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Biblical Themes :
Love One Another

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Love One Another 

"[they] were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles" (Acts 10: 45)

Jesus said "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15: 12)  

How far the church seems to fall short of Jesus teaching and values! If only we were more like the New Testament Church.  

No financial crisis then, they shared everything in common. No divisions then, they all loved one another as Jesus had taught them. No controversies then, they were led by God's Spirit into a common mind. Well, that at least is what many people imagine! But, of course, it is not true. In reality, the New Testament Church faced many crises and threatened splits. 

If in the Church today there is talk of a financial crisis, we should recall that the Jerusalem church faced a financial crisis of such magnitude that Paul had to organise a collection for them in the Gentile churches of his sphere of mission. If in the Church today there are debates on church organisation and proper representation let us not forget that early on in the book of Acts there was a sharp disagreement between Palestinian Jews and Greek-speaking Jews about fairness and representation as a consequence of which a new group of church officials was appointed. If in the Church today there is controversy and the possibility of splits, disagreements, arguments over the interpretation and application of Scripture, then let us recall that the church in Acts teetered on the brink of a huge split over its mission to the Gentiles; a mission that takes off in Acts Chapter 10.  

When Christianity began it was essentially a Jewish sect, and to all outward appearances very like many other Jewish sects. So the early church was faced with a thorny question when Gentile people began hearing the Gospel preached and began responding to the message and put their trust in Jesus. These non-Jewish folks were not hearing the Gospel as a call to convert to Judaism and adopt the faith and practices of Judaism. Instead they were hearing it as an inclusive welcome to all, which, while it clearly had ethical implications, did not mean that one had to get circumcised, or stop eating pork and shellfish, or do all the other things that identified one as a faithful Jew. But for the first Christians who had taken it for granted that Christian faith was a modified form of Judaism, this was a huge challenge. Didn't following Jesus mean living as a Jew, since that's how Jesus lived? How could it be otherwise? After all, you can't just pick and choose the bits you like, can you?  

And then one day, Peter had a vision of a sheet lowered from heaven containing all kinds of different animals. It is lunchtime and Peter is hungry and he sees in this great visionary picnic basket potential sustenance, and he hears a voice "Get up Peter, kill and eat". There is just one problem; the food God is offering to Peter is food that a Jew is forbidden to eat. It is non- kosher, disallowed by the clear teaching of the Law of Moses in the Old Testament. And (and this is a point worth pondering and wrestling with!) God seems to be instructing Peter to disobey Scripture, at least as Peter understood it!  

Of course, as a good Jew, Peter says "No! Certainly not Lord, I have never eaten anything ritually unclean or defiled!" but, nonetheless, this vision and dialogue is repeated three times.  

At that point Peter is unaware that a Roman officer called Cornelius (a Gentile of course) has also had a visitation from God, and an angel has told him to send for Peter. The messenger arrives at the door just after Peter has had his vision and dialogue with God and Peter does what he would never have dreamt of doing if he had not received that vision on the roof top: he goes with them. He shares with them the Good News of God's love in Christ and much to his surprise - and the surprise of his companions - the Holy Spirit falls on these Gentiles and then Peter recognises that God has called the Gentiles too to share in Christ's love and grace, and they are baptised. And something like a revolution has just begun. 

Peter concludes that there is no point in refusing to recognise what God is obviously doing. If it is perfectly clear that God is pouring out the Holy Spirit on these non-Jews, then there's no point in arguing over whether we can baptise them. Is there evidence of the Holy Spirit's outpouring on Gentiles? Then let them be baptised in spite of earlier understandings of Scripture, we will need to revisit these understandings and think again. It is clear that God accepts them, God is blessing them. And there's no point trying to accuse God of not being a good Jew! 

But this incident did not end the tendency and temptation in the Church to seek to exclude others. Throughout the centuries and to this day, Christian people have sought to limit God's love and grace by erecting barriers between those presumed to be "in" and those thought to be "out". Over and over again it has been asserted that we need to maintain the purity of our faith by avoiding the contamination of some group or another. Every so often there are renewal movements that shake the church out of this clubby complacency. But slowly and surely our exclusive and excluding instincts take over and people begin to be "not welcome" if they don't believe what we believe, don't follow our way, don't dress "appropriately", don't behave in a certain fashion or do what we do, are simply not our type!  

But, as we see in the story in Acts, God calls us to look at the evidence of what the Spirit is doing. Peter's simple reasoning. "Is there evidence that God's Spirit is active among the people "on the other side"? Yes. Then pull down the barricades and welcome them." God's love is inclusive and challenges our inherited prejudices, the cultural captivity of the faith, our narrow approaches to mission, limited understandings of church and our closed minds.  

Who do we see as "in" or "out"? Why do we expect people to be like us before they can believe or belong? What about our attitudes towards, and our acceptance of, those who are different from us or have alternative perspectives or with whom we disagree? 

And this is where this passage directly connects with one of the big issues currently facing the Church. Is it acceptable for someone who is openly homosexual and living in a gay partnership to be a serving minister? No doubt, we will be aware that there are a few verses (and they are but a few!) which appear on first reading to be rather negative about homosexual practice.  

Yet in Acts we find Peter being forced to re-think his understanding of Scripture, because God was saying something new to him and fundamentally because he saw the evidence of the Holy Spirit at work within those whom he would have believed from upbringing, tradition and Scripture to be unable to receive the Spirit - at least without first ceasing to be Gentiles and becoming Jews! So the question remains; can homosexual Christians be ministers without agreeing to live a celibate life? For the moment, I am content to ask the questions without offering the answers, not least because I have not yet finally concluded what my own answer would be.  

However, if the passage in Acts tells us that Peter saw God's Spirit at work in the hitherto excluded Gentiles and so he concluded that they ought to be excluded no more, in spite of his traditional interpretation of the Bible, then should we not be asking ourselves if this passage might be speaking to us in much the same way regarding this current "big issue" in the Church? Not that I am suggesting that the answers are clear or easy or straightforward, but the debate needs to be undertaken in an atmosphere of openness and of listening to others, and above all to the Spirit of God who may be asking us - as he asked Peter - to think what has previously been unthinkable. Whatever our present views or the conclusions we come to, love and unity should - must - transcend any differences of view we have on these matters. We will have to somehow learn to live with this issue; and many other issues of disagreement and difference.  

In the book of Acts, we see that a church moving with God's Spirit into uncharted or unknown territory will be a very messy, sometimes uncertain, fluid rather than fixed kind of body which will embrace diversity and difference. Robust debate and sharp disagreement seem to have been as common then as they are today. But the call of Jesus to "Love one another" remained and remains. It is this love - his for us and ours for one another - that can hold the church together; it is this love that can enable us to live together with disagreements and a diversity of view, but with grace and understanding; it is this love that can move those who disagree with one another nonetheless to reach out across the divide, to listen to the other's story and to seek a unity for the church, a unity that does not demand a uniformity; it is this love for one another that can save the unity of the Church of Scotland. And without this love, frankly the Kirk is not worth saving.  

And it is this love to which we are called as Christians. Not to agree on everything; we won't. Not necessarily to like everyone; we can't. Not to impose some kind of agreed behaviour; we shouldn't. Not to insist that others become like us or sign up to our views before they are welcomed; we mustn't. But to love one another as Christ has loved us. And to recognise that he loves all of us and that his love breaks down the dividing walls, transcends the barriers and overcomes the differences. He loves the traditionalist and he loves the radical; he loves the gay person and he loves the straight person; he loves those of us who are difficult to get on with and he loves those who are easy to like. And he calls us to love one another as he has loved us.  

And whatever our differences of experience, of view, of sexuality, of lifestyle - this is his commandment. Love one another. And only in obeying that commandment will we find a way forward in unity and only in openness to the life-transforming and mind-changing power of the Spirit will we discover new insights and new perspectives. Where we love one another as Christ has loved us, and where we are open to His Spirit challenging our prejudices and preconceptions and teaching us new insights, then miracles can - and will - occur.  

Rev David Denniston, May 2009


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