May 9 Eastertide sermon

Rev Neil Whitehouse-cropped
Rev Neil Whitehouse

May 9 sermon

Readings: Acts 10:44-48 (34-43 also useful) John 15:9-17

Today, my second Sunday as Minister, I begin by taking advantage of your being regularly here or encouraging you to be!   I want to note this three week period before one of the one most important Sundays of the Christian Year, Pentecost.

We can call this period a part of Eastertide. It is a period to dig deep in ourselves, to consider our spiritual treasures, our faith experience, what really matters really about our Faith and life together. It needs to be stated that above everything else our Faith and life together is about Love.  Just as we are considering the design for a sandwich board, to welcome new people to join us, which will use the scripture phrase ‘Rooted and grounded in Love’ (Ephesians 3)

This Eastertide places Love to the fore: the readings the Christian Church has taken to be heard all across the world as the set texts, spell out what this Love means (last week: it was to be open hearted to receive the love of Jesus Christ, like a branch of a vine receives the sap of the plant) today, our abiding in God is said by Jesus to be given by our loving each other, that’s what abiding is, and next week again from the Gospel the Love of Jesus for his followers, gives joy but also sends them out into the world, for which Jesus asks their protection, some risk with that joy.

The importance of Love is to be remembered as we try to keep up with the drama of the early Church, in the first reading we heard today, that was short but tremendously significant. We read the words that Peter gives in response to a certain devout centurian Cornelius, who recalls to us the centurian, whose personal servant Jesus heals, Cornelius has had a vision with a message, to seek out Peter, including where he was living: Cornelius acts on his vision, his slaves and soldier find Peter and bring him, not knowing that Peter himself has had an even more disturbing vision.

Do you remember what this vision of Peter was? ( four cornered sheet bearing animals that were ordinarily taboo for a Jew to eat, yet Peter was commanded to eat). And what is Peter’s first response? (He refuses). But God calls Peter to account (‘What God has made clean you must not call profane’).   What was the meaning of this? A prelude or prophetic vision for the phenomenal events we heard today, that Cornelius, overwhelmed by the fulfilment of his dream and clearly the presence of God in the person of Peter, Jesus’ Apostle, that he rejoices, not in an ordinary way but in a way that changes his being: he receives the Holy Spirit:

(Now I have to note the order of our readings, is wrong, we are reading a story that comes after the events of Pentecost, a sort of second Pentecost, Before we celebrate the Pentecost, it is a nice parallel to what we do every week, worshiping a day ahead of the majority of our brothers and sisters).

This second Pentecost is as significant as the first: it is a breaking out of the story of Jesus into non-Jewish contexts.  Who would have thought! Like the vision of unclean animals – with God saying ‘its all good’, people respond to the story of Jesus without knowing about or being Jewish – its all good. How uncomfortable. How overwhelming, as if the events of Easter were not demanding enough, now the story is being accepted and understood profoundly without many of the things that Peter and others must have believed were essential.

We are moving in this story from one very specific culture of the Jewish people to the very specific culture of a Roman officer and his family and household. From one context to another. Why is this possible? In part I believe this happened, however it actually historically happened, because the Jesus story operates at a deep level of human existence, regardless of our particular history and culture; only it is never abstract, it does not float as a good story, it is always found in particular contexts, the story emerges again and again as life changing, life bringing. It has emerged here in Westmount Park, Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

So let me just explore with you the context of the Roman officer hearing this greatest story of all.   I find many comments on Facebook reveal how little people know about human history, in the face of today’s challenges. Nostalgia is common, making the past far too positive.   Visit a castle, a museum of torture, an archeological site, and the ‘nasty brutish and short’ nature of the past is evident: watch the Name of the Rose, Elizabeth the virgin queen, even Braveheart, and that was less than a thousand years ago.

We hear of violence around the world today, and see it on screens, but in Roman times, daily life was full of violence, so routine that only the extreme actions get noticed: about half a million people died agonizing deaths (in the Colosseum) where Super Bowl-sized audiences consumed spectacles of mass cruelty. The grandeur that was Rome casts our violent entertainment in a different light ( to say nothing of our ‘extreme sports’ and ‘sudden-death overtime’). – This from The better angels of our nature – Steven Pinker 2011)

How much violence do you think a commander of a hundred Roman soldiers has seen, as part of his duty, his growing up, his off-duty life in a Province soon pushed to hopeless rebellion and the destruction of the second Temple?   The choice of religions mixed up with emperors orders, superstition and hearsay; Cornelius found there was something in the One God, Creator, Covenanting God of the Jews, that stood out. Then Acts suggests then it is this message about Jesus that he found life changing ‘He is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead….that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins, through his name.’

So what had been the response of Cornelius to violence: why was he already devout? We do not know but, he was certainly searching, different, aware of contradictions to his own religion and culture: He was aware of God, and he was aware of his own failure. Are we not all? deep down?

There was Guilty conscience, and anxiety of being judged, knowing the truth about himself, how had he risen to be Centurian. How did anyone survive, when violence was so routine, there is abuse, insecurity in Cornelius’ life along with the sense of right and wrong, bringing internal contradictions with no way out. So along comes Peter ‘Preaching Peace by Jesus Christ’ – saying that a restart is possible and clearly living it, with no security, no other Way.

The message of Peace, forgiveness is received, not in a gentle way but in the suddenness of the Holy Spirit ‘falling’ upon them, interrupting Peter’s brilliant sermon: like I am waiting to get interrupted any time too God! You have the sense in the storytelling here that it was a very emotional, physical, whole experience of Joy, like tongues of Fire would touch the whole of us. Like we react to momentus events that release deep inner fears for safety and replace dread for comfort. Then and Now belong to each other. The Spirit can fall on us. This is the Good News!

Thursday night I went to a Centenary event, 100 years of the Montreal School of Theology, a service at the Presbyterian Church, with over 200 people, including the Moderator of the United Church of Canada, and the world renown United Church of Canada theologian Rev. Prof. Douglas Hall.  He said faith, like life itself, is a continuum, (quoting from Kinsey’s work on gall wasps). And, our task is to discern what in our own traditions opens us up to the deep truth that we are all one. Well here we have some of our own tradition today, in this critical comfort disturbing story of the effect of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.

And that tradition itself shows us the followers of Jesus are not in control, nor able to stop, the life giving impact of the Way of Christ, because the news met real needs. then for hope against death, hatred, guilt, internal contradictions and uncertainties. Then and Now belong to each other: we are living in times of change, different sorts of change but still this is challenging us, just as Peter was challenged, to appreciate what is essential or not, what is contextual.

Who are you, what do you receive from being part of the church here. What visions and dreams do you have?   In the reasons you are here, and what you receive from church, the deep reasons and gifts, lie the visions and dreams for the future, this is the discernment of essential over contextual. I believe a key verse, is on the lips of Peter earlier in Acts 10:34-35, as he begins to tell Cornelius the Jesus story, updated thanks to his latest vision : ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’

In every nation, (gk: ethne, giving us ethnicity) that is nation as peoples and this spiritual revolution can be seen to come from how Jesus resisted partiality himself healing Samaritans, accepting corrupt officials, dishonourable women and men. No partiality: This gives the basis for the abolition of slavery, the Universal declaration of Human Rights, equality of the sexes, acceptance of diverse human sexualities and gender identities and more. It takes us into the needs of the future.

But what is that need today, in our context of Westmount: loneliness, emptiness (of meaning and direction) lost integrity, confusion about truth and what is important, how to live according to our means and how to be thankful. We are connected as ever before in a Global system but this system does not represent us or our values or have hope; it seems to harm both the people Jesus loves, the least the lost, AND jeopardise God’s creation itself.  It is a system that is relatively young, needing Soul.

For now our systems are making us agents of death in the future: the language of economic austerity in Greece has already led to true tragedies, Canadian financing of mining has led to death squads in the Philippines, that our own Montreal Presbytery representatives have heard of face to face. Have you been to the Gulf of Mexico, to witness the long-term damage of the Shell Oil disaster.   The system functions on a definition of success being growth when we have already grown beyond our safe size as a species. Or nearer to home, do we not most of us know people who work hard and yet depend on food depot hand outs.   Do we not know people who are rich beyond what their ‘contribution’ to society is really worth. It is a system, we do not understand, nor control and many feel they are lost in the system, fearful of change, of sharing, of losing identities when our common humanity is more and more obvious on our screens.  We are part of the problem as citizens in ‘developed’ society, we have guilty hands and credible change is hard to find.

And all this is part of our context, as we hear Jesus command: love one another as I have loved you. So yes, While I am still speaking let the Spirit fall, so we love one another!

And this is the Way: in our forgiving, caring, listening, acting for the least, the lost, the voiceless, for in this we subvert a system of selfishness and fear, we work towards systems with Soul, and we prove we believe in Jesus Christ, Lord of All. Amen.