This sermon is based on Acts 11:1-18 and John 13::31-35.
Introduction: The Story of Peter and Cornelius
The story that we heard this morning in our reading from Acts Chapter 11 is a story that actually begins in Chapter 10. It’s the story of Peter and of the Roman centurion, Cornelius - the story of the conversion and baptism of Cornelius and his household.
Who knows whether Peter would have even gone to the house of Cornelius if he had not had the vision that we hear about in this morning’s reading? But because of his obedience to God’s command, Peter visits Cornelius and, in the process, he comes to understand the gospel in a new light.
Peter articulates his new understanding when he says in Chapter 10: ‘I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts people from every nation who fear him and do what is right.’ If Peter had any doubts about his new vision of the Gospel, they must have flown out of his mind when the Holy Spirit spontaneously descended upon the Gentiles – in exactly the same way that the Spirit had come upon Jesus’ close followers in the upper room.
And so we arrive at this morning’s reading at the beginning of Chapter 11. Peter has arrived back home in Jerusalem and the circumcised believers there want him to give an account of what he has done. They want an explanation. They are not simply upset that Peter ate with Cornelius; they are very likely more upset that Peter has baptised Cornelius’ household, thereby including Gentiles in the Church of Christ.
And so Peter explains the situation to them step-by-step until they too believe and proclaim that ‘God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life’.
Gentiles Shall be Included in the Kingdom
Let’s not underestimate the drama, the anguish and the outrage that including Gentiles in the church of Christ would have caused this new church of Jewish believers. The controversy over Gentiles in the church not only presents itself in Acts. It is an on-going issue throughout the letters of Paul, particularly of course, the letter to the Galatians – which is largely devoted to the question of the inclusion of Gentiles in the Church.
It’s my personal belief that Saul, the Pharisee and the persecutor of the Church, understood very well that the message of Jesus meant the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God. I think that this understanding was the reason for his zealous persecution of the Christian Church. And I think that it was also the reason for his equally zealous mission to the Gentiles after his conversion.
His conversion wasn’t so much about a sudden download of new information from God which he didn’t know about before. I think that his conversion was a turning around: from a fierce passion that Gentiles could not be included in the people of God to a fierce passion that they were already included in the people of God.
Like Paul, Peter also had to learn this lesson of inclusion, but for him, the lesson came through a vision and through personal experience. Already a disciple and apostle of Christ, Peter learned through his openness to the Spirit of God and from seeing with his own eyes the Spirit working in the lives of Gentiles. Although this remained an issue that Peter would apparently continue to wrestle with.
The Spirit's Working in the World
One thing that impresses me about the circumcised believers in Acts 11 is the way that they accepted the work of the Spirit of God with regard to Cornelius’ household. This particular working of the Spirit turned all their ideas about who is a child of God upside down, but they accepted this radical shift in the Church because they recognised the signs of the Spirit at work.
I wonder how willing any of us are to be so open to changes that the Spirit of God might be calling us to engage with?
In a fortnight, we’re going to celebrate the anniversary of this church and we’re going to spend some of our time together to think a bit about our congregation’s work and mission. Don’t worry, I don’t have any hidden agendas that I intend to spring on you about some great change that I think that God is calling us toward, but I do think that every Christian community could do well to ponder where the Spirit is at work.
How is the Spirit of God moving in our congregation? Where is the Spirit of God working in the community at large? Are we able to recognise the working of the Spirit if it doesn’t come with the usual labels that we would recognise as ‘Christian’ and if it doesn’t fit our usual categories?
But if we’re looking for a working of the Spirit of God that doesn’t fit our usual categories, how can we recognise it?
I want to briefly suggest three characteristics that might help us to recognise the working of the Spirit in our everyday lives. This is not an exhaustive list and neither am I saying that I have ‘the one right view’ on this matter. The following are simply my suggestions of ways that we might be able to recognise the work of the Spirit. Together, we might want to try to identify more ways in which we can recognise the fruit of the Spirit.
I think that, among other things, the Spirit of God brings
So, first of all: inclusion.
‘Inclusion’ is not only the main theme of this morning’s reading; I believe it’s also an essential ingredient of the Gospel.
The Gospel of Christ tells us that each and every human being has equal worth and equal dignity in the eyes of God. There is no individual who is beyond the pale in God’s eyes, no one who is outside the possibility of salvation; no matter what gender, race, colour, sexual orientation, nationality, ability, disability or status in life, each person is a beloved child of God.
So I would argue that activities which seek to include individuals who would otherwise be excluded from some aspect of society are under the influence of God’s Spirit even if those activities do not appear to be overtly ‘Christian’ or ‘religious’.
Activities such as human rights for asylum seekers, help for children with special educational needs, care which allows people to live in their own homes. Any activity which works to include individuals who might otherwise be excluded in full participation in society.
A second Spirit value is restoration.
What I mean by the word ‘restoration’ is what the prophets call ‘justice’. But I’m using the word ‘restoration’ because I want to distinguish it from punitive justice. Exacting punitive or vengeful justice is not something for which we need the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; on the contrary, we are well able to take revenge without God’s help!
Restorative justice is a Spirit value because is the sort of justice that worries more about restoring well-being to the victim rather than punishment for the wrongdoer. It’s arguably mentioned in the 10th chapter of Acts when the angel says to Cornelius: ‘Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.’
Within our own justice system in the UK, restorative justice is something that is increasingly being used with young people. This is a form of justice which requires juvenile offenders to listen to the effects that their crimes had on their victims. It also asks young offenders to perform a community service that is related to the crime that they committed.
Other examples of restorative justice would be activities such as Fair Trade and the campaign to reduce Third World debt. These are activities which seek to redress the imbalances that have been created by the exploitation of the powerful.
A third Spirit value is reconciliation: another value that is absolutely at the heart of the gospel.
As Christians, we believe that because of God’s forgiveness of us, that we are able to come into a new relationship with him. A relationship of love and friendship. In today’s gospel reading, we heard Jesus asking us pass on the love of God and to love one another as God loved us. In other words, we are called to be reconciled with our fellow human beings because God has reconciled himself with us.
And so I believe that any group engaging in activities of reconciliation is engaging in the work of the Spirit, whether that group has a ‘Christian’ label on it or not.
Some organisations seek to mediate between neighbours in a community, other organisations seek peaceable and workable solutions to family break-ups. Still other groups are seeking peace at national or international level. I believe that any individual or group that is genuinely seeking reconciliation between formerly hostile parties is doing the work of God.
In this morning’s reading from Acts, Peter had a life-changing experience with God’s Holy Spirit.
This encounter with the Spirit turned his world and his values upside down.
Peter and the church came to understand that it’s God’s intention that every category of human being should be included in his Kingdom. They were able to respond faithfully to the fruits of the Holy Spirit, even though the Spirit moved in ways that they did not expect.
As we come up to our Church anniversary and we look for signs of the Spirit in our own congregational life, I hope that we can rejoice and be thankful for the grace that we have been given to affirm the Spirit values of inclusivity, restoration and reconciliation. But I also hope that we can keep our eyes open to ways that the Spirit may be working in unexpected ways in our congregation and in the wider community.
And I hope that we can identify and use Spirit values as touchstones to help us find God in unexpected places.
I pray, as we go forward in our journey as Christian disciples, that we put God in Christ in the centre of all that we are and all that we do. And I pray that we may be able to see the Spirit of God at work in our community in surprising and unexpected places. And I pray this in the name of the risen Christ, Amen