Sermon Preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, 19th May 2019
‘Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step.’ (11:4)
The apostles and believers have called upon Peter to give an account of the hope that is in him concerning the place of the gentiles in this new religious movement, the one that has arisen within Judaism of those who have ‘accepted the word of God’ (11:1) as it has come to them through the Lord Jesus Christ. So, drawing upon his recent experiences in Joppa and Caesarea, ‘he began to explain it to them step by step.’
There’s a temptation to say that this was the gospel as explained for the “slow learners”. It was for those who had difficulty believing that this word of God that they had experienced was not just for ‘circumcised believers’ (11:2), such as themselves. That might be a little unkind, though. It’s not so much about being a “slow learner” as about not yet having received the vision for God’s bigger picture of reality.
We’re told that Peter ‘went up to Jerusalem’ (11:2), at this time still the headquarters for the movement, the place where James, the brother of Jesus, was looked to as the leader. He went there because they had heard strange stories that ‘the gentiles had also accepted the word of God.’ (11:1) Whilst Jewish faith contained within it the notion that at the end of things, the other, gentile, nations would be drawn to Jerusalem, the idea that they could join in in the here and now was radical stuff, so Peter needed to explain it, or possibly explain himself, to them.
So Peter puts it to them step by step, and I’m glad he did that, because the process he described is like the process I have undergone concerning a similar question. And, just as Peter awaited their response or judgment on what he had experienced, I would like to know what you think about my experience and where it has led me.
So, Peter says …
• I was in Joppa
• I was praying
• I fell into a trance
• During this trance I had a vision
• It was of something like a large sheet coming down from heaven
• I looked closely at it
• It contained all sorts of creatures, including the ones you and I don’t eat
• Then I heard a voice
• It said, “get up, kill and eat”
• I protested, citing religious tradition and my previous practices
• The voice spoke a second time
• “What God has made clean, you must not call profane”
• This happened three times, then the sheet went back to heaven
• ‘At that very moment’ three men turned up from Caesarea
• They invited me to come with them to a gentile’s house
• The Spirit told me to go with them, not making any distinction between them and us
• Six of our fellow-followers came with me
• We entered the man’s house
• He, Cornelius, a centurion in the Italian Cohort, told me about the vision he had received, to invite me to come to him with a message by which his entire household would be saved
• So I began to speak to them about Jesus
• The Holy Spirit fell on them, just like it had done to you and me
• I was reminded that Jesus said that his baptism was with the Holy Spirit
• Which leads me to conclude that if God gave them the same gift of the Holy Spirit that we received when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then it’s not up to you and me not to hinder God
• What do you have to say to that, then?
Well, we’re told that their first response was silence. Their second response was praise for God, declaring, ‘then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’ (11:18) Peter’s vision of the wider setting has led him to rethink how God relates to different groups within it, particularly the gentiles, and now he is convincing others. At least he is up to a point. Although accepting that gentiles are now included, the question of whether the men had to be circumcised as part of that was a question still to be settled. Still, I don’t suppose any of them heard or read Psalm 148 in quite the same way after hearing about this inclusive vision, featuring all of these creatures of the world.
So, now here’s an experience that I have had in recent years. Let me explain it to you step by step, not because I think any of you are slow Christian learners, of course, but because it has taken a while for me to get my head around it, and so it might help me to put it this way:
• Seven years ago I was looking to move on from the pastorate where I was minister.
• The Synod Moderators sent me lots of church profiles over several months, very few of which seemed right to me. On a couple of occasions my profile did not seem right to potential pastorates!
• I then got sent the profile for Environmental Chaplain for Eco Congregation Scotland. They must have been getting desperate to find someone by this stage.
• I liked what I read and, although I didn’t have much of a background as a green warrior, I applied, was interviewed, offered the post, and accepted it, leading to five happy years based in Edinburgh.
• During this time, as I re-read the Bible and preached from a more creation-centred perspective, my views began to change on some issues.
• It was as if, like Peter, God was offering me a vision of the world that differed radically from how I had perceived it before.
• I took on board the tininess of the earth in relation to the universe – this world, not even a speck of dust in comparison to the scale of God’s creation.
• We humans are only a speck of dust in comparison to the planet which is itself less than a speck of dust in God’s whole creation.
• This led me to wonder, for who or for what’s salvation did the Lord Jesus Christ live, die and rise again? Did the God of all creation really become incarnate on this less than a speck of dust planet for the sake of saving only few of the human species, which itself is only a speck of dust upon that planet? And, comparatively, speaking, what then does it mean to say, “Christ died for (little old) me”?
• I came to the conclusion that I have to take much more seriously the notion that through Christ God has been reconciled with the whole of God’s creation, which is about a lot more than God’s relationship with human beings.
• Pondering that has pushed me a long way in the direction of what’s known as “universalism”, the doctrine that God both wills and accomplishes the salvation of all people, not just those who come to him through explicit faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
• Again, rather like Peter, part of me protests against this. It goes against the religious tradition in which I grew up, which, if anything, emphasised how few were saved, and especially those who were not like us.
• Also, it leaves me with a bone to pick with God about all those who do evil in this world, seeming to receive a “get out of hell free” card from a God who is supposed to be all about justice.
One of the points I made in this morning’s sermon was that the things we believe and say need to lead to actions; ones that move in the direction of God’s will being done here on earth as it is in heaven. And these musings on God, creation, this planet, humankind and salvation don’t escape that demand. If this is what I believe in theory how should it work out in practice? Well, as we approach the latter part of this sermon, here are three short thoughts.
First, this creation-perspective on God emphasises the importance of any work we do that benefits the fabric of the planet and the creatures that live on it, including humankind. Since God loves the planet, so must we. God loves more than this planet; God loves the universe, but our ability to change anything is limited to planet earth, at least at the moment. So, Eco Church activities, and this week particularly, actions on behalf of Christian Aid deserve a big thumbs-up.
Second, seeing God’s world in this way affects my view of evangelism and social outreach. Now, we don’t work on the basis that people have to believe in Jesus in order to be saved. Instead, we share good news that God decides to save us, whether we, or God, sees us as good or bad, and we invite people to respond. This, by the way, makes me feel better about my various friends and acquaintances over the years who have not claimed an explicit Christian faith. So, we’re not out to save people from the world, but out to make the world a place in which it is easier to lead the sort of lives that God wants.
Third, realising I’m just a tiny speck of a person in a tiny speck of a species on a tiny speck of a planet in all of God’s creation does not lead me to despair about God’s love for me. Quite the opposite. It convinces me how awesome, how capacious, how inclusive is God’s love, that in the midst of saving the whole of creation, the whole of the universe, the whole of existence, through the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, that God did not forget to include me. And that give me good reason to worship and to praise God.
Of course, you don’t have to believe what I believe about these things. There are many Christians who do not. Though there are others , I think, who might believe if they knew that his was a valid option within Christianity. How you and I believe, and what that leads you to I to do, is part of the sort of conversation that Christians should have, not unlike the one that Peter and those believers in Judea had all those years ago.