Saturday, May 16, 2009

Easter 6

Archbishop Roger, like our Prime Minister, is what is often referred to as a cricket tragic.  He refers to this obsession fairly regularly.  So much in fact does he appear to believe that cricket is the game played in heaven that a couple of years ago, during a particularly exciting though very long Diocesan Eucharist, the Arch took advantage of a lull in the proceedings to inform us all of the progress of the Test match being played at the same time.  Not being an absolute cricket tragic myself, or even a sports fan of any sort of calibre, I find this sort of fascination a bit bemusing.  Maybe I’ve got some catching up to do.

One of the things that really intrigues me – it’s not just cricket, I hasten to add, but any sort of sport – is the way we Aussies bend the rules to claim the latest bright star as one of our own.  You know how it is – if they’re playing for Australia, well and good, it’s a win for Australia.  But if they’re playing for some other country but they used to live in Australia – that’s close enough too.  She’s Australian, she’s been living in the US or Czechoslovakia or somewhere for the last 20 years, but deep down she’s Australian - so we’ve won again!  Well actually, she’s changed her citizenship so now she’s a national of the Bahamas, but really she’s an Aussie!  He’s Irish and he plays for Ireland - but he’s married to an Aussie!  She’s American, but she came here once on holiday …

It’s quite inclusive really.  In the name of sport, all we actually care about is if you’re any good, and we’ll happily claim you as one of our own if you’ve got the slightest connection with us.  We don’t argue the point, we’re just happy to accept you if the spirit of the game is running through your veins.  Maybe it’s a bit parochial and small-town, but the good thing here is that we’re actually celebrating our connection with one another based on the flimsiest possible pretext.  The more I think about it, the more I like it. 

In our short reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning, we see the early Church grappling with a similar sort of issue.  Who are we going to claim as one of ours?  How much do you have to be like us, for us to recognise you as a Christian?  It wasn’t a new dilemma.

From our own perspective in history it’s easy to forget, but Jesus was a Jew not only by birth but by religion.  His disciples were Jewish, and Jesus never told them to stop being Jewish.  In many ways, Jesus, like John the Baptist, acts and sounds like a Jewish reformer leading a movement that he thought would refresh and revitalise the faith of Israel.  At just a couple of points in his career we find Jesus himself realising that the new thing God is doing in him might also be good news for other people as well.  For example when he meets a Gentile woman who has a sick daughter.  And in the same way it seems the first generation of Jewish Christians just took it for granted that they would keep doing all the things that faithful Jews did.  They didn’t think of it as a new religion, just the right way to be faithful to the religion they already had.  But the problem for these Jewish Christians was that the message they were preaching about how God’s love had been made known in Jesus, how you no longer had to sacrifice in the Temple to be forgiven – this message of universal acceptance started to attract men and women who weren’t Jewish at all.  Well, no problem, there was a way you could convert to Judaism, if you were a man you had to be circumcised – well, maybe that wasn’t always such an attractive option - but the problem was that the message itself was attractive – Jesus himself hadn’t said anything about giving up pork and shellfish, he wasn’t super-strict on observing the Sabbath-rules, he just said ‘little children, love one another.  Love God who gives you life, and love one another’.  Simple as that, and it seems huge crowds of Gentiles heard the message and wanted to be a part of it.  So this was the problem – did being a Christian mean you had to adopt the whole paraphernalia of Judaism – did you basically have to live like a faithful Jew if you wanted to follow Jesus?  St Paul, we know, was one of the earliest Christians who said, no, you didn’t.

This wasn’t actually a new argument – there’d been an ongoing debate in Judaism about this for three or four centuries already.  Can Gentiles worship God just as they are - or are the distinctive customs of the Jews the only way people can be accepted and blessed by God?  This question started to get really controversial after the Jewish people came home from their long exile in Babylon.  While they were away, they’d got a whole lot more cosmopolitan, rubbing shoulders with people from all over the Persian Empire.  But they’d also worked out a whole lot of rules to make sure they didn’t forget they were Jewish.  The big fear, with the loss of the Temple, a long way from home, was that they’d lose their distinctive identity altogether.  So that’s when all the rules started to come in about eating kosher food and maintaining ritual purity.  But try as they might, the boundaries had got a bit blurred.  A lot of families came back with Persian-sounding names.  A lot of the men had non-Jewish wives.  You can read in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah about the concern for racial purity - how, when  the exiles were allowed to come back home and start rebuilding, a sort of ethnic cleansing was carried out and foreign wives and even children were sent away.

But the purists had some opposition.  Not everyone agreed with this idea that the Jewish people were so special to God that all foreign influences had to be got rid of.  And so in the Old Testament, alongside the hardliners and holy war advocates, we can hear other voices pointing out that God’s love is for all people, not just for the Jews.  Like the book of the prophet Joel who talks about boundaries being broken down and God’s spirit being poured out on all humankind.  Like the book of Ruth, a politically explosive little love story where the heroine is a faithful Gentile who is blessed by God and ends up becoming the ancestor of King David.  And best of all, perhaps, the book of Jonah, that tells us the whole point is that if we are God’s chosen people then what he’s choosing us for is to be a source of blessing to the people we’ve always thought of as outsiders 

So it’s the age-old question.  Does God bless other people even if they’re different – culturally, ethnically, religiously – different from what we’ve always understood to be the right way to worship God?

And it’s in this little reading from the Acts of the Apostles that we get the definitive, once and for all answer.  Yes.  Because this is what Peter points out – just look at what’s happening – it’s perfectly obvious that God’s Spirit has been poured out on them – and then he says, if the Holy Spirit doesn’t discriminate, then who are we to be pernickety about what you’ve got to do or who you’ve got to be? 

It’s a simple test.  If the signs of the Spirit are there, if we’re seeing lives transformed by God’s love in places where we never expected, then we’d better just catch up.  For Peter, the evidence was the enthusiasm, the babble of excitement and the talking in tongues that overtook these new believers.  For Jesus, maturity in faith is first and foremost seen in infectious outbreaks of love.

And yet it’s not a dead issue, is it?  It’s an argument we keep having in the Church, arguments over the right way to worship and whether traditions that are different from our own are acceptable to God.  Our own Anglican Church threatens from time to time to split over arguments about whose interpretation of scripture is right, or about what God really thinks about gay Christians or female bishops.  Even at the level of parish life, Church can be a place where some people feel left out and other people feel they need to protect their rights.  We’re human, after all, and to be human is to be prone to misunderstanding, to jealousy and anxiety.  Our relationships are less than perfect.  But Jesus keeps drawing us back to the main point, and the whole purpose of why we’re here.  If you love God, the preacher reminds us in our reading from 1 John, you’ll obey God’s commandments.  Again, the whole point of his sermon is: be consistent!  And Jesus for the umpteenth time reminds us what the Law of God boils down to: love God by loving one another.  Not, he shows us in his actions, the icky, sentimental, mostly fake stuff of pop songs, but the sort of love that quietly reaches out to somebody in need, the sort of love that reaches out to include the newcomer, the sort of love that gently reaches out to repair a broken relationship.  The sort of love that’s prepared to celebrate our connection with one another on the flimsiest possible pretext.

Which actually is all it takes to transform a collection of disconnected individuals into the body of Christ.