Homily for Easter 6 Year B 2021 St John’s Upper Norwood
Acts 10:44 end, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17
We don’t like being out of our comfort zone! However God often seems to take a delight in pushing us further than we would really like to go. We only have to remember how Joseph had “made up his mind,” in Matthew’s words to divorce Our Lady, informally and discreetly, until God intervenes, and changes his mind. God changes our minds sometimes, to bring in salvation and healing.
The first reading today is the climax to a story of St Peter, lodging in a B&B in Joppa, who receives an inconvenient call from God, which will open his mind to the possibility of welcoming pagans and Gentiles into the young Christian Community. Until now he had concentrated on bringing his own Jewish community to an acceptance of Jesus as Messiah and Saviour, but now, disconcertingly, God interrupts one of his cosy lunchtime prayer sessions with the vision of a dragnet full of all sorts of creatures being lowered from heaven, and God’s voice urging him to kill and eat from the rich variety of prey on offer. Peter, the good Jew, notices that most of the animals aren’t kosher, and so forbidden for consumption by the Law. He protests, rather priggishly, that he has never ever eaten ‘unclean’ food, but back comes the stern warning- “ Don’t dare to call anything that I have made unclean.” And just to make the point God repeats this vision another 2 times. Meanwhile downstairs his host has answered the door to a soldier and 2 slaves sent from Caesarea the capital of the Roma occupying forces in Judaea. Their master, the Roman Centurion Cornelius, described as a god-fearer, (that is a gentile who respects and tries to follow the Jewish traditions and customs), has himself received a vision. God tells him that his longing to serve more faithfully is about to be fulfilled. He is told to send for a man called Simon Peter, who will show him the way forward in his journey of faith. God gives the centurion details pf where Peter is lodging, and hearing their explanation Peter sees the hand of God in all of this and returns with the messengers to Caesarea. There, as he begins to open out the good news of Jesus the Christ, to Cornelius and his household, and explaining how his own understanding of what the infant Christian community might look like has changed radically, God gets ahead of him once again, and the Spirit falls on those gathered on all in the house, a very mixed bunch, a soldier, and slaves, and family members, who all, without exception, caught up into this Gentile Pentecost, crying out in ecstasy and joy. Peter’s narrow, exclusive idea of what the church should be like, lies in tatters, and he makes the bold move to baptize the first Gentile believers. It will not make him popular in some church circles.
There is much the same flavour to the Gospel today- God getting ahead of us, breaking open our own tidy, narrow ideas about what it might mean to belong to the Christian Community, and our own Christian community here at St. John’s should look like, as he nudges the boundaries of our discipleship. When Jesus asks us to “remain” in his love, he is choosing to open out within us that unbounded and all consuming love, that flows out from his relationship with his Father, and rooted in his obedience to the Father’s will. It is that same relationship and love which has brought the community of believers into existence, and it is that relationship of affection and service which sustains our community’s life, and he calls us to ‘remain’ in it, actively keeping alive our own personal prayer and study of the scriptures, and above all by our sharing together in the Eucharist, and our worship together, and in our common life of loving service to God and our neighbour. He promises us that keeping within this relationship with him and each other will bring us a joy that overcomes anything the world and life may throw at us. And Saint John in his letter reaffirms this need for obedience; readiness to hear and answer the call of God, no matter how much that might stretch us, but challenging as that may seem, he explains that if our obedience and service is grounded in love then it will become a joy and not a burden.
James Alison, one of my favourite theologians, an itinerant teacher and priest now, reflects on that experience of God’s inconvenient habit of nudging our discipleship that Simon Peter had, and that St. Augustine describes as ‘heart-stretching.” ; Opening our closed minds, and limited vision. In his words God has “changed my mind.” He goes on to say that God also uses others to do the same thing. All sorts of new experiences and new encounters should have their effect, “The many, many secondary whos and whats we all represent for each other as we interact during our time on earth. For me, those secondary interactions occur in the light of the primary changer of my mind, the One in whom we live and move and have our being,” In other words God uses other people and our meeting with them to encourage our growth and maturity, and sometimes evne the realisation that we might be werong!!!
James Alison discovers that “ there are three levers by which our minds can be transformed, the gifts known as faith, hope, and charity.” Each of these activities stretch us of course, mean that we must take risks. He sees this opening out of ourselves as, “the dynamic routes by which God our Saviour brings us out of the dark, semi-formed enclosures of our bodies, and our minds, and into beginning to enjoy being the image of God, called into life.”
He sees the work of redemption as something like a party. “ A huge, risky, audacious, crazy undertaking by God to produce something fun, something that can share in God’s life and joy, out of nothing at all. But there are people who want to control the party, ‘ to act like custom officials or immigration officers, filters examining what is allowed in, getting all pompous at supposed breaches of our rules. Taking our tasks terribly, terribly seriously, and not noticing the hidden outbursts of radiance and delight from those who escape our vigilant attention, and are smuggled into, and become the treasures of, the land whose frontiers we patrol, though we ourselves scarcely step beyond the immigration posts which we maintain at such expense. One of the things about this party is that quite a lot of us spend quite a lot of time trying to work out who should be at the party, and who shouldn’t, even when the evidence is that the host is pretty promiscuous in his invitations.’
Jesus said, “ I have come that they might have life, and have it in all its abundance.”