Sermon at St James, Colwall and All Saints, Coddington, Sunday 6 May 2018
Acts 10: 44-end; John 15: 9-17
Anyone glancing at our newspapers and media in the past few weeks might have thought that the country has a racial problem. Protests about anti-Semitism in the Labour party; protests in support of the Caribbean families, the so-called Windrush generations and then, of course, the thorny issue of immigration. Do you think that we have a problem with race in this country? One thing is certain – Colwall/Coddington does not have one but there is a reason for that.
When you visit one of our big cities and especially London and, say, travel on the tube, there is this great mass of people of all races listening to music on their smart phones and no tension in the air. There may be some specific areas like on-line where there is conflict and abuse but generally all seems tolerant and easy in terms of race. Where there are issues is in the clash of cultures.
Some of you will know that my last job before I retired was as a Headmaster of a senior boys’ school in West London and we had boys there doing their GCSEs and A levels of every skin colour and religion under the sun but in my 15 years no incident that you could call a racial incident took place. What we did have were questions over culture. The Music department got very exercised when I allowed some Muslims to avoid music lessons. Teachers questioned why Jewish boys stayed away for their religious festivals. Boys wanted long hair like the Sikhs. The Canteen was constantly constrained by all the different food requirements and although some boys made friends across cultures in school their friendships were hampered outside school by the different attitudes to family life, alcohol, food prohibitions and festivals. In other words the differing cultures were not easy to bridge.
In today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles Peter, the apostle, faces a clash over whether Gentiles as well as Jews could become followers of his Lord. This clash is hardly surprising when you remember Peter’s background. Brought up in a village on the sea of Galilee, taking up fishing as his occupation, attending synagogue each Sabbath Peter, would have met few Gentiles apart from the occupying Romans and he would have kept Gentiles at arms length. Jesus comes along and quite amazingly takes Peter out of his comfort zone of his village and family and they go south to Jerusalem. There all the cataclysmic events took place which we celebrate – Crucifixion, Resurrection and Pentecost but Peter’s support group would have been entirely Jewish.
Some weeks later we find Peter on the Mediterranean coast at Caesarea nearly 100 miles from Jerusalem. He has been asked there by a Roman centurion called Cornelius, who has become interested to hear Peter’s message. Peter had been staying at Joppa, the modern day Jaffa, just 30 miles away. Whilst he was in Joppa he had been waiting for some lunch and as his stomach was rumbling, he had a vision of a large sheet being lowered by its four corners from the sky. In the sheet were all kinds of four-footed
creatures as well as reptiles and birds and a voice cried out, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat”. But Peter was repulsed by the sight of animals which were forbidden for the Jews to eat. ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean’, but the voice came back at him ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’. Three times this happened.
So when Peter arrives at the Roman centurion’s house he is prepared to meet non-Jews, Gentiles, and rather than recoil from their presence he speaks to them of Jesus and Luke tells us that while he was speaking the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. So all are welcomed into God’s kingdom whatever their background, culture or previous beliefs. It’s a heartening story. What God has made clean, you must not call profane.
When we meet people of other cultures or people with whom we have little apparently in common it is easy to ignore them and to pass them by or, indeed, to criticise their way of life. Yet in our Gospel reading today from John it must be love that motivates us at all times. “as the Father has loved me abide in my love”.
Love looks through problems and finds redeeming features. Love doesn’t allow us to reject others, it finds ways to accept and take interest. Peter was taught a lesson at Joppa which took him even further out of his comfort zone. It had been some journey from the conservative, contented life of a Jew fishing quietly on the Sea of Galilee to a meeting with a Roman officer and his friends at Caesarea.
A final thought. As you drive up through Colwall you pass the Thai restaurant and outside it is a banner for the Primary School advertising places for September. The strapline is “Loving and Learning” which presumably means that the school has a loving environment where learning can easily take place, but it can also mean that when we love we learn. The more you and I give ourselves to others in love the more we learn, the more our eyes are opened to people who are not like us, as Peter’s were. We must love and learn.