10 May 2015
10.30 Sung Eucharist
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Revd Simon Cowling
Acts 10. 44 -end; John 15. 9-17
One afternoon last week Liz Higgins and Betty Nelmes, who coordinate our exemplary team of guides at the Priory, invited me to meet some children from Oak Field School in Nottingham who were visiting church from their base at the Beamsley Project. The children I met all live with severe physical and mental disabilities and were having a few days in Wharfedale in order to give their families some respite from the constant care that they need. I joined them in the West Tower where they were getting ready to ring the bell. Bradley, Dominic, Chloe, Cameron, Brian, and Nancy were all gently lifted out of their wheelchairs in turn by their carer and carried into the bell tower. The soft end of the bell rope was put into their hands while the carer pulled the rope a little further up until it rang. The pleasure the children got from this sensory experience was palpable in their smiles and in the sounds they made. It was hugely moving, and humbling, to see.
Later that day, partly as a respite from the relentless coverage of the election results, I watched an episode of W1A, the BBC’s self-referential satire of its own organisational complexity set in Broadcasting House. One of the strands of this particular episode was the proposed appointment of a Head of Inclusivity. At one point the favoured candidate confesses to a colleague that she doesn’t really know what the job-title means. Of course, W1A is satire; but it did occur to me that anyone who had been at Bolton Priory to see those children from Oak Field School being given an opportunity to ring the bell would have experienced inclusivity in action.
These reflections arise out of the tantalisingly brief passage from the Acts of the Apostles that we have heard this morning. The five verses are puzzling unless we are aware of what precedes them. The Apostle Peter is speaking at the home of Cornelius, a God-fearing but non-Jewish Roman centurion. Peter has arrived at Cornelius’s home, with some fellow Jewish Christians, as the result of a dream. In this dream, Peter had been challenged to eat food that, for a Jew like him, would have been regarded as unclean. He protests. A voice tells him: What God has made clean, you must not call profane. While reflecting on what the dream might mean, Peter is visited by some men from Cornelius’s household who urge him to go with them. Peter does so. When he arrives he realises what the dream is about. Cornelius, though not Jewish and therefore unclean to an observant Jew, is clearly open to the same Holy Spirit that the disciples have experienced at Pentecost. The penny drops, and just before today’s reading begins, Peter has already declared to the assembled company, I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. Peter has become Christianity’s very first Head of Inclusivity and today we hear the consequences: the Holy Spirit falls upon those who are listening to him, and Peter sanctions their baptism – even though they are Gentiles, not Jewish.
It is difficult for us fully to comprehend the enormity of this shift in early Christian self-understanding. In the beginning Christianity was a small Jewish sect, whose leader had apparently died a failure on the cross. Then his followers experienced an outbreak of religious enthusiasm based on the conviction that Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead, and that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a sign of God’s imminent reign on earth. But this religious enthusiasm, this embrace of the Holy Spirit, was merely a particular expression of Judaism – until Peter has his dream, and Paul receives his calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles following his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. The rest, as they say, is history. Our history. Christianity opens its face to a world that is eager for its core message of life-giving and radical inclusiveness, and of equality of regard in Christ: Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free.
But in practice the Church has rarely lived out fully what this core message both implies and entails for its vocation. We have a centuries-long, and very dishonourable, tradition of not only discriminating against, but actively excluding, those whom we deem to have behaved immorally; those whose beliefs we regard as unsound; those whose colour or culture we find threatening; those whose disabilities we find it inconvenient or embarrassing to accommodate; those whose gender or sexuality we believe excludes them from exercising, or even having, a vocation to ordained ministry. These, and other, acts of discrimination and exclusion have sometimes been deliberate; sometimes simply unthinking. Whatever their origins, they fail to take full account of the one whose birth and ministry, death and resurrection, have helped to shape us as the people of God. The one who ignored the conventions of his faith and spoke with non-Jewish women, and Roman soldiers; the one who expanded his listeners’ understanding of the concept of neighbour by telling the story of the Good Samaritan; the one who shamed into silence a group of men who would have stoned a woman taken in adultery; the one whose compassion and healing touch brought new life and hope to those whose illnesses had rendered them ritually unclean. Jesus Christ, whose new commandment to his disciples to love one another is a commandment that calls us, in our time and in this place, to shape our common life in accordance with his own radical and inclusive love; to whom be glory now and to the ages of ages. Amen.