s104o00 Somerton Park Easter Day 23/4/2000
"I truly understand that God shows no partiality" or in the Jerusalem Bible version, which I rather prefer: ""The truth I have now come to realise", he said "is that God does not have favourites."" Acts 10.34
This is almost a throw away line, when one reads this lesson in the service. It seems so obvious and true, it might seem that one really doesn't need to discuss it further. Yet the care and attention that St Luke, the author of the book, the Acts of the Apostles, goes to, to lead up to this conclusion by St Peter gives us some idea of just how important a statement it is.
This story of the conversion of Cornelius takes up the whole of chapter 10 of the Acts (we read only a few verses of the whole.) The story is so important that it comes directly after the other great conversion story in the book - that of St Paul in chapter 9. Even then there are fewer words about St Paul's conversion, because the last two paragraphs of chapter 9 (verses 32-43) are a lead up to the story of the conversion of Cornelius -describing just how it came to be that Peter was lodging with Simon the Tanner in Joppa, where God told Cornelius to look for him.
It is worthwhile telling the story. Cornelius one day about 3pm has a vision of an angel of God telling him to seek out Peter in Simon's house. So he sends two of his servants to bring Peter. Now one vision is unusual (as in St Paul's case); but this was not all. For at the very same time Peter himself has a vision of a great sheet filled with animals, with the direction to kill and eat. However Peter refuses to eat anything unclean, but is rebuked with the words "What God has cleansed, you must not call common". This vision again was not just once, but was in fact repeated, in all three times, which for St Peter was quite definite and significant - in view of his three - fold denial of Jesus at his arrest, and his three - fold commissioning to "feed" God's sheep at Jesus' resurrection. But the vision doesn't even end there for when the servants of Cornelius arrive at Simon's house, the Spirit tells Peter "Rise and go down, and accompany them without hesitation; for I have sent them." St Peter is therefore given no option but to do what God wants him to do, and he complies.
When he arrives at the house of Cornelius, Peter and Cornelius swap the stories of their visions, again in quite some detail, and Cornelius invites Peter to speak to the people who he has invited to come. And St Peter's first words are these:"The truth I have now come to realise ... is that God does not have favourites." In fact as St Peter goes on to talk to them about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus it reads as if the whole purpose of that life, death and resurrection of Jesus was to bring this fact to all - the fact that God does not have favourites. So this is no throw away line, but the very text of St Peter's first sermon to the Gentiles, and on which he bases the entire story of the gospel as we know it. It is in fact what the creed is all about, for the rest of the sermon bears a remarkable resemblance to our own Apostle's and Nicene Creeds, that we recite at our services still.
And if this were not enough evidence as to the purposes of God, the final piece of evidence is that the Holy Spirit fell on "all who heard the word", in an unmistakable way for they "heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God." There is a law in the Old Testament which is repeated in the New: "Any charge must be sustained by the evidence of two or three witnesses." (2 Cor 13.1) There were many more than just two or three to witness these things, even some who were in fact very skeptical - we are told that some "were amazed ... the gift ... had been poured out even on the Gentiles". And we might think: fancy the Spirit being poured out after a recitation of the creed of all things! But an indispensable part of both the service of baptism and confirmation, just prior to the sacrament being administered is that the Apostle's Creed is recited. In the Holy Communion service it is the Nicene Creed, which is often placed after the Sermon and just before the prayers. This position is meant to reflect the Holy Spirit's ministry to bring people together in prayer and praise, just as it did in the apostle's time.
Indeed our lectionary also gives us some indication of the importance of this reading, for it is the first choice for the first reading for every service on Easter Day, and an alternative second reading for Easter Day for years B or C. In year A it also occurs as the second lesson for the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. The lectionary makes it pretty hard to omit this message.
One of the characteristics of the movements of the Spirit, both of the past and the present, (and these things have been happening since the first Pentecost I suspect), is a tendency amongst some to split up into every increasing numbers of parties. Sadly it seems this is happening in the world wide Anglican Communion at the moment, as one party thinks God favours them over others. This is the very antithesis of how the Holy Spirit lead St Peter to break down the barriers between Jew and Gentile - between those who thought they were favoured over others.
But if God does not have favourites, why come to church at all? If we are no better in God's eyes than anyone else, nor ever will be, then there seems no point to it. For me the answer is that I come to Church not to please God but to be able to live. It is here in this community of faith in a loving God who does not have favourites, that I am constantly reassured of God's love for me and for everyone else. In a world where these sorts of expressions of love are few and far between, this is vital. I don't think I'm any different from anyone else. There is simply too much politicking and clawing one's way up the ladder of success in the world, to survive. There are only two options - the first is to resort to the same methods - politicking and clawing our way up or else we can turn to God for this constant reassurance. The first beats others down, the other raises all up. Certainly, if we took the first option, we could boast that we did it by our own efforts, but what would we have achieved? Success, but at the expense of others, which means that we will have few if any friends. This doesn't sound like success to me.
In fact it is interesting to me that this reading is almost invariably the first lesson read on the feast of Easter. On this day of great joy and gladness for Christians, a Day of Holy Obligation if ever there was one, the first thing scripture tells us is that God does not have favourites. God loves all people, ordinary people, not just Christians who believe, or who believe particular things, not just a few who are God's favourites.
The resurrection is to empower us to do God's will, which is ever including the other. We are no better (or worse) than St Peter who was, in the ways I have described, constrained to do things he personally would have initially never dreamt of doing. He had no interest in speaking to the gentiles or ever considered them as being included in the kingdom of God's love.
I spoke on Good Friday about the religious authorities who sought to stop Jesus from returning dignity to ordinary people. Their religion which had them, the authorities as favourites, and the less fortunate, the less affluent, the less beautiful, the less religious, as condemned.
The resurrection that we celebrate this Easter day and every Sunday tells us that that attempt by the religious authorities to stop God in Jesus from showing love to ordinary people failed. Christ is Risen, we proclaim, that ordinary people might rejoice that those who would continue to steal their inherent dignity did not and will not succeed.
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