Sunday 24th April 2016
Year C, The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Acts 11.1-18
Revelation 21.1-6
John 13.31-35

Christ is Risen!

To the European, there are many aspects of American life which are bewildering, notably the apparent inability to link the murder rate with the supposed constitutional right to carry guns; I mean, it seems obvious to me and you that the more guns there are in circulation the higher the murder rate from gunfire is likely to be! But another aspect of American life which many of us would find puzzling is that you can't tell how rich an Americans are from what they eat. In Europe, as people get richer they go to ever posher restaurants and delicatessens. Many years ago a millionaire friend of mine took me to the best restaurant in the whole of the United States, the French Laundry in Sonoma Valley, California. We stayed overnight after a superb dinner and, the next morning, as we were driving back to San Francisco, he pulled in to a drive-in Taco Bell and ordered a substantial meal, where I wouldn't even touch the alleged coffee! There's something cheerfully democratic about that experience which reflects on the old American culture before the 'Big Bang' and the destruction by the very rich of the American middle and skilled labour classes. But that kind of easy indifference is unusual; and even Americans swear, like almost every other country, that they have the best coffee in the world, or the best beer, or wine, or whatever, against any rational criteria.

We're awfully funny about food. As a former consumer of deep fried locusts I've been fascinated by recent reaction to insect protein. We're full of food taboos, and strictures and rituals. But our concerns are nothing to those of the Chosen People who fused life saving food rules into the rituals of their cultic faith; nobody in their right mind in the Middle East before the invention of the refrigerator would touch a day-old prawn or the flesh of animals that lived on carrion. But in our Reading from Acts, Peter is being asked to overturn the whole panoply of Jewish food laws, urged that whatever is created by God is good. I don't suppose the exhortation changed his mind about old prawns but it must have given him a jolt which, however, did not completely change his mind as we can see from Saint Paul's account in Acts of a time much later when Peter was something of a recidivist, chided by Paul; the mission was far more important than the ritual, as was confirmed a few years later by the Council of Jerusalem.

Well, we might think that we as Christians are far above that kind of nit-picking but, as a former Member of the General Synod, I can tell you that we are not. Being the sort of person I am, I sat through the line-by-line examination of measures as well as the big set-piece debates and there was nothing so abstruse that it did not arouse controversy and I am even tempted to say that the more abstruse it was, the more passion it aroused. And I give you due warning now, we are going to have a mega bust-up in the Church of England over the use of vestments in church services, reminiscent of the bitter Vestiarian Controversy which fractured the newly established Church of England during the reign of the first Elizabeth.

To an extent this concentration on small things is perfectly understandable because we feel in control of issues which we can easily grasp like the use of vestments, new hymns, a new prayer or the destruction of Victorian pews; this aspect of church takes us away from the great mysteries of the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection, away from the mystery of the Holy Spirit's work in the Church, away from Eschatology.

And although our efforts to grasp the immensity of the sacred mysteries is a vital part of our being members of the Body of Christ in his Church, it does no harm, now and again, to remember some simple truths, which is what we are being asked to do in our Readings today.

The account of Peter's confrontation with unclean food must have been important to Saint Luke because it is repeated twice in great detail, first, when it happens, and in today's Reading where Peter reports the happening; and it is important because Peter and his fellow Christians need to focus on the big things and forget about the minutiae which have engaged them, religiously and culturally, all their lives.

And what are these big things? The first, in our Gospel Reading, is that the essence of following Jesus, the sine qua non, the record you keep when the other seven are washed away, is that we must concentrate on loving one another because love is not a sentimental reaction to the plight of strangers, nor a physical reaction to somebody we find erotically attractive, love is tough stuff: it is the unconditional giving of ourselves to otherness which takes forms we might find strange, or even threatening and repulsive; it is learning to accept the gifts of and from otherness which might alter our own perception of our own importance; and, perhaps most difficult of all, it is leaving ourselves unconditionally open, wholly vulnerable, to the other. If loving isn't the most difficult thing we do, then we're not loving.

But, as our Reading from the Book of Revelation points out, loving isn't some eternal hardship laid upon us as the Greek Gods laid eternal labours on people for no apparent reason, it is a necessary apprenticeship for our face-to-face encounter with the divine. We are to love as best we can because God created us that we might love 'Him' and each other and, ultimately, so that we might share his life in full rather than sharing it in part, as we do now.

I know, coming from someone like me who reads and teaches theology, this is all a bit much; but there's a time for everything, and we don't take enough time to care for the simple but difficult things, allowing ourselves to be led down all kinds of byways.

Love One Another as I have loved you: and God 'Himself' will wipe away the tears from our eyes! God 'Himself'!

Christ is risen!