24th April 2016
Acts 11: 1-18
This section of Acts is significant because the early followers of Jesus saw ‘the way’ as a reform of Judaism and all their cultural conditioning would encourage them to keep it within Judaism. ‘Luke’, says William Barclay ‘sees this incident as a notable mile-stone on the road along which the Church was groping its way to the conception of a world for Christ’.
It seems to be a strong group building practise to limit diet, dress or behaviour as a distinguishing mark that encourages our ‘in group’, ‘out group’ instincts. But the early church seems to have overcome that tendency even though later sections introduced new sanctions. It is about defining rightness by the wrongness of others and avoids the challenge of self reflection and doubt.
John 13: 31-35
This passage begins immediately after Judas has left and is the beginning of Jesus’ farewell speech which repeats the theme of love several times, intensifying the love commitment each time. Raymond Brown writes that as the disciples cannot follow Jesus he gives them a command that, if obeyed, will keep the spirit of Jesus alive among them as they continue their life in the world. 
Brown goes on to say that love is more than a commandment; it is a gift, and like the other gifts of the Christian dispensation it comes from the Father through Jesus to those who believe in him. ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you’. (John 15:9) This is the Gospel of Christ.
Two important customs are challenged and found wanting in our Acts reading, dietary probations and exclusivity. Without that challenge the church as we know it in all its diversity would not exist. Unfortunately in spite of this very clear biblical instruction much of the church still sees itself as an in-group and strongly disassociate themselves from other faiths Sadly such Christians also set themselves apart from good Christian people they see as ‘other’.
I have regularly heard the hypothesis that dietary laws and restrictions on free association have an historical public health background. For instance not eating pork reduced the risk of contracting a pig disease that could be transferred to humans and was prevalent in that time and place. But as I get older and more cynical I tend to think that the reasons for such exclusions in the past are the same as the reasons today. An in-group defines itself by those it excludes. Not only does it feel secure to be part of an in-group but that security attracts others and so helps the in-group to grow. In- groups need others it despises to attract others to the group. That’s why so many Christians today are anti-gay. 90% of us are heterosexual but some of us want to be assured that we are by belong to a group that confirms that as normal and blessed. Therefore such groups work to deny gay and lesbian people of basic human rights in order to feel secure. As Christians they reinforce their feeling of rightness by finding a couple of proof texts that say they are on God’s side or even better, protecting God from the evil of difference.
However this morning the lectionary has generously found us two passages that tell us that God is far more accepting and supporting of diversity than we could passably imagine. Through these reading from Acts and John’s Gospel God, in Christ, instructs us to abandon excluding people and to love one another. Furthermore we have to love one another if we want to be Disciples of Christ.
Behind all the imagery of the Acts story is a very simple logic spelled out in verse nine.
But a second time the voice answered from heaven. ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’. (Acts 11:9) God created an interdependent world and called it good. So what right have people got to define some foods as unclean, or much worse some people beyond God’s love and care.
I love the notice outside the Gosford Anglican Church that reads ‘Dear Christians some people are gay, get over it. Love God’. Just like Peter the vicar of Gosford seems to have received a message from heaven and as an apostle of Christ is passing it on.
Certainly some people are allergic to some foods but that reality is completely different to defining an in-group by what it refuses to eat. However the call to love others means that, although the followers of Christ are not defined by dietary restrictions, we are still called to love those faith communities that do. The minute we judge a group by behaviour we set ourselves up as an in-group and seek to strengthen our group by what we oppose or exclude.
Although dietary rules were the subject of Peter’s dream the issue of exclusion in this episode goes further and Peter’s dream was the catalyst that allows a far greater barrier to be broken down.
Jesus was a Jew and there is a fair argument that Jesus’ mission began as a Jewish revival movement. Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Syrophoenician in Mark’s Gospel, (Mark 7:24-30) with adaption’s in other gospels, show his Jewish tradition that excluded others from God’s concern. The episode also demonstrates Jesus learning from the dialog with the woman and growing towards a more inclusive understanding of God. It is also interesting that the episode comes directly after Jesus’ statement that evil comes from people’s hearts, not from what they eat. The gospel writer even labours the point by writing: ‘Thus he declared all foods clean’ (Mark 7: 19)
Once again Bill Loader helps us move on and tie the two readings together. He concludes his commentary on this morning’s John reading and suggests that oneness in love is the language of intimacy. This language of intimacy applies to our relationship with God and Christ and their relationship to each other. It also to applies to our relationships with each other in the Christian Community In chapter seventeen it will become Jesus’ parting prayer for his disciples and those who believe through their word. Significantly love also encompasses evangelism and encompasses the challenge of being a Christian community.
The command to love is even more connecting because verse thirty five states ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.’ (John 13:35) Furthermore in chapter seventeen, which is a continuation of this farewell speech, Jesus talks about the unity between God and Christ along with the connection to all believers. Jesus explains that this loving unity is so ‘that the world may believe’ (John 17:21).
Loader explains that this is not airy-fairy invisible unity but the kind of caring in community which can be seen and experienced. Christians and Christian communities are to model the love they have seen and experienced in Christ among themselves.
This is not, Loader writes, about propaganda or strategic techniques, but about being real caring communities. The rhetoric of caring, the claiming to be caring, but instead turning to seek success through strategic planning will be seen for what it is, selling a product because of vested interests of some kind other than love. Such vested interests might include winning a following for the divine entrepreneur, giving religious people a sense of power and achievement, growing numbers and guaranteeing the boss’s favour.
There are also seemingly respectable theologies that suggest that through loyalty to God certain people must be excluded from the command to love others. That is exclusive ‘in-group out-group theology that excludes gays and lesbians, coloured people, refugees and condones slavery.
But John’s understanding is bafflingly simple and different from this. John the gospel writer tells us that we find life and give life to others in relationship with the God who gives life with each other in community.
The life of God and the life of love is its own reward.
Both these readings are a real challenge to individuals and a special challenge to us as we set out in mission from our new building.
With a church that will seat two hundred we have budget aspirations to support a full time minister plus a part time community worker. We want to be Christ in the community with no strings attached. Obviously we have to grow the congregation. However we are an older congregation and that must never be seen as a criticism. But recognising that fact makes it blatantly obvious that even before we grow our congregation we have to replace our existing congregation.
Faced with such a dilemma our gospel reading this morning give us a mind bogglingly simple church growth formula.
Love God as Christ loves us, love each other and love others. It is through that love that people will know that we are Christ’s disciples and as we love others they will believe.
It would be easy to rush off and look for a successful church growth strategy and there are great libraries of books full of such plans. These days everybody has, or demands, a strategic plan. Our churches try to disguise that request by calling it a mission plan and give it a theological flavour by including a few proof texts.
However a very simple plan emerges from the consideration of both our readings. Firstly membership of the church is open to everyone, our ‘holiness’ is not damaged by who we associate with. If the ‘Holy Spirit’ directs anyone to us we must accept them. Peter explains his actions in accepting non-Jews into the faith to the people in Judea by quoting Jesus saying ‘John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 11: 16).
Peter had seen evidence that God in Christ had not only accepted people his religious tradition excluded but called them to mission. So as an Apostle loyal to Christ he too must accept them to.
That small pericope also makes a very important point about all the rituals of the church. Baptism, confirmation, ordination and communion are ways that the church recognises God’s call on people’s lives, or affirms to them their place in the Christian community. Our sacraments and rituals are not the way we instruct God who is in and who is out. God calls whoever the divine self wishes to call and we are required to recognise that calling. Any other understanding denies that God is God.
Of cause being open to all people and accepting of all people won’t necessarily attract people to the church. People will not necessarily accept Christ no matter how welcome they may feel. The gospel writer tells us that to actually attract people to a Christ filled way of life we have to be a loving community that loves others.
We have to promote things that are open to others without obligation. Programs and activities like music and movement and the men’s shed. A community garden where our neighbours can come and experience an award winning eatable garden and take some fresh produce for themselves. It is no good just saying we love others, we need to show the love.
Those actions follow Kennon Callahan’s suggestion that growing membership in a parish involves becoming a legend on the community grapevine through addressing the hurts and hopes of the community.
Callahan’s formula gets dangerously close to church growth by strategic planning but it is also a guide to a practical way of showing the love.
We express our quest to be a loving community by stating our aim to be Christ in the community with no strings attached.
In so doing we will be a loving community that loves others without reservations or exclusions.
Through our practical loving people will not only know that we are Christ’s disciple but believe and in believing also become disciples.
 William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Acts of the Apostles, (Edinburgh: St Andrews Press, 1976),p. 86.
 Raymond Brown, The Gospel According To John XIII-XXI (London: Geoffrey Chapman 1966), p.612.
 Kennon L. Callahan Twelve Keys to an Effective Church (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1983) pp.8,9.