Dare we allow God to do what he wants with us?

Keith Anderson, 10 May 2015

Acts 10: 44–48; John 15: 9–17

We heard this morning two great readings with a multitude of possible sermon themes. I can look at only one of them today.

When I was preparing this sermon a story came to mind. It’s quite dated, and you may need to update it. Imagine being in Saigon at the end of April 1975. There is chaos; the city is about to fall to the Vietcong and you are British. You go to the airport hoping for a plane but join thousands of South Vietnamese, Americans and other foreign nationals literally fighting to get onto a flight out.

You stand at the back of this mob in despair, seeing faces you recognise and others you don’t. There are some British families – young men and women with their children; American servicemen; and embassy staff with whom you have lunched and played golf and squash. Between them there is a great amorphous mass of locals who are desperate to avoid arrest.

Suddenly you feel a gentle tap on the shoulder. ‘Dr Anderson?’ You reply, ‘Yes’. ‘Follow me.’

Through a hidden gate you pass onto a runway and up into a Boeing 747, a jumbo jet. You sit down – you are the only passenger. You turn to your saviour: ‘When are the rest of the passengers arriving?’ He replies, ‘No, it’s only you. We leave in 30 minutes.’

Three scenarios:

First, you say thank you, accept your good fortune and make that wonderful but lonely journey.

Second, you say ‘Hang on’, rush back to the crowd and whisper to your British and American friends. That’s a good solution. You’ve saved people – your people. But the plane takes off half empty.

Third, you go back to that mob and shout, ‘There’s an empty plane over here!’ The plane is immediately filled; every seat, every aisle is crammed full people of every age, colour and status. As you climb the steps to claim your seat, the aircraft door slams shut in front of you. Your saviour turns to you and says, ‘Sorry, but I supplied the plane and you’ve given it away’.

Is it better for a man to lay down his life for his friends?

St Peter’s story is one of a growing vision. The gospels tell of a personal call on him by Jesus to follow him to become fishers of men. Peter struggled with the implications of that call as he recognised, and then denied, the status of Jesus. However, after the crucifixion his place ‘on the flight’ was given to him by the resurrected Jesus, who called him to feed his sheep.

Metaphorically, Peter did take responsibility for ensuring that his fellow Jews (or, as Acts calls them, those who had been circumcised) could be allowed on the ‘salvation plane’. But then there was a development. Our reading this morning is remarkable. This Peter, a Jew and the major follower of Jesus, is recorded by the writer of Acts as being encouraged to go to Cornelius’s house to talk to a group of Gentiles.

While he was addressing them, he and his fellow Jews were astonished to witness the Holy Spirit fall upon these Gentiles. In a moment Christianity had ceased to be kind of private Jewish club; the jumbo jet was available to anyone. It filled up with Greeks, Romans, Ethiopians and Mesopotamians; eventually with Spaniards, Asians, Irish, even British. But the cost: Peter died on a cross in Rome some 30 or 40 years later.

Is it better for a man to lay down his life for his friends?

But who are my friends? That is a question we need to keep asking. I know that I have a natural inclination to see my Christian faith as personal – a part of me is concerned to know that I have my seat on that plane leaving a desolate Saigon. As a priest, I am also aware that I can content myself with whispering to my fellow Christians, or at least to fellow travellers, about our place in the kingdom of heaven. But to open the doors of love to anyone without preconditions – without a kind of symbolic or cultural circumcision – is far more demanding and frightening.

To open the doors of love to anyone without preconditions is … demanding and frightening.

Yesterday we held a Community Day with an invitation to the people of this area to join us. Many of you worked hard with love in your hearts; but dare we accept the possible consequences? Dare we recognise the Spirit of God falling on people unlike us, transforming our church and possibly leaving us marginalised? That is what happened to Peter and his circumcised friends.

Is it better for a man to lay down his life for his friends?

I don’t know how far I can go; I think I still prefer a half-empty cabin. But thank God it is not ultimately in my hands. Looking again at the reading from Acts, as Peter spoke to the Gentiles the Spirit of God fell upon them and Peter wonderfully responded, ‘Well, we’d better get on and baptise them’.

The Old Testament title of God is Yahweh – ‘I am what I am’ – and God is still God. Ultimately, we are called to respond to the initiatives of God. Dare we allow God to do what he wants with us?