There is a story in my dreaming that comes to me every now and again and captivates my whole being. If I have encountered it at night when I have been sleeping, then it has never stayed in my mind long enough for me to remember it by the time that I wake up, because this is a day dream that comes into my imagination every now and again. It is a story of someone (probably me) outside of a building, looking through the clear glass window at all that it is going on inside, but not being able to get in.
If I had that day dream often enough I would say that it haunted me as a nightmare: fortunately I don’t. But when I do encounter it, or rather when it takes hold of me, it is very powerful, and I see it within my mind as if it is really happening. I have experienced something like it in my non-dreaming real life too. There have been occasions when I have hoped for an invitation but is has never arrived. There have been a few occasions when I have been with a group of people and felt really outside them, and not part of them; and I have experienced it as well with my sons, thankfully very rarely, when I have watched them in situations with other children who have wanted to leave them on the outside, and not wished to let them be part of what is going on. I have seen it in the local community around us, when people are avoided because of their mental illness, or stepped around and ignored because of their homelessness or poverty. Our world is full of people who are either included or excluded: inside enjoying all that is going on, or outside longing to be part of it all – but not able to be because they are in the wrong place, come from the wrong background, have the wrong religion or whatever it may be.
The first reading that we heard today, from the Acts of the Apostles is all about this inclusion and exclusion. We don’t hear the story, just the re-telling of it by the Apostle Peter to the other Apostles after it has taken place. But it is a story of such earth-shattering, history-changing proportions, (as relevant to us today as it was to the people who experienced it and first heard about it) that I want to try to help us to reflect upon it for a few moments at this Eucharist. On first hearing it is certainly a strange story. It takes place after Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension, and after the Holy Spirit has come upon the disciples at Pentecost. The Apostle Peter is happily minding his own business staying with a friend in Joppa by the seaside. One lunch time whilst he was waiting for lunch to be prepared he has a day dream, a vision, call it what you like. In his day dream he sees all the birds and animals that as a good Jew he is prevented from eating by the ancient purity laws, which set him and his Jewish comrades apart as real followers of God, not like all of the unclean people around him who ate whatever they liked. Then a voice in this day dream, to Peter’s very great surprise, tells him that contrary to everything that he has been taught, these animals had been made clean by God, and can now be eaten.
Although Peter does not know it yet, the previous day another man, in a different town – Cornelius, who was living in Caesarea, has also had a day dream. Now Cornelius was not a Jewish man, he was a Gentile (like us), a Centurion in the Roman army. In Cornelius’ day dream he sees an angel telling him that he needs to send for Peter and listen carefully to all that he has to say to him, and through doing this his prayers about finding God will be answered. Then Peter has another day dream in which he is told that Cornelius’ men are coming and he should go with them, even though they are not Jews, and even though as a good Jew that means that he should not be associating with them, let alone going to their home. Two men – each experiencing day dreams, each totally confused, through which God’s plan will be fulfilled.
So Cornelius sends some men to ask Peter if he will come and speak with him, and Peter – probably dazed by the whole experience – agrees to go with them; all the while still trying to work out whether the day dream about eating the food that he has been taught all of his life not to eat, is some kind of new insight from God, or a result of exposure to the sun, and all the while trying to figure out why he has agreed to spend time with a group of Gentiles, even though he knows as a good Jew that he shouldn’t. When Peter arrives at Cornelius’ house, he finds that he is not just going to be meeting with Cornelius (which would be bad enough) but also a whole group of his Gentile friends and relatives – all people who he shouldn’t be hanging around with. So Peter starts to speak to them, he tells them about Jesus, and all that Jesus came to do for God’s chosen people the Jews, and whilst he is speaking a kind of second Pentecost starts to take place around him. Just as it had been when the Holy Spirit came upon the first disciples after Jesus’ ascension, in the same way now the Holy Spirit is powerfully present amongst this gathered group of Gentiles. They are having exactly the same experience that Peter had for himself. But for Peter it is all happening to the wrong people. And yet, as surprised as he is, to realise that almost everything that he had assumed to be the case is in fact not the case – that God seems to be working in the lives of these Gentile people, breaking all his own rules – he decides just to go with the flow of it all. Peter baptises the whole crowd, the first non-Jews to be baptised into the life and death of Jesus, and the life of Jesus’ Church.
That’s the story that he retells to the other Apostles in Jerusalem, the summary of which we heard in our first reading. He has been summoned there to explain himself. He has been called in to give an explanation about why he has not been keeping the rules: why he spent time with uncircumcised people in the first place, and more importantly why he then baptised them. He simply has to tell them that as surprising as it sounds, God was doing so many new things around him, that he simply had to give in and literally go with the Spirit. Cornelius, the centurion, and his family (like the vast majority of people in the world at the time) are considered to be outside,. They are desperately looking in, wanting to be part of God’s plan but knowing that because they are not Jews they cannot be. Peter is one of the few on the inside, not really looking out at all, trying in all that he does to be faithful as a Jew who has experienced the fullness of his Judaism in the life of Jesus, without any idea that this good news is for more people than he could ever imagine. He goes to tell a group of people about a Jesus that they cannot come to know because they are not Jewish. This is a story of inclusion and exclusion.
As we have heard, an experience of the proportions of a spiritual earthquake takes place. As Peter tells the story of Jesus to these people who he believes to be outside of God’s plan, he discovers that the story is not just a Jewish story as he had supposed, but a story of the greatest significance to the whole of humanity. When the Holy Spirit comes upon those Gentiles, they can no longer be called outsiders by anyone – because they are clearly no longer excluded. But this does not make Peter any less loved by God, just because God loves more people than he had previously realised. There isn’t less love for him, because there is now also love for others. A whole new way of seeing the world is being created in front of all of them. The day dreams are blurring with reality. Peter’s day dream about foods that were unclean now becoming clean, is unfolding before him as he sees a whole group of people who he thought were unclean themselves now being baptised into the life of Christ. He must have had Bible verses and rules and precedents flooding through his head urging him to clamp down and stop what the Holy Spirit was doing. The point is that Peter is being faithful to the religious understanding that he has been taught, but to his amazement God is doing something new.
Imagine the surprise in Peter, as he sees God breaking all of the rules that Peter thought that God had made. Imagine the surprise in Cornelius and his family and friends, as they experience God’s love and power in the coming of the Holy Spirit, despite having been taught that that wasn’t possible. But what about the surprise for you and me, who hear in this story our calling to be the inheritors of all of this, and to ensure today that no one feels beyond the love of God, or the life of Christ’s Church?
I hope that you have detected that this sense of bewildering and perhaps terrifying surprise has been the central theme that I have been trying to help us to focus upon throughout these great days of Easter. It is hard for us who have known the good news of the Easter story to enter into the shocking surprise that Jesus died at all, we just assume that this was how it was always going to be. We are not able fully to understand how the disciples must have felt when they saw Jesus hanging on the cross, without any idea that this was not the end of all that they had hoped for. It is hard for us who have been brought up to see the world through the lense of Jesus’ resurrection, (and the eternal hope that we share through his rising again), to even begin to imagine the terrifying surprise that the disciples must have experienced when they met Jesus alive once more after he had died: in the garden, in the Upper Room, on the Road to Emmaus, on the beach. It is hard for us who have been taught throughout our lives about the forgiveness which God offers to us, through the actions of his Son, to enter in to the surprising joy of the forgiveness that Jesus’ disciples received from him despite having deserted him in his final hours. The shocking surprise that Jesus died, the terrifying surprise that Jesus rose again; the joyful surprise that Jesus forgives. And now today the surprise for the first leaders of his Church, that this good news is not just for a small group of insiders… because everyone is welcome in his Kingdom. These are the life-changing surprises of our Easter faith. This is the faith that we proclaim and celebrate this Eastertide, and which we are called to share with others.