Sermon St Mary the Virgin, Calstone, 19th May 2019
Fifth Sunday of Easter: Acts 11.1-18 & John 13.31-35
I remember a Church meeting a few years ago, in which there was a disagreement over the right course of action. I don’t quite remember what the conversation was about, but maybe it was something rather trivial like the colour of painting, or maybe more precisely, the shade of white we were going to use to paint the church hall. It was clear it was hard to find a way forward as too many people had a too passionate opinion about the matter. Until one person said “Well, I have prayed about this and we need to go for ivory white.” So, the decision was made: it is hard to argue with God’s word.
Maybe on a first reading, we are left with a similar feeling about Peter’s vision in the Acts of the Apostles. In the early days of the Church, the question whether Gentile converts had to follow the Jewish law, including circumcision and the avoidance of certain unclean foods, was hotly debated. Some Church leaders, such as Paul, felt that faith in Jesus Christ alone was enough to obtain salvation, whereas others placed a greater significance in the adherence to the law of Moses. Peter, being a Jew himself, may have been one of them.
However, at some point, the Jews find Peter eating with the Gentiles and they start criticising him for it. Peter explains that he had a vision, a direct revelation from God, in which he was shown that also the Gentiles should be given access to what some thought was exclusively available for the Jews: the word of God. As soon as the Jews hear this, they accept his testimony and start praising God. So, how did they, how do we do we know when to believe someone claiming to have had an experience like this? Some would argue that it is only the fact that this story has ended up in the Bible that gives it its credibility.
However, what if we accept that God still speaks to us, how do we decide which experiences are genuine and which aren’t? And that doesn’t only apply to the experiences of others, but also those we may possibly have or have had ourselves. There are three points in Peter’s experience and testimony I would like to highlight that may give us some direction.
The first pointer is that Peter was shown the error of his initial beliefs, and willing to say that what he thought at first was proven to be wrong. His vision did not affirm his long-held beliefs, but on the contrary, they were challenged. I would suggest that this is a good sign: it is all too easy to only be open to those experiences that confirm our beliefs, but much harder to those who show us that we may have been wrong. And it is even harder to admit that to others, to say it in public.
Secondly, Peter did not gain anything from what he experienced and his change of position. More likely, on the contrary, his beliefs that the Gentiles were freely given God’s word without the imposition of the Jewish Law, may have made more enemies than given him friends. The Jews were sceptical of the Gentiles and it is always hard to accept others, especially strangers, to your own familiar group.
That brings us to the last and maybe most important insight when looking at Peter’s vision. Because Peter’s new beliefs meant inclusion, not exclusion; they meant love, not hatred. His attitude to the Gentiles meant that this group of people, strangers, foreigners, who previously had been excluded, were now made to be welcome to receive God’s word, they could now be part of the newly-formed Christian community. Maybe the most important feature of the truth of any belief is that it is inclusive, that it conveys God’s love, not our human restrictions to accessing that love.
Of course, that leads us then to the Gospel reading set for today, the famous passage in which we hear Jesus giving his new commandment to his disciples at the Last Supper, just after Judas has left the room: “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another”. This is the hallmark of a true disciple, of a true Christian: loving one another.
The importance of these words of Jesus cannot be overestimated, and I would like to suggest that they are the best test of the truth of any belief or statement, not just religious, but also political or personal. If what we believe comes at the cost or exclusion of others, it’s probably not very truthful. However, if it has the power to embrace and welcome others, no matter how different it is from what we may hold to be the norm, it will be showing something of God’s love and truth.
What we see from today’s readings is the radically Christian view that love and truth have a lot to do with each other. If our beliefs and actions are not loving, they are highly unlikely to be truthful. It may seem simple, maybe even simplistic, but not an easy way by which to live.
Of course, I am not talking about the question whether it’s right to tell someone that the colour of dress that they are wearing doesn’t suit them, but something that should be looked at on a slightly larger scale. The Post Communion prayer set for today says that we believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. The way of Christ is the way of truth, the way of life and the way of love.
In Jesus’ own life and in those whom he met, we have already seen that this way is not straightforward or easy, and we know from our own experience that we get it wrong at times. The danger is that the truth we saw becomes disconnected from the love with which we received it. And maybe that is the tragedy of Judas, a whole other topic in itself.
To conclude, I’d like to come back to that original question: how do we know what and whom to believe? The questions to ask ourselves and others are: are we willing to be proven wrong? Are we ready to be selfless? And most importantly, does our belief come out of love and give love? If we can genuinely say ‘yes’ to those questions, we can trust that we are on the right way. The way of truth, life and love.