A wonderful story of challenged prejudices, radical re-thinks and a church that can never be the same again… a church in which all are welcome.
SERMON; THE STORY OF CORNELIUS.
You’d think that by now people would know
Walls don’t work!
Walls have been discredited by history.
The Great Wall of China designed to keep the invading armies at bay…breached by betrayal…a monument to the folly of trying to keep them out…us in.
Hadrian’s Wall might have worked for a time…but life moves on…it’s now tumble-down and patchy …an irrelevance… as the real world rolls on …and new forces mock the imagined securities of the old certainties…
Smeared with slogans, topped with barbed wire – and machine-gun posts…the Berlin Wall seemed an indestructible statement of intent. No one out: No influences in.
It didn’t work. By the end of 1990, thousands of people decorated their mantelpiece with a chunk of it.
Walls don’t work.
Two friends have returned from Israel/Palestine shaking their heads at the tragedy that is the dividing and divisive wall separating the two communities, the two nations…herding one people behind an artificial barrier - as if that will stop ideas and ideologies leaking out…
And, in Iraq, the Americans construct concrete walls to keep apart communities, and to secure their own safety…a tactic unlikely to make the building of a new and united Iraq any easier.
We build them.
They fall - when a better idea comes along.
I go to worship at a wonderful Catholic church in Spain.
I sing. I pray. I take the hands and receive the peace of Christ from the smiling people around me…all is warm fellowship and Christian joy.
But when the Sacrament is being given…I cannot take it. I am not welcome at the Table in that Church.
They are ugly.
It’s hard to imagine the shock wave that hit the church
when Peter the Jew, leader of a new Jewish sect,
following the Jewish Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth,
crosses a line:
tramples a taboo:
dismantles a sacred barrier:
sends and ancient and revered wall crashing…
and includes a Gentile – a non –Jew
in the life of the Church:
sits down for a meal in brotherly fellowship
with a Gentile!!
For some, unacceptable!!
You see, the whole essence of Judaism was the Wall:
Its own ethnic origins,
Its own religious practices,
Its own history,
Its own cultural heritage,
Its own special identity -
And its own special pain.
For over a thousand years, the chosen people of God
had been locked into that mind-set:
This was who they were,
And there could be no compromise
No watering down:
No muddying of the sacred gene pool;
To guard the walls with their very life: their obligation
And their duty.
By the clear command of God, as they understood it,
they were -
at all costs -
to retain their unique sense of being a chosen people
The chosen people:
And they proudly expressed that “differentness”
In their different life-style,
Their different festivals
Their different laws
Their different diet
And their different destiny.
And now this,
that opened the flood-gates of faith -
and took Christianity up and over the walls that enclosed Judaism,
and sent the faith of the church spilling over, and pouring out,
the whole world -
regardless of race, colour, gender, age, social standing:
a rubber-smoking, tyre-screeching change of direction,
so profound, so earth-shattering
that it brought danger to the little Church of Jesus:
brought it, suddenly, to the attention of the Roman Empire.
And with that close attention -
As long as the infant church kept its nose clean,
and lived its emerging life under the umbrella of Judaism,
being seen as just some mild variation on the main themes
of that ancient religion,
it would be tolerated and manageable.
It would be limited in its scope and reach:
Once it breached that wall of narrow exclusivity,
And began to offer something to everyone!
then it began to pose a real threat
to the power base
and demand for loyalty
that the Roman Empire required of its citizens,
if the empire were to survive.
But, now, this new idea would have to be treated differently:
dealt with separately by the might of Rome…
Whatever it was, clearly,
this new faith
with its universal message,
whatever it was,
with its embrace of the Gentile world,
tt wasn’t Judaism.
it must be crushed -
So, Peter’s afternoon nap at Joppa,
his troubled dream,
and his life- changing discovery,
that “Jesus Christ was for all…”
was to have the profoundest impact
on the nature of the church,
the emphasis of its mission,
and the shape of its developing history.
And how wonderfully contemporary and relevant
the discovery Peter made!!
Indeed, it is the very issue of the day…our day…
· the pre-occupation of the chattering classes,
· the concern of educationalists,
· the issue at the heart of politics and economics…
Everybody’s talking about it…
Who is in: who is out…
The question of immigration, asylum-seekers:
The obligations of the rich to the poor,
And the responsibility we have towards each other…
Because, as Peter has discovered in his disclosure moment…
his mind-bending moment of realisation…
Everybody matters to God..
And is loved by God.
And those who follow the ways of Christ will discover,
as Peter did in that world-shattering paradigm shift,
that the barriers of exclusivity, and therefore of exclusion,
which men and women erect,
for whatever reason,
and on whatever spurious pretext,
mean nothing to God…
And where we are living in the Spirit of Christ
we will ensure that
the prejudices, suspicions,
caricatures and divisions are sent crashing:
Because they mean nothing to the God we serve
Whose love encompasses all.
This story is a hinge moment in the history of the church;
A pivotal event in the re-directing of the vision of the church:
Out from the narrow, confined, limited scope,
to the broad and terrifying challenge of Christ
to “go into all the world
And make disciples.”
Great in theory! A worthy ideal!
An idea before its time!
But, how to convert that lofty idealism into practice?
And how to bear
the controversy, misunderstanding
and occasionally wounding opposition,
that falls on the heads of those who innovate
and propagate radical new ideas?
Almost immediately, Peter has to explain himself to the diehards, the resisters, who see it, quite genuinely, as their task
to “preserve the traditional understandings”
that have served Judaism well for centuries –
and which were now being challenged,
undermined and threatened
by an insight ostensibly discovered
by a sleepy ex-fisherman!
And Peter had to cope with the criticisms, the falsehoods
and the caricatures of his position.
But more than that!
He had to put flesh on the theory…
live out the idealism, in a real encounter with real people.
He could pontificate all he wanted about
“ the equality of all before God,”
“ the worth of each individual…”
He could expound till the cows came home on the great truth that “God loves everyone…”
But until Peter himself sits down to eat
with Cornelius the Gentile:
until he embraces with love this new brother in Christ -
then it’s all just talk…well-intentioned pious humbug!
Only when Peter enters the dangerous risky arena
of a meaningful engagement with the outsider,
and actually brings the outsider inside..
only then does his new insight begin to have validity,
worth and integrity.
of course it’s when he can be seen actually
· to be standing alongside the stranger,
· and welcoming the foreigner –
· and eating with the ritually unclean Gentile…
that the opposition comes….
because it moves the debate out from his head…
his intellectual, or even spiritual insight…
to move among people and affect people,
involve real encounters with real people…
The list those our society views with suspicion and makes feel like outsiders is long…disturbingly long.
And the list of those who might be feeling excluded rather than embraced by the church comes quickly to mind.
· Drug addicts and drunkards
· The feckless poor
· The disabled and the different
· Those from other faiths or other faith traditions –
· Those of different sexual orientation –
· Those who view of the Bible is different from ours
· Those whose politics are different from ours
· Those with no faith at all:
We can make worryingly long lists of those we hesitate to acknowledge or affirm, still less welcome as fellow-travellers,
whom God loves, and includes within the compass of his grace.
And to those who take steps to open doors
and open arms
and open hearts
– there can come just the sorts of reactions Peter encountered.
Deep down we want to keep God –
his love and his heart –
and people like us.
It takes a crunching gear change of radical grace –
it takes the Spirit of Christ to soften our hearts,
and change our mind-set.
Christ is not ours to keep.
It’s not mere sentiment that encourages us to believe that
God’s love is for all…
that his salvation is for all…
but an understanding of the nature and the grace of God.
Everybody matters to God.