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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's sermon

9th May 2004

Fr David Shepherd

Easter 5

We live in a time of division in the Churches. At the extremes conservatives and liberals try to impose their views on each other with apparent intolerance of differing beliefs. At the moment the fault line seems to be found in the question of homosexuality. Those of definite views seek to pigeonhole others by their answers. Perhaps like me you rather resent this and wonder where you might end up in a schismatic Church if you don't feel comfortable with either extreme.

Faced with such controversies it is tempting to look back to a golden age of the Church when all was pure, straightforward and clear cut. Behind the various reform movements of Christian history there has been a desire for a 'pure church'. Those who think they have recreated it inevitably exclude the compromised only to find after a generation or so that their purity is now fast becoming tarnished too.

What of the early churches we read of in the New Testament, especially in St Paul's epistles and the Acts of the Apostles? Can we find the elusive perfection of the new heaven and the new earth there? The answer has to be no, because Christians always seem to have disagreed with one another.

Acts is a highly stylised and edited reading of early Christian history, post resurrection and Pentecost and yet in today's reading we read of the great division over the question of the status of gentile Christians within the church. Were they in or out?

Rumours reached the elders of the Jerusalem Church that gentiles had accepted the word of God. The Jerusalem Church was deeply conservative. Its members were essentially Jews who believed that Jesus was the expected Messiah. Uncircumcised, pork eating pagans were anathema to them. Now they had heard that they were being welcomed into Christian fellowships elsewhere.

Worst still Peter a devout Jew before he was a Christian, an intimate of Jesus Christ, a disciple and an apostle had eaten with such men. They demanded an explanation.

The answer came in the account of Peter's vision at Joppa. Three times Peter saw in a trance a sheet being lowered from heaven containing all kinds of ritually unclean and decidedly un-appetising creepy crawlies. He was commanded by the Lord to eat. 'Get up, Peter: kill and eat.' He resisted, he had never eaten anything unclean. He was told, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'

The full meaning of the dream was revealed when gentiles led Peter to the house of a man who had been told in a vision to send for him, for salvation. In the Jewish/gentile encounter that followed the gentiles had the same experience of the Holy Spirit that Peter and his Jewish Christians had already received. This was enough to convince Peter that the Gospel was for the gentiles too, a discovery that led him to praise God.

As I have already hinted Luke tided up and edited his material to make a neat story for reading in his Church and as an evangelistic tool. No doubt in reality the arguments were much more heated. Not everyone would have been convinced. Some may have parted company with fellow believers over the question.

What conclusions can we draw? That firstly we should always keep an open mind. Peter in his life went through several periods of profound change of which the incident at Joppa is but one. It may be that God will call us to radically change our Christian understanding of a particular controversy especially when we discover living faith in those who take a different line.

Secondly that story might just have something to say on the question of homosexuality. Homosexuals were traditionally seen as not belonging in the neat categories that ancient Semitic peoples valued. Man was made for woman and not for man. Likewise certain animals that crossed neat categories were seen as unclean because they did not belong to any one grouping. God in Christ has broken such categorisation and division down. That may not be the whole story. It does not do the current debate full justice, but it prompts us to approach the topic with an open mind.

Thirdly and lastly the vision seen by John of a new heaven and a new earth was a glimpse of eternity, of the Church with Christ in heaven. If we have received an entry into that already through the Resurrection of Christ we have not yet received it in all its fullness. This side of eternity we have to accept that our vision is incomplete, partial, only then will we see in full.


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Last updated 09/05/04 9:00:00 Author: David Shepherd