I wonder if any of you have been to a local farmer’s market? I love going see what’s on offer, although to be honest it would probably be better if I left my wallet at home. There are so many wonderful culinary delights. Once you’ve tasted they’re so great you feel you must buy!

But think of our New Testament reading from Acts 11:1-18. If St Peter had seen such food in his vision he would have been horrified. Delicious black pudding, spare ribs, bacon sandwiches, moules mariniere, or even any sort of meat cooked together with cheese – all these would be out of bounds to an observant Jew like St. Peter. Religious law would not allow him to eat them.

And there were good reasons for that. When God gave the Jewish food laws to his people it was partly for their protection. In the days before good farm hygiene, pigs lived off rubbish and so pork products were notoriously unhealthy; before clean water and refrigeration, anyone eating shellfish risked poisoning. Scientifically speaking, many of the Jewish food laws made excellent sense in the conditions of the time.

Not just that, but God gave the food laws to bind the Jewish people together. Sharing food is a communal event. Like halal or kosher today, having particular rituals around food helps a community to stick together and keep their identity. Not eating pork, say, marks you out as different and factors like this enabled the Jews to keep their religious and ethnic identity despite being scattered worldwide. In the Book of Maccabees obedience to the food laws is a test of faith, people were persecuted, burnt alive rather than taste ham. By the time of Acts, God’s people have been keeping these laws for hundreds of years. They were really important: one of the things that defined who you were. The attitude to food wasn’t restrictive either: family celebrations around Sabbath were joyful events.

Some of the best times of fellowship we have as a church are when we share meals together. I think it would be lovely to do it more. Imagine how difficult it would be though if some people wouldn’t join in! And that was the problem. God’s people, the Jews, wanted to obey his laws. To be sure of doing so, they stayed clear of any risk of compromise.

So, at the time, strict Jews would not eat with Gentiles, even items that should have been ok, because they couldn’t be sure what the Gentiles had done to the food. And if you won’t eat with people, it’s rather hard to get on with them. In fact, if you feel that someone else’s food is unclean, it’s a very short step to imagining that the person is unclean.

And this is exactly what some strict groups thought at the time of Christ. There’s a very revealing text in John 18:28 where the Jewish leaders go to see Pilate but ‘they themselves did not enter the headquarters so as to avoid ritual defilement and be able to eat the Passover.’ They wouldn’t even be in the same room because they felt they would become unclean.

Now if Peter had been like that, how on earth was he going to be able to take the good news out to the world? Jesus said in Luke 24:47 ‘forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in my name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’ That’s what Jesus intended. But unless something changed, Peter wouldn’t get very far at all. How could he possibly preach the good news if he wouldn’t associate with foreigners?

In our story, God had to send an angel to a Roman called Cornelius, telling him to send for Peter who will give Cornelius a message by which he can be saved. Cornelius does just that, and as the messengers are approaching the house where Peter is staying, the apostle is deep in prayer. Like many of us when we pray, he obviously struggled with distractions. Perhaps dinner is late, and his tummy is rumbling!

Whatever the cause, God works with his distraction. He can use ours too. If you are distracted in prayer then make a subject out of the distraction. Pray about it. Pray for the thing or person that has popped into mind. I use a pen and paper to jot down ideas that come to me so I don’t forget because sometimes God actually uses those distractions to speak to us, lay things on our hearts.

That’s what happens here. Peter sees the vision of all these unclean animals being offered for him to eat. Peter knows it’s from God, but he can’t overcome his background. Horrified, he says in v.8 ‘By no means Lord, for nothing unclean or profane has ever entered my mouth’.

But the Lord replies in v.9. ‘What God has made clean you must not call profane’ – as if these animals are no longer forbidden. It happens three times, and just as Peter’s got the point, the messengers arrive.

Obediently, Peter goes. He enters the house, speaks to Cornelius, and in v.15 ‘The Holy Spirit fell on them just as it had on us in the beginning.’ The moral is clear, in v.17 ‘If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ God made his will clear: he wanted the Gentiles to hear the good news. No longer should the disciples regard non-Jews as unclean, because Jesus is for everyone. In forgiving Gentiles and Jews alike, God has made us all clean.

We can’t overstate the importance of this. If this had never happened, Christianity would have remained a minority Jewish sect. We wouldn’t be here. The openness of Jews like Peter and Paul means that we too can come to God and be free from any ritual requirement. The self-appointed guardians of tradition were ready to criticise, but Peter explains it step by step with patience and conviction.

Of course that was a unique, one off situation. Yet there is a sense in which the church today encounters decisions with similar principles. We find ourselves assessing new developments. The culture around us changes, what is seen as normal and acceptable alters over time, contemporary morality evolves and the church has to work out how to respond. Sometimes the right answer is to stand fast.

On the other hand this reading shows us that change can be possible. While Christian core beliefs remain the same, traditions and forms of expression may change, but it needs to be God’s will. How do we know? The reading gives us a fourfold pattern. These are the questions we must ask when something new is suggested:

Does it agree with Scripture? God’s will is made clear through his word in the Bible – in v.16 Peter recalls Jesus’ teaching. He might also have remembered how Jesus declared all foods clean, how Jesus healed Gentiles, and how he spoke of a mission to the world. Although it seemed a radical departure, it naturally flowed out of Scripture.

Other signs are that God’s will is shown in the fruits of the Spirit – does a proposed course of action result in love, joy, peace and so on? And God’s will can be discerned in people’s experience of his guidance – like Peter’s vision of the animals. Those different aspects work together and they need to be saying the same thing. Finally, can the church reach a common mind? God’s will is recognised by the church agreeing together, as happens in v.18 when they all say Peter has done the right thing. Easier said than done and sometimes the church’s attention switches to how we can live together even while disagreeing.

Those are the questions the church needs to ask and it’s not a quick process. Although the answer is reached quickly at first, the controversy about the Gentiles never really goes away throughout the New Testament. Reaching a common mind takes time.

It’s bewildering for onlookers. To a modern Westerner an issue like women bishops seems obvious. Non-Christians genuinely cannot understand why some issues are a problem – sometimes they see the church as bigoted. Christians need to hear that, and perhaps also get better at explaining how we do make decisions.

It was a huge change for Peter and the other disciples. But there’s something deeper going on here. More than the church making decisions. More than mixing with people from different backgrounds. I’ll illustrate it using an analogy:

I love Scotland. Imagine if I wanted to be a Scotsman, and went off to live in the wildest part of the Highlands, would that make me Scottish? No. If I ate haggis and neeps and drank whisky every day, I’d be happy, but would I be Scottish? No. If I wore a kilt I would not be a Scotsman, nor would I have the legs for it. The only way to be a Scotsman is to be born one, maybe one day there might be a citizenship process. What’s certain is that just doing Scottish type things doesn’t make you Scottish.

Similarly, doing Jewish things wouldn’t make the Gentiles into Jews. Peter’s church had to learn that if the non-Jews wanted to become God’s children, it wasn’t a matter of bashing square pegs into round holes. You had to be much more radical. Everyone would have to be born as a child of God. It had to go deeper than the surface things, it had to be in their very nature. All would have to start afresh. In other words, everyone, Gentile or Jew, would have to be born again.

As he thought about this, Peter realised this would have to be the case. After all, he knew that God accepted him, not on the basis of the outward religious actions Peter did, but because God loved him. Jesus had forgiven Peter when he denied him, not because Peter was such a good chap (he’d let Jesus down after all), but because Jesus loved Peter so much he had died so Peter’s sins could be forgiven.

And if that applied to Peter, surely it would apply to everyone? We are not God’s children because of our outward religious traditions, but because God the Father loves us and Christ gave himself to save us. Whoever we are, we are in the same position, depending on God’s grace. And that means things like the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the kind of music we use in worship, whether we like informality or solemnity, all the little things that divide Christians don’t really matter.

And all the things that might stop someone from outside venturing through those doors, are they really so important to us? Is there any human tradition in this church which acts as a stumbling block to visitors? Are there any customs that would be Christians must take on to belong? If there are, why? Even in-jokes and banter can cause offence if you’re not part of the group.

Should we not rather do everything in our power to demonstrate the central truth in our reading: that all people can have faith in Christ? That knowing God is not a matter of food or drink or special days, but receiving forgiveness in Jesus? That no matter what our race or background, the truths of the gospel apply to us all and each must make their own response? As we seek to reach out for Christ, let us be clear about what really matters.

Raising Dorcas

I wonder if you know a Dorcas? Have you ever met someone like Dorcas in the Acts reading, who devotes themselves to helping others? Who sees need and responds to it? Who uses whatever gifts they have to help, without fanfare or show?

And if you do know somebody like that, what impact do they have? If you’ve got someone in mind, are they a Christian? Does faith inspire what they do and does that faith have an effect on those around them?

I watched a fascinating programme recently. It was called ‘The Battle for Christianity’ and it’s still got a few days left on iplayer if you want to catch it. Professor Robert Beckford looks at the future of the Christian faith in the UK – particularly how it is changing. It’s really encouraging because it’s all about churches that are growing.

He goes to Holy Trinity Brompton and Hillsong in London and talks about new styles of contemporary worship reaching out to people in their twenties. But he also went to an Anglican church in a community centre in Barnsley where immigrants from Iran and Syria are becoming Christians – they have had fifty baptisms in the past year.

What really struck me was how these growing churches are involved in social projects. They run food banks, or help the homeless, or offer addiction recovery programmes. Their faith isn’t just about preaching and rock music, it’s backed up by action. You can look at them and say ‘actually this is genuine faith, it really makes a difference.’ In today’s world there are lots of competing claims in a marketplace of ideas – but people can experience that kind of Christianity and say ‘this isn’t rhetoric, it’s real’. There must be something in this.

They’re copying Christ’s example. Being a Christian involves getting stuck in, responding to the need that we see around us. V. 36 describes Tabitha as a disciple – that means one who follows Jesus. If we follow Jesus we must share his love for the lost, the broken and the poor.

How do we do that? In leafy North Wiltshire, we’re very good at getting involved in the community. If there’s a village event, almost always there’s a church member at the heart of it, Christians making tea and making things happen. Some people find themselves on the village planning board, getting stuck in at the school as governors, helping children to read or offering Open the Book assemblies. There’s a lot of wonderful things going – yet social need is perhaps a bit harder to see.

We’re aware of poverty overseas and respond through our charitable giving. We try to make the world a better place through Christian Aid and Fairtrade. In our nearby towns some folks help the homeless at Doorway or the Sisters of the Church.

Closer to home, poverty is less obvious in our villages – it’s there though. Not on the main street but often hidden away on little estates. I do wonder what need there is if we look beneath the surface? What desperation or dependency hides behind net curtains? Isolation can be a real issue in rural communities, particularly for teenagers who don’t have transport or the elderly who are housebound. How reliant are people on the village shop or post office?

Dorcas addressed the need that she encountered –verse 39 speaks of how she made clothes for the widows. In a society where there was no safety net, her help would have made a huge difference because she responded to what she saw. As a church, do we know what’s going on, what the needs of our community actually are? Listening and noticing are the first steps to helping out. Perhaps then we can think about what is possible with the resources God provides.

The church in Joppa were motivated by their faith in Jesus Christ. It wasn’t a woolly faith that had been reduced to just social action – it had real content and we see the depths of that faith when Dorcas dies. In v.38 they send two men asking Peter to come to them without delay – obviously hoping that some miracle will be possible.

And indeed it is. Not through Peter’s power, but through the Lord Jesus Christ. The raising of Dorcas has distinct echoes of the time when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter. Just like Jesus did, Peter puts all the mourners outside. The words Jesus used ‘Talitha koum’ are just a letter different from Peter’s command using her Aramaic name ‘Tabitha koum’. Coincidence? Surely not!

The point is clear: The power of Jesus is at work through the apostles. Jesus raised the dead and now Peter has the authority to do the same. The apostles are carrying on Jesus’ work, doing the things he did and speaking in his name. In our gospel reading, John 10:25, Jesus says ‘the works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me’ – in other words the miracles Jesus did showed that he came from God. Now, the disciples perform similar miracles, showing that God is with them. This is why in v.42 ‘many believed in the Lord’. It gives us confidence as well: confidence that the disciples were the true inheritors of Christ’s mission, confidence that their teaching continues his.

It should also give us confidence that because Jesus has risen we shall too. In the New Testament, whenever we read about people who have died being brought back to life, it has two meanings. Firstly, it is the ultimate miracle, the most difficult thing, the greatest sign of God’s power and glory. When the dead are raised, the Kingdom of heaven has come. When Peter and Paul do what Jesus has done, it is a sign that his power is with them.

Secondly, it looks forward to the resurrection of the dead – the wonderful promise that those who trust in Christ will one day be raised to life and live forever. Dorcas is not still with us on earth. Having been brought back to life she was still mortal, and eventually she died. This miracle was not a resurrection – instead it is a return to earthly life. However, it acts as a sign that God has power over death and that there will be a resurrection. As a disciple of Christ Dorcas will share in the life of the world to come. We can too when we trust in him.

As Jesus says in John 10:28 ‘I give them eternal life and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.’ This is why we have these readings in the Easter season – they show us how the resurrection of Jesus is a promise of eternal life for us.

And when I say us, I mean the whole world. Anyone can respond to Christ and be welcomed by him. Yet at the time of our readings that wasn’t taken for granted. At this moment in Acts, the gospel has not yet reached the Gentiles. It has only been preached to the Jews – with mixed results as Jesus’ words in John chapter 10 recall.

But there’s a telling little detail in v.43 of the Acts reading: ‘Meanwhile Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.’ What’s so significant about that? Tanners made leather. They dealt with animal skins, a messy, smelly and unpleasant job. Strict Jews weren’t allowed to touch dead bodies, so tanners were regarded as unclean and had a poor reputation.

Yet Peter stays with Simon, a sign that his horizons are beginning to broaden. Peter starts to see that God’s love is offered to everyone. It is while he is at Simon’s house that he has the vision and receives messengers from Cornelius, the Roman centurion, leading to the first Gentiles being baptised. Here we see a sign of what is to come.

God’s love is offered to all. He invites us to come to Christ. He invites us through the preaching of the apostles and the church they founded; borne witness to by signs of power and acts of loving service. He invites us to deepen our discipleship, to speak of his love and to love others in practical ways, so that we too can join in the invitation and mission of God.

 

 

 

Resurrection Breakfast

One day a rather inebriated ice fisherman drilled a hole in the ice. As he prepared his line a loud voice called out ‘There are no fish down there’. Startled, he walked a few yards away and drilled another hole. But just as he was stringing a worm onto the hook, the voice boomed out again ‘There are no fish there.’

He then walked on about fifty yards, drilled another hole and looked cautiously in. Again the voice said ‘There are no fish there.’ He looked up into the sky and called out: ‘God, is that you?’ ‘No, you idiot,’ the voice said ‘it’s the ice rink manager.’

Today’s gospel begins with seven blokes going fishing. Nothing remarkable about that, it happens all the time and it was a daily occurrence on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus’ disciples had grown up as fishermen, that’s how they earned their living, so at one level there’s nothing unusual here.

But actually it’s the strangest thing in the world! These are the disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus who had proclaimed himself the Messiah, entered Jerusalem in triumph, been captured and put to death. And then risen again! Barely a week or so before, their Lord and Master had risen from the dead – and now the disciples are going fishing? Shouldn’t the Resurrection change everything? Jesus is alive – take the message to the four corners of the world! Be inspired! Or go fishing?

I suppose fishing is what they’re good it. They’ve been doing it for years, it’s what they understand. In a sense they’re comfortable with it. Not that this is relaxing angling – you know the joke about angling? Give a man a fish and he’ll eat tonight. Teach a man to fish and he’ll spend all day in a boat drinking beer. What Peter and the rest were doing is serious work: pulling in heavy nets, soaked to the skin and an April night in Palestine is none too warm either. But despite the hard labour, the routine is what they know and it’s familiar.

Moving on to something unknown can be hard. Even wonderful opportunities can suddenly look challenging when you get up close. Sometimes you hear of lottery winners saying ‘Nothing will change me. I’m going to stay in the same job and won’t let it get to my head.’ That may be a genuine humility or it might be worry over what’s coming, an inability to handle the implications. Statistically you or I are unlikely to win the lottery. On a fishing theme, you’re more likely to be attacked by a shark than win the jackpot.

But we can find ourselves in a similar situation to the disciples or the lottery winner. Where opportunities present themselves but the familiar seems safer. A new job. A move. God may call us to do something for him – I don’t mean going to Papua New Guinea as a full time missionary – a woman I know felt God nudging her to become part of the Open the Book Team telling Bible stories in school assembly. It was a real step into the unknown as she’d never done anything like it before, but she loved it and God used her abilities wonderfully.

Stepping out into something new can be hard, but God promises to be with us when we serve him. Denial or running away is never satisfying because it’s not based in reality. As John Maynard Keynes said: ‘If the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?’

Maybe the disciples went fishing for practical reasons. Presumably they still needed to eat and pay the rent! Yet Jesus appears with a full BBQ – bread, fish and fire, with no explanation of where it came from – suggesting he can provide. In his teaching about food, clothes and money, Jesus said ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you as well.’ He didn’t say they were unnecessary. He never said we wouldn’t have to work for them. But he did tell us not to chase after money, that God provides us with the essentials and to put his Kingdom first. So don’t let busyness get in the way of being a Christian disciple or finding God’s will for you.

I wonder if the disciples were suffering from a spiritual comedown? It can happen in any area of life: after a big success comes a feeling of flatness. You win the contract and then have to knuckle down to the paperwork. You take home the trophy but on Monday morning you’re back at the training ground.

The same can happen spiritually, after a high point there is often a down. I guess that’s why they call it Low Sunday after Easter! Although funnily enough, I always enjoy that day! Spiritual rhythm is built into life, but can catch us out. We may find ourselves thinking: Those worship experiences were wonderful, why does prayer feel tough again today? God felt so close, was I really imagining it? Lots of people came to our new event, but was it just out of curiosity? Will they come next week?

When we feel like that it’s good to recognise what’s happening. See that this is part of the natural spiritual cycle; recognise the battle that’s going on. Rebuke the evil one and keep on through the challenging time, because one day it will pass. Remember the good times and be sustained by the glimpses of grace God gives in the midst of difficulty.

Perhaps it was all these things together. The disciples just felt flat and unprepared. They hadn’t seen Jesus for a bit, the task ahead looked vast, money was running out and the answer seemed obvious. ‘Let’s go fishing’. They met with a lack of success, perhaps a sign this wasn’t what they’re supposed to be doing? There’s a symbolic significance too, because whenever we wander from God’s will for us, we feel dissatisfied. Even if what we’re doing is a perfectly innocent thing, if it’s not God’s plan it doesn’t fill us up.

Only when Jesus appears and they obey him do they get results. What a lovely moment it is in verse 7 when John says to Peter ‘It is the Lord’.

Of course they recognised Jesus. Doesn’t it all sound familiar? A bit déjà vu? Yes it does! It should. Almost the exact same thing has happened before. Not at the end of the gospel but at the beginning. One of the very first miracles Jesus did was a catch of fish. He met some disciples – these disciples, in the morning. They had caught nothing. Put your net on the other side, he said – they were inundated with fish.

Yes, they would have got the point. He’s back. And they would have got the meaning too – because immediately after that first miracle Jesus came out with his famous pun: ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.’ Become my disciples and share the good news. Now, post Easter, Jesus does it again, after the disciples have lost their way a little.

And if the point is still not clear, it’s there in the number of the fish. 153. A curious detail – but apparently 153 was regarded at the time as the number of nations on earth. It’s Fishers of men again. Join me, says Jesus, in bringing all nations into my Kingdom. He’s calling them back to their original purpose. Especially Peter.

Peter can’t wait to meet Jesus, even though they’re only a hundred yards from the shoreline he jumps into the lake and swims to the shore – not forgetting to put his clothes on first! Sounds daft. But is there symbolism here? Does it recall guilty Adam in the garden of Eden, putting on clothes before he can meet God? Even in the joy does Peter remember there is something he needs to sort out? Does the charcoal fire that Jesus has lit remind him of that other charcoal fire, the one at which he denied Christ?

Soon, Jesus restores Peter. Peter, who had three times denied Jesus, is given the chance to assure Jesus of his love three times. Broken and now restored, he will be a wise and sympathetic pastor for Christ’s church.

So Jesus called them back to following him. When they had been distracted by busyness, he gave them focus again. When they had been paralysed by fear, he gave them purpose and power. When they had been discouraged and flat, he restored their vision.

He can do the same for us. Each one of us here will be in a different place. But it may be that some of you will recognise yourself in that description of the disciples. Having lost the way a little bit, let Jesus call you back. If our relationship with Christ has been squeezed out by activity, he can enable us to reprioritise. If our spirituality feels flat, Jesus can envision us and give us strength to persevere. If we know he is calling us onwards but worry about the consequences, Jesus will enable us to face reality and the future with confidence. If you are feeling like those disciples, I encourage you to bring it to God and ask him to meet you and bless you at this resurrection breakfast.