This morning in our Epistle reading we find ourselves caught up in the words of Peter, who is describing to the leaders of the Early Church gathered in Jerusalem an extraordinary life-changing, world changing event.
We actually find the story to which Peter is referring in Chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles, and it would be really great this week if you were able to take some time to read it for yourselves.
We are so accustomed to the idea that God loves those of us who are gathered here this morning, that the account which Peter gives, which we heard before our gradual hymn, may seem strange and perplexing to us. In that respect it is an illustration for us of how the Church – right from the very beginning – has been led by the Spirit of God through surprising and perplexing change.
So let’s try for a moment to stand in the footsteps of Peter.
It is important to remember that Jesus is no longer with the disciples when this event takes place, he has ascended into heaven, and the disciples have received the Holy Spirit. Peter is at home in Joppa, and he sees a kind of vision, a holy day-dream which starts him thinking about whether the food which he as a good Jew has been forbidden to eat by Jewish law, might now be eaten by him as a Jew who is also a follower of Christ.
In other words, he is doing the very thing that we do in our own Christian lives. He is trying to see the world as Jesus would see it, and to make decisions about what he will and will not do, in the light of what he has learnt from the life of Christ.
That is why we gather week by week, to try to make sense of the world in the light of Jesus together.
But Peter’s thinking is interrupted by visitors who have come to him from Caesarea to ask him to go with them to visit their master: a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. Even though Cornelius is really the enemy, he is part of the Roman occupying forces after all, Peter has learnt from his years with Jesus (before his death and resurrection) that you don’t say no to any invitation in which God’s love can be shared.
So Peter goes with the visitors to the house of this man Cornelius, and Peter begins to tell him and his household about Jesus. But as Peter begins to tell Cornelius stories about Jesus and all that he has done, this non-Jewish household becomes filled with the Holy Spirit.
Against all the rules that had applied up to this point, that said that Jesus had come for the Jews and not for the Gentiles – right before Peter’s eyes, God was doing the unexpected thing in the lives of these Gentiles. Peter has to work out quickly what to do about it, and he decides that the only thing that he can do is to baptise the whole of this Gentile family – the first non-Jewish family that we know of who ever receives baptism.
It is a strange story for us to read now, centuries later, because we have all grown up with the idea that God does not just love the Jewish people (his chosen people) but he loves us as well. We have to try hard as we try to stand in Peter’s shoes to imagine the shock of seeing all of this happening.
Until this time following Jesus and being Jewish have been one and the same thing. Or to put that more accurately, you could be Jewish and not follow Jesus, but you could not follow Jesus unless you were Jewish. And yet, breaking all the rules, as Peter watches on, God pours his Holy Spirit on a Gentile household right before Peter’s eyes. As a result, to cut a long story short, all of us are here this morning.
We are able to be here because the Early Church became used to the idea that following Jesus meant being open to unexpected change – change within ourselves, and change within our understandings of how God sees us and how God sees his world.
If the Church had not responded to the leading of the Holy Spirit to change, and grow, then it would have remained (as it had begun) as a movement within Judaism. But bcause of the experiences in the earliest communities of Jesus, when Gentiles (people like you and me) also wanted to make a commitment to him and to be baptised, because of those experiences, the first followers of Jesus (who had assumed that God was only interested in the Jews) had to come to a fuller understanding which also included the Gentiles, the rest of humanity, as well.
Throughout history this striving to be in tune with what the Holy Spirit is doing around us, and to be able to more accurately describe all that we believe about God has been an ongoing experience of the life of the Church right up to the present day. In our own life times this striving to express (in the ministry and worship of the Church) what we understand about God has led to radical changes in our liturgy, and in the way that ministry is carried out.
So if we have in our minds as Christians the kind of idea that what the Church believes, and how it lives out those beliefs, is somehow unchanging, then we have missed the witness of the whole of Christian history and tradition which has never been static but has been an ongoing process of development and growth, as Christians have sought to be faithful to God, and to express their faithfulness ever more accurately.
But the problem for you and me, as members of the Church, is that we do not always know whether the changes that are being made are a further step forwards or a divergent step side-ways. In this regard we are in the good company of Christians down through the ages who were in a similar situation as well.
The same Holy Spirit who was present with Peter in the story from the Acts of the Apostles is present with us this morning, but that does not always mean that we have easy or certain answers.
Peter’s own confusion about the unexpected things that happened in the house of Cornelius is illustrative of that.
The truth is that there are some Christians who are willing to give any new idea a go, whether it is a good idea or not. And there are other Christians who are never willing to accept change at any level about anything. And there are other Christians who are willing to test something new, to see if it is from God, but only after other people have done it first. In this respect, those of us who gather as the Church are simply reflections of the rest of the population.
So what do we do, within the Church, when we are faced with the challenge of change? Well, whatever else we do we begin with prayer. And as Anglicans we then try to hold together both what we know from Scripture, and from the tradition of the Church and from our experience of living as Christians today, as well.
And then, like generations of Christians before us — like those first disciples who were transformed from frightened men and women locked in an upper room for fear of the world, into the first leaders of the Church of Jesus; and like Peter who saw things happening around him in the house of Cornelius which seemed to be breaking all the rules, and yet seemed also to be from God – we take a holy risk – because that is what happens whenever we respond to change. And together as the Church we decide either that what we have done so far is what we want to continue to do next, or we decide that another way of proceeding will be better than simply doing what we have done before all over again. The risk on the one hand is that we may be mistaken, and the path may not be the right one; the risk on the other hand is that we may miss out on what God has in store for us.
In this Church we made a decision some time ago to become a ‘Ministering Community in Mission’. We made the decision to change. We made the decision to be a Church in which we believe that every baptised Christian has been gifted by God to share in the ministry within and from congregations. We made the decision to be a Church in which we believe that each one of us has been gifted differently, so that together there are sufficient gifts in this local Church for what God is calling us to be and to do. In making those decisions for change we recognised together that whilst we all have gifts to share in the tasks of ministry, some members of this Church have the gifts and the skills necessary to be leaders here.
That is why we developed a Parish Ministry Team in order to enable leaders to lead us towards the goals which we are all setting for ourselves. So that a group of people could help us to focus on local mission in our changing understanding of our role as the Church in and for the local community. And given that we as Anglicans value the particular ministries which are reserved to the ordained, that is why Penny is in formation at the current time to be ordained as a deacon in local ministry, to represent us in a special way, on behalf of the whole Church and not just this local congregation, alongside Fr Lyle and other ordained leaders who will serve here in the future.
The challenge for us, who have made these commitments, is to stick with them, and to own them for ourselves. In every generation Christians have had to respond in the face of change. What was true for Peter in the account that we heard this morning, is true also for each one of us. Being ready to respond to change is part of what it means to be a member of Christ’s body, which is being continually formed into the likeness of Christ.
Today we celebrate God’s work amongst us. At this Eucharist we re-commit ourselves to the task of ministry that is ahead of us.