Them and Us

Readings Acts 11:1-18 

Sermon – Rev. Kate McFarlane

A revolution – that’s what today’s reading from Acts is – a revolution. It changes the church forever because it is the point at which the first Christians realise that Jesus’s message was not just for the Jews but for the world.

In it, we hear that evocative phrase; them and us…them and us! –  an idea that has been so exploited for political gain and a phrase to ponder critically in the week ahead as we ponder how to vote next Thursday.  And let’s be clear, in this story ‘we’ are not the ‘us’. We are ‘them’; as non-Jews we are the profane ones, the ones outside the boundaries of true religion, outside the laws for right living and we were not wanted! But in today’s reading we, the non-Jewish Gentiles, receive God’s Spirit and become ‘us’.

But the apostles and believers, the Jewish Christians, took some convincing. They ‘criticized’ Peter for going to the Gentiles; ‘He’s got it wrong again, hasn’t he! Jumping in impetuously, rushing off to tell foreigners about Jesus, and not just that. He’s not just talked with them. He’s gone into their houses. He’s eaten with them!’

I suspect ‘criticized’ might be English understatement for some of what was said. I should think some of those first Christians were incandescent with rage. Peter was breaking God’s laws, ignoring the ancient teachings God himself had given about keeping pure and clean, God’s people set apart for holiness. This was betrayal of their traditions. Peter was doing that denial thing again, denying the true God.

But, perhaps, actually, Peter’s learnt a lot since his old impetuous days because, faced with this ‘criticism’, he doesn’t deny what he’s done. Nor does he argue with his accusers. Instead, as Jesus might have, he tells them a story. Peter tells what he has experienced, step by step, not demanding his accusers accept what he’s done but allowing them to share something of what he has experienced and to be changed by what has changed him.

He was at prayer; he sees a vision; hears God’s voice. He argues with God, some things don’t change, and criticises God’s command. But inspired and emboldened by God, he accompanies the Gentile strangers and does what is forbidden, entering a Gentile home and eating with them. In doing so he discovers God has got there before him and he is a privileged witness as these ‘profane’ people receive God’s Spirit in just the same way he had.

The Gentiles are converted but so is Peter; he is radically changed by walking alongside them, seeing the world from their perspective, entering their home and realising God is already dwelling there.

Step by step he tells his story, he shares what he has experienced with those who would oppose it, ending with a question ‘Who was I that I could hinder God?’ His story is met not with argument but with silence, into which God is surely speaking; the silence leads to praise and amazed acceptance.

We might feel a little grieved to hear the Jewish Christians say in stunned surprise; ‘Then God has given even you Gentiles, even you ….. God has given even you the repentance that leads to life’, but it is at this moment that the door is opened to the spreading of the Gospel to all nations and all peoples. It is not an exaggeration to say that this moment changes the history of our world.

In the context of such an important story, we should surely now look closely and attentively at what God himself actually says to Peter, so that we can live our lives by it, measure our behaviour against it. Have a look, read it again; Peter saw a vision ‘something like a large sheet’ containing all the creatures Jews were prohibited from eating; ‘beasts of prey, reptiles and birds of the air’ and God says ‘Get up Peter; kill and eat’…… God’s words to guide us in our lives today … Kill and eat!!

A troubling message for the 21st century! David Attenborough would be apoplectic. Is that really what we should go out from this church to do…hunt down some edible reptiles at the Forest Centre, take up big-game hunting, train the cat to bring us more garden birds! We’re being urged, urgently, to protect our planet by eating less meat, and here’s our holy book telling us to kill off more species.

I’m being absurd, of course. None of us read that passage literally. We understand this is God speaking to Peter at a particular moment in time, into his specific context, using imagery to explain to him that nothing and no one is beyond God’s reach and love.

But while it would not occur to us to read that passage literally, there are others in our bibles which people still choose to read with a damaging literalism, passages which are used to harden divisions of people into ‘them and us’, the sacred and the profane. I believe that reading the bible in this literal way denies a fundamental part of our faith as Christians; the belief that God continues to speak to us.

We do not worship a God who revealed himself to bible characters in the past only to withdraw for the rest of human history. God’s gift of the Holy Spirit means that God continues to speak into our lives and into our different cultures. We read our bible to help us explore how God is continuing to reveal himself afresh today, showing us new ways to live lives faithful to him.

So, today, we hear Peter’s story and we consider afresh what and who we perceive as profane or unclean. Who is the ‘them’ and who is the ‘us’ in our society, in our political arguments, in the media and in our church?

I’d like to tell you a story, a true story which has deliberately been made public by those most closely affected. Five years ago a teenager called Lizzie was sitting in church each Sunday, listening to the sermon, joining in the worship, helping with the music. She was a flautist. Lizzie had also realised that she was gay but nobody knew, neither in the church nor in her family. Wrestling with her secret, she became convinced God could not love her the way she was. This wasn’t because her church actively taught, as some devastatingly do, that homosexuality was sinful. Their rector explained afterwards ‘we avoided the topic of homosexuality to preserve the peace’. But their silence left Lizzie feeling unbearably excluded and alone. Aged 14 she took her own life.

While it is too easy and dangerous to identify a single ‘cause’ for anyone’s suicide, Lizzie looked like ‘one of us’, but felt like one of ‘them’, an unwanted, unclean outsider. Fearing criticism and argument, no one in her church spoke out against prejudiced attitudes towards homosexuality. For Lizzie, a fearful avoidance, a wary evasiveness was as damaging as active hostility. No one proclaimed, in a way that spoke to Lizzie, that God’s love, and God’s gifts, are for everyone. So she could not hear God telling her that he had made his home in her; that he dwelt within her, just as she was, his beloved daughter.

Some people here today may feel, for whatever reason, that they are not really one of ‘us’; that they carry some private shame or doubt or experience which sets them apart, makes them unworthy. Please don’t. We are all God’s children, all precious in his sight. There is no ‘them and us’ to God. We are all his people.

When we read Acts today, rather than ‘kill and eat’, the words we need to allow to sink into us are these; ‘The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.’

I will finish with a creed written by Lizzie’s church as they struggled, after her death, to develop a completely new understanding of what they believed and who they wanted to be as a church;

We believe in a church which welcomes, accepts and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.