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5th Sunday of Easter

21 April 2016

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Acts 11.1-18 or Baruch 3.9-15, 32-4.4 or Genesis 22.1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21.1-6; John 13.31-35

 

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

THERE is a brief and amusing episode in A. S. Byatt’s novella “The Conjugial Angel” (Angels and Insects, Chatto & Windus, 1992) in which a woman attends a séance run by a neighbour who claims supernatural gifts. The medium reports hearing the voice of the woman’s deceased husband saying: “And there was no more sea” (Revelation 21.1).

The widow knows at once that this cannot be authentic, because her husband was a sea captain. He would never have said such a thing.

Consistency is essential to credibility. We know the kinds of things that particular people are likely to say and do. When they behave out of character, our suspicions and scepticism are immediately aroused. Presumably the same thinking applies to our notions of how God might speak to us.

Reading the story of Peter recounting his extraordinary vision (Acts 10.9-16) to the community of believers in Jerusalem (Acts 11.1-17) in that light, the response of the listeners is unexpected. The writer of Acts emphasises the horror of the “circumcised believers” when they learn that Peter has been eating with uncircumcised Gentiles (Acts 11.3).

After he has told them what happened in Joppa and Caesarea, they praise God for giving the gift of repentance “even to the Gentiles” (Acts 11.18). At no point do they appear to find anything strange in the details of the vision itself. Why were they not more shocked by the potential contents of the meal that Peter shared in the house of Cornelius (Act 10.48)?

I have never forgotten the ambitiously scripted dramatisation of the vision performed by the Sunday school that my father supervised. From the vantage point of an angel holding up a corner of the sheet, I stared into the glassy eyes of my sister’s toy panda, and glimpsed the appalling implications of the command to “kill and eat” (Acts 10.13, 11.7).

One explanation might be that the believers in Jerusalem knew Peter to be a visionary; yet we have no other evidence to support that. It is more likely that the writer, although interested in Peter’s experience, does not think it the most important part of the whole event. What mattered was the voice of the Spirit telling Peter to go to Caesarea (Acts 10.19-20, 11.12).

That could be authenticated: first, by Cornelius’s matching experience (Acts 10.30-33), and then by the visible action of the Spirit’s falling on those gathered in his house (Acts 10.44-46).

Peter tells his audience that he remembered and trusted in the words of Jesus as a mandate for baptising the Gentiles (Acts 11.16). This is not part of the earlier version of events. Stories grow in being retold, as the tellers themselves gradually make sense of them.

The vision of John the Divine turns for validation to the tradition of prophecy. Some of his audience should have recognised Isaiah’s picture of the new Jerusalem (Isaiah 65), and the prophet’s repeated portrayal of the restored Jerusalem as the bride of God, entering anew into their covenanted relationship (Isaiah 49.18, 61.10, 62.5).

God also speaks directly, however, announcing himself as “the Alpha and the Omega”, in words that bring things full circle (see Revelation 1.8). More significant, though, are the words that move beyond prophecy to usher in a new creation: “See, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21.5, and see Genesis 1, John 1.1-4).

Not only does God say them: he insists that they be written down because they are “trustworthy and true”, and thus to be remembered for all time (Revelation 21.5).

Jesus does not use words very much in John’s description of the way he instructs his disciples to offer the world the evidence of their allegiance to him. Instead, he chooses actions and signs. “Love one another,” he commands them (John 13.34), knowing how much harder this will be for fallible individuals than the proclamation of a message (John 20.20-22 is early evidence of the potential for jealousy and fracture).

And yet, unless they can show that what binds them is a profound mutual love, and not just the accident of being followers for a few years of a magnetic leader, no one else will believe in God’s love for the world.

“See these Christians, how they love one another,” the second-century Church Father Tertullian imagined pagans saying of the Christians in their midst (Apology 39.7). They would even die for each other. That visible love is the ultimate word, underwritten by the life, death, and resurrection of the Word himself (John 1.1).

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