Extracts from a sermon preached in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork by the Dean of Cork on Sunday 13th May 2012 – the sixth Sunday of Easter – following the General Synod debate on Human Sexuality.
Our reading from Acts chapter 10 this morning draws us into the world of the emerging
and fledgling church of the first century. There is almost a sense of shock that the Spirit would be poured out upon ‘even the Gentiles.’ This follows a series of events at the heart of Acts which have much to say to us about diversity in the midst of what, for me and others here this morning, seems like a ‘post General Synod haze’!!
So what are these events?
Acts 8 – Philip’s Mission to Samaria – Simon the magician is baptized.
Jews rejected Samaritans because they had a different principal place of worship and scriptural tradition. The wrong kind of man from the wrong place and the wrong tradition …. is baptised.
Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch – The eunuch is from Ethiopia, now northern Sudan – on the extreme limits of the known world. He had been to Jerusalem for the festival. A person of (probably enforced) unusual sexuality. A symbol of the Jewish diaspora – perhaps slightly frowned upon for being so involved in the Ethiopian monarchy and seen as not quite orthodox. Deuteronomy 23:1, a eunuch could not be “admitted to the assembly of the Lord”. The wrong kind of man, from a questionable place …. is baptized.
Acts 9 – Saul is still persecuting the church. ‘breathing threats and murder’ … ratting out on those who had transferred to the new Judaism. He is converted on the road to Damascus and flees to Jerusalem (of all places) to preach and teach the good news. Definitely the wrong man, from the wrong tradition and a shameful past, in the wrong place … baptized.
At the beginning of the chapter, we hear of Peter’s visit to Cornelius, a Roman soldier of rank, prestige, and honor. He is wealthy, owns slaves, and may have gained all he had through pillage and plunder. He would’ve been, to the faithful and observant Jew, a person of derision, maybe disgust, and probably hatred for participating in the oppression of Israel and the economic exploitation of the people. So, Peter will be quite surprised when God makes it clear that Cornelius is loved by him too and there is nothing that Peter can do about it.
Peter’s vision of a four-cornered sheet full of animals that would make him unclean if he even touched them, much less ate them. Peter may not follow the rules, but he certainly knows them. “Kill, and eat,” a voice says to him. Peter objects and the voice replies “What God has made clean, you shall not call profane.”
Cornelius’ conversion is against all odds – against a justified cultural hatred and the Jewish law/scripture. Cornelius, the wrong man, of the wrong regime, of no tradition, of those deemed to be outside, his family and a large crowd are … baptized. Peter cannot argue with the fact that God has poured out his Spirit already, baptism is the natural and obvious conclusion.
The circumcision party – Pharisees – are astounded. One suspects Peter was too. When Peter returned to Jerusalem he faced a severe questioning from them.
These events are all about the human perception of orthodoxy and God’s challenge to it.
They are all about ‘the other’ to whom we are called to go and invite to share the good news.
Reflecting on the motion and debate on human sexuality at General Synod then –
What did the motion say?
– restatement of current understanding of marriage
– acknowledgement of hurt that has been caused and the need to welcome all
– Standing Committee to report back on the formation of some kind of ‘select committee’ and its workings next year.
Nothing has changed in terms of legislation, except that the presentation of the motion and the manner in which it was presented did not serve well the progress made at the Cavan conference in March.
It was a motion, not a bill, not legislation.
There may well be change in the future – it is worth remembering that canon 31 only emerged in the light of the decision to remarry divorced persons. Here social change led to a radical change in the Church of Ireland’s teaching on marriage. In fact there was no canon governing marriage before that.
There are many years to go in this process and so hasty reaction to yesterday’s motion is not helpful.
Gender, race, creed, sexuality – are no grounds for exclusion in any Christian community and therefore I reiterate what I have said before: All are welcome to this holy place regardless of any of these.
In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus tells the disciples – “This is my commandment,
that you love one another as I have loved you.” This has to be the bottom line for Christian communities, as it was for Peter and his contemporaries in Acts. God continually challenges us to love, to recognise the gift of his Holy Spirit bestowed freely in creation, not least in Baptism. There is a serious discrepancy in the teaching of any church that on the one hand invokes the Holy Spirit upon them in Baptism and on the other then tells them they are not welcome.
We are told by Jesus this morning to ‘bear fruit that will last’ on foot of receiving the Holy Spirit. That begins with loving unconditionally.