I wonder what Peter thought when he realized he had to explain his vision to the other church elders. You know, the vision mentioned in Acts 10. “The next day as the three travelers were approaching the town, Peter went out on the balcony to pray. It was about noon. Peter got hungry and started thinking about lunch. While lunch was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the skies open up. Something that looked like a huge blanket lowered by ropes at its four corners settled on the ground. Every kind of animal and reptile and bird you could think of was on it. Then a voice came: “Go to it, Peter—kill and eat.”
14 Peter said, “Oh, no, Lord. I’ve never so much as tasted food that was not kosher.”
15 The voice came a second time: “If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.”
16 This happened three times, and then the blanket was pulled back up into the skies.”
The story ends with Cornelius arriving to see Peter, and Peter and the believers telling them about Jesus. The Holy Spirit falls on them, and Peter declares they should be baptized. A great story of inclusion. A great story of the universality of the gospel message. Except that, in Chapter 11 Peter has to explain his actions. Peter has to explain why gentiles have been admitted to the church. Why he admitted gentiles to the church, you know, gentiles who did not live according to God’s law. Those gentiles.
I think there are parallels today with the movement towards a more inclusive church and away from some of the rigid understandings of the past. What does this story tell us about working towards an inclusive church? About explaining why we are including those who have previously not only been excluded but actively chased away.
Firstly, unbeknown to Peter, the three men were already on their way. They were already on the road to faith, God had already met with them, they were coming to Peter for Peter’s benefit far more than theirs. They needed to hear the gospel set out, yes, but they had already had an encounter with the living God. Peter was confirming the witness they already had. Similarly, those who have been excluded from our communities of faith but who are accepted by God as his children are already on their way to meet with us. God has called them, He has blessed them and He has sent them to us.
Next, Peter was praying- he had a heart receptive to God’s action and call. He wanted to hear from God, and expected to hear from God. He was waiting to hear how God wanted him to engage with his world. We too need to be seeking God, and listening out for his call to us, with a receptive heart, one that expects God to constantly do new things. A heart that responds to the call of God with “Yes!”
Peter was surprised by what God said. It challenged his theology, it challenged his understanding of the scripture and it was completely unacceptable in the faith community to which he belonged. Peter pointed out that he would NEVER do what God suggested. Who has God called us to accept and integrate into our community of faith that challenges our theology, that we see as unholy, that we would NEVER tolerate? Might we need to hear the same message as Peter. “If God says its OK, its OK” Who has God called into the community of faith that we are sure, should be excluded?
Lastly Peter did not allow his pre-existing theology to stand in the way of his experience of God’s acceptance of those considered unholy and outside the community of faith and his advocacy for them with the rest of the church.
“if they have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (Acts 11: 17) He recognized the signs of God’s acceptance and took them at face value. Why don’t we do that?
So often our “good” theology blinds us to God’s “best” grace. God was saying that something which was once considered sinful and able to separate you from God, was in fact okay. God had clarified his calling, and His all encompassing love won out.
Lord Mayor Clover Moore last night launched a bid to repaint major crossings on Oxford St in time for next year’s 35th Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade.
The church has been through this many times, in the acceptance of women, in the acceptance of gentile converts, in its treatment of divorce and those who divorce, in the full ministry of women or people of colour, of people of diverse sexuality and gender. We will continue to go through and have to work through these issues until we meet in heaven, but we can learn from Peter’s experience.
I am sure there were those amongst the disciples who threatened to leave the church if the gentile agenda was advanced. I am sure there were those who did leave. But here’s the thing: it was those that left that missed out on God’s best, not those who stayed and worked through their discomfort.
We are at a point where grace intervenes in history. It is exciting, how we respond to God’s call to people who are same –sex attracted, how we integrate what God is doing within our understanding of what God has said, will be key.
It is rare, but not impossible, for someone to come to faith knowing they were gay. It is much more likely that someone with faith comes to understand they are gay. How we respond to either situation is the mark of how we have understood the gospel.
To quote Bishop Barbara Harris
“How can you initiate someone into the Body of Christ and then treat them like they’re half-assed baptized?" - The Rt Rev Barbara Harris