all of that into account -

the Church leaders realised that God was showing them something new; they realised that God was taking them in a new direction; that God was leading them towards a new understanding of himself which went against all of their cherished beliefs; that God was opening up a fresh insight into his love for the whole of humankind which seemd to them to be un-natural and wrong.

Yet when they realised that Peter and the six witnesses really had seen God moving in this way; when they realised that God's Holy Spirit really was at work in these Gentiles, even though it meant turning their understanding of God upside-down and inside-out,

When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, "Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life."

Of course all of that was a long time ago.  But don't let time diminish in your mind the momentous sea-change that this Jerusalem council decision was for the Christian Faith.

What were the keys that allowed the Church to make such a massive decision?  Her's a few of them...

First, there were people who were ready to listen to God speak.  There was Peter - the professional if you like.  He'd been with Jesus right through his ministry, he was an eye-witness to the events that undergirded the gospel message.  And there was Cornelius, the rank outsider - the amateur.

Both of them were at prayer.  Both of them were available to God.

"Why doesn't God ever speak to me?"  How often have I heard people say that?  Perhaps you are simply never available to hear his voice....

Then there were people prepared to act on what God was calling them to do.  Peter and Cornelius put themselves on the line over God's call.  They made no excuses, they didn't quibble over details, they acted on it straight away.

"Why doesn't God ever call me in his service?"  Maybe God has got fed up of calling you and hearing your excuses.

Then there was a Council which was prepared to abandon the ideas and customs they had held all their lives when they realised that God was showing them something new.  There was a Council which realised that there was always something new to learn about God, and that sometimes there are some very big new things to learn about God!  There was a Council humble enough to admit that they had got it wrong and bold enough to put the past behind them and act on their new understanding of God.

The URC has a momentous decision to make.  The URC has to decide whether God is showing us something new.  The URC has to decide wheher God is challenging beliefs and practices that we have held so close all our lives.  The URC has to decide whether we are in a similar position to that Jerusalem Council.

Peter encoutered Cornelius and realised that God was undeniably calling Cornelius to follow him.  To Peter that seemed impossible because Cornelius was a Gentile.  Today, the URC is encountering many people who are homosexual and discovering that God is undeniably calling them to follow him and to serve him in many and various ways - as members, as elders, as ministers, as organists, as choir-members, as Junior Church leaders.  Yet it seems impossible because they are homosexual.

How will the URC make this decision?

We will make the right decision if act as Peter and the Jerusalem Council did.  We will make the right decision if we:

- are available to God, in prayer, to hear his voice

- are prepared to act on what God is telling us;

- are prepared to abandon the ideas and customs we have held all their lives if we realise that  
  God is showing us something new.

 - are prepared to accept that there is always something new to learn about God, and that
    sometimes there are some very big new things to learn about God!

 - are humble enough to admit where we have got it wrong and bold enough to put the past
    behind us and act on our new understanding of God.