Guess who’s Coming to Dinner?

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2015-05-10 by George Kaplan

Preacher: Geoff Thorington-Hassell
10th May 2015
Readings: Acts 10:44 to 48, John 15: 9-17

Acts 10:44 to 48, New International Version (NIV)

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.
45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.
46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said,
47 “Can anyone keep these people from being baptised with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”
48 So he ordered that they be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.

John 15: 9-17, New International Version (NIV)

9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.
10 If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.
13 Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
14 You are my friends if you do what I command.
15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.
17 This is my command: Love each other.

In May 1988 at a posh officers club in Pollsmoor, South Africa, a secret working group met for dinner. Included in that select group was Kobie Coetsee, the Minister of Justice, General Willemse, the Commissioner of Prisons, van der Merwe, the General Director of the Prisons Department and Dr Barnard, the Head of the National Intelligence Service. This was the equivalent of the CIA or KGB and integral to the state Security Council, designed (it was alleged) by the President to circumvent the cabinet and increase the power of the President. The other person at dinner was a prisoner of the state. Nelson Mandela. In his autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela details his struggles and his strategy to responding to the invitation by the South African government to begin talks. Such a step needed to be seen as more a step towards solid progress than a sell out and was fraught with risks – not least to his reputation and his authority to negotiate. It also meant risks for his opponents who had all the power, in terms of the loss of prestige and integrity amongst their own supporters. Both had to overcome the predominant politics of prejudice.

Mandela took advice as far as he was able to in order to get some awareness and understanding. He did not act unilaterally as a lone wolf. He persuaded the authorities to let him consult with colleagues. They would only allow that individually and in turn. Walter, his closest friend, reluctantly agreed to the step. Raymond Mhlaba and Andrew Mlangeni were more fulsome in being in favour. Kathy was resolutely against but would not stand in his way. Outside of prison Oliver Tambo, the head of the African National Congress (ANC) had to take it on trust that Mandela knew what he was doing in actually talking with the government after decades of being ignored; that he would not compromise, or that he was not making an error of judgement by taking this step. In parallel to this he sat down in his prison cell and wrote a memorandum to the President P.W. Botha (nicknamed ‘the Crocodile’ ) as to the basis for negotiations. The rest, as they say is history.

This afternoon we are going to consider the story, read from the Book of Acts, of Peter (a Jew and a senior figure of the new religious movement they called ‘The Way’). And an official of an occupying power, a military man who was also a Gentile. And an invitation to dinner. Given that Pentecost is a few weeks away, this might appear to be jumping the gun, since this too is an account of the Holy Spirit falling on people. But in a week when we remember the end of the war in Europe seventy years ago, and as we survey either ruefully or with rejoicing the outcomes of the forthcoming general election, I would like us to consider what it might mean practically to engage with the second of our readings from the lectionary from John 15; 9-17, and verse 16: “you did not choose me, but I choose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.” To think for a few moments as to the place of reconciliation, linked to one of the blessings that mark out a gospel life: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5:9). Which by its nature would seem to include the work of reconciliation and is a ministry that does not just belong to God but is also expected of us as followers of Jesus, the ministry of reconciliation to which Paul refers in 2 Corinthians 5 16- 18: “So from now on we regard no-one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old has gone, and the new has come. All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”

However to do this ministry of reconciliation might require us allowing God to set the agenda, not us, and responding to the challenge of where God is leading which, given a choice, we may not necessarily want to go. The need too to exercise courage and conviction in talking with the enemy. Sitting down at table and the danger of hospitality. The exchange of dialogue, building understanding, the growth of hope, the healing of grace. Dealing with the politics of purity and charges of collusion, capitulation and contamination. What it means to extend the boundaries of the acceptable and explain the guidelines of extending friendship and inclusion.

Our story begins by the seaside at Joppa, now called Jaffa, on the outskirts of modern Tel Aviv (The Hill of the Spring) and one of the oldest functioning harbours in the world. Peter was staying in the home of a tanner called Simon. This was significant as tanning was seen as an unclean occupation – very blue collar- as it treated the skins of dead animals, unclean by Jewish law , so it was very despised. The fact that Peter was staying and living in the house shows a great shift in perspective.

The church had already crossed over to reach out to schismatics in Samaria, with Philip’s initial ministry later endorsed by the apostles. He had talked with (and subsequently baptised) a sympathetic God-fearing African (possibly also a eunuch which was frowned upon in polite society) – the Ethiopian on the desert road. Pentecost had ushered in Jews from all over the known world and from different backgrounds, moving beyond possible snobbery. Now comes a preparation to deal head on with the rejection of prejudice, moving to a vision of mission to the Gentiles.

Meanwhile 30 miles north of Joppa is Caesarea, named in honour of Augustus Caesar and the headquarters of the Roman forces of occupation. The Italian Regiment was just one of ten in the legion of 6,000, each comprising 600 men. Included in their number is Cornelius, leading 100 men as a centurion. He has a vision at three in the afternoon which begins the ball rolling. This is a recognition by God of Cornelius’ devotion as a man of prayer and man of peace (despite being a soldier) : “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial before God.” He is told to send for Peter (whom he has never met) at Joppa. He shares this with two servants and a devout soldier. That should get the rumour mill working. Centurions were meant to be a steady pair of hands of “steady and prudent mind” according to the Roman writer Polybius.

So preparation for dinner is happening the next day as the soldier and the servants stroll up to where Peter is staying. No even moderately orthodox Jew would enter willingly the dwelling of a Gentile so to offer hospitality would be unthinkable. As the messengers are coming from Caesarea, Peter is on the roof for a quiet moment of noon day prayer, although it was not one of the usually appointed times for that activity. Feeling hungry, he calls down for some food; and as it is being prepared he too has a vision, not of an angel this time, but a multimedia experience of a sheet let down to earth by four corners containing all kinds of four footed animals, reptiles and birds. This is repeated three times in order to reinforce the point made by the voice: “Get up Peter, kill and eat.” Rebuking Peter’s protest in the politics of purity, “Surely not Lord; I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” with, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

At this point the men are at the gate and calling out to ask if Peter is at home. It is interesting that the Spirit addresses Peter as Simon (or Reed), his given name, rather than Peter (Rock): “Get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” In John 15 we read, “I no longer call you servants because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead I call you friends, for everything that I have learned from my Father I have made known to you.” These three serving men outside the gate do know why they are there: “A holy angel told him (Cornelius) to have you (Peter) come to his house so that he could hear what you had to say.” These are trusted servants, but Peter is a friend to whom Jesus had addressed the question: “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” at the fish breakfast barbecue on the shores of Galilee, before later restoring him to a role in which he had initially failed. It is this friendship cultivated through prayer, love and obedience that enables us to hear, know and understand when God speaks inside us, His spirit to our Spirit. In John 10, Jesus uses the image of the shepherd (v3): “The sheep listen to his voice. He calls out his own sheep by name and leads them out… his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

This is not a static but a dynamic expanding picture. Not just for those in the know, but open to others not yet in the know. Not a club but a growing flock, a growing, intentionally expanding community if you like. “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:6).

These images of animal husbandry may be a bit challenging for the vegetarians amongst us, but Peter gets the point. It is not just about the polices of food prohibitions (super saturated fat sandwich anybody?) and the principles driving the practices around this, but a deeper reality of how God sees the peoples of the earth not only beyond our prohibitions, prejudices and the principles driving these but also embedded in our patterns of behaviour. “Do not call anything impure that God made clean.”

It starts with small steps, in this case by inviting Gentiles into the home of Simon the Tanner, as it is late and the journey back to Caesarea will start tomorrow. Offence enough in itself, but worse is to follow. Peter, despite such inward personal assurances, takes precautions and makes preparation for the storm that will inevitably follow. It is a larger company and apparently takes two days on the return journey to go the thirty miles.

The reverence shown by Cornelius on Peter’s arrival is remarkable, given his status and position as a military officer, even though it is inappropriate. Peter has established a level playing field and now he too has to swallow his pride and his misgivings by crossing the threshold and sitting down for dinner.

There are no guarantees that the source and type of what is on offer on the table will be acceptable to a Jew – even bread, milk, olive oil could be suspect. Any meat could have been from being sacrificed to pagan gods and would certainly have contained blood. So to accept such a degree of social contact and hospitality is a challenge, which point Peter makes to the assembly Cornelius has pulled together. All there know he is breaking convention simply by turning up. “You are well aware that it is against the law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him!” Then he goes on (v34), “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men (and women) from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

A revelation for Peter, but an echo of the prophets. In Micah 6:18 we read “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.” Now, as the writer to the Hebrews points out, “God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son, whom he appointed heir to all things and through whom he made the universe.” This is a deeper basis for community, reconciliation and faith. “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43).

Peter explains things to the folk gathered which they already know about, but goes on to say as to what they as disciples have witnessed and experienced personally about Jesus . How men treated him, killing and hanging him on a tree as a curse and a criminal and how God had raised him from the dead and the centrality of the resurrection as a basis of, firstly, commission and, now, a call to belief.

It is at this point, as he is speaking, that the Holy Spirit falls. Not with thousands swept into the faith as in the big rally in Jerusalem (history has perhaps taught us to look askance at rallies), but with the intimacy of the upper room, surprised and overwhelmed by God’s Spirit at nine O’clock in the morning. Now to the astonishment of the circumcised believers who have come with Peter, they are seeing Gentiles speaking in tongues and praising God. Peter accepts the fait accompli. God has plainly accepted them. Peter has no option but to accept what God has done and baptises them. (But no one suggests they should be circumcised.) Then the recriminations begin.

In chapter 11, Peter explains his actions and mounts this simple defence (11:17): “So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” That satisfies the argument for that day but does not win over all his detractors. “The circumcised believers criticised him and said that he went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:2-3). This was to surface again and again. It is prominent in probably the earliest of the New Testament texts, Galatians, where, despite Peter’s earlier stance, he too gets caught up in the politics of purity (Gal 1:12): “Before certain men came from James he (Peter) used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.” Paul asks the question of them in Gal 4:9: “How is it you are turning back to these weak and miserable principles?”

So to draw this together is to ask some questions of us.

Does this ministry of reconciliation perhaps lead us to address our own politics of purity, that shackles us from being able to respond to where God leads us to? Jesus in the upper room tells his disciples: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

What is dangerous hospitality? Risky relationships? Offers of reconciliation and hope that are game changers? Built around commitment, albeit with difficult negotiations and barely won arguments?

To end with, a picture from Northern Ireland. Consider the Chuckle Brothers – Dr. Ian Paisley (aka Dr. No) and Martin McGuiness. Sworn enemies during the Troubles who later sat down in government together. Instead of snarling, they are smiling and their laughter and ease in one another’s company earned them this nickname. Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, as his deputy first minister, said this upon Dr. Paisley’s death. “I want to pay tribute to and comment on the work he did in the latter days of his political life in building agreement and leading unionism into a new accommodation with republicans and nationalists.” Enemies reconciled, the fruit of which is peace (sort of). As we ponder both victors and those who have been defeated, does the challenge to be engaged with reconciliation still remain? How are we to work out this ministry of reconciliation?

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