Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter (Year C) April 24, 2016
It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.
We’ve all heard that said before. And it can be especially true in the church, where we are supposed to be all about forgiveness, and where we often can move and make decisions at a glacial pace.
Our first lesson this morning [Acts 11:1-18] is all about asking forgiveness for breaking the rules. The early church was a Jewish movement, and the apostles saw themselves as Jews first, Christians second. They observed the Jewish law, including the kosher requirements; they attended synagogues and worshipped at the Temple. Non-Jews who wished to become Christians had to first convert to Judaism, study Torah and be circumcised, then they could be baptized as Christians.
Peter is out visiting the small group of Christians in Joppa, and while there, messengers come to him asking him to come with them to the house of a Roman centurion, Cornelius. Peter had just had a dream in which God told him to go with these strangers, so he goes along. When he gets to Cornelius’ house, he does not hesitate to go inside. Strike one. For an observant Jew to enter the house of a Gentile is to make himself ritually unclean. Then Cornelius invites Peter to join them at dinner. Strike two. Whatever Cornelius was serving, it certainly wasn’t kosher. And then, as Peter is talking to them and telling them about Jesus, he perceives the Holy Spirit coming upon them, and right then and there takes water and baptizes them. Strike three. They have not first converted to Judaism and been circumcised.
We all know how quickly tongues can wag in the church, and before Peter gets back to Jerusalem, word of his sins has already arrived there and made the rounds. The apostles and elders summon him to account for his actions, and to take his punishment. So Peter goes before them to explain his side of the story. He recounts everything that happened, and emphasizes how he saw the Holy Spirit come upon Cornelius and his household, just as the Spirit had come upon the apostles. “Who was I that I could hinder God?” he says. And after hearing his explanation, the other apostles understand that God was indeed at work, and forgive Peter. Thus began the expansion of Christian evangelism to non-Jews.
For us as Anglican Christians, for whom sacramental theology is very important, we need to pay particular attention to this incident. Our sacraments are important to us. We say in the catechism that sacraments are “outward and visible signs of an inward spiritual grace”. Sacraments are not magic acts which confer God’s grace or blessing, but a recognition that God is already at work in our lives, and the sacrament is a symbol to acknowledge that.
For example, baptism is not some magic ticket into heaven. We have, quite rightly, done away with the old mentality that a baby who died before being baptized could not be buried in consecrated ground. We are all children of God because we have been created in the image of God, not because we have been sprinkled with or dipped in water. The sacrament of baptism is our way of recognizing and celebrating that God’s grace is given to us, and to mark our response to this gift of grace through our baptismal promises.
Likewise, marriage does not suddenly make two people a couple nor form a strong bond between them. The first marriage I officiated was between a couple who had been together for seven or eight years and had a six-year-old child. They did their marriage preparation in another parish, and I was newly appointed, so I didn’t know their story until afterwards. Their relationship had been going through some hard times, and they thought (or at least the bride thought) that if they tied the knot, that would keep them together. Six months after the wedding they separated. Marriage doesn’t create love and commitment between the couple; it recognizes a loving relationship that already exists and in which God’s grace is present, and celebrates it with the whole community.
My ordination did not magically confer on me the ability to transform bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Instead, it was the culmination of a long process of discernment, of coming to the understanding that God had given me gifts and grace for leadership in God’s church. The laying on of hands was the Church’s recognition of those gifts and that grace, and of giving me the authority to exercise them.
So our sacraments are not so much a conferral of God’s grace, as they are a recognition of how God’s grace and the Holy Spirit are already active in the lives of people. We need to be very careful about what rules and procedures we erect around the sacraments. Yes, rules are necessary. But we need to be very careful that our rules – human rules – do not hinder God.
Take one example. Those of you who are long-time Anglicans are familiar with the old rule that you had to be confirmed before you could receive Holy Communion. This had been the rule in the Anglican Church since the 13th century. Since the 1970s, the Anglican churches have been moving away from this rule, and back to the practice of the ancient church and of most other churches, Orthodox, Catholic and many Protestants, that baptism is the only prerequisite to admission to communion.
In recent years, the discussion has shifted, and now the question is whether baptism is really necessary before one may come to the table, or whether communion should be open to all. If someone who feels moved to come forward to receive, who are we to decide whether the Holy Spirit is working within them? Who are we to hinder God? At St Philip’s, we print in our bulletin and announce at the invitation to communion that all who are baptized are welcome. But recently, at diocesan celebrations, our bishop has been inviting all who are so moved to come for communion.
Marriage is another sacrament where our rules are, and need to be, under constant re-examination. A generation ago, the discussion was whether divorced persons could be remarried in the church; the rules said no. Now, most of us wonder what the fuss was; certainly we have all seen loving relationships the second time around among those whose first try at marriage did not work out. The discussion has moved on to same-sex couples. Personally, I have seen in same-sex couples love, a commitment to one another, and care for each other and the community equal to that of opposite-sex couples. As a church, we need to be asking questions about such relationships. Do we see in them a reflection of God’s love and an example for others? Do we see the Holy Spirit working in them? Do we see evidence of God’s grace in the couple’s lives? And if so, who are we to hinder God?