2nd May, 2010

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

by Fr. Ian Elliott Davies

Lections

Acts 11:1-18

Revelation 21:1-6

St. John 13:31-35

In some Christian traditions there are individuals who can name the exact hour and the precise place of their coming to faith. It tends to be those who come up to one at parties and breathlessly ask- “are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?” or “do you know Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour?” or my personal favourite “are you saved yet?” the answer to which can only possibly be, “well for this dance I am darling, but I will keep the last one for you.”

The great twentieth century theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr was once asked if he could name the exact time and place of his salvation, and famously replied that he had been saved “2,000 years ago on a dusty hill named Golgotha outside Jerusalem’s city wall.”

In the spirit of Niebuhr’s calculation, perhaps we can say that the reading from the Acts of the Holy Apostles that we have just heard also qualifies as one of those timeless and defining moments in salvation-history. Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch has just published this remarkable volume, “Christianity the First Three Thousand Years” that promises to become one of the great reference books of Christian history. What is described in the Acts of the Holy Apostles and which Professor MacCulloch is at some pains to emphasize for us is the remarkable move from simply as first century messianic grouping within the family of Judaism to an expansive, Jewish and Gentile mission whose communities would transform the then known world and that would eventually travel to every corner of the globe. A faith community, the Church Universal, which is open to all of us whose lineage is not Jewish but Gentile.

Tucked away between every line of the NT texts there are fraught questions the answers to which we are still working out to this very day. To whom is the message of Christ to be preached? How wide is God’s embrace? These may seem to us to be relatively simple & straightforward questions- but in the ancient world this is a controversy that has far-reaching implications. Admitting Gentiles into a faith community largely resident within the synagogue seemed to many, St Peter among them, like inviting foxes into the henhouse, and unclean foxes at that. St Paul is symbolic of one mind-set: St Peter of another. St Peter has had a dream in the city of Joppa: he becomes convinced that the Gospel is now to be taken to the Gentiles, and he insists that nothing and no creature or person should ever be considered unclean again. The Christian community changes decisively and forever.

If Golgotha is the day of reckoning for our salvation, then the day that St Peter dreams of innumerable unclean creatures made clean by God’s estimation is the day when a universal message will change the course of human history.

Ever since those earliest days the Church has struggled to be as open and inclusive as St Peter- as willing to embrace those previously thought unclean but whom God has declared clean. Two hundred years ago it was people of different racial backgrounds- could we have non-white bishops? Only slowly do we change, God’s grace knows that and God is patient with us in this regard.

Christians always struggle with two different images that describe the Universal Church: one is the Church as the Holy Mother, pure, unsullied and unstained. And then there is the Church as an Earth Mother gathering her wayward children from all the ends of the earth. In the Church of the Pure Virgin Mother, no eye is pure enough to see God, no tongue clean enough to speak God’s name. This Church is vigilant guarding and defending against anything that even seems to be impure. Her clergy are a model to the flock in upright morality, goodness and utter self-control.

But in the Church of the Earth Mother, however, the dirty hands and unwashed faces of her children are a delight. “I am come that you might have life,” says Christ, “and that you may have it abundantly.” This Church’s children gather to her like Ma Kettle’s kids come in from the barnyard, frogs in their pockets and grass stains on their jeans. What they lack in cleanliness they more than make up for in joy. Her clergy are earthen vessels on MacDonald’s farm.

Of course all churches are a mixture of these symbolic figures. Christians are neither all heaven nor all earth, but a wondrous mixture of dust and glory, which is why Parishes like this one should be hospitals for the soul—less like sterile operating rooms scrubbed and sanitized for elective surgery and more like MASH units where mangled bodies of injured humans, broken hearts are called in for emergency treatment.

The situation of the 21st-century Church is not that different from that of the first-century Church. Today there are struggles to maintain a pure Anglican Communion- and, it appears, that we- the Episcopal Church- are considered by some to be unclean, unwashed and undesirable. Perhaps it will be good for the Anglican Communion in the months and years ahead if we do not stoop to name calling nor get on our high horses and declare how wicked and sinful other parts of our Communion are.
It would have been so much easier if the Holy Spirit had left well enough alone and not inspired where He did, showing St Peter the wider dimensions of a Gospel meant for all people, both clean and unclean. But the Holy Spirit is a spirit of love and cannot resist drawing disparate elements together; He has a broader vision of the future and a greater hope for our humanity than we have ever imagined.

A new commandment I give unto you, says Christ, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

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