Peter, Cornelius, and the Problem of Discrimination

Sermon preached by Bill Whitla on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2 May 2010

+ In the name of God: Lover, Beloved, and Love Between. Amen.

Today is the first Sunday that Nola is amongst us as a new priest to preside at the Eucharist, and we welcome her in her new role in our midst.

This past eight days has been a flurry of activity. A wonderful vestry yesterday in which we dreamed dreams and set forward our resolution to seek architects who can embody our vision for this sacred space for the future. A week ago in the midst of festivities Nola was ordained to the priesthood. And there was also a reasoned and public objection at her ordination —with her knowledge and support —that ordination in this Diocese is only conferred with discrimination —that some people, especially some of those in same sex relationships are not so ordained. And this week nine members of the parish met with Archbishop Johnston—planned well in advance of the ordination objection—and it would be fair to say that we were very clear in showing how the diocesan policy of discrimination affects us in so many ways and drains off so much creative energy—not only here but widely in the Church. But it would also be fair to say that the Archbishop also told us we are a parish much encumbered with what is perceived to be a rebellious history that still tells against us. We also heard that we have overstepped boundaries that we should not have transgressed—although we had earlier been told to test the limits, and we were given faint hope that there might be some movement in matters of justice and equity that we so heartily seek to have prevail.

So how do we discern the signs of hope? How to we learn to read them in what appear to be bleak times? How do we continue to live by love and work for justice, or find in the Gospels the precepts of love and gratitude and abundance that we believe that all should be able to share? What do we find in the readings of to-day that nourish and sustain us if we approach them with open hearts and eyes?

Well, Nancy’s grandfather, one of the architects of the United Church of Canada and an early Moderator, was also one of the founders of the Fellowship of Reconciliation—the great pacifist organization that took a heroic and difficult and often unpopular role throughout the dreadful wars of the twentieth century. Nancy said that in every sermon he preached, it seemed that pacifism kept creeping in. Well, I feel a little like that to day, in that discrimination is served up to me on a platter by these lessons.

In that first lesson, Peter is hauled up on the carpet. He had been on a missionary and preaching journey after the resurrection and Pentecost to the city of Joppa, modern-day Jaffa, part of TelAviv, a port city where Peter had raised Tabitha as we heard last week. But here too he had a transforming experience. Although being very hungry, he set his hunger aside and went up to the rooftop to pray, and had a vision. In his vision a large tarpaulin was lowered from heaven, filled with all kinds of animals and reptiles and other kinds of creatures that were considered unclean to orthodox Jews as Peter was, despite also being a Christian. Three times in the vision Peter was told to kill and eat, but he refused, saying that nothing unclean or impure had ever passed his lips before, and it would not now. Then in the vision he heard a voice, “What God has made you cannot call impure,” and the vision faded. He did not know what it meant, but he was then summoned by messengers to go to Caesarea, to the house of Cornelius, a centurion in the what was called “The Italian Guard,” but Cornelius was a Gentile. He went, and then the penny dropped: he was already doing all the things that an orthodox Jew was forbidden to do, he entered the house of a Gentile, he had conversation with him, he stayed with him, and he ate with him —and he baptized him and his household. Then he returned to Jerusalem.

Now my parallel begins. He had broken the laws of the Jerusalem community. he was summoned before the Jerusalem believers and their community–the Jerusalem Church. They pointed out that Peter had stepped over the bounds allowed by orthodoxy. Peter retold the whole story about Cornelius. He says why he had transgressed the laws of acceptable conduct. The Jerusalem Church authorities were concerned that he had associated with Gentiles—and he admitted to the unacceptable acts, breaking the purity laws about who is pure, who impure —need I draw further the parallels to Holy Trinity before the Archbishop?

Then Peter explains his reasoning: he affirms that God has revealed to him not to call anyone profane or impure because that is that the heavenly counter-history. The story of heaven is the story of how we learn not to call anyone profane or impure or unacceptable, or unordainable, or unlicensable, or subject to any discrimination, on the basis of ethnicity and religion in Peter’s version, but on the basis of Peter’s vision, no discrimination on the basis of nation or race or colour or sexuality or age or ability or wealth or any other difference—so that a story is created in which there are, in fact, no impure or profane or discriminated-against people. The King James version reads “The Spirit bade me go with them [the men from Caesaraea, to Cornelius], nothing doubting.” But the RSV and other translations put it differently: “And the Spirit told me to go with them making no distinction—or, without discriminating, doing nothing to discriminate, between them and us.” That word “discrimination” in Peter’s argument is crucial. Diakrino Dia means through; and krino means “to separate, to judge between, to take to court over.” Peter was to go into the house of a Gentile, and by no means to separate out him from others with whom Peter could associate. He was not to discriminate against Cornelius, even though he was impure according to Jewish law —but his vision said he was not impure: so—no discrimination!

Now, we have to remember Peter’s recent experience. He was loyal —but he had denied Jesus three times. And in the lesson from the end of John’s gospel that we had a couple of weeks ago, we heard about the Risen Jesus roasting fish over a charcoal fire on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, when he asked Peter twice, “Peter, do you love me?” Jesus used the most inclusive, and the most demanding, and the most intimate verb for love, agapao, and each time, Peter responds with a weaker verb, the word phileo, to like as a friend, to have affection as for a brother. So Jesus the third time, with such inclusion, so as not to discriminate even against the love of Peter, uses Peter’s own verb, “Do you have affection for me,” and with all of his heart, Peter again responds in the same way. But now, in this later passage in Acts, after the resurrection and Pentecost, and his vision, and the experience with Cornelius, Peter has a deeper motivation—and is moving to a love that works and move without distinction, without discrimination, a love of agape dimensions.

And so we come to the Gospel. A new commandment, says Jesus, I give you, that you love one another. That you have agape for one another, the deepest and most committed love for one another. Jesus says that it is a “new” commandment. What was the old one –the Shema perhaps? to love God and your neighbour? What in this Gospel at the last supper, foreshadowing this Eucharist, and forshadowing the banquet at the end of time, why do we need a new one? Perhaps because we have not learnt the old one well enough.

Because we have to read this Gospel to-day under the shadow of the first sentence in the RSV: “ When he had gone out, Jesus said, “My little children . . . I give you a new commandment . . .” When “he” had gone out. Who is this “he”? [it is a question about Judas Frederick Niedner from Valparaiso University asks in Love one Another 1998, 10-14] Well, this pronoun refers to Judas, as our version makes that clear. Now that Judas has left the table of the last supper, everything has changed. One of the twelve has left. You know what happens when someone gets up and leaves a meeting or worship in distress, or anger, or disappointment—and everyone left wonders what went wrong—what could have made it right, and all are hurt and embarrassed. Can anything still be done?

Have you ever wondered whether, upon hearing Jesus’ new commandment about the way the disciples should now love one another, any one of them went out into the night looking for Judas in order to extend that love to him? Did anyone fear for him, miss him, or try, even after he brought soldiers to Gethsemane, to bring Judas back to talk to that community? Dorothy Sayers and many others suggest Judas was a zealot looking for the overthrow of the Roman occupiers, and when he saw only the teaching of love and peace, in terrible disappointment, be turned betrayer. Is Jesus really pointing out to the remaining disciples left at the table that the new commandment of love has to go deeper than the disciples have already shown amongst themselves towards Judas. Is it not a simply pious remark, but is directed towards their actions? And is not the depth of that forgiving and embracing love seen even more vividly when Jesus embraces his betrayer’s kiss, as well as the world’s scorn?

Judas’ place at the Lord’s table remains empty—or perhaps we fill it ourselves in some imponderable way. He represents our brokenness, our partiality, the fact that there are some we would not welcome to our table, or at whose table we would not ourselves want to share. How then shall we love one another in the family, as the new commandment requires? How can we find that place of agape that Peter found, where there is no discrimination?

How can we read here any signs of hope? We can hope if for no other reason because of the promise in today’s second lesson in Revelation 21. Some day, one day, [as Niedner says] when the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven decked out like a lover approaching her breathless partner, God will lay before us a great marriage feast. And in this simple loaf, and these crushed grapes, that feast is not only anticipated, but begun here and now. We gather around a table with no discriminations, we welcome all, both Peter and Judas and Cornelius and Tabitha amongst us, those with solid faith or weak—or none. Come and eat. Share my bread. Drink my wine. Be my sister. Be my brother.

Well, as Becca said yesterday at the Vestry, can our visioning be a model—a model for the world about living in abundance—and I want to add, about dreaming the future with all kinds of inclusion. With Peter, nothing doubting, with no marks of distinction or of discrimination; with only inclusion into the love for one another that includes that justice for them that we dream of for ourselves, a love for one another that lets us be fully alive, fully human. Amen.