24 April 2016, Fifth Sunday of Easter
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Canon Simon Cowling
Acts 11. 1-18; John 13. 31-35
For those who have fallen away from the faith, may there be no hope unless they return to your Law. As for the Christians and other heretics, may they perish immediately. Speedily may they be erased from the Book of Life and may they not be registered among the righteous. Blessed are you Lord, who subdue the wicked.
That rather fiercely expressed Jewish prayer was probably written in the second half of the first century, but it is just possible that St Peter would have been familiar with an earlier prayer rather like it. The prayer is one of the tantalisingly few pieces of evidence outside the New Testament that give us an insight into the emerging split between Christianity and Judaism in the forty or fifty years after the death of Jesus. Beginning as a minority sect within the Jewish faith, Christianity very soon became firmly rooted in the wider non-Jewish world of the eastern Mediterranean. Christianity’s Jewish adherents dwindled in number and its Jewish roots withered away. Less than a hundred years after Jesus’s death the split between Judaism and Christianity was irrevocable.
Whether or not Peter knew a prayer of the sort with which I began, his religious and cultural frame of reference would undoubtedly have been the same: a natural wariness, if not downright suspicion, of non-Jews and backsliders from the faith, and a default assumption that his mission, along with that of the other disciples, was primarily to faithful and religiously observant Jewish people. Despite what we are able to glean from the Gospels about Jesus’s own attitude to individual non-Jews, it is clear from the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles that Jesus’s predominantly Jewish followers generally found the notion that the Gospel was for all people, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, both puzzling and problematic.
This is both the context for, and the explanation of, the frosty reception we heard about in our reading when Peter returned from his trip to Joppa and Caesarea: So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’. All Peter can do in response is recount the vision he had, and the Lord’s command to eat the flesh of animals that any self-respecting Jew would have considered unclean. The Lord trumps tradition, as it has been said, and has made all things clean. Peter’s story at first silences his critics and then causes an outburst of joy as the implications sink in: And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
The great monotheistic world faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have a common ancestry in Abraham. This Abrahamic ancestry is frequently cited positively as a tie that binds, as a starting point for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to understand one another. So far, so commendable. Yet deep within the monotheistic imagination there has always lurked something else: a deep suspicion of difference, as though the very unity and sovereignty of God might be compromised by that difference. Such a suspicion of difference was undoubtedly in the minds of those who wrote the first century Jewish prayer, condemning Christians and other heretics, with which I began; such a suspicion is what lay behind Martin Luther’s advice to German princes to burn Jewish schools and synagogues, and to ban rabbis from teaching on pain of death – advice Luther described as ‘sharp mercy’; such a suspicion is what lay behind the forcing of Christians in the Middle East to convert en masse in the early days of Islam. But such suspicion of difference is not confined to the pages of history. We see it being played out in our own time, not only between but also within Judaism, Christianity and Islam: the use or otherwise of religious imagery; the role of women; human sexuality; equal marriage; divorce; blasphemy – all these and many other matters are ones that divide, often violently. Too many, it seems, are fearful of affording difference any dignity.
The Jewish rabbis tell the story of God showing Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden. ‘I have made the whole thing for you, so please take good care of it. If you wreck it, there will be no one else to repair it other than you.’ It is not hard to understand the point that is being made here. Human beings wreck the Eden that God has created for us. Rather than celebrating our common humanity, we focus on, and are suspicious of, our differences. We assume that our own way of believing or behaving, our own moral assumptions and judgements, our own personal interests, are the right ones. Peter’s initially negative reaction in the vision he experienced in Joppa, his unwillingness to eat anything he regarded as profane or unclean, shows that he was prey to the same suspicions, as indeed were the Jewish Christians to whom he reported back in Jerusalem.
As always, the way of Christ first shames and then transfigures such human frailties. Our Gospel reading, set on the night before Jesus died, opens with the departure of Judas, whose betrayal is now imminent. Yet at this darkest of moments Jesus speaks to his disciples not with anger at this betrayal, but with the infinite tenderness of one who yearns for something truly different: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. Jesus has already shown such love in action by washing his disciples’ feet. Now he gently reminds his disciples that it is only their love for one another that will demonstrate to the world at large that they are truly committed as his followers. May this way commended by Christ to his first followers be ours too, so that from our love for one another here may flow a love for the whole of God’s creation; a love that transcends difference and affords it due dignity; a love that will allow us to keep God’s Eden in good repair.