John 15:9-17 and Acts 10:44-48
The Ven Dr Bill Jacob
17 May 2009.
‘The believers who had come with Peter were of Jewish birth were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit should have been poured out even on Gentiles’ (Acts 10.45)
This passage we heard in our first reading this afternoon is one of the most significant passages for us in the New Testament, for it accounts for why we are here today. Let me explain this claim. To do this we need to look at the back story in the Acts of the Apostles. The passage we heard this afternoon is the climax of quite a long episode, which occupies the whole of chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles. It begins with a Roman soldier, an officer in the Italian regiment, based at Caesarea, a town in the coast of Palestine, which was the port for Jerusalem. This was a town where there was a mixed population of Jews and non=Jews. It was a major trading centre, and the entry-point for the interior – a little like Hong Kong for mainland China, but on a much smaller scale. Caesarea too was ethnically mixed. It was much more cosmopolitan than Jerusalem, and there the occupying power, the Romans, had their headquarters. It is important to remember that throughout Jesus’ lifetime and thereafter, the Holy Land was occupied territory. It was an uncomfortable place to be. The Jews were a proud, ancient, independent people, and they resented the occupation of the Roman army. Although they had secured privileges to allow them to maintain their religion, and for their religious leaders to function, it was always under the heal of the invader. The Jews noticed slights and took offence. Conversely the roman authorities were suspicious of them, and on the lookout for insults and insubordination, and plots to overthrow their power. The Palestine of Jesus’ day was not a comfortable place to be.
Some Roman soldiers did take an interest in the Jewish religion. We hear in the gospels of a Roman officer asking Jesus to heal his servant. But generally Jews were exclusive and stand-offish, and protective of their religion. They were not interested in converting people, merely in protecting the truth and purity of their religion as they believed it had been given to them by Moses and the prophets.
The Roman officer who is the subject of this episode in the acts of the Apostles was very interested in the Jewish religion; we are told that he and his family attended a synagogue in Caesarea, and that he contributed alms to help poor Jews, but he could not become a Jew. That was only really possible by birth. But he experienced a vision, a sign that he had found favour with God, and was told to send to Simon Peter who was staying in Joppa, a town just down the coast.
Now Simon Peter, you will remember, was one of Jesus’ closest followers, and is the hero of the first half of the Acts of the Apostles. He too, simultaneously, had had a most peculiar vision, od something like a ship’s sail – remember he had been a fisherman – descending from heaven, filled with every sort of animal, and he had heard a voice say ‘kill and eat’, and he had protested that he couldn’t possibly, for the Jewish religion had very strict rules about what could and could nt be eaten; and to eat something forbidden and ‘unclean’ involved becoming ritually unclean and out of favour with God, and an elaborate cleansing procedure was necessary to put one right with God and one’s fellow Jews. Three times Peter saw this vision and heard the divine command.
The next morning the Roman officer’s servants arrived and Peter heard, he believed, the Holy Spirit tell him to go with them. So without hesitation Peter went with them to Caesarea, and told Cornelius, the Roman officer that though his religion, the Jewish religion, expressly forbade Jews to visit at home, or associate with non-Jews, and told him that he had been shown by God that no one or thing should be called ‘unclean or profane’. Cornelius then told Peter about his vision of an angel, and in reply Peter told them about Jesus, about his life, his death, and his resurrection from the dead, and his command to his disciples to tell all people this good news. When Peter had finished, the episode we heard about in our first reading happened, the Holy Spirit came upon all Cornelius’s relations and friends, and they spoke in ‘tongues of ecstacy’ and acclaimed ‘the greatnss of god’. This astonished Peter’s Jewish companions. Why?
This was the ultimate confirmation that God’s gift of himself in Jesus was not just for God’s ancient people the Jews, to whom he had been relating for at least a millennium and a half, but, for all humankind. Until this point in the short history of the Church all Jesus followers had been, like Jesus, Jewish. It is often hard for us to remember the origins of Christianity were as a Jewish sect. This episode challenged the preconceptions of the then Christians. God’s Holy Spirit descended on the Roman soldier Cornelius and his family and friends. The Holy Spirit it would seem empowers even members of the hated occupying power, under whose heal the Jewish people languished. God, this suggests, is no respecter of persons. God can come even upon the enemy.
Even one’s enemy can become a friend in Jesus, for Peter stayed with Cornelius, doing what no decent god-fearing Jew would normally do, becoming ritually unclean by staying in a Gentile’s house, receiving his hospitality, eating his unclean food, Peter, as we discover as the story continues, puts himself at jeopardy with other less daring Christians. He is open to sharp criticism from his more cautious and conservative friends back in Jerusalem over all this nonsense about the Holy Spirit. There is the first great row in the history of the Church, and Peter waivers, to the fury of St Paul, but this great step inn the life of the Church is vindicated.
God’s love it demonstrates, is for all people. The ‘you’ of whom John speaks in today’s gospel reading is everyone, even us. When Jesus, according to John, says ‘As the Father (that is God) has loved me, so I have loved you’, the ‘you’ includes not only those present around the supper table when Jesus spoke those words, nor just Jesus fellow religionists, but we can be confident, after Peter’s visions and speech in the Acts of the Apostles, and the episode that we heard about in our first reading, that it includes people of all nations, races, gender, as symbolised by Cornelius’s household. And Jesus demonstrates the nature and quality of that love and ‘friendship’ by laying down his life, dying, for his friends – the disciples round the table, and, by extension, us. This is the ultimate definition of friendship, and God, in Jesus, has done it for us.
And we are invited to respond to this love poured out for us by God, in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit in this act of friendship, by acting and behaving as though we are God’s friends, by loving one another – on terms of equality, not as master and servant, but as friends, and friends across all human divides, of ethnicity, nationality, gender, status. Friends have a relationship of equality. We are all equal in God’s eyes, and his wish is that we should behave towards one another with equality, valuing one another as friends.
In this very simple way, we can ‘bear God’s fruit, by sharing God’s love with others, and win more friends for God. In so doing we can change the world. Christinaity is life-changing, and world changing. By valuing our fellow human beings as fellow children of God, we treat them differently. This is where the idea of ‘human rights’ comes from.
That episode in Caesarea was a world-changing moment, in which God’s love shown in Jesus was shown to cross ethnic and cultural boundaries, to change the lives of all people, if we will co operate with God, in his great enterprise.