What happens when someone breaks ranks and does something unusual? Mostly the different way of doing things is resisted by those who were comfortable with the old way and see no need t change. Yet, it’s possible that God is doing a new thing which should be embraced and not resisted.
The readings at the service on Sunday 28 April were Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148:1-6, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35. Here is my reflection from the day:
There’s a saying in English that ‘a change is as good as a rest’. I have to admit that not all change is particularly restful! It’s definitely possible to change an aspect of life and find it revitalises us. Even deciding to be in a different room can be helpful if you have something to do that you are finding stressful or tiring. Possibly doing a task in a different order might bring renewed energy. Too much of the same thing, day in day out, week in week out, can be tiring and demotivating.
On the other hand, change can be very stressful and tiring in itself. Moving house, though it may be something a person has chosen to do, is very stressful. There’s a lot of work, it’s difficult to find anything in the boxes you have packed, it’s necessary to work out once again where the shops are, what is the best route to work and so on.
Jesus’ disciples had a breathless three years with him. Their lifestyles changed from being that of fishermen, tax collector, freedom fighter, to being the pupils of an itinerant rabbi. Whereas before they had homes to live in, with Jesus they found themselves tramping around the country with no guarantee of bed or food each day. They had witnessed miracles; they’d stepped into the miraculous themselves as they went on missionary trips; there had been excitement as they went to Jerusalem with Jesus; and then it all came to a miserable halt. That halt was only brief before they were catapulted into the next phase of discipleship. Jesus rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven; the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost and the work began of sharing the Good News everywhere.
When Jesus shared his life with his disciples for those three years, he spent a lot of time teaching them. We know that his teaching amazed the crowds who heard it. It was also challenging and new for the disciples. Jesus had a habit of refuting cherished ideas, of setting aside human traditions, of pushing his disciples to see things differently, to see them through God’s eyes. In his final message before his death, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: Love one another. He had held this disparate group together despite their bickering and lack of understanding of one another. Once he left, the chances were that these very different individuals, in the midst of their grief, would argue and go their separate ways. Jesus told them that the only way to show that they were truly his disciples was through love for one another.
From what we read of the life of the early church, the apostles held together well. There were complaints within the wider church about the distribution of food fairly early on but otherwise things seemed to work well. We know that Christians shared what they had with one another and were viewed with favour by those around them. However, God is never content with the status quo. As our reading from Revelation says, God makes all things new. Changes continued to happen for the apostles; there was always something more that God wanted them to understand. Arriving at that understanding was not always easy.
The church in Jerusalem faced a challenge as a result of Peter’s actions. Peter had been visiting the scattered Christians in various places. The church was doing well, growing, blessed by the Holy Spirit but it was essentially a Jewish sect, some kind of renewal movement within Judaism. Jews did not eat with Gentiles traditionally. It’s apparent that church members had kept that tradition. They were shocked to hear that Peter had broken their tradition by going to the house of Cornelius. Peter was faced with explaining why he had taken that course of action, why he broke with long held tradition that was intended to keep the Jewish people holy.
All Peter could do was to recount how God had helped him to act in a new way, in response to the new thing God was doing. In preparing Peter to go to see Cornelius, God had chosen to speak to Peter in a dream. He showed Peter animals and birds which the Jews did not eat because the Law told them not to. Being a good Jew, Peter could state that he had eaten none of these unclean things. At that point God challenged Peter. If God called something clean it was not up to Peter to define it as unclean. Things seem to happen in threes a lot in Peter’s life. This vision was repeated three times before disappearing. Having prepared Peter in this way, God made it possible for him to hear the Holy Spirit tell him to go with the messengers from Cornelius, a Gentile, and preach to him and his household.
You will notice that God didn’t tell Peter what to expect as a result of this visit. He heard what the messengers said Cornelius expected. It was only as Peter obeyed God and began to preach the Good News that he witnessed the Holy Spirit coming upon the whole household. At that moment, Peter remembered some of the teaching of Jesus about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. To the credit of the church leaders in Jerusalem, they allowed themselves to be convinced by Peter’s explanation and moved from dismay to praise of God for all he was doing as prejudice was swept away and more people were brought into the kingdom.
I think what happened to Peter and to the early church is important to us on Epiphany also. Just as the early church was an unusual kind of Judaism, Anglicans of SL is an unusual kind of church. We are connected to traditional Anglicanism, in fact we state that this is what we are about as a ministry. However, we have to be careful that we don’t cling on to traditions so tightly that we miss any new thing God may want to do in our midst.
Something I shared recently with the Leadership Team is the sense I have had that we are waiting for something, expecting something without knowing what it is. I’ve had the occasional nudge to take some action, but generally I am unsure what is happening. I wonder if God is preparing the ground by the various changes we have already seen. After a lot of prayer we are finally increasing the number of teams we have and the size of the membership of those teams. Though a good thing, it brings challenges with it. Having more people involved means more likelihood of personality clashes and misunderstandings. However, the positive part of this is that we are including a wider age range in leadership, people from a greater diversity of Christian traditions, people from many different cultures.
I hope that one day more of the Church at large asks us to explain ourselves and begins to accept that God is doing a new thing through us. I understand the discomfort many feel with the idea of church via the internet but it probably is no worse discomfort than the Jerusalem church felt at the thought of Gentiles becoming Christians. In truth that did lead to various problems as the church had to work out what was essential for Gentile believers and what was not. I’m sure our existence will cause practical problems also. Already we have had to look at what we do about sacraments in an online church. We are raising up leaders here: what do we do about people who find their vocation here and not in offline church? I’m sure the challenges will continue.
Meanwhile, as Jesus said on his final night with his disciples, our job is to love one another as he loved his disciples. That means loving all Christians regardless of tradition and culture, however costly that is. It means supporting one another through the difficulties of life and celebrating when something goes well. Only then can we reach out in love to those who would not yet call themselves Christian and draw them into our fellowship.