April 28 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Fifth Sunday of Easter
Texts: Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
Theme: The safe option is something like "A New Commandment"; but on reflection I rather like "There is no Other". Think about that for a moment; and if the penny doesn't drop, read our first lesson and try again. (And, no, it's not a reference to Jesus.)
Introduction. One of the many delights of the Easter Season is the wonderful readings we get, week by week, from the Book of Acts; and today we have one of the most important. In fact, we could argue that it's one of the most important passages in the New Testament. Is the Gospel for everyone as they are, or only for everyone who is Jewish or is willing to adopt Jewish practice and custom (that is, be like us)? That's the question as it arose here; but more fundamentally, it's about universalism versus exclusivity. How different would our history have been if Peter (and those who agreed with him) had not carried the day? In effect, we have a dry run for the more famous Council at Jerusalem meeting in chapter 15. In our second lesson we have another wonderful glimpse of the future as God has planned it for us – no hint of any divisions, ethnic or otherwise, here. And our brief gospel passage tells us how to get there (the glorious union of all with the All) from here (the inglorious divided world of us and them). It is only possible through love.
Background. That message could hardly be more timely. I'm writing these notes on the eve of Anzac Day when we remember the consequences of seeing others as them, not us, enemies, not friends. The news is full of the terrorist attacks in Boston, and the foiled plot to blow up the train between Toronto and New York; and it ought to be full, too, of the ongoing atrocities committed daily in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. The funeral of Margaret Thatcher called to mind the ongoing conflict over the Falklands/Malvinas, and her displeasure when the then Archbishop of Canterbury had the effrontery (or do I mean the spiritual wisdom?) to pray for the Argentine dead as well as the British?
The Reverend John Franklin, Chaplain to Bishop Kelvin, has written a very thoughtful piece in this week's Diocesan News Update. He asks us to reflect on what exactly we are remembering on Anzac Day, and whom are we remembering? The TV One news tonight left us in no doubt: "not our war dead", but "our heroes". We are to remember that everyone who ever fought in any war, conscripts as well as volunteers, is a hero – provided, of course, he or she fought on OUR SIDE. John mentioned that he has both German and British ancestry. What is he do – half-remember? Remember only one side of his family?
These musings have, in part, been shaped by a three-part series Trish and I have been watching on DVD recently: it is by historian Hugh Montefiore, and tells the story of Jerusalem: the Holy City. If ever there was a cautionary tale about what happens when people forget the fundamental truth that we are all children of the one God – and, indeed, descendants in faith of the one Patriarch – this must be it. The history of Jerusalem is also the history of failure – failure of the adherents of the three great Faiths that claim to recognise Jerusalem as THE Holy City to act in a way that would give any credence to that claim. Perhaps one of the things that we, as Christians, should remember is that most if not all wars are essentially civil wars, because there are Christians on all sides. Or should we go further, and say that all wars are family affairs because we have brothers and sisters on all sides? And if it is felt that Anzac Day is not the right occasion to remember such things, when is the right occasion? Waitangi Day? Or, perhaps, for Anglicans Te Pouhere Sunday when, by dictate of General Synod, we "celebrate our tripartite Church", while praying for the unity of all believers?
Dismounting from my steed before it carries me into ever greater thickets, I want to say something about our reading from Acts 11. The issue was a major one, and people on "both sides" felt passionately about it. But what strikes me is the manner in which it was resolved. Not by defensiveness on Peter's part, or a determination to save face. Not by violent argument; not by petitions, points of order, or procedural games. Not (be it noted by devotees of Maurice Williamson) by ridiculing those of an opposing view: Matthew 5:22 comes to mind here. And not, please note, NOT by a democratic vote. It was resolved by acknowledging the Sovereignty of God. Verses 17 and 18 ought to be emblazoned on every wall of every room in which any synod or other august ecclesiastical body is meeting to consider any important issue.
"If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" When they heard this they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
Let's narrow the focus for a moment and concentrate on the vexed question of 'clean' and 'unclean' food. Jesus had himself taught Peter and the other disciples that all foods were essentially 'clean': Mark 7:19. But it seems from Peter's vision (reported in Acts 10) that Peter had not taken the teaching on board. In fact, so outrageous to him was the very idea that his vision had to be repeated 3 times before he got the message. But once he got it – and, in particular, once he realised that it was God's message and it was in conflict with his own view - he abandoned his own view and "defended" the truth declared in his vision with his customary gusto.
Today's passage starts with classic "us/them" language. The circumcised believers demanded of Peter, "why did you (by implication, one of us, a fellow circumcised believer) go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" In verse 17 the same language is used – at the human level there is still "us and them": but at the divine level no such distinction is recognised – God treats everyone the same, he gives them all the same gift.
The Church gets it right – the Church advances – whatever the issue – when, together, we seek God's will in respect of the issue. If it is true that in baptism we all receive the gift of the same Spirit, then all distinctions between us can only exist through human error, and are contrary to the will of God. If Peter can get it at the third attempt, surely we can, too!
There is another very important lesson to learn from this story. The Church learns through actual experience of the Divine faithfully reported to others. Peter had a particular direct experience of the Divine. He reflected on it, got his head around it, acted on it, and faithfully reported it to others. He also checked it out with 'Scripture': verse 16. They were right to ask for his explanation, and they were right to accept it. How often has anything like that approach been adopted in synod? In my experience over 25 years, not once
Acts. I've already said almost all I wanted to say about this reading; but I should also draw attention to verse 12: The Spirit told me to go with them, and not to make any distinction between them and us. I think that may be what the Americans call 'a slam dunk'! And did you notice in verse 18 "they were silenced", rather than "silent"? They had been acted upon – they were no longer the actors. Faced with the actions of God, what can we say? Or, as Peter would say, who are we to hinder him?
Taking It Personally.
- Reflect on your own identity. What is its primary source – your gender, your ethnicity or your faith?
- In an argument, which of these are you most likely to use – logic, ridicule or love?
- Can you recall an occasion when, in dispute with another person, you have suggested to that other person that you pause for prayer together?
- What or whom did you particularly remember on Anzac Day? Why?
- Have you ever had your mind changed on a particular issue by God showing you that his will in respect of that issue differs from your own?
- Put yourself in Peter's position in this story. Would you have been convinced to change your mind as he was? How would you go about explaining your position to the others?
Revelation. Another bonus of this Easter Season is a reminder that, in amongst the scary and downright weird stuff in this book, there are some wonderfully refreshing passages to restore our sagging spirits and remind us that we are getting somewhere! Perhaps we should take a moment to re-read last week's passage (7:9-17), with its wonderful vision of that vast multitude of worshippers, from every nation on earth, united in heart and voice, Jew and Gentile, Israeli and Palestinian, Maori and Pakeha, Irish from north and south of a border not visible from the Throne of Grace. And this week, the final scene, as God reveals what he has been ceaselessly working towards from the beginning, Jerusalem the Holy City made new, and the rest of the world with it. Isn't that what we are called to work and pray for – isn't that our common destiny? What are we to remember on this first Sunday after Anzac Day? Surely, this promise: Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. So let us fill our glasses "from the spring of the water of life" and drink to that!
Taking It Personally.
- Plunge into this passage, bathe in it, let it seep deep into your soul – and be refreshed.
- Pour yourself a glass of water. Pray over it something like this: "O God, send your Holy Spirit that this water may be for me drawn from the spring of the water of life." Then drink it slowly and prayerfully and thankfully.
- Pray each day this week that you may have eyes to see God dwelling among us.
John. This passage follows one of the most chilling verses in the whole of Scripture: So, after receiving the piece of bread, Judas immediately went out. And it was night. In that Jesus sees the glory of God! And he sees something else: the only remedy, the only antidote to betrayal is love. Whatever else we may think about Judas' motivation, we can surely rule out love – the love that St Paul wrote about so powerfully in his famous "ode". We hear the New Commandment so often – and we sing a rather trite song about it – but do we understand the nature and character of that love? Here is the kernel of it again:
Love is patient: love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
That's the love we are commanded to have for one another in this short, simple New Commandment. Lord, I love; help my lack of love!
Taking It Personally.
- Judas went out with bread in his mouth or hand. Next time you receive the bread and go out, reflect on that. Pray that nothing you may do will be a betrayal of Christ.
- Reflect on the past week and on your actions, words, thoughts and omissions. How well have you kept the New Commandment?
- Keep the New Commandment in the forefront of your mind each day this week. Pray for the grace to keep it ever more faithfully.