Sermon for Mirepoix 19th May 2019
Readings: Acts 11, vs 1-8; John 13, vs 31-35
As we were reminded two weeks ago, the last words that Jesus addressed to Peter personally, on the shores of lake Tiberias, were, ‘Follow me.’ Here, in today’s passage from Acts, we hear Peter explaining to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem how he has been trying to obey that instruction. It’s worth taking a moment to recognise the sheer distance Peter had travelled, in religious and philosophical terms.
For centuries, the Children of Israel had been conditioned to keep themselves pure. They were the Chosen Race. It is through his interaction with them that God chose to reveal himself most profoundly. God had continually shown his enduring commitment to his people despite their laziness, casual waywardness or deliberate disobedience. And, in an attempt to help keep them on the strait and narrow, the Children of Israel, the Jews, developed a whole raft of laws and rituals.
It seems to be a human trait to construct narratives and traditions to frame our behaviours. A bit of pomp or pageantry goes a long way to help us define who we are. (You only have to witness the state opening of Parliament, or indeed the opening of any major football match, to see the signs: dressing-up, set forms of words, perhaps some particular genres of music, formalised entrances – it’s all there.) As we know, millions of Jews, to this day, strive every Sabbath to remain faithful to their ancient rituals, to indicate an enduring obedience to what they see as God’s original commandments.
Although they were, we might say, in his DNA, extraordinarily Peter was able to override so many of the taboos he had grown up with up.
Of course, we can argue that he had just spent three years at the right hand of a charismatic rebel who had already upset so many established practices. And he also seems to have had, in this instance, a clear, spiritual experience which he interprets as the direct action of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, Peter took an unprecedented step in baptising non-Jews as Christians.
Symbolised by his dream, where he is commanded to eat things which he would never before have allowed to pass his lips, Peter is told to embrace what today we might call inclusivity. All that history for the Jews of keeping themselves at a distance, isolated, uncontaminated, is now irrelevant. The Jews – Peter realises – are not special. God is no longer simply precious to them; he has to be shared. What we see is that even the most monumental taboos shrivel to insignificance when faced with the command of God, when responding to an instruction from Jesus to follow him and love one another.
But we can still guess the serious disgruntlement in Jerusalem on first hearing the news from Jaffa.
Our unique status sacrificed. It will mean rubbing shoulders with men and women we’d never even have nodded to in the street. What do you mean? Socially? Like equals?
Exclusivity is something most of us prize. For Peter, the exclusivity which he had inherited, no longer mattered. Instead he was interpreting Jesus’ instruction to follow him by realising the new Commandment: to ‘Love one another as I have loved you’.
That was pretty direct and unambiguous. For Peter, the words were clear. But the way that other Christians have interpreted this commandment over the centuries has often been far from loving.
It would not take us long to list situations – wars, campaigns, family rifts – where Peter’s original move to be inclusive has been perverted into drive to compel other peoples, even other Christians, to conform to a rigid expression of Christianity. Peter would have been astounded. While he was having to contend with Jewish Christians’ worries about admitting gentiles to the Faith, the history of Christianity since then has often been characterised by a zealous forcible conversion or even destruction of so-called heretics and apostates. One historian has calculated that more Protestants were murdered in France over two days, the 24th and 25th August 1572, on the orders of Catherine de Médicis on St Bartholomew’s Day, than during all the Roman persecutions put together. It is a terrible thing that so many Christians have turned Christ’s instruction to ‘Love one another’ into a particularly vicious weapon. It is not surprising that its historical baggage has alienated many people in 21st century Europe from Christianity. However, it may be – now Christianity is removed from political and military influence in most countries – that we have an opportunity to make amends. Clearly, Jesus’ command to love one another is open to abuse. Perhaps it would help if we looked beyond those words to his motivation.
The context for loving one another is glorification. This is how Jesus introduces his commandment. And glorification seems to be a two-way process by which the glory of the Father and the Son is mutually driven.
Now ‘glory’ and ‘glorification’ (both nouns) and to glory or to glorify (verbs) are words which I have trouble with. The thing is, I don’t really know what they mean. A recently deceased member of The Salvation Army might be ‘promoted to glory’, suggesting something of Heaven, the realm inhabited by God. On the other hand, we can glory in something, if we are utterly delighted with it. Here, there is a sense of being taken one out of oneself or, if we glorify, of elevating someone or something onto a higher or more radiant plane. To glorify is to exalt or raise. Glorification therefore suggests an element of transcendence.
And that’s part of the problem for me. Because God, of course, is incapable of transcendence. He is already as high as there is. So how, in any sense, can God be glorified by us?
Clearly, as the gospel relates, what Jesus does contributes to the glorification process. And what does Jesus do? He pays the debt. He reconciles. He redeems.
So perhaps God is glorified by the way that Jesus achieves a completeness. After all, his life’s work was to make it possible for Creator and Creation to become whole again. Through the action of this one man, humankind (the most significant – if only because the most powerful – creature ever created) has the capacity, at last, to fall back into line. Jesus makes this possible and he gives the instruction by which it may be furthered.
I suggest that glorification – the completion of the creation, if you like – can only be fully and mutually achieved if humankind is reconciled with the whole of creation and God its creator. I think this is what Jesus intended.
Science is one route we can take to understand the complex dynamic through which all that is came to be. There are rules to science because the universe is not an arbitrary but an ordered creation. It occurs to me, therefore, that we might look to science for greater understanding of how glorification (this move towards completeness) works.
In biology, homeostasis is the name we give to that steady state maintained by all living things where internal physical and chemical conditions are in optimum equilibrium. In equilibrium is the way that life best exists. Chatelier’s Principle states something similar. It describes what happens when there is an externally induced change to one parameter, in a closed system. For example, we know that nitrogen and hydrogen will interact to form ammonia. N₂ + 3H₂ = 2NH₃. There is a natural equilibrium to this reaction. By increasing temperature or pressure, a more productive, equilibrium is achieved because the nitrogen and hydrogen molecules decompose more readily and therefore accelerating the new combination which is ammonia. Similarly, by adding an iron-based catalyst to the system, the nitrogen and hydrogen again react with each other more readily as the amount of energy needed for the reaction to occur is lessened. The equilibrium remains but the speed of the reaction changes. There are analogies to Chatelier’s Principle operating throughout the entire physical world. It would seem that, just as nature abhors a vacuum, running through all things, is an in-built tendency towards equilibrium.
Does it not therefore follow that, if we want to accelerate a particular reaction, to achieve a more productive equilibrium – for example the reconciliation of humankind with God – a catalyst or a change in the parameters governing the system we live in, might be needed? Is this not simply a scientific principle? And isn’t Love such a catalyst or agent?
It was Love that drove Christ to his great redemptive sacrifice. On a lowlier but similar plane, love can drive forgiveness too. Forgiveness, when coupled with contrition, certainly brings about an equilibrium.
When a crime, an affront, or a sin is committed, that leaves hurt, anger, vengeance bubbling away in a state of high volatility until the victim is able to move on and, one hopes, the perpetrator feels genuine remorse – perhaps evidenced by making a proportional recompense. Even justice is less potent than forgiveness in achieving this sort of equilibrium. Only with forgiveness can a new stability and stasis be achieved.
In our human affairs, therefore, achieving this stability, this equilibrium is an echo of the magnificent completeness which is an embodiment of glorification. The creator is glorified when creation rests in equilibrium. Harmony. Balance.
It is Jesus who works this. He is the catalyst. He is the iron accelerating the process whereby lumpen humanity reacts with the divine.
He is not alone. There have been other good women and men from all cultures and across the ages who have also been catalysts.
Nothing can stop the reconciliation of humankind to God. It will be achieved in time because that is the direction in which all things are moving. But the conditions under which this reaction is progressing can be altered.
If we go back to John’s gospel and jump forward to verses 19 and 20 in chapter 14, we can see that this glorification process is actually not two-way but three-way. Here, Jesus is talking about the agency of the Holy Spirit – a phenomenon that will kick-in once he himself is no longer an earthly presence. Whatever the limitations of language, or our understanding of what is being described, it is the Holy Spirit, the Counsellor, the Spirit of Truth which will continue to be a catalyst in what we might call The Great Spiritual Reaction.
“The world will not see me any more but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live…you will realise that I am in the Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”
Do we need a clearer statement that completeness – a three-way union – is the glorious goal?
How to proceed? For my part, I shall try to ask myself, day by day, whether what I am doing, how I expend my energies, how I relate to others, how I let my thoughts run in the privacy of my own head, contribute to The Great Spiritual Reaction. Am I, and how I live, even down to the minutest detail, a catalyst speeding the work of redemptive love? How best can I be an agent, helping drive that ultimate process of glorification, achieved when the whole of Creation is a perfect, complete reflection of the Creator?
So…I must include not exclude, draw in and not repel, embrace rather than reject, reconcile and not separate, reform not condemn, unite not sever, set free rather than constrain, re-use instead of discard, celebrate and not belittle, create rather than destroy. This is how to love one another.
I hope it will only be weakness that stalls this ambition. But, if I am honest, that’s unlikely. But, with an honest admission of culpability, I believe that Christ’s redemptive love has already enabled God to forgive so that I can try again.
We must not forget that we live in marvellous days because the Great Spiritual Reaction is already underway.
It is for us now to play our part so that it may truly be a glory!