God’s Great U-Turn…?
(by Rev Paul Graham)
Read Acts 10:23-48
Take one grocer’s daughter from Grantham. Put her on a path to political success, with a General Election victory in 1979 and we arrive at Margaret Thatcher, our first female Prime Minister and one of the most divisive figures in late-20th Century politics. One of her most famous phrases, used in her 1980 Party Conference speech, was “This lady’s not for turning.” This was a defiant message in the face of opposition to a certain economic path down which she was leading the Conservative government and the country. There will be many who will say that her determination to follow this course, not to give in to pressure and make the volte face that many, even in her own party, were clamouring for, showed strength of character, integrity and courage. Others will say that it irrevocably damaged her reputation, as well as bringing much of the industry of this country to its knees. Being only 5 years old at the time of the speech, I wasn’t in a position to comment, being far more concerned about that awful institution that my parents were subjecting me to at the time known as “school”.
Unlike our immovable former Prime Minister, it currently feels a bit like we’re travelling in a car with the navigator holding the map upside down and the driver following sat nav instructions for a different country. Some of the U-turns of recent times have been justifiable; the decision to enforce the wearing of face masks after reassuring the populace for so long that this wouldn’t happen, was a triumph of common sense and public health. Some have seemed to be less about the physical wellbeing of the nation, instead prioritising personal practice or political precedent. And we won’t even get started on the fiasco over exam results…
U-turns can be signs of great failure, an indictment on a person, party or movement’s competence or ability to make the right decision the first time around. However, changing one’s mind can also be a reflection on other changes, be they societal, financial, or educational. The more we learn about the world around us, or those we share it with, the more freedom we have to say “well, actually…” and go in a different direction.
Some of the great leaps forward through history have been the result of changes of attitudes, U-turns made by politicians, scientists, even entire cultures. Though we still have cases of people held against their will, slavery would be deemed acceptable but for the convictions of a few who caused such radical change in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now we see enslavement for the unjust and evil situation it was, we pledge to tackle any incidents that we encounter and campaign for the freedom of all. A few hundred years ago, our forebears would throw their hands up in horror that we now take that view, as they order their African property to bring them a fresh drink.
We can mention other examples of changes that we have gone through, or have seen our world go through over the centuries, that we can characterise as U-turns; whether they have been good or bad decisions is another thing entirely!
But all this leads us to our reading today and the question as to whether the visit of Peter (a Jew) to Cornelius (a Gentile) shows God making a U-turn or not, and what that means for us today.
A quick scan through the Old Testament will show that Peter’s reluctance to associate with Cornelius is fairly well founded. The interactions between the descendants of Abraham and anyone else have generally not been fruitful. Taking into account the times when wars with neighbouring nations and enslavement by Egyptians, Babylonians and Persians forced the Israelites to fight for their land, leave their homes, reclaim their land and rebuild their homes, it’s not surprising that a member of the current occupying force might be approached with caution. And, on top of the historical precedence for keeping themselves to themselves, there’s also God’s law, as handed down to Moses and adapted by generations of religious leaders that repeated time and again that Jewish people were not just God’s own people, but that they were to stay set apart from all others because of this.
In fact, though we may think that Peter’s vision (as discussed last week) was nothing more than a metaphor, it also holds a literal truth at its heart. Jewish people didn’t just avoid associating with others, they certainly didn’t invite them to eat with them. Eating together was a sign of family, and only those in the family (in its wider, national sense) would be included. To eat with a Gentile would be as bad as eating the birds and lizards that were on Peter’s picnic blanket. So, God’s challenge to Peter wasn’t just in what was being eaten, but who would be the other dinner guests…
But it all begs the question, did God perform a U-turn by stating so unequivocally to Peter that those who were formally unclean are now clean? Did God change his mind? Or rather, was this a change in policy that was well sign-posted, even from before Jesus accepted water from a once-hated Samaritan woman (John 4:7-9 – note the extra emphasis in brackets)?
Let’s travel a bit further back, to the heady days of the Old Testament and the time of Moses, et al. The Israelites, while battling to reclaim their land following their release from Egyptian slavery, run into, among others, the Moabites, who turn out to be a bit of a handful, to say the least (read all about it in Numbers and Judges). There is even a rule permanently excluding Moabites (and their cousins the Ammonites) from entering the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:3 – the 10th generation is meant to imply “forever!”).
However, consider this in light of the fact that David, king of Israel and ancestor of Jesus’ earthly father Joseph, known as someone after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14) and much-honoured throughout Jewish history had a Moabite grandmother (Ruth, on his father’s side). So much for God excluding the cursed Moabites and their descendants. But, we’re left with the question, did God perform an earlier U-turn here to include the excluded, a trial run for the later events that we’ve read about today?
Did the situation with Peter and Cornelius constitute a U-turn, or was it more a case of a wider understanding of the message of Good News that redrew the boundaries of God’s covenant with humanity? Maybe this was more akin to God saying, “That was then, this is now…”
For centuries, the children of Israel had been the sole carriers of the covenant promise between themselves and God; he was their God and they were his people. So far, so good. Except, of course, because they’re human, the Israelites kept getting distracted (you can read about how the pesky Moabites got in on the act in Numbers 25:1-3) and getting it wrong (hence the Egyptian, Babylonian and present Roman problems).
Then Jesus comes along, and the world gets turned on its head. No longer is the covenant an exclusive one between God and certain group of humanity that can trace its ancestors back to Abraham, but between God and anyone who will admit that Jesus is who he says he is.
Of course, this is not an easy or comfortable reality for your average Jew, even one like Peter who spent so long being gently shifted in this direction as he lived alongside Jesus. This is a moment of acceptance, not just of Cornelius’s hospitality, but of God’s willingness to share this Good News with (shock horror) a non-Jew.
This is also a key moment for Cornelius. Though we read that he was (in traditional parlance) God-fearing and quietly generous, this is a big step for him. It’s one thing to worship the God of the native population, it’s something quite different to be schooled in basic theology (the first Alpha Course, if you want) by someone you could easily have put to death for looking at you a bit squiggly.
At the core of this exchange is humility. For Peter, he humbly accepts that God’s plan got a lot larger through Christ. For Cornelius, he’s humbly accepting the word of the vanquished, trusting that he’s speaking the truth. We read that the result of this for Cornelius and his household is shown through the gift of the Holy Spirit. For Peter, we will read about the ramifications for him later…
So, what about us? Are we to be as intransigent as the Iron Lady, or are we willing to make the required movements as God guides us? One of the worst characteristics of the many U-turns made by our current government has been the lack of humility, the absence of empathy or understanding about the ramifications of these sweeping changes. Are we at times more like that, than willing to take our slice of humble pie like Peter and Cornelius?
Or are we to be more open to the change that God is inviting us to accept? We might not like some of the ways that God is moving us; we might find that our former comfortable positions have got decidedly lumpy, or that seeing things in a different light means that we perceive things differently than in previous times. In light of the current pandemic, what of “that was then, this is now” means that we risk finding ourselves out of step with God’s Holy Spirit, following a route away from him, not towards him?
God’s grace is offered, but we need to be humble enough to accept it. Just as Cornelius and Peter both had to surrender something of themselves, their prejudices, their history, in order to receive the fullness of what God had on offer for them, so we also need to be ready to surrender whatever we are clinging onto that holds us back. Forgiveness works in the same way. We must be willing to forgive ourselves for the past, as well as asking for and being willing to receive forgiveness. Only then can we let go of the past and move forwards in the direction that God is leading us. And who knows where that will lead us…