Readings: Acts 11: 1-18
This section of Acts is significant because the early followers of Jesus saw ‘the way’ as a reform of Judaism and all their cultural conditioning would encourage them to keep it within Judaism. ‘Luke’, says William Barclay ‘sees this incident as a notable mile-stone on the road along which the Church was groping its way to the conception of a world for Christ’.
It seems to be a strong group building practise to limit diet, dress or behaviour as a distinguishing mark that encourages our ‘in group’, ‘out group’ instincts. But the early church seems to have overcome that tendency even though later sections introduced new sanctions.
John 13: 31-35
This passage begins immediately after Judas has left and is the beginning of Jesus’ farewell speech which repeats the theme of love several times, intensifying the love commitment each time. Raymond Brown writes that Jesus gives the disciples a command that, if obeyed, will keep the spirit of Jesus alive among them.
Love is more than a commandment; it is a gift from God.
Two important customs are challenged and found wanting in our Acts reading, dietary prohibitions and exclusivity. Yet in spite of this very clear biblical instruction much of the church still sees themselves as an in-group and strongly disassociates themselves from other faiths. Furthermore, Christians very often set themselves apart from other Christians who they see as ‘other’.
Aware of this propensity to form in-groups and out groups I was happy to be part of the organising committee of an interfaith conference while I was in Hamilton. Our convenor was a prominent Moslem woman who was keen to include women in leadership as speakers. As a Presbyterian I was able to suggest one or two.
When our convener announced the lunch break at the conference, she explained the divisions in the buffet between gluten free, vegetarian, halal etc. She also explained that the Exclusive Brethren’s were having lunch in a separate room.
I turned to Margaret Mayman, who was sitting next to me, and said ‘We don’t need to bother with that do we, because Peter had that vision of the sheet being lowered with all the food on it.
Margie paused for a moment then responded, ‘O yes we can eat what we like.’
I have regularly heard the hypothesis that dietary laws and restrictions on free association have an historical public health background. Recent examples are the suspicion that AIDS came from eating infected monkeys and covid from bats in a market where meat and live animal were offered for sale alongside each other.
But Peter was not criticizing sensible public health measures. His vision was a critique of the human tendency to divide into ‘in-groups and ‘out groups.’
Not only does it feel secure to be part of an in-group that is defined by those it excludes but that security attracts others, thereby helping the group to grow.
That’s why so many who define themselves as Christians are anti-gay and oppose same sex marriage. I have read that 90% of us are heterosexual yet some of us want to be assured that we are by belonging to a group that confirms that as normal and blessed. Therefore, there is a temptation to deny gay and lesbian people basic human rights in order to feel secure. As Christians such people reinforce their feeling of rightness by finding a couple of proof texts that say they are on God’s side. There is also the temptation to protect God from the evil of difference.
This morning however the lectionary has found us two passages that tell us that God is far more accepting and supporting of diversity than we could possibly imagine.
Through these reading from Acts and John’s Gospel God, in Christ, instructs us to abandon excluding people and to love one another. Furthermore, we have to love one another if we want to be Disciples of Christ.
Behind all the imagery of the Acts story is a very simple logic spelled out in verse nine.
But a second time the voice answered from heaven. ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’. (Acts 11:9)
God created an interdependent world and called it good. So, what right have people to define some foods as unclean, or much worse some people beyond God’s love and care.
I loved the notice outside the Gosford Anglican Church that read ‘Dear Christians some people are gay, get over it. Love God’.
The now past vicar of Gosford seems to have received a message from heaven and Just like Peter hewas passing it on. He also had a sign that read ‘Israel Folau’ is wrong. I can’t remember what was going on in Australian politics when the sign read ‘When we grow up, we would like to be New Zealand’ but I liked it.
Certainly, some people are allergic to some foods and contaminated water, or infected animal products, can kill people. But that reality is completely different to defining an in-group by what it refuses to eat. Nevertheless, the call to love others means that, although the followers of Christ are not defined by dietary restrictions, we are still called to love those faith communities that are. The minute we judge a group by their customs or behaviour we set ourselves up as an in-group defining our group by what we oppose or exclude.
Although dietary rules were the subject of Peter’s dream the issue of exclusion in this episode goes further. Peter’s dream was the catalyst that allowed a far greater barrier to be broken down.
Jesus was a Jew and there is a fair argument that Jesus’ mission began as a Jewish revival movement. Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Syrophoenician descent in Mark’s Gospel, (Mark 7:24-30) show his cultural tradition that excluded others from God’s concern. But the episode also demonstrates Jesus’ learning from the dialog with the woman, and growing towards a more inclusive understanding of God.
It is also interesting that the episode comes directly after Jesus’ statement that evil comes from people’s hearts, not from what they eat. The gospel writer even labours the point by writing: ‘Thus he declared all foods clean’ (Mark 7: 19)
Bill Loader helps us move on and tie the two readings together by concluding his commentary by suggesting that love connects us with God and with each other.
That language applies to our relationship with God and Christ and their relationship to each other.
It also to applies to our relationships with each other in the Christian Community. In John’s Gospel it becomes Jesus’ parting prayer for his disciples, and those who believe through their word. So, love also encompasses evangelism and encompasses the challenge of being a Christian community.
The command to love is even more connecting because verse thirty-five states ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.’ (John 13:35)
In chapter seventeen of John’s Gospel, which is a continuation of this farewell speech, Jesus talks about the unity between God and Christ. He also speaks of the divine connection to all believers. Jesus explains that this loving unity is so ‘
In his commentary Bill Loader explains that this is not airy-fairy invisible unity but the kind of caring in community which can be seen and experienced. Christians and Christian communities are to model the love they have seen and experienced in Christ among themselves.
This is not, Loader writes, about propaganda or strategic techniques, but about being real caring communities. The rhetoric of caring, the claiming to be caring, but instead turning to seek success through strategic planning, will be seen for what it is, selling a product because of vested interests of some kind other than love. Such vested interests might include winning a following for the divine entrepreneur, giving religious people a sense of power and achievement, growing numbers, and guaranteeing the boss’s favour.
There are, Loader writes, seemingly respectable theologies that suggest that through loyalty to God certain people must be excluded from the command to love others.
That is exclusive ‘in-group out-group theology that excludes gays and lesbians, coloured people, refugees and condones slavery.
But John’s understanding is bafflingly simple and different from this. John the gospel writer tells us that we find life and give life to others in relationship with the God who gives life with each other in community.
The life of God and the life of love is its own reward.
Both these readings are a real challenge to individuals and a special challenge to us in a world of shrinking traditional churches and seemingly growing super churches with a prosperity gospel and exclusive membership.
Yet our gospel reading this morning gives us a mind bogglingly simple church growth formula.
Love God as Christ loves us, love each other and love others. It is through that love that people will know that we are Christ’s disciples and as we love others they will believe.
It would be easy to rush off and look for a successful church growth strategy and there are great libraries of books full of such plans. Furthermore, everybody demands, a strategic plan, or a mission plan. We need one to get permission to call a minister.
Yet a very simple plan emerges from the consideration of both our readings. Firstly, membership of the church is open to everyone and our ‘holiness’ is not damaged by who we associate with. If the ‘Holy Spirit’ directs anyone to us, we must accept them.
Peter explains his actions in accepting non-Jews into the faith to the people in Judea by quoting Jesus saying: ‘John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 11: 16).
Peter had seen evidence that God in Christ had not only accepted people his religious tradition excluded but called them to mission. So as an Apostle loyal to Christ he too must accept them to.
That small pericope also makes a very important point about all the rituals of the church. Baptism, confirmation, ordination, and communion are ways that the church recognises God’s call on people’s lives. These rituals affirm people’s place in the Christian community.
Our sacraments and rituals are not the way we instruct God who we decide are in and who are out. God calls whoever the divine self wishes to call, and we are required to recognise that calling. Any other understanding denies that God is God.
Of cause being open to all people and accepting of all people won’t necessarily attract people to the church. People will not necessarily accept Christ no matter how welcome they may feel.
The gospel writer tells us that to actually attract people to a Christ filled way of life we have to be a loving community that loves others.
We have to promote things that are open to others without obligation. Programs and activities like men’s sheds and muffin mornings along with anything else we might think of, and have the energy for.
Those actions follow Kennon Callahan’s suggestion that growing membership in a parish involves becoming a legend on the community grapevine through addressing the hurts and hopes of the community.
Callahan’s formula gets dangerously close to church growth by strategic planning, but it is also a guide to a practical way of showing the love.
We express our quest to be a loving community by stating our aim to be Christ in the community with no strings attached.
In so doing we will be a loving community that loves others without reservations or exclusions.
Through our practical loving, people will not only know that we are Christ’s disciple but believe!
In believing we also become disciples.
Rev Hugh Perry ; 15 May 2022
 William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Acts of the Apostles, (Edinburgh: St Andrews Press, 1976),p. 86.
 Kennon L. Callahan Twelve Keys to an Effective Church (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1983) pp.8,9.