Biblical Themes :
Love One Another
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,
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
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 -
|Rev David Denniston, May
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