Last August, just before we went on holiday in Cornwall, I noticed that an old friend of mine, Steve Wild, the Chair of the Cornwall Methodist District, would be taking a service in the Methodist church in Looe, the town where we would be staying while we were there. Steve is one of the warmest, most positive Christians I have ever had the pleasure to know. And what’s more, he often turns up at services with puppets – most notably Clarence the Frog. So I contacted him and asked whether Clarence would be accompanying him to the service in Looe.
We went as a whole family to the service, and met Steve outside the chapel, where he greeted us in his customary enthusiastic manner. Inside, he led half an hour of community hymn singing before the service proper began. He desperately wanted our two children to pick something, but the church was still on the 1936 Methodist Hymn Book, and our two even find 1983’s Hymns And Psalms far too ancient. He hadn’t brought along Clarence the Frog, but he had brought one of Clarence’s friends, and he let Bex and Mark play with the puppet during the service. Also, at one point, noticing how difficult the service was for them, he conducted a commando raid on the refreshments during the middle of a hymn and came back with a supply of Jaffa Cakes for them.
All in all, Steve is good news. He embodies the good news that he has preached throughout his life as an evangelist, a lecturer, a local minister, and television presenter. And I consider it good news of another kind to hear this week that he has been elected to be next year’s President of the Methodist Conference.
Good news is our theme this morning. Not the good news of Steve, but the Good News of Jesus (whom Steve proclaims). We come to this reading on the back of the fact that both Peter and Cornelius are facing the challenge to change. Cornelius is a good man, a devout religious man, even, but his vision of a man in dazzling clothes (verse 30ff) has shown him he needs more. Peter is being challenged to move outside his Jewish comfort zone, as well. And the reason for both these challenges to change is the Good News of Jesus. We’re going to spend some time this morning thinking about that Good News.
Firstly, who hears the Good News? Listen again to what Peter says when he introduces himself, having disabused Cornelius of the idea that he is anything more than mortal:
You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. (Verse 28)
Never mind the notions of who’s in and who’s out, ‘Unlawful’ is a rather strong translation of a word that here should probably be taken to mean ‘taboo’. All his social conventions and cultural pressure pointed against him having anything to do with Cornelius. But Peter says: ‘God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’
Now that is potent. Social taboos tell us who the goodies are and who the baddies are. They tell us who is clean, and who is dirty. They wield great power, and tend to come with considerable pressure. Yet Peter resists the taboos, because God has told him otherwise. No-one is subject to God’s taboos when it comes to the Gospel.
What might that mean for us? It’s easy to draw up lists and examples of the social taboos we endorse today. Gypsies and travellers are often not welcome in an area, because they are all deemed to make a mess, but are they taboo to God? Evidently not, given the spiritual revival that has happened among them in recent years, and we have some evidence of that not far from here in the existence of a travellers’ church.
Or what about this week when we have seen two high-profile people in our society sent to prison? As a nation we have been disgusted by the phone hacking scandal that has been exposed in recent years, and it is only right that Andy Coulson, the convicted News of the World editor, has been jailed for eighteen months this week. What terrible things he authorised for victims such as Milly Dowler’s family. But has God declared him beyond the bounds of the Gospel? Was the judge right to declare these crimes ‘unforgivable’? Not at all. In fact, he desperately needs the Good News, and this would be a good time to pray for our prison chaplains.
Similarly, Rolf Harris. Many have been shocked to see his arrest, conviction and imprisonment for various sexual assaults, some upon minors. People are now queuing up to tell him to rot in prison and die there, but again – is he beyond the possibilities of God’s grace? By no means. In his twilight years, could he become like the repentant thief on the cross next to Jesus? Absolutely.
Of course, we don’t minimise the serious and deep repentance that will be needed by anyone who responds to the Good News of Jesus, but neither do we as believers in that Gospel deny people the opportunity to hear it and meet Christ.
And not only that, some of our taboos are not even about people who have done wrong. There are still taboos against people for the colour of their skin. There are various ways in which we exclude people because they are ‘not one of us’. But if God does not treat them as ‘profane or unclean’, then what right do we have to exclude them from the offer of God’s love? How can we? The heart of the Good News is a message of mercy and grace for all – including us, because we need that as much as anybody.
Secondly, what is the Good News? Many years ago, I read a Christian magazine article where famous church leaders were asked to define the Gospel in fifty words or less. One or two of them said it wasn’t possible, and implicitly they were derided for complicating a simple message.
Well, the Good News is simple, but it is also huge. Whole books have been written about it, and we can only scratch the surface by looking at how Peter described it to Cornelius before the Holy Spirit interrupted his sermon.
Some Christians will read the account of Peter’s address and major on the ‘simple’ message beginning with peace through Jesus Christ (verse 36) and ending with the forgiveness of sins (verse 43). It’s what many of us are tuned in to hear – that Jesus died for our sins and through his sacrifice we can be forgiven.
Now in what I am about to say I do not want anyone to think that I deny that message. I don’t. I believe it, and it is central to my faith, too. But I want you to notice that it is only one thing among many that Peter says – and he doesn’t even get as far as linking forgiveness to the Cross! And the broad context is that Peter gives a brief account of the story of Jesus. Yes, the message starts with peace and ends with forgiveness, but that is all part of an invitation to enter into the story of Jesus.
The danger with only emphasising the message of forgiveness is that we gain the impression that Christianity is simply a ticket into heaven when we die. But the call is not only to be at peace with God and discover forgiveness through Jesus Christ, it is also to be part of the Jesus story. It is to live a Jesus life that is made possible by God’s peace and forgiveness. It is to know that the Resurrection doesn’t simply mean we have the hope of heaven, but that Jesus
is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. (Verse 42)
‘Judge’ may not sound like good news, but this is the Jesus who has already been described as ‘doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil’ (verse 38).
The message, then, is about receiving God’s forgiveness and peace, but going on from there as a disciple of Jesus, one who learns by seeking to copy his life. Yes, there is the hope of heaven, but before then there is the call as a disciple to build for the kingdom of God and make a difference in this world. This is what Peter calls Cornelius to embrace. This is what we are called to believe and live if we call ourselves Christians. And this is the message we are to take to the world.
Thirdly and finally, how is the Good News lived? It all happens when Peter’s sermon is interrupted. How on earth anyone can come up with the popular cliché that the Holy Spirit is a gentleman when that very Spirit decides that Peter has said enough and it’s time for action is beyond me. But he falls on the listeners ‘while Peter was still speaking’ (verse 44). The Gentiles get the same beginning – ‘speaking in tongues and extolling God’ (verse 46) – that the first disciples had had at Pentecost. The ‘taboo’ people – those thought ‘profane or unclean’ until God’s intervention are most definitely nothing of the sort.
I wonder whether we have ever seen God pour out his favour upon someone of whom we disapproved? Because that’s what Peter and his team witness here. And it is so decisive that Peter orders the immediate baptism of Cornelius and his household. There is all the evidence he needs to know that these are people who have converted to the Good News of Jesus.
And now, the two groups that were previously hostile to each other are united in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Here is a powerful sign of God’s ministry of reconciliation. The Gospel again is not simply about my personal forgiveness of sins. We are not only reconciled to God, we are reconciled to each other and called to live a life where we are at peace with God and one another.
Yes, living as a disciple starts right now as God unites us in Christ with people we wouldn’t otherwise choose to be our companions. The old adage that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family is just as true of our spiritual family. But if we are serious about seeing the healing of the nations as we work for the kingdom of God, then we need to start by being an example of a healing community right here.
What does that mean? Well, by the power of the Holy Spirit it means I am not going to ignore that person I don’t like. I am instead going to see whether reconciliation is achievable. It means I am not going to keep poisoning our community by indulging in cheap criticism of people, especially when I do it from a perspective that sounds like I think I am superior, I have got everything together, and I am the better disciple of Jesus. It means I am not going to start complaining at the drop of a hat. I do not come to church to be a consumer, and expect that the purpose of church is for everything to be according to my taste, and that I can therefore rattle off my moans when it isn’t exactly how I want it to be. No, I come to my church community to be part of God’s work of reconciliation and healing. I come on Sundays and other days to live out Jesus Christ’s vision of peace – peace with God, peace with one another, and peace for the world.
In short, as I embrace in Jesus’ name those who are socially under a taboo, and seek to lives as disciples of Jesus alongside them, I am committed to a life whose very actions speak the Good News that Christ brought.
Nothing less than that is Christian faith and Christian church.