Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
Turn on the news, leaf through a newspaper, scroll through Twitter, and you will find plenty of evidence of division. Across the globe the rhetoric of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is growing stronger and more strident. Who the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ is depends a bit on context – in the modern West ‘them’ may include but is not limited to immigrants, Jews, Muslims, women, people of colour, Brexiteers, Remainers, LGBT people and asylum seekers.
Such rhetoric isn’t new: history is full of it and its often tragic consequences. It’s there in the bible too: Israel’s calling was to be a people peculiar to the Lord, so built into its existence is a difference between ‘us’ – the people of the covenant – and ‘them’, the rest of the Gentile world. At times this identity gets reconfigured or obscured – when the people are taken into exile, for example, or when they succumb to idolatry and the sorts of practices that make them indistinguishable from the surrounding nations.
Particularly when under threat from foreign empires and their power, Israel is often called to reinforce its identity by returning to the law and being encouraged in steadfastness to it, an important means of marking out its distinctiveness in cultures that wanted to assimilate the Jewish people, and found their refusal to assimilate puzzling or treacherous.
There is something of this current in the New Testament, too. Jesus, we are told right at the start of Luke’s Gospel, was born when Augustus was emperor: that is, he was born in a country occupied by a foreign empire. And he was crucified under Pontius Pilate: his death a state-sanctioned execution designed to discourage any others who might have ideas about challenging Roman power. We see the uneasy alliance between Jewish and Roman authorities in Jerusalem as Jesus is passed to and fro between them before being sentenced. We hear of the hopes of the crowd that he is a king come to save them from the empire’s oppression, and of the jitters this causes among the watchful Romans. The history of the Jewish people had taught them that the best they could hope for from occupying powers was benign indifference. Their history had also shown them that often this would tip over into suspicion, hostility, and persecution.
This all swirls in the background to today’s reading from Acts. Peter is back in Jerusalem after a trip to Joppa, and he’s in trouble. At this time Christianity was very much still a movement within Judaism, and reports have reached the other believers that Peter has been fraternising with Gentiles. He’s broken the laws of table fellowship, transgressed the line that separated Jew and Gentile. He’s even encouraged the Gentiles who believed in Jesus to be baptised. And not just any Gentiles – a Roman centurion, no less, a member of the occupying army.
So now the others want an account from him. What has he, one of ‘us’, been doing mixing with ‘them’?
On one side of the argument you can line up history, tradition, the words of God himself in scripture. From the books of the Law, from the prophets and the writings you can cite chapter and verse to back up your case that Jews and Gentiles shouldn’t mix; that entry into the covenant comes through circumcision and observance of the Law; that there’s a pretty neat line dividing ‘us’ from ‘them’.
Peter’s a faithful Jew, and he knows all this. And he stands before the others with nothing but the experience of the disruptive and transgressive Spirit of God to recount. All he can offer is what he’s seen and experienced: a vision in which God had reshaped his faith by declaring unclean foods clean. And his witness to the way the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles, and his decision to follow where the Spirit led.
Everything is stacked against Peter. Everything except the unruly Spirit of God who will not be contained. And for once Peter’s impulsiveness works. He sees where the Spirit is moving and catches up, joins in, bringing back to the community in Jerusalem the surprising news that God has called even Gentiles into the church.
For Peter and the other disciples this is a journey into unfamiliar territory. Following the Holy Spirit’s lead will make strange what they had once taken for granted; it will upend their way of looking at the world; make a nonsense of the easy division between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
For what the Holy Spirit does is expand the boundaries and turn ‘them’ into ‘us’. Just when you think you’ve got the lines neatly mapped, the Holy Spirit turns up and busily redraws them, drawing you into fellowship with those you once thought of as strangers, aliens, even enemies. The Spirit goes ahead, making the body of Christ more like its Lord by making it a place where all people can discover their identity as sons and daughters of God by being drawn into relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ.
And if this is unfamiliar territory for the people of the covenant, it’s unfamiliar too for those Gentiles on whom the Spirit falls, who find that Israel’s story is now, perplexingly, their story: that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is now their God, too. It’s unsettling all around: the Jewish Christians have to learn a new pattern of holiness and faithfulness, bound now not so much by the observance of the Law but by their likeness to Jesus and their fidelity to him. And the Gentile Christians are drawn into a community which upsets all the hierarchies and relationships by which they thought life was ordered. In this community there is no longer slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female, because all are one in Christ. And they need each other to learn this truth, and to embody the reconciliation Christ won on the cross. They need each other, just as they need the disruptive Spirit of God, to learn to inhabit fully the space opened up for them by Jesus. For as they learn that they are all made sons and daughters of God, so they must reckon with the fact that this binds them together, makes them brothers and sisters in Christ – a kinship that extends beyond family and nation and race and class to make them one in him, and equal in his sight.
The Jewish Christian believers in Jerusalem listened to Peter. And they received what he said in silence, allowing his testimony space to question and unsettle the old certainties by which they measured faithfulness. And then they rejoiced, recognising that God was at work, seeing the fruits of the Spirit in what Peter said and what he witnessed. A bit later others would look back, from this new vantage point of inclusion of the Gentiles, and re-read the scriptures in the light of the risen Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit, and they would trace in them a different narrative, one that pointed to God’s will to reconcile all things to himself. The Spirit expands, but doesn’t contradict, for God can’t contradict himself.
I got harangued recently by a young man who came into church to tell me that I’m going to hell for being an ordained woman, and that I’m leading a synagogue of Satan. Which I suppose at least means I’ll have company in hell… He had chapter and verse at the ready, and was very sure of his own rightness. I tried to engage, tried to give some sort of testimony, however inadequate, to what I know of the work of God and the leading of the Spirit. But unlike the disciples in Jerusalem, he was more interested in bolstering his own point than engaging with what I said. And I was reminded again of the ongoing work of the Spirit in breaking down divisions, reconciling us in Christ, and beckoning us into a greater likeness to him. For like it or not, this guy is my brother in Christ, even though I didn’t much like him, and he refused to recognise me as a fellow Christian. I did what I could: I bore witness to what I believe to be true of God and the work of his Spirit. And I prayed for him, as well as for those who’ve been made to feel there’s no place for them in the Church. For the work of reconciliation is not yet complete, not until the Church encompasses within its life and structures those who are currently missing or excluded; not until we have learnt for ourselves what it means to be a community where Christ’s reconciliation makes us brothers and sisters with some unlikely and improbable others.
This is what Peter heard the Spirit saying to the Church. This is what the other disciples heard from Peter and believed. This is what makes us, Gentiles most of us, into members of the body of Christ, fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God. This is where the Church can offer hope and community in a divided world.
What the Spirit teaches is that in Christ there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. There is only ‘us’. For the first disciples the fear was that letting in the Gentiles would stop the Church being the Church. What actually happened is that is made them more truly the Church. ‘Who am I to hinder God?’ asked Peter. And please God, may that be our question, our provocation, too.