Sunday, 8 September 2013

Acts 10 - Open to all!

One of the important things about ‘church’ is that it gives us an opportunity to find space in the middle of whatever kind of week we may have.  It may be a weekly routine of not seeing many people and not really getting out much – church provides that space to meet with others, find fellowship and renew that sense of the presence of God with us.  It may be a busy round of things to do, concerns that need addressing.  Church gives that space to find moments of quiet, a time to sense again the peace of the presence of God and the strengthening we need to face the week to come.

Taking time out.  Making space … is something we all need at different times.

Paul plays a central part in the Book of Acts.  But it is quite wrong to think that his is the single most important part in the growth of the church.   One of the things that’s fascinating about Paul or as he is still known at this point in Acts is that he takes time out.  He needs to find space.

He meets with the risen Christ on the Road to Damascus and then needs to take time out, needs to find space.  A momentary visit to Jerusalem where he has a mixed response from the people he has been persecuting and he takes time out – fourteen years.  Maybe these were years of preparation.  Maybe a time to get his mind round the teachings of Christ.

I’ll be joining with around 40 people from our churches on our course this coming week as they are taking time to think through Christian faith, the Bible, the world around us.  It can take five years – and now we have the opportunity to build up another level that can be two more years.  Part time study takes a longer period than full time study.  And our idea is that people are very much involved in the life of the churches they are serving as they share in that period of reflection and study.

Maybe it is the strength of the later mission and ministry Paul shares that he has taken this time to sort things out, straighten things out in his mind.

Jesus is very much within the Jewish world but he has this wonderful good news that the time has come for the rule of God to break into the world and draw all peoples from the whole world into that closest of relationships with God as Father.

All people?  That takes some getting your mind round.

Luke’s story returns to Peter … and we find him on his travels – going here and there among all the believers.  It is as if he is making sure that things are going well – keeping the momentum going.

We encounter two of those people and find how Peter brings the healing presence of Christ into their lives.  It’s a man and a woman.  As if there is a stress that this Good News of the ‘Christian faith is for all – it’s inclusive of everyone.

Aeneas who has been ill in bed for eight long years and Tabitha, otherwise known by her Greek name of Dorcas.  A wonderful follower of Christ who put the Good News into action in deeds of love and care, of charity and all sorts of good works she had become ill.   Taken ill, she died … and Peter is called into her house, he kneels, he prays, he takes her by the hand, he helps her up and calling the saints and widows he showed her to be alive.

Peter stays for a while in the seaside town of Joppa in the house of Simon the Tanner.

This Good news is for all.  But can that be?  Saul in that encounter is to become an instrument chosen by God to bring his name to the Gentiles and kings and before the people Israel.

But it is to Peter that a remarkable, life-changing vision is given.

And it is remarkable.

Simon Schama in the first part of his series telling the story of the Jewish people spoke of the different names for God and spoke of the way God is sometimes referred to simply as ‘the name’.  That’s what we see in that verse 15 of chapter 9.  At one point he showed a remarkable helicopter film of the aqueduct built by Herod the Great to bring water to his port town of Caesarea not that far from Joppa.

If Joppa was home to Jewish people, Caesarea was a brand new city.  And it was most definitely not for the Jewish people.  It was a Roman city.  The centre of their control of the region of Judea and Samaria.   Philip’s journey had taken him in the direction of Caesarea.

But now the action changes and we are brought face to face with a Centurion who is based in Caesarea.  There is a double shock here.  The very fact of his being a Centurion in the occupying army based in Caesarea but also the fact that he is a centurion of the Italian cohort.  Somehow this makes this all the more startling.

But he is thoughtful, has been drawn to the God of the Jewish people.  He id devout.

One afternoon at 3-00 he sees an angel who says his prayers have been answered and he is to send to Joppa.

A soldier and two devout slaves are sent by Cornelius.

The next day they are drawing near to the house of Simon the Tanner and Peter is on the roof taking time to pray.

A fascinating glimpse of the customs of the early church.  Is this another instance of keeping a timetable of prayer.  It was about noon – was this an hour for prayer.  He has takenhimself to a quiet spot.

To get the force of the prayer you have to read that passage in Leviticus 11 that spells out exactly the kind of things that cannot be used for food..

Peter sees a vision of all manner of things that are forbidden in Leviticus 11.   Indeed the things that are in the sheet that is lowered down are the kind of things you would find on the menu of a Roman banquet.

Rise up, kill and eat says the voice of the Lord.

Peter responds, By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.  The voice said to him again, “What God has made clean you must not call profane.”

Peter takes some convincing.  He had denied Jesus three times.  Three times Jesus had asked him, do you love me.  And now three times he has to be instructed to eat.

Even after the three times, Peter is greatly puzzle about what to make of the vision.

It is at that moment that the three men sent by Cornelius appear, ask for Peter and he goes down to hear them say, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.”

Peter invited them in, they stay over night and the next day he goes with them – but not on his own!  He takes some believers with him.

Peter goes to Cornelius house …

Cornelius falls at his feet and worships him – but Peter insists he’s only a mortal just like everyone else.

Then Peter talks with Cornelius.

Something is happening.  Peter has crossed over a boundary.  He has travelled to Caesarea.  He has entered into conversation with a Centurion.

And he is conscious that what he is doing goes against what the Bible says …  “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.  So when I was sent for, I came without objection..

Something very significant is going on here in what is happening.

Just as on the Road to Emmaus, Just as on the Road to Gaza with the Ethiopian Eunuch we are discovering that the Bible is not simply a book and then every letter taken at face value.  Peter is recognising at this point that actually following Jesus means that you must read the Bible differently.

Peter’s vision has given him a message – about what is clean and unclean.  And it is something that comes from Jesus.  Read elsewhere in Leviticus and you will find strict instructions about what the letter of the law expects – avoid the leprosy sufferer, don’t let the menstruating woman touch you, don’t touch the injured man for fear you will be unclean, don’t lift a finger on the Sabbath – but Jesus has broken those and shown that God’s love reaches out to the lame man on the Sabbath, to the leprosy sufferers, to the woman with the issue of blood.

Repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount he said,  It is written, but I say to you.

At the heart of the good news of jesus Christ is a new way of reading the Scriptures – a way that is possible because all the Law, the Prophets and the Writings have found their fulfilment in Jesus.

Verse 28 is a real breakthrough in this instance.

Cornelius is overwhelmed by this and speaks of the way four days ago at that very hour of 3-00 he had been praying and had a vision of an angel and he wants to find out what it is God is saying.

That then prompts Peter to speak as Cornelius, his family and some close friends listen.

And what Peter has to say really does turn the world of clear boundaries upside down – it has an inclusiveness to it that is so important.

This  is the exciting thing at the hear of the Gospel for Peter … and it is something the full impact of which he is only just beginning to appreciate.

‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

An open welcome lies at the heart of our vision for the church here at Highbury.

A place to share Chrsitian friendship, explore Christian faith and enter into Christian mission with Christ at the centre and open to all.

There can be no limits to that inclusion as the love of God is something for all and for everyone.

It’s a wonderful speech that goes through the story of Jesus, his suffering, his death, his resurrection – sees him as the one testified to by the prophets – and as he began so he finishes on this note of inclusion.

“Everyone who believes in him receives forgivensess of sins through his name.”

It’s telling that the believers who had come with Peter were Jewish, circumcised.  There is a moment of disclosure.  A moment of excitement as the Holy Spirit is present as people are hearing this word – and it truly  is a word from God.

There’s a wonderful breakthrough – the barriers are down.  The mission is open for the Gentiles as well.

This is momentous.  And so Peter returns to Jerusalem – and with bated breath he describes what has happened.   The whole story is recounted again in Acts 11.

And they come to a conclusion … Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.  A wonderful climax.

A breakthrough.

And it all hinges on reading the Scripture through the eyes of Jesus who has opened up a new way of handling the Scriptures.

We need to take great care in our approach to the Scriptures, not least passages in the Torah, in Leviticus and read them in the light of the principles of inclusion that peter has discovered that reflect the way Jesus opened up the Scriptures and drew all people into the embrace of the God of love. 

The scene now shifts … and we are invited to come to a place called Antioch where this inclusiveness is brought home.

Another place that has been in the news recently.  A tragic place where the destructiveness of all that has been happening in Syria has come to a head.

Very much for our prayers this weekend once again.

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