This is the sermon I preached this morning in Kidderminster (with some added ad-libs on rock badgers in reference to the Leviticus passage - couldn't resist)
I don’t know if you’ve been watching the debates with the three leaders over the last three weeks. Sometimes it has been very easy to see the difference between the three - if only from their 3 different coloured ties! At other times it’s harder to see the difference. I was listening on the radio each time and there were moments when I wasn’t sure if it was Brown, Cameron or Clegg who was speaking, as it seemed there was little difference between what they were saying in their answers to questions from the public.
Peter in the reading we had from Acts this morning is facing that same accusation. Those Jews who had followed Jesus from the start saw that Peter associated with gentiles and they were worried that they could see no difference between Peter and those he was with. These Jews were worried that Peter was losing his distinctiveness. Peter’s visions of that great cloth of all the unclean animals (as listed in Leviticus 11) which Jews were not allowed to eat is not about diet but about God emphasising that his followers are not distinguished by their outward rituals but by something more fundamental.
Unlike our political parties, Christians don’t distinguish themselves by the colour of their rosette, their tie, or even the balloons they hand out to children, as I saw in Worcester yesterday. In our gospel, Jesus makes it clear that the difference for Christians is much deeper than such outward appearance. It is more substantial some might say and although it may be simple it can also be the most complicated. Jesus describes it in this way:
“34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This love is not all about fluffy feelings and hugs. It’s not all about family. Jesus says his followers should love each other JUST AS I HAVE LOVED YOU and he says this just after he has got down on his knees and washed their dirty feet, just after he has humbled himself to their service. Now, as we hear by Peter’s first reaction to Jesus’ telling him he must wash his feet, this would have been shocking enough from a Rabbi but of course this statement also comes just before he submits himself to ridicule, torture and execution for the sake of humanity-when Jesus was asked how much he loved humanity and in reply he opened his arms and said this much.
The self sacrificing love that Jesus shows is that which can distinguish those that follow him from the rest. THAT is the kind of love for each other that Jesus is talking about. That is what makes Christians distinctive.
I hope very few of you have seen the way in which the BNP has sought to use Jesus in their campaigning. A colleague from Dudley showed me the fliers he had received from them which suggest that the BNP is the only party for which a Christian could vote and I quote “without betraying the Lord Jesus Christ”. They have also suggested that Jesus would vote BNP. To suggest that the sometime refugee in Egypt who cured Samaritans and Jews alike, who associated with the outcasts who instead of leading an uprising against the occupying Roman Empire, preached a Gospel of Love to suggest that Jesus would vote for a party which is fundamentally racist is truly shocking to me.
Now a sermon is clearly not the place to canvas or seek to influence you to use your vote for a particular party or candidate and I don’t want to do that. I do however want today to ask you all to reflect on those words of Jesus when you exercise your vote this week.
So often we may go to the ballot box seeking what might be good for ME – who will cut my taxes? Who will increase my benefits? Jesus’ words call us to love not just ourselves but one another. In our voting this week, as well as in our living, how can we as Christians express our concern not just for ourselves but for our whole community? Our whole nation?
I don’t suggest an answer only those questions.
Now it may well be that our votes in this constituency, represented as we currently are by an independent candidate have no direct impact on who is in government yet we can still as Christians support our MP whoever it may be and whatever the government might be through prayer.
According to Jesus’ model, those in leadership are not those who are elevated, exalted, singled out and honoured but those with a willingness and a duty to serve. We can pray that all those who are standing are doing so with such service in mind.
Whoever may be in government after this Thursday, there are tough decisions ahead and as Christians we can pray for wisdom and that they sense that duty of leadership with a sense of servanthood.
Now I know you may think that politicians can’t change. We’ve certainly heard some very damning evidence of their lack of selflessness in the expenses scandal. You may think that prayer can’t do it. Yet I want you to think about another aspect of the two readings we had this morning: Of the journey of Peter that we see in those two readings.
In the gospel we see that zealous and eager young man that dared to try and walk on water. The all or nothing Peter that refuses foot washing from Jesus and then demands nothing less than a whole bath. In Acts we see a much more mature Peter. We hear that he explains something step by step. That he feels strong enough in God’s faith to move away from the ritual diet of the Jewish tradition because his God shows him that there is nothing unclean. Peter starts out as an impetuous young man who is very focussed on himself a young man who would race naked from the boat to greet Jesus. Who would refuse Jesus’ offer to wash his feet. Yet the Peter we hear about in Acts has grown into himself. Grown into the ROCK on which Jesus founded his church. He trusts the Holy Spirit to speak through him, he trusts the vision from heaven and he trusts that God has been revealed to the gentiles. He has been CHANGED by his faith. He goes against what he is comfortable with and against his personal desires and acts on love for those around him. He speaks gently and patiently with his fellow Jews, he associates with non-Jews which would have been anathema to him before and sees that though he always thought the Jews were a chosen people that God has given the gentiles the repentance that leads to life. The gentiles - that’s us. Through Peter’s loving service the church grew beyond the Jewish community, beyond the Holy land and throughout the Roman Empire and came here and now spreads across the world so that 2.6 Billion Christians across the world now have the chance to do the same.
This is the kind of change that living according to Jesus’ rule of love can bring. This kind of change IS possible. I hardly dare imagine what our parliament might look like if 650 members of the House of Commons acted according to that love whatever their personal faith?
Just think what could happen if we too showed that love? If each one of us here thought about those around us more than ourselves. Then the world would really know that we are his disciples.
Now no-one will know this week how you vote (unless you chose to tell people) but how will people know that you are one of Jesus disciples this week? How will you show love for one another this week?
How will your Christian faith be reflected in how you work, how you drive how you vote, and how you treat others ?
31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
11Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”