The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      19th May 2019
Peter in Joppa
Andrew Penny

Acts 11 1-18 Peter in Joppa

The Lectionary is very insistent that the readings about the very Early Church in the first chapters of Acts, which we have been hearing in the Sundays since Easter, MUST be read. I think the point of this emphasis is because these stories set out themes which have remained crucial to the Church's view of its authenticity, authority, mission and organisation ever since. They are the Church’s foundation myths.

We shall shortly, at Whitsun, hear about how the Holy Spirit visits, and literally inspires and enflames the apostles; the earliest church is the manifestation of that spirit and that, of course, remains, or ought to remain the case today. This inspiration gives the Church authority- it is driven by a facet of God Himself, and its motivation is His motivation. It surely significant that the context for this event is Pentecost when we are told Jerusalem was full of a polyglot crowd of pilgrims. The Holy Spirit as the primordial Word, is to spread among all nations, as it does though creation.

Church is not just the mouthpiece of the Word but is an active body too. Peter continues Christ's healing ministry with miracles; the Church is now the body, and especially the hands of Christ continuing his work of healing individuals and society. We pray that God's will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven; "done", not just talked about,  contemplated or hoped for – and it is we that are to do it.

This doing needs a structure and so we see the Church being organised, with the apostles assuming command and among them the emergence of Peter, as leader. We see deacons appointed to deal with the growing administration and a communal principle of sharing wealth. The shadows of this organisation and these principles are with us still.

Underlying all three themes of inspiration, action and organisation is the Holy Spirit, which in its apparently capricious, sometime comforting, sometimes dangerous and daring way continues to guide and goad us as the people of God.

There is, however, another theme in these early chapters of Acts which is less easily accommodated into the present life of the Church. This is its relations with Judaism; on the one hand, the extent to which the new Christian movement should remain part of Jewry and the associated problem of whether it was possible to be a Christian, without  first becoming a Jew, and on the other hand, the hostility of the Jewish authorities to a movement which they rightly saw as threatening their position and the consequential experience of persecution in the Church.

 The ambiguity in early Christian feeling is revealed both in the repeated accusation that it was the “Jews” who killed Jesus, and who continued to persecute and try to suppress the new Christian movement; on also in Peter’s  visceral reaction, on the rooftop in Joppa, to the suggestion that he should eat “common” or “unclean” meat. Peter’s, and his fellow Christians’  feeling of belonging and shared tradition must have made the experience of rejection by the leaders of that tradition, all the worse.

Later, when the Church had moved on and out, the question arose, what should be required of gentile Christian converts- crucially, for the men, should they be circumcised? That question was brought to a head by Paul and Barnabas and  it was answered (after a consultation) by James the brother of Jesus who was by then, plainly, a leader of the church. James’ ruling was that Christians should abstain from impure meat (i.e. that which had been sacrificed to pagan gods; from strangled meat; from blood; and from fornication. No mention of pork or circumcision. The chief point of James’ stipulations was not so much to protect the Church’s association with Judaism as to prevent any association with pagan religion. Even so it’s significant, I think, that at least two of James’ requirements concern diet, which seems to bring us back to Peter’s dream.

Before going back to Joppa, however, we might ask whether James’ four requirements can have much relevance to us now.  Apparently not; an invitation to an Iftar (the Muslims’ dinner during Ramadan) at Rosslyn Hill, in our weekly newsletter did not arouse howls of protest. We don’t regard eating black pudding as wicked and few of us make much of a fuss about our sons or daughters sleeping with their girl or boy (or boy or girl) friends. On the other hand, I suspect when the circles which still think women priests an abomination have their discussions there is an elephant called menstruation in the room. We shouldn’t imagine we are entirely free of primitive taboo. The ghosts of James still have some chains to rattle.

When told to slaughter and eat the strange- and frankly rather unappetising-array of animals lowered on the sheet   Peter’s reaction is that nothing “impure or common” has ever passed his lips.  Why are these odd animals “impure” or “common”?- I’m not sure that there can be a rational answer to that question; some dietary laws can possibly be derived from healthier practice (one does need to be quite careful with mussels as I have learnt to my cost) or somehow offensive to the natural order- as seething the calf in its mother’s milk. But, on the whole, these laws are in the irrational, but powerful taboo department. There is no good reason not to eat slugs or lizards or even our grannies, when dead – we’d just really rather not do so.

In the event, Peter is not required to eat anything in his dream. He is woken up by a knocking at the door, and we are reminded too, that this dream has a very specific context. As Jan reminded us last week, Peter was staying with Simon the Tanner, a man whose trade placed him on the very edge-if not beyond- an acceptable lifestyle for the strict Jew. Peter was already prepared to explore the margins of society as Jesus had been before. The question taxing him was how far could he go?

 The answer is that he should accept those who have been made pure by God; they were to be special and not “common”, special in the way that before the coming of Christ, the Jews had been special. As the story of Cornelius the Centurion and his companions whom Peter sets off to convert and baptise, shows, the purified and the special now are those who are inspired by the Holy Spirit; those who recognise the salvation which Jesus brings and who ask to join the company who enjoy the risen life. It is the breath of God, that same Holy Spirit which brought about life in creation, and that comforting breath and that warm breeze and sometimes that blast of wind which can make all pure and holy.

So the story is only superficially about food; only superficially, in fact, about taboos and about Jewish identity. These were just the ephemeral concerns of contemporary society, the point of the story is as relevant now as the rest of the stories of the Early Church because the Holy Spirit is no less active now than it was then and it is under its guidance- if we can recognise it- that we should conduct our lives, and organise our church, and indeed society.

That might not seem so difficult a task, and I don’t think it is, but it remains a challenge for some. I chair the Churches Together in Hampstead Committee, which I’d like to say represents all the Christian Churches in Hampstead. There are however two churches missing from the committee, both Anglican, which, their leaders have told me, could not be seen to be consorting with Roman Catholics. They will not, I suspect, be attending the Iftar at Rosslyn Hill, either. If we hope to do God’s will on earth and to build the kingdom, then the need to open ourselves to all the Spirit’s manifestations and to learn from others’ inspired experience whoever they are, is as urgent today as it was two thousand years’ ago. Amen.  

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