15 December 2019
If you love me then you will hold dear my commandments. Love one another as I have loved you.
Not a warm and cosy feeling this love, but the stuff of giving until it hurts, without conditions, even to death. This love brings life.
The strong love of God which is the centre of everything that is and will be.
Of course we love , our family our friends, those who love us? Anyone can do that says the little first century church in 1 John, struggling against those who just want to have a nice feeling and do nothing and the infighting of the different groups.
Loving like God means loving those who don?t like you those who even hate you. Not hating back. love which recognises that even enemies are made in God?s image. That changes things.
We always try to put limits, wriggle out, right from the beginning.
Love your neighbour. But "Who is my neighbour?" said the Jewish Lawyer to Jesus, knowing confidently that it meant his fellow Jews and he passed the test. Jesus told him a story about a Samaritan man - that was hard - he'd always been taught to stay away from Samaritans. This love goes the second mile with those who were considered not good enough.
And the Romans, conquerors, invaders, enemies? What do you do about them, especially a soldier, a killing machine of the Emperor? What was the fledgling church to do about them? God, we find has no favourites.
Cornelius, a Roman soldier,.is based in Caesarea. Cornelius is a God Fearing gentile who had a vision to send for Peter. You can get some idea of what Cornelius was like - he sent a devout soldier and two slaves to fetch Peter and he told them the whole story about his vision.
Peter, a Good Jew, a follower of Jesus is doing great things is a place called Joppa, Life was good, many came to believe in Jesus. Ministry going well - Comfortable even.
Sh'ma Ysroel, adonai elohenu, adonai echod!? The words of peter's mid-day prayer, the prayer called the Sh'ma, lifts from his lips hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one. He's a Jew who follows the law; Today,his devotion to the law is being challenged to the utmost.
Peter, too, is challenged about the breadth of his vision, about whom he sees as being humans in need of God's love.
A vision comes into his mind.
Everything his mother taught him not to eat is there, and God's voice says "lunch is up Peter , dig in!" "But God I have never touched this stuff, it will make me dirty." Three times it appeared. What God has made clean you must not call unclean. What happens when everything we have been taught, what's more its backed up by Bible passages, is being challenged?
The next day Peter gets a message to go to the house of Cornelius, a centurion in the Italian Cohort of the Roman army. Not a problem? Well, yes it was a problem because Peter was a good Jew and he was about to find what loving meant for him - uncomfortable love for those early Christians, and for us today.
You see you can't go to people and talk to them about Jesus Christ unless you accept them as God accepts them.
I suspect that some churches actually don't want other people there. There are invisible lines drawn as to whom is acceptable and the people God sends to them to know God's love are invisible.
This all-encopassing love of God is very uncomfortable for all those who have ideals of racial purity or superiority of culture, Very, very uncomfortable for those who keep their Christian lines firmly drawn around friends and family and ethnicity. It wasn't the first time, nor the last, but the church was about to be stopped from being an exclusive club for the Spiritual elite.
Go to a Roman soldier's house? That meant eating with them. And Jews didn't eat with Gentiles. But we are to find that when rules get in the way of people meeting in Christ, its the rules that go, the culture which is challenged.
Peter, bless him, went, love was calling him, and he was to learn more than he taught. He was greeted with respect by Cornelius who knew Jews couldn't stay with gentiles but Cornelius' expectations were shattered when Peter came in. The house was full of people who were waiting to hear what Peter had to say.
Then we find something fascinating. Peter's message "the Kergyma" was shaped for the people who were there.
He talked about Christ being God's peace. His. emphasis wasn't repentance, but the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who "went about doing good" . [Cornelius had told him that his vision had included the assurance that God had seen the alms he had given to others] and told them that God gives forgivenness to those who believe.
This is a Gentile audience to whom emphasis on sin, guilt, repentance and forgiveness might have been relatively meaningless?
These things made sense to the Jews because the concepts were found in their scriptures but not necessarily to the Gentiles. Just as these things make no sense to people in our society today.
[It was Paul in particular who transferred those concepts to the Christian tradition.]
And Peter doesn't use Jewish concepts such as Messiah but talks about "the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead" (vs. 42). The concept of a judge with command over life and death would have been understood by a Roman military
officer. The way the gospel was communicated appears to have varied from culture to culture.
Peter's biggest message was in his actions, this love is a verb of action, and we know that body language gives a huge percentage of the message. Coming to Cornelius' house was giving a message of God's acceptance of Cornelius which spoke louder than Peter's words.
How many of us can think back to people who were influential in our Christian lives and part of that was not so much as what they said but how they accepted us.. Living in God's Love.
Peter had jumped the hurdle within himself to do this, then Something happened. The Holy Spirit come in a way that was unmistakable to the people in Cornelius' house. And Peter was in no more doubt. He baptised them in the name of Jesus.
And he stayed with them for several days.
The church in Jerusalem heard that Gentiles had accepted the word. Instead of rejoicing with Peter they criticised him. You brought those people into the church - but they were a bit more subtle. Why did you go and eat with uncircumcised men? They don't wash properly, they don't eat the same food that decent people eat.
If you don't believe that this still matters just see the trouble raised when its suggested people eat cats rather than cows.
Peter began to explain it - in fact the whole story is told and retold in Acts three times. It was VERY important. If people cannot eat together then they cannot receive communion together, the church cannot be one. The ethnic/cutlural barriers were one of the biggest problems in the growth of the new Testament church.
Love one another - pushes the boundaries beyond families, beyond national groupings to the final realisation that to love others means to respect and give everyone the worth that God gives them.
Know you are loved by God, who asks us to hold dear those God loves.
Simple enough to change the world.
May the peace which Christ brings be with you.
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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