How, practically, can our relationship with the whole Christian family be one in which we both give and receive, standing as equals?
Peter Casey, 15 May 2022
Acts 11: 1–18; Revelation 21: 1–6; John 13: 31–35
‘So good they named it twice.’ I guess some of you are probably old enough to remember that slogan. It originally came out of a song about New York, but it was then used to advertise various other products – things like couscous. Well, the story of Peter and Cornelius is the story so good that Luke, the author of Acts, tells it twice. He tells it in full in what is now chapter 10 and immediately afterwards, only slightly shortened, in chapter 11. That was a time when there was a practical limit to how long a book you could get on a single scroll, and Acts is pushing that limit. He’s nearly going into two volumes, in modern terms. So this must have been a story that really, really mattered to him.
Now, there are many things in this story that do matter, but perhaps the most important is that this is where it becomes clear to the leader of the apostles that the kingdom is open to everyone, Jew or Gentile. The gifts of the Spirit are available to everyone. Indeed it is not even a matter of Jewish Christians reaching out to non-Jews and offering entrance to the kingdom on their terms. God has got there first.
There are many sermons that could be preached around this single reading. Liz Stuart, I am sure, would as Adrian McKenzie did with the children’s story, bring out themes of radical inclusiveness. But I want to think about it a bit in the context of Jesus’ new commandment to his disciples that we heard about in our gospel reading, and also in the context of the fact that, as Mary Copping has reminded us, this is the beginning of Christian Aid Week. What does it mean to show love within a Christian community of many different people and cultures, some close to us, some far away?
The New Testament has a great deal to say about love within the Christian community, and it would be very easy to take from that material simply about giving, and to preach about sharing our abundance. That would be valid, but I don’t think it would be quite enough.
Of course, like the early Jewish Christians, we do have a great deal to share: not only in our case material abundance, but a great deal that is good in areas like scholarship, liturgy, art, music, spirituality. We should not deny those things, and it is right that we share them with our Christian brothers and sisters. But I realise that when I personally think about sharing any of those things, I have a sense of offering them downwards, in a process where I am in control. To change metaphor a bit, I am perhaps like an older brother helping out the younger members of the family. But I have a nasty suspicion that there are times when I should be offering upwards, to family members who have, in many ways, more than I do. When Irene and I lived in Dubai, we had glimpses of the depths, of all kinds, to be found among Christians from places like Lebanon, or India, or Nigeria, and often coming from different Christian traditions. The Holy Spirit has been as active among them as he has among us.
So perhaps loving one another needs to involve receiving as well as giving. And that would actually hardly be a surprise. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to be in deep loving relationships know it to be true. And just before the passage from John that we heard, Jesus was telling Peter in particular how to receive as well as to give – in this case, in having his feet washed by Jesus.
But how, practically, can our relationship with the whole Christian family be one in which we both give and receive, standing as equals? Some things do cross the globe more easily than others; some gifts can only be shared at a personal level. The answer is, as always, we start where we can. We start with those Christians who are close to us but different, who worship or pray in what seem to us strange ways, who use different kinds of music, who approach the Bible in different ways – and that even in our own community. What gifts do we have to offer one another?
I want to be clear this is not about organisational boundaries and initiatives. It’s about each of us individually and how we each show love, eventually, to other individuals. For me it’s about a change in my heart. I need to stop seeing myself as the older brother, the one in control. I have to remember that Jesus turned so often for his examples of faith to the people who were disapproved of, marginalised, whose lives were often, frankly, something of a mess. But it was frequently those who could no longer hide their need, even from themselves, who were ready to trust in God. Personally, I think I may need to learn how to receive from all people, as well as to share whatever they may need from me.
Jesus turned so often for his examples of faith to the people who were disapproved of, marginalised, whose lives were often, frankly, something of a mess.
We are all different. Some of us may be much better than I am at both giving and receiving. Some of us, almost certainly, are very conscious of our own need. And that need may be a very real one. But nevertheless, whoever you are, all of us, any of us, may need your love, and the gifts that you do have to share.
Peter learned that not only is the kingdom for everyone, but so are the gifts of the Spirit. We cannot hope to be in control because, as so often, God is moving ahead of us. We have been given much, but so have our brothers and sisters, even where we may not have the eyes to see it. Let us continue to share and to receive in love all that God has given to us, and to them. Amen.