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In the next few weeks, we will be witnessing one of the greatest political struggles in contemporary British history. With only a few days to go before the Polling Stations open, we still have absolutely no idea who will win the Scottish referendum. Will the Union remain intact, or will it be dissolved? It is becoming a mammoth struggle between the two sides of the debate and, whatever the outcome, it is fascinating to watch!
Of course, as we look back through history, we see that struggle is at the heart of humanity. Sometimes that struggle is good and results in growth and development: the struggle for Women’s Emancipation, the struggle against apartheid and so on. But sometimes struggle results in negativity and prolonged pain.
Too often, that has been written into the history of the church as denomination has struggled for supremacy over denomination and even as local church has felt threatened by other local churches. Struggle – born out of jealousy and fear – has often resulted in division. A friend of mine was a missionary in Nigeria and he said that it was possible to chart the history of many villages by the names of the churches. At the top of a road would be a church called, for example, ‘The Church of God’. 20 yards down the road was ‘The True Church of God’. 50 yards further on was ‘The True Church of God and the Saints’. 50 yards further on was ‘The True Church of God, his Saints and his heavenly realm’…The history of division and struggle borne out in the names of churches
Don’t we do the same thing? Baptists and Strict Baptists. Presbyterians and Free Presbyterians. Even within the Church of England, we have Evangelical churches, Anglo-Catholic churches and so on. The people of God marked out and set apart, not always by holiness, but by division. That is the sad fact of history.
It’s not a new phenomenon, of course. The Scriptures tell the same story: the struggle of the people of God and the religious elements of society. The people of Israel against the inhabitants of the Promised Land. Samaritans struggling against Jews. Jews struggling against Gentiles. The disciples struggling against the aggression of the Pharisees.
And, in this passage from Acts 11, we have the struggle between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. And this struggle arose because Jesus Christ was announcing a new truth in the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. The new truth was that God is for everyone - a remarkable truth that had not been grasped before. As Paul says in Galatians 3:28, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. You are all one in Christ Jesus”.
The message of the Kingdom of God is a message of radical inclusivity where everyone is welcome. Radical inclusivity is a difficult concept for us to grasp sometimes. It is a threatening idea. It takes us out of our comfort zones. Because as soon as we seek to be radically inclusive, it necessarily involves accommodation and change. As we open our doors to new people, so we open our doors to new ideas. We invite in those who have previously been on the margins and we seek to learn from them. We choose to leave the comfort of our building and engage with the wider society on their terms, not ours, and we are challenged spiritually through that.
You may remember how I preached a couple of weeks ago about how even Jesus himself had to be converted by the Syrophoenician woman in order to grasp more deeply what it meant to be the Messiah. And if even Christ needs converting by the world, how much more so do we, his church…
And that, of course, is the issue the early Christians were grappling with in this passage from Acts 11. They were working out together what it meant to follow the Great Commission. We’ve just heard the words of Christ, just prior to his Ascension, from Matthew 28: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching the to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Now, in Acts 11, as the Gentile Christians began rubbing shoulders with Jewish Christians, the rubber was hitting the road. Different ways of doing things were becoming very obvious indeed and that was causing real tension and struggle.
If you want to follow the reading with me, you’ll find it in the New Testament, the second half of the Bible, on page 139.
At the beginning of our reading, Peter is criticised by Jewish believers for eating with Gentile Christians, verse 3: ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Well, they say ‘What comes around goes around’ because this was an example Jesus had set them in Luke 19, when he ate with Zacchaeus. In that story, Jesus and his disciples were criticised by the people for eating in the home of a sinner. And now, here they were – followers of Jesus - complaining that Peter was eating with the wrong people! Hadn’t they learnt anything from the example of Jesus to them? They were so stuck in their traditional ways of doing things that they had lost sight of what the Gospel message was all about.
It is not unusual for us to struggle against one another in churches as we begin to wrestle with change and transition. New ideas, new ways of doing things can seem so threatening. And for others, tradition can sometimes seem stultifying and life-sapping. And the challenge that faces all churches – not least this one - is how to navigate through change and growth in a way that is honouring to all and founded on compassion and loving-kindness.
And there is a beautiful phrase in this reading that I think shows us the way forward in this regard. The apostles had criticised Peter for doing things in a new way and then we read these words in verse 4: ‘Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step…’
Peter could have got defensive and argued with the apostles. Peter could have made them feel small for being spiritually illiterate. Peter could have shouted at them and told them to grow up. But he didn’t. Peter began to explain it to them, step by step…
Peter was initiating a process of change in the way they did church and recognised that, at the heart of this process of change, was the need to communicate well and clearly explain why he was doing what he was doing, what the benefits were – and why it was right to change…
Some of you will know already but I want to outline to you all today that, at St. Andrew’s, over the next few months we are about to conduct what I am calling ‘A Listening Exercise’. If we want to discern where God wants to take us as a church, we need to be listening. We need to listen to God to hear what he has to say to us. We need to listen to one another to hear how we feel about church. We need to listen to the wider community to hear how they relate to St. Andrew’s.
Over the coming few months, we will be creating opportunities to listen…
Firstly, I have been giving you an open invitation over the last few months to come and talk to me about your views on St Andrew’s as well as your hopes and fears for the future. I have so far had about 50 such conversations with you and I really want to encourage you to keep coming! You are teaching me so much, and I am so grateful for your honesty with me. And as long as I am Vicar here, I will always have an open door for you, not least during this next few months as we begin to shape our Mission Action Plan.
Secondly, a questionnaire has gone out to every member of the congregation: you received yours when you came in today and they will be available over the next few weeks so that as many of you as possible can fill them in and put them in the drop box at the back of church or in the Parish Centre over refreshments.
Thirdly, there will be an opportunity for every group and organisation within St. Andrew’s to meet with me to talk about how they feel the church is and where they would like St. Andrew’s to go in the future and each group member will have a specific questionnaire to fill out too.
Fourthly, we will meet with key community groups in Enfield and talk to them about how they perceive St. Andrew’s and how we, as a church, might better serve them or work in partnership with them.
Fifthly, we will be canvassing the opinions of parents and teachers at St. Andrew’s school to see how they perceive the church.
Sixthly, we will be speaking with the Bishop and Archdeacon and Area Deans and leaders of other Enfield churches to think about where St. Andrew’s is in a wider context.
Seventh, we will be having four evening meetings in the Parish Centre to think about frameworks for understanding what church is all about and how it works best. And I really urge you to come to these, starting with ‘Mind the Gap’ on 8 October.
It is a massive undertaking - a major Listening Exercise! But, by the end of the autumn, we hope to have amassed some serious data and then we will write that up in a Report and the PCC will then work together to draw up a detailed Mission Action Plan. That Mission Action Plan will shape the direction of St. Andrew’s into the next decade of church life.
For the Listening Exercise to succeed, we would really value your prayers – and active involvement. I hope that, as the exercise unfolds, you will be excited by what is revealed to us. So as we launch this new initiative, what can we be praying for in the early stages? I think this passage shows us three things…
First, that we need to pray for our church leadership. Peter had gone through a rollercoaster of a decade since he had first met Jesus! Certainly he had grown up a lot through the years and had to learn so very tough lessons from God. And now, here he is again in this Acts 11 story, having to learn more of God’s will for the establishing Kingdom. Peter had grown up as a committed Jew and so the lesson for him that the Gentiles were part of God’s plan would have been a difficult one to learn. But Peter had a teachable spirit and he heard God speaking and was prepared to go with God.
So it is, through this Listening Exercise, that I would ask you to pray hard for your leaders at St. Andrew’s - particularly for me and for the PCC - that we would have listening hearts and teachable spirits and that, like Peter, we would have tolerance and patience and be able to communicate our understanding of God’s will for the church in a sensitive way and clearly and coherently.
Please pray for your leaders.
Second, pray for yourselves and each other. In this passage, it was hard for the Jewish Christians because they were having to take on board new information, extend their fellowship to new people, different from themselves and, ultimately, learn new ways of doing church. As we listen to the Enfield community and hear what is said about how a church could best serve that community, we will undoubtedly hear things that we had not expected, things that we had not even dreamt of, things that will challenge our understanding of how we should do church. And having heard what is said, we can’t ‘unhear’ it! And that may be a fearful thing for us because we will have to respond in one way or another.
So pray for yourself and each other, that God would prepare the hearts of everyone in our fellowship to have the wisdom to hear and the courage to respond.
So, pray for your leaders. Pray for yourselves and each other.
Thirdly and finally, pray for the wider Enfield community. It would have been a fearful thing for the Gentiles to come into a Jewish church. They would have been feeling nervous and vulnerable, wondering how they would be received by the existing fellowship. It would have taken bravery and courage for them to engage with the church. And the same is true of the Enfield community today. Through this Listening Exercise, we are asking the community to engage with church; an institution which many have, up until now, chosen not to engage with. We are asking them to engage with honesty and openness and then, our prayer is that many who do not currently come to church will do so in the future and we will see St. Andrew’s grow as a loving fellowship and a place of hospitality and welcome for the whole community.
So this episode in Peter’s life was a defining moment for the church; a moment where he and the Jewish Christians re-assessed what it meant for them to be church and opened the doors to Gentile Christians too. They heard the voice of God and were prepared to embrace change so that they could continue to grow in faithfulness.
As we embark on our Listening Exercise here at St. Andrew’s over the coming few months, we pray for the grace to hear God’s leading and the courage to respond accordingly.
The PCC and I believe that this Listening Exercise could be a defining moment for the mission-life of St. Andrew’s. Please pray for us. Please pray for yourselves and each other. Please pray for the wider community and let’s anticipate with excitement and joy what God will say to us over the next four months or so.