s163a01 Somerton Park 13/5/01 Easter 5
"Who was I that I could hinder God?" Acts 11.17
Last Sunday we worshipped at St Jude's Brighton, and the thing that struck me about the first reading from Acts chapter 9, the raising from the dead of the disciple Tabitha - Dorcas in Greek - was that this great act was prior to the conversion of St Peter, the story of which immediately follows, beginning in Acts chapter 10 and "concluding" in our reading from Acts chapter 11 today.
I point out that the reading for the first lesson last week, from the Acts of the Apostles, besides being a story about the raising of Dorcas by Peter, also serves as as lead into the story of the great conversion of St Peter where he is told in no uncertain terms, not to call others un-clean - that God shows no partiality. Actually the story is so long - much longer than the story of the conversion of St Paul - that (liturgically) we only get snippets here and there. The first reading for Easter Day was a conclusion to this story, and we have in today's first reading, Peter explaining to those in Jerusalem how his change of heart came about.
And it is important to realise that despite Peter being able to do great things, even to raising people from the dead, he still had to learn, he STILL had to come to appreciate the broadness of God's mercy towards all people.
Indeed of course the conversion of St Peter to the view that he should not call anyone "unclean" was also a message that he had to take to the apostles in Jerusalem - in our reading for today. And so, for all the time that the apostles had spend with Jesus, travelling the countryside, seeing all his miracles, hearing all his words, witnesses of the death and resurrection of their dear friend, yet they too STILL had not got the full message, THEY TOO still had to realise that all this meant that they should not regard anyone else as unclean ...
And we too might take this as an object lesson - for all the wonderful things we might have achieved in this life - for all we might have studied the bible and learned all we can about the life and teaching of our master - we too may be surprised to learn - and to have to learn - the broadness of God's mercy for all people. Indeed we might conclude that in the scale of the relative importance of things, raising people from the dead might be of lesser importance than looking for God in others.
As we read the book the Acts of the Apostles, we cannot but come to the conclusion that the author was convinced that what he described as happening was in fact not the Acts of the Apostles but the Acts of God. None of the participants could claim anything. Peter was called to Joppa, later to the house of Cornelius. It was all God's doing, and nothing to do with what Peter may or may not have wanted. Indeed, had he had the courage of his own convictions he wouldn't have initially ever contemplated going into the house of Cornelius the Gentile.
And the very serious question that the reading poses for us is just what is, and what is not, unclean? The accounts of the creation in Genesis repeatedly tell us that each day God viewed the creation and concluded that it was good. At the conclusion of the creation on the sixth day, when God had created humanity, male and female in the image of God, it was pronounced "very good".
Now there are in later passages in the Bible lists of particular animals which were unclean for the Israelites, the flesh of which they were commanded not to eat. People who were ill or deformed were also regarded as unclean. But I don't think, to my knowledge anyway, another race of people is described as unclean.
So I suspect passages in the book of the Revelation which seem to exclude some people must be seen in this light: So we ned to hear the openness of the first words "Its gates will never be shut by day -- and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations" - and realise that God has made many clean. So we can be reassured that while it is true that: "nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life", it is clear that such people themselves will choose not to enter - since there are no shut gates to keep anyone out. (Revelation 21:25-27). (Take note, this comes from next week's epistle reading.)
God does not exclude anyone from the kingdom. Individuals exclude themselves.
And of course this squares with the ministry of Jesus, who spent his life seeking out people and accepting their offerings, to the chagrin of the religious authorities who expected him to accept their ministries alone.
So no longer is there any expectations placed upon people. The prodigalness of the Father's love is that all are included. Only those who themselves turn away exclude themselves.
The mere fact that individuals desire to enter, means that they have accepted the grace of the Cross, in reality, even if not in so many words.
For this is the message of today's lesson. Peter had finally done what Jesus had done in his earthly ministry, eaten with someone other than those know to be of the community of faith. Peter did this at the explicit command of God, and because he did as Jesus did and as God commanded, he was both blessed, and criticised by the religious authorities, this time the "Christian" religious authorities. (What a delight it is to be able to say that it wasn't the Jews! - that it was the apostles were in the wrong this time. Of course the religious authorities who crucified Jesus happened to be Jews. It is a delight to be able to say that "Christians" get the message wrong too - even apostles - that they sought to exclude and so to crucify Jesus too.)
In the Cross, God has called everyone else "clean" - in the words of the passage from Revelation - all things are made "new". St Peter realised that he was hindering God if he stuck to his old perceptions of what was clean and what was not.
If St Paul, for all the miraculous things he did, and the apostles, for all their personal knowledge of Jesus, needed to hear and heed this lesson, surely we too might take notice of it.
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