The disciples in Jerusalem, James, John, Andrew, Philipp and more, are the leadership of the beginning-Church. They knew that certain things were meant to be a certain way. Some things are just the way they are intended to be. Even though they had had their world turned upside down, even though they had had most of everything they assumed to be true proved false, even though they had seen Jesus die and rise from the dead again, some things in their minds remained the same. One of these certainties was the one that said “Jews don’t mix with Non-Jews,” and certainly they don’t eat with them. Yes, Jesus had got into trouble about the kind of company he kept. Yes, Jesus had eaten with tax-collectors, and sinners, and prostitutes. But surely they were all Jewish tax-collectors, Jewish sinners and Jewish prostitutes. Bad people no doubt. Bad Jews for sure. But still our own people, still in some fundamental way people like us, the ones God had chosen.
They say; good fences make good neighbours. We all need our boundaries, our distinctions. The difference between “them” and “us,” between the inside and the outside, between the acceptable and the unacceptable. Those good fences define our comfort zone, the place where we know how to conduct ourselves, where people and our interactions with them are familiar and reasonably predictable, with people like us; we can handle.
Them and us: is an issue that troubles humans almost more than anything. Who are “we” and how do we relate to the “other.” The Church too has, and needs, its boundaries. There is a definite line over which you step from the outside to the inside. That line is baptism. And once on the inside there is a definite set of beliefs and practices which make us who we are, the summary of our faith which we affirm, the communion table around which we gather, the hymns we sing extending out into the way we expect ourselves to behave in everyday life. We need these things in order that we can see where the Church ends and everyone and everything else begins. Without such a boundary and such distinctions the Church would simply dissolve and disappear. The trouble is that God has a nasty habit of ignoring such boundaries. God tends to leap over all of our fences.
Have you ever expected to be congratulated for something you have achieved? Only to find yourself criticised for some small aspect of what you had done! Peter went back to Jerusalem, the beginning-Church’s HQ, to report back on what he had been doing to the leadership. As he went up to Jerusalem perhaps he rehearsed the conversation in his head: “Good News! I’ve been to Caesarea, and guess what even the Gentiles, even non-Jews were glad to hear about Jesus and to believe in him!”
Perhaps Peter expected James and John and Andrew and Philipp and the others to leap up and celebrate with him. He was in for an unpleasant come down. When he got there he found he had to defend himself and his actions. “Who gave you permission to baptise non-Jews? What were you thinking of, sitting down round a table with them, eating with them?”
Peter too had believed in boundaries, he believed in proper distinctions. It wasn’t his idea! But he doesn’t try to reason with the other disciples. He doesn’t try to argue that what he did makes sense. He simply tells them what happened to him. He tells them about his prayers and his dream. It was God who told him, it was God who leaped over that boundary,
it was God who broke down those fences. And when he got among those people from Caesarea he found that they could respond to God. He found that they welcomed the Good News about Jesus Christ, that they too had received the gift of being able to turn and to believe. So what was there to prevent them from being baptised? What was there to stop them, or anyone, from stepping over that line and entering the Church? What was there to prevent Peter from sitting down and eating with them?
As terribly useful as the distinctions we make between each other are, in the end they are terribly destructive! The boundaries we have created between us and them, between who we will accept and who we won’t accept, between people like us and all the rest, people of different colour, different outlook, different experience and expectations, all those who we define as other: asylum seekers, the homeless, ex-offenders, gays, I could go on and on. Almost all of the conflict, all of the depravation, all of the prejudice, most of the hurt in the world can be traced to the distinctions we make between one another.
God makes no distinction. God crosses those boundaries. God breaks up the alienation that exists between people. God reconciles people who are different with one another.
Peter didn’t discover that the Gentiles in Caesarea who he thought we alien, were just like him after all. Peter perhaps didn’t even discover that he could like them or their ways. They were still strange, they still did things that to Peter were distasteful. But who was he to hinder God. The reconciliation that God wills to take place is not on the basis that we are all really similar and could like each other and get on if we just knew each other better. But on the basis that God offers the same gift to all, without distinction. God offers to everyone the gift of knowing and trusting Jesus Christ, and the gift of his Spirit. God takes the initiative. God prompted Peter in a dream to see that there is no distinction. God sent the group from Caesarea to find Peter, because he had a message they needed to hear. God gave to that group the power to believe. God broke down the barrier and enabled them to be baptised. Whether we were aware of it or not: God brought us here today. And God enables us to respond when Jesus says: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” Who are we that we should hinder God?
At the end what else could the disciples; James and John and Andrew and Philipp and the rest say or do? God had leaped over their boundaries.
They praised God saying “Then God has given even to the gentiles – and to all the people who are not like us – the repentance that leads to life.”
Who are we that we should hinder God by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0