God’s love reaches out across all divides and fears

Mary Copping, 19 May 2019

Acts 11: 1–18; John 13: 31–35

Our first reading today was from the Acts of the Apostles. As many of you know, it was Luke, the author of the third gospel, who also wrote Acts, and Luke was a Gentile – a Gentile in a largely Jewish world. He spent a lot of time with Paul, who was a devout Jew. So Luke understood the circumstances of living alongside a Jew in that world and the animosity and suspicion that could sometimes arise between Jew and Gentile.

Our account in Acts, of Peter telling his Jewish friends why he had had the temerity to go to a Gentile’s house, was obviously important to Luke, because he writes here about Peter, again explaining his vision, when it has already been described earlier in Acts. God was doing a new thing in many areas at this time, and this account illustrates something vitally new for the Jews – and something vitally important for all to understand.

Peter describes the vision he was shown, of a sheet being lowered down containing all kinds of meat, and being told to eat the animals on the sheet – that nothing was unclean, all was acceptable to God. Peter was a devout Jew, like Paul, and Jews have strict laws about what should and shouldn’t be eaten; so this was a huge thing for him to take in.

Through this, God was showing him that all people were acceptable and special to him. The Jews of that time felt that they were the special people of God, chosen by him, and that others weren’t. With the vision that God gave Peter, his whole perspective changed. As Peter told his friends about the vision, he also told them that the Holy Spirit had come on the Gentiles as well – something they could hardly believe. Surely the Holy Spirit was only for them? It is very telling that his friends, praising God for what Peter was recounting to them, said, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’. There was still a long way to go for their total acceptance of Gentile people.

Our Community Day last week was a real joy, and it was so wonderful that so many people from the community around came to St Paul’s. Peter often describes the church as having soft edges, welcoming all – and many times, new people have said how welcome they feel. This is great and something we can be proud of.

But I wonder if there are any groups of people who we are suspicious of, cannot accept or would prefer not to mix with. The son of a friend of mine became involved in a group of leather-clad bikers. My friend was suspicious of her son’s friends and had always hated bikers – was in fact afraid of them. And yet, as she gradually got to know them, she warmed to them and realised that they were human and lovable and fallible, as we all are.

I wonder if there are any groups of people who we are suspicious of, cannot accept or would prefer not to mix with.

Many of you know that my husband Pete was part-Fijian. I met him in the early 70s when mixed-race relationships were far rarer, and sometimes frowned upon. When my mother heard that we were planning to get married, she said, ‘But what about the children?’ – a real concern about children of mixed race in that climate of ignorance and unknowing. My father, a Yorkshireman, was also suspicious of Pete – suspicious, in fact, of all black people. Yet when they eventually met him they both loved him and were pleased for me. But our marriage was still quite difficult for them to accept.

Pete was in the army, and mixed-race relationships were more common and more acceptable in that environment, because as the regiment toured the world, soldiers would meet and marry women from different countries. However, when Pete and I walked hand-in-hand round small towns such as Dorchester, we were often frowned on. When our daughter Tara was born, we were given a black golly doll for her. Then when she went to school, especially secondary school, she had many racist comments, as she looked very much like Pete. So it was an experience of all the family, of being part of a group that was not quite accepted.

Perhaps each one of us has had experience of being not quite accepted by people – by parents, by friends, at school or at work. Sometimes as Christians, we can feel like that when people discover we go to church on Sunday mornings, that we believe in God – they can be a bit suspicious of us, wary, wondering if we are going to try and convert them.

In our gospel reading we are reminded again of Maundy Thursday and Jesus with the disciples at the Last Supper, urging them to love one another as he has loved them. We also are urged by God to love one another as we are loved by God. Jesus, on the cross, showed the love God has for us: the Son of God dying to bring us back into relationship with him, through forgiveness of our sins, and coming to know the Father’s love. And as we experience his love, we can and do love those around us (though sometimes even then it can be hard, and we need God’s help).

But are there any groups or people we cannot love, we are fearful of, or feel they are not the ‘right sort’? We live in a more and more fragmented world: the Brexit situation has caused huge divisions between people; the Anglican Church is divided over human sexuality, with people on both sides of the situations thinking that they are right and that the others are wrong; Christians in other countries are persecuted for their faith.

In our dealings with people day to day, we bring the love of Jesus to this world, sometimes without even knowing it. I wonder, though, if we can go the extra mile, asking God to show us who are the people/the groups we find difficult to love, and praying that he will transform our thinking and acting.

Why did God choose Peter to receive the vision, for him to pass the message on to others? I think it was because he was the one who always spoke out, saying the things that others wanted to mention but didn’t like to. He took risks, for example, by walking on the water to Jesus.

Jesus described Peter as the rock on which he would build his Church. As that rock, Peter needed to know that God, through Jesus, was for all people, not just the Jews. And as he came to that realisation and saw that the Gentiles were filled with the Holy Spirit, as the Jews had been, he was the one who would have the courage to tell others. They would listen to him, respect him, and go by his word. Peter, the fisherman, was given this powerful message to pass on to all those around him.

We, as simple people, in all our different situations, also have a powerful message. We can, ourselves, make a difference and love and accept those whom others may not be able to accept and love. Let’s ask God to help us afresh to bring love, harmony and unity as we go out into our fragmented world. Amen.