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Sermon: The Gospel And Change (Peter And Cornelius)

Acts 10:1-23a

There is an old joke that takes a Bible verse about some people not dying before the Second Coming of Jesus and applying at as a motto for a crèche or other gathering of babies:

“We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed.”

Change

Change by Len Matthews on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Change. Children change your lives like nothing else. Marriage is a big change, but having children requires far greater adjustment.

In our Bible reading today, we meet two people who are on the verge of major change in their lives – Cornelius the centurion, and Peter the apostle. Both are in a comfortable place in their lives, but things are about to take dramatic twists for both of them as their lives are about to meet.

First, Cornelius. To the readers of Acts, who are probably Roman, Cornelius as a centurion is an all-round good guy. Roman citizens admired their centurions, rather like the way many in our society see our soldiers as heroes. One Roman writer put it this way:

“They wish centurions not so much to be venturesome and daredevil as natural leaders, of a steady and sedate spirit. They do not desire them so much to be men who will initiate attacks and open the battle, but men who will hold their ground when worsted and hard pressed and be ready to die at their posts.” (Polybius, Histories, 6.24.9)

And not only that, Cornelius would have been regarded as a good egg by Jews – at least, as good as a Gentile could be:

He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (Verse 2)

He hadn’t quite gone all the way to becoming a Jewish convert – that would have required a painful snip for him – but in prayer and giving to the poor he practised two of the three basic disciplines expected of a Jew (the other being fasting).

But we can’t stop there. According to the angel who appears to him, even God has taken a shine to him:

Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. (Verse 4)

It’s all good, isn’t it? Admired in society, respected in the community of faith, and pleasing to God.

Except … God still has an agenda of change for him. That’s why he needs to meet Peter and hear Peter’s message. He believes in God, he does good deeds, and contributes to the well-being of society. Yet God says, ‘Cornelius, you need more. You need change in your life.’

Perhaps we know similar people today. We might be one of them. Good people – after all, the church has no monopoly on goodness. They may pray or even turn up at worship sometimes, but some say, “I don’t need to go to church to be a good Christian.” They may work hard at their job, love their families, and put in extra effort of an evening to do something positive in the local community.

And maybe God says the same today. ‘You need more. You need change.’ Specifically, I think he says something similar to what he effectively says to Cornelius. ‘You need to meet someone who will tell you about Jesus.’ Because that is what Peter would go on to do when they finally met.

Why do we need to meet Jesus when we believe in God, and do good in our community? Well, if we are serious about our belief in God and wanting to do what he likes, then we shall want to be acquainted with the One he sent to bring peace, forgiveness and true purpose of life. That One is Jesus. If God has been quietly working in our lives and we’ve been seeking to respond to him, then when we hear about Jesus we’ll be positive. If on the other hand all our talk about believing in God and being good is a smokescreen to avoid serious commitment, then the mention of Jesus will expose the truth of our hearts.

Happily, Cornelius wasn’t like that. He was truly interested in God and God’s ways. Change would come for him. Dramatic change, but good change.

Daughter and Boyfriend

Daughter and Boyfriend by Peter on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Second, Peter. In order to get inside Peter’s attitude to life, let me ask you this question: have you ever been concerned with the fear that bad company corrupts good character? Perhaps if you are the father of a daughter and you are bothered what kinds of boyfriends she might have, you will understand this mindset. Can any young man ever possibly be good enough for your princess? What will you want to do to him if he wickedly steps out of line – say, he brings her back from a date five minutes later than promised? Really, you don’t want your angel influenced by such a wayward soul.

Translate that into a religious context and what you’ve got is a guy who has been brought up to believe that you shouldn’t mix with the wrong sort of people or your pure religious faith will be contaminated. And so, as a good Jew, he had believed he should have nothing to do with those who, in religious terms, were ‘unclean’. Cornelius, despite hanging out at the synagogue, was in some sense unclean to him, because he hadn’t become a fully fledged Jew.

Now, it has to be said, Peter isn’t always consistent in his convictions. We learn in this story that ‘He is staying with Simon the tanner’ (verse 6), and that is suspect behaviour for a devout Jew. Why? Because a tanner in his trade deals with the skins of dead animals, and good Jews were not meant to have anything to do with dead bodies. Yet Peter accepts hospitality from such a man. Either he’s compromising his convictions or he’s beginning to change before this incident. I suspect it’s the former.

But here, everything definitely begins to change for him when he gets hungry at lunchtime. As he falls into a trance he sees this strange vision of a huge sharing platter. Some of the items on the menu are foods regarded as unclean by Jews. The call to eat ritually unclean food becomes a metaphor for mixing with people he would normally shun (verses 9-20).

If Peter is to live in the will of God according to the love of God, then he has to make a drastic change to his life. He has to begin hanging out with people who are different from him. He needs to start relating to people whom he would otherwise consider anathema. What’s more, he will have to do all this for the sake of sharing God’s love in Jesus Christ.

You see, up until now, the followers of Jesus were effectively nothing more than a small Jewish sect. Just about everybody who had begun following the way of Jesus had been Jewish. There was the odd exception, like the heretics of Samaria, but the new faith hasn’t burst outside Jewish boundaries. The question of whether it should hasn’t even been raised.

But it is about to be raised, and effectively it’s God who does so. God calls Peter to a radical change that will take his life-transforming love in Jesus beyond the Judaism where it has begun to the rest of the world. Christianity as a world faith is about to begin in this story, especially in next week’s episode.

And you know what? It means something similar for those of us who are church regulars, too. Those who have heard me a lot here won’t be surprised to hear me say this, but it needs repeating, because we must take this on board. It might feel nice and safe to draw most of our friends from the people like us who share our beliefs and values, but really that’s the way to build a spiritual ghetto. We need to make friends with people outside the church if we are going to make a missionary difference today. I hope we will not be known as the kind of religious people who are forever looking down their noses at those whose values we query.

The church is not a social club. It is a worshipping community and a base from which to launch God’s mission of love for all people. If we are to see God’s love spread to more people, then like Peter we may need to embrace a radical change where we don’t wait within the walls of the church building for people to come to us on our terms. Instead, we risk getting dirty in the world showing the love of God to people.

Maybe then we shall meet the Cornelius types. People where God is already on their case and who are reaching out for him. Perhaps we can have the humble privilege of making the introductions.

You know, it could even happen today if people are reaching out for God.

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Snapshots

Our hairdresser is a family friend. We go together to her house for haircuts. Earlier this year, we were at Gemma’s and we noticed some fabulous new photos of her daughter.

‘Where did you get those done?’

She replied that she had used a new photographer in town. We had a 20″ x 16″ portrait of the children in the dining room, but it was two years old. At the age of our small children, that’s a long time in which they had changed.

So we booked a session with Melanie, who was wonderful, and Debbie asked that one of the shots be a new 20″ x 16″ as a birthday present for her. Mark was impeccable during the shoot, and Rebekah started out well before switching into full drama queen mode.

A little while later, Melanie gave us a CD of the best shots, and we spent an evening narrowing down our choices. Eventually, we placed the order and last week I collected them. They are fabulous. The new big portrait is up. Mark’s cheeky smile radiates across the room, and in Rebekah’s case you can see glimpses of the beautiful young woman she will become. It’s stunning.

So the first purpose of this post is an unsolicited plug for Melanie’s work. I’m not posting copies of the photos here for two reasons: firstly, I would be breaching her copyright, and secondly I don’t in any case put photos of our children in the most public parts of the web. I only use parts of my Facebook profile and Flickr that friends can see.

But the extended purpose of this post is to meditate on change and continuity. It’s there in the different photos of our children, separated by two years. It’s even more obvious when you go to the church social and the ice-breaker game is stuck on the walls: ‘Guess which church member this is as a baby.’

This struck me even more on Friday night, when Debbie and I sat down to watch Friday Night With Jonathan Ross. The main guest was one of my musical heroes from the 1970s, Stevie Wonder. His run of albums from ‘Music Of My Mind’ to ‘Hotter Than July’ (excepting ‘Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants’!) has to be one of the most sustained streaks of brilliance in popular music. I don’t care for much of his music since – indeed if ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ could be permanently deleted from the world’s memory, I’d be happy.

But I love his Seventies music as much today in my forties as in my teens. ‘Living For The City’ still has to be one of the great social justice songs. So am I behaving as an overgrown teenager when I put his music on, or am I still genuinely appreciating his music, despite the fact that I have grown – and hopefully matured?

One thing I did was ponder the roots of my musical taste. My love of some black music clearly comes from growing up in multi-racial north London. My best friend’s brother introduced me to Otis Redding and Stax.

But my taste is – well, the polite word is ‘eclectic’. Singer-songwriters feature prominently. Some of that comes from being a child in church during the Sixties when folk and protest music was acceptable in the mainline denominations. It was more respectable than that pop racket. Also, I’m quite an introspective person, so the Seventies singer-songwriters were an obvious touchstone for me – Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and so on.

And I’ve always had a thing about lyrics. I’m keen on meaning, so those people who say that lyrics don’t matter have little sympathy from me. Not only that, I tried writing songs with my best friend. Given that he was and is a musician and I never have been, the words were my department. Don’t worry, none of them has ever been released. You are safe. But it gave me a deeper appreciation of lyrics.

The serious side of me also went for prog rock – notably Genesis and Yes. (Genesis went down the pan when they became a pop band.) My love of the serious and the complex kept my loyalty to this kind of music in the punk wars. The late Alan Freeman once held a vote on his Saturday afternoon Radio 1 show. Punk yes or no? No won 51% to 49%. I was in the 51.

You can still trace a lot of these influences in music I enjoy thirty years later. Boo Hewerdine, John Hiatt and Aimee Mann are all currently trapped in my car CD player, strongly representing the singer-songwriter camp. I recently bought Stomu Yamashta‘s Complete Go Sessions on eBay on the prog front. And Stevie Wonder on the TV probably has me digging out some of those classic albums.

At the same time, however, there are aspects of my teenage record buying habits that I wouldn’t want people to know about. There are some singles I was glad disappeared when I finally and reluctantly said goodbye to vinyl. I’m too embarrassed to name them here, so I’ll just leave you to guess. Some of them should only have been bought by teenage girls, that’s all I’m saying. It’s change and continuity again.

All this is an extended introduction to say that holding together continuity and change is an important spiritual and theological issue. I’m not even referring to the management of change in a congregation, although there is plenty that could be said about that. At this point, I’m confining myself to the personal aspects.

The Reformation enshrined this when it said that people were simul justus et peccator, both justified and yet still sinners. Justification brings redemption and leads to sanctification, that is, change, yet we are still what we always were: sinners.

Or to put it another way: our past and our present go a long way to explaining us, and hope draws us on into God’s New Creation.

And in that respect, Tom Wright’s great sign of the New Creation to come is the Resurrection of Jesus, itself am expression of continuity and change in the nature of Christ’s resurrection body. There was continuity: once the disciples had got past their considerable intellectual barriers to resurrection happening in the middle of history, Jesus was recognisable. He was ‘known by the scars’, to take Michael Card‘s old phrase. But there was also change: whatever miracles Jesus did before the crucifixion, he never suddenly appeared in the middle of a locked room, as is recorded twice in John 20. In the Resurrection, Jesus is endowed with the ‘spiritual body’ of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 15, and which my MPhil mentor Richard Bauckham used to say means, ‘a body animated by the Holy Spirit’.

So it isn’t necessarily a mark of immaturity if certain things remain from my youth. They may be part of an acceptable continuity that will travel with and in me throughout life in this age and the age to come.

Indeed, if the theory behind the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is correct that we have the same personality type for life, then that is an expression of this. You’ll see from the description I gave about the roots of some of my musical taste that a fair bit has to do with personality. No personality type is perfect: all have weaknesses. However, this is not necessarily about moral failure or weakness. God made humans to be interdependent, and in the Church God made us to be the Body of Christ, with complementary gifts.

But other things will fall away and be replaced or renewed. And that’s OK, too. That’s where the issues of holiness come in. So for example years ago I read an article in Third Way magazine about one of my musical heroes, Van Morrison. The author (Martin Wroe?) acknowledged that Morrison was not so much a practitioner of faith as a student of religions. He also acknowledged the commonly known fact about Morrison’s personality, namely that he is a notorious curmudgeon. Rock’s Mister Grumpy, indeed. However, he expressed a hope that there would be a place for him in the kingdom of God.

If there is, then it will be by the grace of God, just as it is for all of us. However, the question will arise for him, as it does for everyone, of change. How will he and we be made ‘fit for heaven’ (or the New Creation)? Transformation begins in this life by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, but is it complete at death?

The classical Catholic answer to this has been in terms of Purgatory. Tom Wright makes a good response to this in ‘Surprised By Hope‘. He describes it as a medieval metaphor and myth, without biblical support, having more to do with Aquinas and Dante. He quotes the current Pope, who appeals to 1 Corinthians 3, where the Lord himself is the fire in judgment who purifies us. Purgatory is unnecessary. God will see to it that we are fit for heaven and the New Creation.

And when he does, in that favourite verse of babysitters, ‘We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed.’ By the grace of God, he will make us worthy of his presence. And there will be a degree of recognition due to continuity, although exactly what that is becomes another difficult question. Suffice to say it must be about more than physical likeness.

Who knows, maybe even some of my music collection will survive!