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Town Centre Churches

Sermon – St. Peter’s Day, 2013

Jesus said to Peter, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I shall build my Church”.  And it is clear that God has built his Church in many different ways:

Some see it as like a Winnie the Pooh pyjama suit.  It’s nicely safe and warm; but they hope to goodness no one sees them in it!

Or some see the Church like a gym, with members.  Some of the gym members like the idea of going, but don’t actually go.  Others do go, but aren’t really training for anything. It’s social!  Meanwhile, there is evidence that some actually use it to help them with the race they’re running!

That last notion, which picks up what Philip Johansan has said to us about our mission as ‘running a race’ and ‘going for gold’, ~ that picture has a lot going for it; because it recognises that any Church is a means, not an end in its own right.  With that in mind, I like this thought:

“Ultimately, a church is just a rope bridge made out of spaghetti.  Binoculars to watch a sunset.”.  In other words, it’s a scarily-inadequate means to bring us closer to being touched by the glory of God.  But what is clear from all those images is that it isn’t self-sufficient; its main purpose is to point us beyond itself.

The risk is that it does the opposite; that is, it settles-down, and becomes self-justifying in its own right,  ~ a sort of club for “insiders” ~ rather than serving a wider purpose, of sending people out for service to the community.  And that’s not new ~ our New Testament reading reminded us that even St Peter, our patron saint, had to come to terms with that tendency!  That’s what our reading from Acts is about.

Did you notice that Peter quotes God back at God? He effectively says “I’m sorry God, you have already forbidden Jews to eat this stuff. I can read it to you in Leviticus: you’re supposed to have dictated it, and I cannot eat this stuff, it is forbidden, it’s unclean, it’s profane.”  Peter was comfortable with a closed-community, where you kept to the rules ~ at all cost! And then the famous statement by God: “Thou must not call profane what I have cleansed”.  Check-mate to God!  Of course, we’re never like that, are we?

In the comedy film ‘Meet the Parents’, Ben Stiller goes to visit his in-laws one weekend and they are ~ er ~ challenging! Robert de Niro turns out to be a kind of psychopathic CIA agent, so he flees from the family to escape back home. The airport departure lounge is completely empty. And then the official, says, “We are now going to board the plane, and so will all passengers from seat rows 10 and above please step forward to board”.

Ben Stiller steps forward, and he’s in row 9, and he hands his ticket over and she says, “I’m sorry sir, we are boarding only seat rows 10 and above”.

“But there’s no one else in this departure lounge!”

“I’m sorry sir our regulations state that we board only by seat row rotation.”

No one gets on the plane. She says “We are now ready to board the rest of the passengers. Will those in seat rows 1 and above please step forward” – and he hands over his ticket, with some exasperation, and flies home to safety.

Now that’s an example of a basically sensible routine that has been made silly. Are these systems there to serve us, or vice-versa?

That’s also the question for Peter. His dream ends and he wakes up. There’s a knock on the door and Cornelius’ servants are down at the gate asking to come in to the Christian community. They are Gentiles. Do you see what’s happening here? God is speaking to Peter, but not from the past,  ~ from the future.

They are knocking at the door, asking for entrance – and the old rules don’t provide him with an answer to the new challenge that is coming. Widen the lens, and you could say that the history of Christianity can be seen as the history of a God who speaks to us from the future. And we don’t always recognise him because we are fixated on the God who speaks to us from the past. We quote the God of the past at the God of the future.  But Peter had to learn that God is dynamic, and bigger than the past!

It is a hard lesson to learn.  Throughout history various groups have ‘knocked at the door’, seeking entrance, and have been quoted the old rules. For example, slaves knocked at the door for 1,800 years before we realised that the scriptures that appeared to justify slavery contradicted the scriptures that made love the primary element in Christian living. We finally heard that knocking at the door and we abolished slavery 1,800 years after Jesus came to tell us not to be imprisoned by rules.

And for us ~ Do our rules and habits welcome people in? ~  or  …..  Will we step forward, as Peter had to do, into God’s future? Not much of a choice, really, is it?!

“They drew a circle that shut me out,

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win,

We drew a circle that took THEM in.”

Drawing people in is what Jesus is about.  When he says to Peter, and to us, “Feed my sheep”, he is not talking primarily about other members of the Church, rather, he means all the needy people around us; indeed, he means each one of our neighbours.

Archbishop William Temple reflected this when he said, “The Church is the only organisation that exists to serve those outside of it”.  Peter would have approved!  He had learned!

He would also have liked this understanding of the Church of England as having: “the good grace to forswear the rules and regulations of religion so as to give some space for faith to be fanned into a flame without being stifled by the demands of dogmatism and over-zealous border controls.”

And what is this faith that needs fanning into flame?

Try this: “Faith is a disposition of the mind and will to entrust one’s interests to the reality, reliability and benevolence of the living God.”

Surely ~ that’s what all human-beings need?!

It seems to me that if we can draw a circle of the love of Jesus as widely as that, one day the Christian love at the centre of all human community will be as wide as God’s love, as big as the biggest heart in the world.

Brothers and Sisters, draw your circles as wide as God’s love.

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