Sermon for Williamstown
Easter 5, 28 April 2013
The Christian faith has a dual personality. On the one hand, the church is an ancient institution, drawing on thousands of years of history. At the beginning of every service the Scriptures are solemnly carried into the worship space, in recognition that it’s through them, words written thousands of years ago, that we hear the Word of God. We draw on prayers prayed by Jews and Christians throughout the centuries when making our own prayers, and we repeat rituals established by the first Christians when we celebrate the Eucharist. We do all this because we know that God has been present in human history from the very beginning, and that in Jesus God decisively intervened in human history in one particular time and place. We live in a culture that values the new over the old, that demands innovation and finds repetition boring. And yet the church persists in telling the same old stories and following the same old liturgical cycle year-in and year-out, as Advent leads to Christmas, and Lent prepares us for Easter, and the same stories of Jesus’ life are told throughout Ordinary Time. The church knows the value of memory and tradition.
At the same time, Christianity is the faith of the new, open to the radical change. Memory and tradition are not valued for their own sake; nothing is sacred merely because it’s old. Tradition is only valued because it promotes our relationship with God; and today’s readings show us that God is as much a God of innovation as of tradition.
In these weeks after Easter we hear extracts from the Revelation to John, and today’s reading promises us that at the end of time everything will be made new, that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth will pass away, and the sea will be no more. [Rev 21:1] (The sea will be no more because for the people of Israel the sea was terrifying chaos, the home of sea-monsters and death. This is just one of many ways that we can tell that the author of the Book of Revelation wasn’t Australian.) All things will be made new because God is both Alpha and Omega, beginning and end.
It’s not just at the end of time that we’ll see God doing a new thing. The Acts of the Apostles describe the birth of a new community, the church. This newness was not without challenge. Last year, the lectionary gave us the story of Peter’s encounter with the Gentile Cornelius. This year, we hear that story repeated, as Peter’s defence of his actions to the community in Judea. The story is repeated in Acts because what Peter had done was so scandalous – and so important. From our perspective, looking back with 2000 years of hindsight, the moral of the story of the baptism of Cornelius and his household, the universality of the Christian faith, is obvious. But it was very far from obvious for Peter and the circumcised believers who accompanied him to Cornelius, or for those of the circumcision who were in Judea. Their first reaction was criticism.
It’s interesting that their question of Peter was not: “why did you baptise Gentiles?”, but: “why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” It’s almost as though the party of the circumcision thought that there was room for some sort of arrangement in which Jews and Gentiles could both accept Jesus as Lord, as long as they did that separately and didn’t socialise together. That sort of arrangement hasn’t been unknown in Christian history – we’ve seen it in places like South Africa under apartheid or the United States before the Civil Rights movement. But Peter’s vision of food says otherwise; as he tells Cornelius “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.” [Acts 10:28] This is the message he now shares with the circumcised believers in Jerusalem, sneakily calling on the six circumcised brothers who accompanied him as witnesses. He tells them of his vision, and of the work of the Holy Spirit, and he ends with a rhetorical question that silences his hearers: “who was I that I could hinder God?” [Acts 11:17]
By the end of Peter’s explanation his hearers are astounded at what God has revealed to and through him. This is one of most important moments in the history of the church; the point at which Christianity becomes available to those who have not been either born Jews or converted to Judaism. This is the moment when, through visions, experience, and the working of the Holy Spirit, Christians learn just how wide and inclusive God’s salvation is.
Peter only calls on his memory of Jesus’ words after everything has happened: “And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’” The words he recalls Jesus saying were directed at the time to Jesus’ Jewish followers: Peter understands them as relevant to Gentiles, too, because of his own experience. Understanding God’s message and purpose is not, here, a matter of simply reading the Scriptures. When God does something new, it can take time and visions and discussion within the community, as well as the searching of the Scriptures, for this newness to be confirmed. As Peter and the community in Jerusalem discover here, it isn’t as easy as simply reading and following the law.
God’s capacity for doing something new, the Holy Spirit’s tendency to breathe where She will, doesn’t mean that we’ve been left without guidance, any more than Peter was. Peter could accept the new inclusivity that led to the baptism of Cornelius and his household because he knew that those who follow Jesus are under a new commandment; one that challenges all the usual ways that society organises itself. The new commandment, the sign that still identifies Jesus’ disciples today, is that we love one another as he has loved us.
Understanding this commandment as the foundation of everything we do as Christians is why the church has been able to continue to move towards recognising the equality of all God’s children over the centuries. For centuries, Christians believed that people with lighter-coloured skin were superior to people with darker-coloured skin. To justify this, they used both supposedly scientific concepts of ‘race’ and the Biblical story that had Noah cursing his grandson, Canaan, son of Ham, to slavery because Ham had seen Noah naked. [Genesis 9:20-27] (Since all black people were meant to be the descendants of Ham, they were to submit to the descendants of Shem and Japheth.) No one takes this in any way seriously now, but it was used to justify slavery for centuries. It took the Abolitionists years to convince the general public that slavery was anti-Christian, but they did eventually manage to have ‘white’ Christians accept that slaves were ‘men and brothers’. For centuries Christians also believed that women, if perhaps not inferior, were different enough from men that they had to play different roles in life. Again, both science and the Bible were used to promote inequality. Science said that women were biologically unable to study and work as men did; the Bible told wives to submit to their husbands [Ephesians 5:55] and women not to speak in church. [1 Timothy 2:11-14] There are still some churches that refuse to ordain women, but thankfully the Uniting Church is not one of them.
I believe that the current debate about same-sex marriage and the full equality of same-sex attracted people in the church is just the latest example of the church discovering how wide and inclusive God’s salvation is. I know that there are people here who don’t agree with me, and that the discussion both inside and outside the church is an intense one, but I believe that one day we’ll look back on this debate over the full equality of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the same way that we look back on earlier debates about the full equality of Gentiles, black people, and women, and realise that here too God is calling us to love each other completely, without discrimination.
Christianity is a faith of innovation as well as tradition; we live in relationship with a God who makes all things new, who does new things. As we seek to listen to God in the confusion of our lives we will find the Spirit prodding us into new directions, as Peter found himself baptising a household of Gentiles. This can be frightening, and such changes can lead to criticism and questioning from today’s equivalent of the ‘circumcised believers’. But as long as we remember that at the centre of our faith is the overwhelming breadth and height and depth of God’s love, as long as any changes we make are based on the love shown in the life of Jesus, we’ll be okay. We’ll be able to join with the circumcised believers in praising God, and saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles [us!] the repentance that leads to life.” Amen.
 Cynthia Eagle Russett, Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991.