Our story was that of a letter Peter receives from his friends in Jerusalem, asking him to explain some news they have heard of changes to behaviour his engagement with Gentile Christians appears to have brought about. (cf Acts chs 10 - 11) Peter has had a dream in which he hears God invite him to receive hospitality from and eat freely with Gentiles, practices that Jews understand make them unclean. It seems Peter heard God inviting him to change his understanding of being 'clean', being in relationship with God and each other.
I told the story - in a retelling I wrote for Seasons of the Spirit - and asked the people to wonder ... we wondered how easy it was for the apostles to change the behaviours of their Jewish heritage, what Cornelius's fellow Roman soldiers thought of his entering the Way of Christ, how it felt to eat this new and different food, wondered at Peter's humility in accepting the request to return to Jerusalem and explain himself ... and who was doing the dishes after all this eating!
Once again, this practice of naming the questions we have, without seeking to solve them, was an invitation into imagination that people readily accepted. And as they did, they made connections with their own stories, I could hear it in their voices, see it in their eyes.
As the children solved puzzles and made decorative reminders of the message in today's story from John's gospel - Jesus' words to love one another as he loves us - I shared some further thoughts on the story from Acts.
I really enjoy visiting groups of people to share the Biblical stories - I seem well suited to the wandering bard type role, and as I move ever closer to realising this once shadowy possibility, I delight in every step I take. Today was one more step of affirmation and delight.
Here's the further thoughts I shared on Peter's story:
in the story we have heard and engaged with, there is much to cause us to wonder. some of what we have wondered this morning, I have been wondering during the week, so I hope these thoughts invite us to explore some of our questions with greater depth.
Behind this episode in Acts are the Jewish cleanliness practices.
The Jewish – Hebrew, Israelite – nation understood themselves to have been called by God to be a nation set apart from the rest of the nations in order to point to the One God. You are holy because I am holy, was the message this people heard from God, the message that shaped their identity.
Knowing that humans really can’t stand before God without God’s grace to ‘make us holy’, the Jewish people developed practices that reminded them of that grace. Another way to put that might be that God ‘cleanses’ humans from our ‘uncleanness’ – and so the rules of ritual cleanliness.
But these practices, which at their best are symbolic expressions of the work of God within and around us, had become in the hands of some of the Jewish religious leaders, means of exclusion, tools of greed and power, barriers to the purpose of the law or Torah, which was reconciliation with God.
The message Jesus brought to the people was a call for renewal, for return to the proper purpose of God’s instruction to God’s people. Jesus reminded the people that at the heart of Torah, God’s Way, is the command to love God with all we are and have and do, and to love each other.
And if God is the one who cleanses, and our actions are simply an outward expression of our experience of renewal and reconciliation with God, then is God’s renewing love available to only those who follow Jewish practice?
Can Gentiles, those of other nations and cultural practices, really be clean, if their outward expression of cleanliness is different to our own?
Does our experience of cleanliness have a different expression for those who choose to follow the way of Christ?
The apostles in this story do discern together that God is calling for change. Their discernment included exploring the story of Jesus and how he lived and taught, and listening to God together, through prayer, visions, and talking and listening with each other.
We also see here the beginnings of Christian community as distinct from Jewish community: those who changed their practices to form new rituals and customs with their Gentile sisters and brothers came to be known as Christians. Those who kept the practices of Jewish culture – albeit with some changes along the way, with the fall of the Temple and the rise of rabbinic tradition – remained the Jewish people, still finding today the Mosaic covenant a rich and authentic expression of their experience of God.
Christianity has changed over time, too – once upon a time we sent missionaries out to change the world’s faith to that of our own; today we send people out into neighbourhoods and foreign lands to love. We try to remember that God changes, cleanses, renews, and all God calls us to do is love.
The Gospel portion for today is from John, in which Jesus commands us to love one another, as I have loved you.
Jesus saw God as having ‘cleansed’ lepers and others Jews had traditionally understood as ‘unclean’, and he was able to reach across the boundaries of his tradition and culture and love, participating in God’s love, God’s healing love.
The challenge of this story for us today might be, then: How are we bound by our rituals and practices in ways that restrict us from fully participating in God’s renewing, healing love?
Will we remain open to the story of Jesus the Christ, to the Spirit of God, to each other – will we remain open to love – and will we love, authentically, deeply, for the sake of the healed wholeness of us all?