Thought for the Week 6th September 2020

The Morning After…

(by Rev Paul Graham)

Read Acts 11:1-18

They say that the most difficult moment for a winner is the morning after the victory. The euphoria of triumph, the adulation of the crowd, and the celebrations with friends, family and supporters give way to the reality of a new day. For those in the sporting world, the day after the razzmatazz, the victory laps, and the camera flashes of international media can leave the victor feeling a little flat. True, there probably will be media commitments, possibly an open-bus tour and a reception at the Palace, but once the adrenalin of performance has subsided, there can be a real and palpable feeling of flatness. The reality of being a champion can feel strangely worse than striving for, or even becoming a champion. And that’s when those around them step up to the plate, encouraging them, building them up and keeping them going.

I’ve never ascended to the heights of triumph such as those experienced by gold medal wearing Olympians, or world champions in their field, but I do know that the last thing that someone would want after a major triumph is to have their nearest and dearest pull them apart as a fool. I’m sure that Andy Murray wouldn’t have had Judy chirping in his ear after picking up the Wimbledon trophy for the first time in 2013, wishing that he and his brother had taken up conkers instead of tennis rackets in their formative years. And would Jessica Ennis-Hill, fresh from her triumph in the 2012 Olympic heptathlon, appreciate her coach husband pointing out that she won a gold medal for doing 3 fewer disciplines than the decathletes? Ridiculous, you might say, and rightly so.

So, pity poor Peter, fresh from the joy of spending time with Cornelius and his family, and vindicated in his decision to interpret God’s provocative picnic as permission to proclaim the gospel to his non-Jew hosts. And what a positive response there had been. Not only had Cornelius refrained from executing him for bringing a message of blasphemous monotheism into his deity-littered culture, the Holy Spirit had shown up with gusto, strewing gifts among old and young alike. It would have been a raucous and joyous house that Peter left, and he would have floated along those first few miles away from Caesarea. Then, as he mulled over the impact of what happened in that house, how the world would never be the same again, I wonder if Peter didn’t feel slightly deflated, or at least troubled as the ramifications of God’s wider embrace start to sink in.

We don’t get access to the inner workings of Peter’s mind (somewhat unusual, as he’s not often one to keep his thoughts private), but we certainly can feel the strength of feeling that greets him in Jerusalem. Instead of joining in with the celebration, and pondering what that means for their future witness, Peter is met with suspicion and criticism.

Of course, those who have been waiting in Jerusalem have only heard the edited highlights; not for them the full match report. And the snippets of news they’ve received aren’t good; it seems like there’s a rogue element in the ranks. And, to make matters worse, it’s one of the inner sanctum, one of those directly entrusted by Jesus to be one of the bearers of the Good News.

But that’s precisely why I feel that there is an injustice in the attack on Peter. Let’s face it, he shouldn’t have been surprised that the call came to spread the good news to the Gentiles. It wasn’t as if Jesus hadn’t been clear in what we now refer to as the Great Commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). And if they were struggling with the definition of “all nations” without Matthew’s account to hand, we have Luke’s record of Jesus’ words at the beginning of our current book: “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).

So, though it might have come as a surprise, and not a pleasant one at that, to Peter and subsequently those in Jerusalem, it wasn’t as if they hadn’t been told. In fact, they were finally doing what they had been instructed to do. Just as the persecution had forced them to look beyond the walls of Jerusalem, it took the invitation of a Roman centurion to get them to start spreading the good news beyond their national and cultural identities.

What follows from Peter is his tale of the events just prior to his visit to Cornelius. This helps put the context for those who were starting to wonder if Peter had gone a bit crazy and unequivocally sets the record straight. Peter is in the right, but I wonder what else was going on here…

For a start, we don’t hear anything about an investigation into why the full story of Peter’s actions wasn’t taken back to Jerusalem. Was someone trying to stir up trouble, or stoke division among the disciples? I can imagine if this was me in Peter’s sandals I would be wanting to know what, who and, most importantly, why such a divisive edit was made to what is still one of the most momentous events in Christian history. Certainly, I wouldn’t be writing this today if Peter hadn’t justified his actions to the satisfaction of the suspicious minds in Jerusalem.

We get further evidence of division within the early church, as a look through some of Paul’s letters refer to disagreements over policy and leadership (1 Corinthians 1:10-12, Galatians 2:11-13, et al). A quick skip through the chequered history of the world will see that Christianity has often found itself on both the right and wrong side of debates and events. Sometimes the church has led the way, occasionally in the right direction, other times it has tried to pull itself apart, as well as causing harm to the communities that Christ told them to love and serve.

For each Wilberforce and his bunch of anti-slavery chums, we have to face the harsh reality of the vindictiveness and brutality of the Spanish Inquisition. For every liberator, we have at least an equal number of persecutors. For a movement that is founded on the notion of “Good News”, we have shown ourselves to be very bad news at times, for no other reasons than selfishness, greed, fear or, at best, misunderstanding. None of these characteristics would pass the test of Jesus or be found in the extensive list of gifts from the Holy Spirit.

It has to be noted that Jesus said some difficult things, that even those who shared meals with him took time to grasp. We’re still counting the cost of following the one who said, “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) when it’s easier to avoid them or try to bring them down. How much more difficult for us to do what he said and go out of our way to love the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40), a pitiful and pathetic bunch of people we might want to leave to others to sort out and care for.

It took circumstances beyond the disciples’ control, the persecution and Cornelius’ invitation, for them to start doing what Jesus was actually asking them to do. One wonders, therefore, what messages we ought to be paying attention to as we are very much in a situation that we have little control over. The pandemic that caused church buildings to close has given us the chance to re-evaluate the what, how and why of church.

Have we become so programme focussed, so geared towards event management, that we have lost sight of God? Have we been swept along on a wave of tradition that has fixed us on a course that God no longer wants us to follow? Have we allowed ourselves to get so worried about attendance on Sunday mornings that we’ve neglected the opportunities of Monday to Saturday?

How close are we aligned to the disciples and to Peter, wondering what on earth God is doing through circumstances that are so far out of our comfort zones, but that could well lead us into a new and wonderful “normal” of seeing God’s kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven?

Let’s hope that we can write this next chapter together…


For the text of today’s Communion click here

(Photo by Matt Taylor on Unsplash)