George Macleod, founder of the Iona Community, used to have a disconcerting habit of addressing people as he met them Are you a Christian or just a Presbyterian/Anglican/Methodist .et al? In other words, is your religious practice inclusive or sectarian?
Acts 10 describes the movement from a sectarian to an inclusive faith. It describes a total change of attitude. It is about coping with difference. Peters encounter with Cornelius was one of the most crucial events in the early church. It was the meeting that triggered the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15.
That council was called because the church was faced with an over-my-dead-body issue which, had it not been resolved as it was, would probably have meant the early demise of the Jesus movement.
The issue and we may find it hard to appreciate just how difficult it was focussed on whether Gentiles could become part of the church without becoming Jews first. In terms of divisiveness it was on a par with the crisis facing the world-wide Anglican communion today, which is facing at least one, maybe two, other over-my-dead-body issues. The outcome of that may not be as happy as that of Jerusalem.
The story of Peter and Cornelius is, therefore, not just dry church history that doesnt really concern us. It concerns us a lot because it deals with difference and how we cope with challenges to our traditional, inherited, instinctive views especially when we are disturbed in our deepest places, if we have to deal with people who hold diametrically opposed points of view.
Among the many crucial issues facing Christians today is how we interpret scripture; how, as Ive already set out several times in this series, we respond to those whose honest seeking challenges the way we understand and express our faith. There is cause for deep concern that an increasingly large number of people are indifferent to the church, and for whom orthodox faith issues no longer seem to matter. However, while this is true, there are still those who knock on the door to see if we can meet them at their point of searching.
Lets remember that the first century church was created by the experience of resurrection. Demoralised people had been transformed and, because they were so effective in telling their story, they attracted attention. All sorts of people wanted to join them, which was wonderful, but also disturbing. Their experience brought them a new sense of freedom. It also brought conflict and division.
As in any church there was a conservative element. You know who they are they are sitting over there. We say They drag their feet. Theyre old-fashioned. Me? I simply appreciate tradition. In Jerusalem, and in regions roundabout, there were new Christians opposed to any relaxation of the Law for Gentile converts. Against them were those who supported Paul no extremist himself who believed that by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, all people could know the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit without going through ancient ceremonial rites.
Like many of us, I guess, Peter was somewhere in the middle. He was instinctively a traditionalist who, intellectually, wanted to be a radical. Like all of us, his outlook and beliefs had been shaped by learned patterns. His new faith called him to be open while his instincts screamed caution. The day came, however, when he was forced to face a new reality and accept that he was living in a changed world.
It is not simply that our lives are shaped by rules and history. We all have unconscious bondages. There are things that hold us all back fear of newcomers, mistrust of the unknown, sectarianism, sheer lack of imagination. And, sometimes, deeply emotive issues confront sincerely held conviction.
This story makes us look at our inherited ideas and prejudices. Whether we like it or not, Peter was forced to re-interpret scripture and to recognise that some of it no longer applied. He could not find security in a false, literalist authority.
Some would say that the reason the church today is in crisis is precisely because it has departed from traditional truths and teachings. Others claim that the predicament is because it has not honestly faced the intellectual and cultural challenges that characterise the modern world.
I cant speak with any real knowledge of Australia, but certainly across the whole of Europe church involvement shows serious decline. In the USA the crisis is different. There the church is split by a wider ideological battle on the outcome of which could depend the peace and stability of the planet.
Now it is very tempting to pursue that line of thought, but it is too easy to make sweeping generalisations on issues whose complexities deserve better. All Ill say is that when international politics is conducted on the basis of simplistic religion we are all in trouble. There are signs that the pendulum is swinging back, but religious extremism, from whatever source, is very, very dangerous.
Of course, it is always much easier to push the problem out there somewhere, anywhere, rather than be honest about our own situation and the world that impinges on us. Who is knocking at our door and how are we responding?
Lets take heart from the knowledge that people are still seeking, sometimes on the fringe, sometimes looking in occasionally, sometimes in but only just, hanging-on. People on a faith-search, not ready perhaps to be fully committed to church membership but interested enough to offer some support, looking for others who will walk with them on their pilgrimage, wondering if there actually is a place for them in the church.
I dont know about here, but in the UK sometimes the last place where seekers can find folk willing to talk openly about faith-issues is the church. One of my closest friends, committed to church life up to his eyes, often feels the loneliest person in his congregation because he dares to ask questions outside the box, and will not settle for pat formulaic answers. Last weeks discussion after the morning service was very good, suggesting this church would welcome enquirers and be a place where the questioner or doubter would be encouraged. Even so it can be very lonely to be a non-conformist; very isolating if honest questions are discouraged. It can be deeply depressing when the church seems to be increasingly polarised between those who are unwilling to leave their minds at the church door and those who have retreated into, or perhaps have never left, a simplistic view of scripture.
The Bible is not a reference book. It is a complex collection of different forms of literature which reveal a process of faith. If it sometimes seems too complex, hold on to Jesus own summary that the essential thing is to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love ones neighbour as oneself. Even thats not easy to fulfil, but anyone can understand it.
So we must never be afraid of using our minds. Which can mean that we may have to change our point of view which is what we mean by conversion. Peter found himself faced with a new way of looking at Gods purposes. His view of scripture had to change.
It was the outsider, the one knocking at the door, who forced the change.
It was the outsider who made the church realise that God and the Kingdom were greater than it had believed.
It was the outsider, Cornelius, who enabled the insider, Peter, to discover that God was not only revealing himself to Cornelius. He was revealing Himself through Cornelius. (God uses outsiders, as Israel had discovered with Cyrus centuries before.)
We all know about the conversion of Paul. This is the story of the conversion of Peter. Cornelius was more ready than Peter was for something new in his life. Cornelius was a freer man than Peter. And for Peter we may read you or me.
In much the same way, some of those who are on the fringe of the church today, may be freer than the dutifully faithful.
Through his disturbing dream Peter was forced to think the unthink- able. It was very hard to accept but it was liberating. Theologically it marked a seismic shift in the way people thought about scripture, the church and their neighbours. Peter had to learn about an inclusive church.
Some of the things that are going on today we dont understand. In the ferment, as in Peters dream, God may be saying Something new is happening. Youve got to take heed.
Weve got to take heed, because theres a knocking at the door.
Peter had to learn new things about God and unlearn some of his old ideas. He made the wonderful discovery God has shown me I must not consider any person unclean. Whoever worships and does what is right is acceptable. Now, theres the challenge. Who do we exclude?
So, to go back to George Macleod, are we inclusive or sectarian? How do we feel about those who are different in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation or belief?
We always need to remember that Jesus did not build barriers, he broke them down. He did not reject people. He offered them change, in love.
Paul summarised it when he wrote to the Ephesians:
Christ himself has brought us peace by making Jews and Gentiles one people. With his own body he broke down the wall that separated them and kept them enemies. He abolished the Law with its commandments and rules, in order to create one new people in union with himself, in this way making peace.
(Ephesians 2: 14 15)