Even to the Gentiles…

24 April 2016

 Easter 5

 Readings Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35

 Heavenly Father, as we come to encounter you this morning in both Word and Sacrament please soften our hearts with the continual rain of your love so that the seeds you sow may bear fruit unto eternal life. Amen.

Even to the Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

I don’t know about you, but I have noticed that people of mature faith tend to divide into two main camps.

The first camp are those who have become increasingly convinced that they know the mind of God – they know exactly who is and isn’t right with God at any moment and they know exactly what God would want to happen in every situation. And it just so happens that God’s thoughts on such matters happen to correspond with their own. Now it may be that such people have been such holy disciples of God for their whole life that their thoughts are always one with God’s thoughts. In which case “Alleluia”! Or it may be, and I just put this out there as an option, that they have shrunk God’s thoughts and plans to match their own prejudices.

So that first group seeks to shrink God down but, in so doing, make him no more than a projection of themselves.

The second group of people are those who, the longer they spend with God, the more they come to understand that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways and that God is bigger and grander and more mysterious then we will ever fully understand, at least this side of the resurrection to eternal life.

That does not mean that God is completely beyond our reach, on the contrary God is within us, and amongst us and offers himself to us every moment of every day, including here in his word and sacrament and is in fact closer to ourselves than we are ourselves. But we should not mistake the intimacy of God with thinking that God is containable and knowable. How many of us can say that we fully know the mind of another human being, even someone we may have been with for many years? If we can’t understand one other person how can anyone claim to know the mind of the creator of the universe who bestrides time and space?

If the first group shrinks God to match their own thoughts then the second group shrinks themselves in the face of God. Hubris versus humility.

Although I am not preaching on Exodus this morning that book has two wonderful images of God which relate to these two ways of thinking about him. The first is the Ark of the Covenant – the box in which the stone tablets of the ten commandments were carried and stored. What better symbol of God in a box? We can see where God is at all times, we can carry him around for a bit and then we can build a big temple around him and generally try not to get too close.

But the other way in which God is encountered in Exodus is generally less spoken about, probably because it is less containable and therefore a bit more scary. In chapter 19 of Exodus God descended upon Mount Sinai in a thick, dark, cloud, emitting thunder and lightning. This is the opposite of God in a box, this is a God who is elemental, and let’s not forget that he did not only create the thunder and lightning here on Earth but he created the storms on Jupiter and he created an atmosphere on Saturn which is said to rain diamonds and he created wonders in the universe we have yet to see. As the song says, Our God is a Great Big God.

But our minds struggle in the face of such vastness and wildness and in order to make sense of it all we like to have boxes, and to have rules and of course God seems to understand that need because it was God that gave Moses the instructions for the Ark and, of course, the rules which went in it and all the other laws of Moses, including the dietary laws. But the mistake many of us make is probably exactly the same mistake made by the first generation of Christians who challenged Peter about his behaviour in this morning’s reading from Acts – that of thinking that the vastness of God is limited by the rules he gives us.

Let’s take a step back. The early Christian church, including Jesus and all the disciples, was thoroughly Jewish. Judaism at the time of Jesus was a very diverse faith which contained numerous sects and branches – Saducees, Pharisees, Essenes and many others. When the disciples followed Jesus they were not rejecting the faith of their birth, rather they were following in the great reforming, prophetic tradition of seeking to overcome hypocrisy and laxity within their faith.

And we know that the Jewish faith contains lots of rules about food and about ritual cleanliness and especially about not mixing with Gentiles. And so for many of the Jewish followers of Jesus these rules would have been totally ingrained into every part of their being and there would have been no dividing line or contradiction between following those laws of Moses and being a follower of the risen Jesus. After all Jesus met with Moses during the Transfiguration so how could he have intended to change the fundamental rules that Moses had given them?

Just a quick interesting aside, that I heard at Spring Harvest. You will recall that during his lifetime Moses never entered the promised land – he led his people as far as the border before dying. And yet, at the Transfiguration he is in the promised land – he made it! God may achieve things with us after death which never happened during life, although I suspect that our direction of travel in life also influences our direction of travel in death.

So most of the early church, certainly those who stayed in Jerusalem, was thoroughly Jewish and abided by the laws of Moses. But the Holy Spirit which landed on the church at Pentecost was also impelling some, particularly Paul but also Peter, out into the Gentile world to mix with these non-Jews and encourage them to become followers of Jesus.

And many Gentiles responded to this call to become followers of Jesus, and were baptised and received the Holy Spirit. But, as we know, when new people start to come into an established group that cannot help but to change the nature of the group. And what appears to be a fierce debate went on within the early church – do the Gentiles need to become Jewish in order to be followers of Jesus or, and this is much more challenging for those in Jerusalem, do we recognise that God is bigger than we assumed and may be doing something entirely new here and therefore it is us that need to change our thoughts and preconceptions and prejudices about God?

In relation to the ministry of Paul among the Gentiles there were disputes about whether these new, non-Jewish, followers of Jesus had to be circumcised, and for Peter the story we heard today was about his breaking of the dietary laws.

At the end of chapter 10 of Acts Peter had been preaching amongst the Gentiles in Caesarea, the name should be a giveaway that this is a Roman town, and his message was the opposite of Jewish exclusivism – Peter said: “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”

This may sound anodyne to us but remember that the whole Jewish history was based on the belief that God did show favouritism – that the Jews were his chosen people. What a journey of faith Peter the fisherman has been on.

And when Peter finished his preaching the Holy Spirit came on these Gentiles, as it did on the Jewish believers at Pentecost, and Peter said: “Surely no one can stand in their way being baptised with water, they have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”

 Peter stayed with the new believers for a few days but then he returned to Jerusalem. Now you might have thought that the church in Jerusalem would have rejoiced in the fact that the Holy Spirit was at work amongst the Gentiles and that the followers of Jesus were growing in number.

But no, this is what happened: “the circumcised believers [i.e. the Jewish Christians] criticised him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

Aren’t people amazing. God was powerfully and visibly at work and Peter is criticised for mixing with Gentiles and eating unclean food.

Hello! Big picture guys!

So then Peter explains to them the vision he received in Joppa – which is where he healed Tabith – of something like a large sheet being let down from heaven containing many of the creatures that the Jewish people were forbidden from eating and of God’s voice saying to him three times: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

And Peter goes onto explain how the Gentiles received the Holy Spirit and were baptised and he concludes:

So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think I could stand in God’s way?”

Who was I to think I could stand in God’s way? Hubris versus humility. Shrinking God down to ourselves or shrinking ourselves in the face of God. Who was I to think I could stand in God’s way.

And finally the church in Jerusalem got it: “So then, even to the Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

They realise that God is not and cannot be contained in a box made by human hands. These early believers who experienced both the resurrection of Jesus and the giving of the Holy Spirit have got the message that God is doing something big and new that is not contained to the old group or the old rules. God is working even amongst the Gentiles. God is working amongst the unclean, the unchosen, those thought most profane. God is not constrained by our expectations or rules or prejudices.

So who are the Gentiles from our perspective?

God is working even within…the person next to me.

…the choir

…the church down the road

…other denominations

…people who don’t come to church

…people who are not like us

…people of other faiths

…refugees, prisoners, the mentally ill, perhaps even the young people who can sometimes be unruly and scary.

Whatever list we come up with, God is even bigger than that.

Try this for a thought experiment. Think of a group whom you are most convinced God is not working amongst. And then say to yourselves the words of the church in Jerusalem:

So then, even to the …[insert name of group]…God has granted repentance that leads to eternal life.”

It’s tough to challenge yourself like that, isn’t it? But if we aren’t being challenged to widen our view of God and his work then the danger is that we have God in a box and our God is actually a Great Big God.