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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Easter 5, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
April 24, 2016

Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35

‘Never say never’

I wonder if you've ever vowed never to do something and then ended up doing it?

I remember vividly being 14 years old, travelling in a car down near Helensburgh and seeing some tiny specks in the sky which were hang gliders soaring off Stanwell Tops. I was adamant that I would never, ever go up in one of those things! Fast forward 10 years, as I'm launching myself off Stanwell Tops with my lovely pink and blue hang glider above me... amazing!

About the same time that I was getting into hang gliding I left the Uniting Church, having grown up in the Methodist/Uniting Church, because I didn't like the direction the church was going in with regard to homosexuality. I joined the Pentecostal church, and for the next 15 years was absolutely adamant that I could never, ever go back to the Uniting Church! But, of course, God had other ideas (and a sense of humour), because not only did he bring me back to the Uniting Church, he brought me to South Sydney Uniting Church! Ha! Ha!

Peter, who features in both our scripture passages this morning, was very good at saying 'never'. The account of Jesus telling Peter that he would deny him in our reading from John actually occurs in all four gospels, and in two of the other three gospels Peter responds to Jesus by saying 'never' - 'No, Lord, I will never deny you!'

Then in our Acts reading, when the voice from heaven tells Peter to 'kill and eat', the very first word from Peter's lips is 'never' - 'Never, Lord! I have never eaten anything unclean!' But Peter's 'nevers' are symptomatic of something that runs much deeper: when Peter says to Jesus, 'I will never deny you', what he is really saying is, 'I know better'. And when Peter declares in Acts 11, 'I have never eaten anything unclean', what he is really saying is, 'I am better than that'. I know better, I am better...

When I was meditating on the Acts passage I tried to put myself in the picture to try and understand exactly what it must have been like for Peter - there he is, a good Jewish lad who had pleased God all his life by not eating anything unclean, suddenly confronted with all this stuff in the sheet and being told to kill and eat, to do the wrong thing!

I imagine the first time it happened he probably thought it was some kind of test. I can imagine him puffing his chest out very proudly as he replies, pleased with himself that he passed the test. But after the second time, and certainly by the third time, the thought that God might actually be wanting him to kill and eat must have been quite sickening, even terrifying.

In putting myself in the picture, I asked myself, 'What would do it for me? What would be in that sheet that I would find so abhorrent and so repulsive that I would respond in the same way as Peter - "Never Lord!" And you'll never believe the first thing that popped into my head! Cigarettes! (The sheet comes down and the voice from heaven says, 'Alison, take them and smoke!').

I confess that I stand here this morning as someone who is a bit proud of the fact that I have never smoked - not even a puff to try it out! I remember back in primary school, hanging out with the boys after school, and one day we went down to the local newsagents and one of the boys stole a packet of cigarettes. Then we all sat around in a circle in the boatshed behind one of the boy's houses and the packet got passed around. Everyone took a cigarette, but when the packet came to me, in spite of all the peer pressure, I just knew it was wrong and I didn't want to smoke, so I just passed the packet on to the next boy. And to this day I have never smoked (although as a child of the 60s and 70s I've probably smoked a lot of packets passively), but I've never actually taken a drag on a cigarette.

Now on one level that's really quite admirable, much like Peter sticking rigidly to his Jewish diet. But on another level it has actually become a bit of a stumbling block because now, whenever I meet someone, no matter how intelligent or witty or charming they are, if I find out they are a smoker, they immediately drop a few notches in my estimation. I know that's really wrong!! But it's as if somewhere deep inside me there's this little ego voice saying, 'Tut! Tut! They don't have the self discipline to say no to the fags.'

(At this point I must apologise to all you smokers and reassure you that it's not your smoking which is the problem, it is my attitude which is the problem and my puffed up ego.)

We all have an ego - that part of us that loves to feel superior. And when my ego can find something to latch onto in order to feed that sense of superiority, then there is an immediate barrier between me and the person who is not like me. That was exactly Peter's problem when it came to taking the gospel to the Gentiles. It's that barrier that God needs to break down, otherwise it is impossible for me - and Peter - to truly love the other as Jesus has commanded us to love in John 13: 'Love one another as I have loved you.'

The phrase 'as I have loved you' is where the rubber meets the road. How does Jesus love us? Well, unlike me or Peter, Jesus never says never, no matter what God asks of him. Picture the scene in heaven: there's God the Father and God the Son sitting around the kitchen table and the Father says, 'Son, I want you to become a human being. I want you to experience what it's like to be weak and vulnerable. I want you to be rejected. I want you to suffer injustice. I want you to feel pain and grief. I want you to be crucified. I want you to die.' At that point Jesus could have justifiably done a Peter and said, 'Never, Lord! I'm God. I'm one with you. I'm holy. I could never be subject to such humiliation, let alone die!'

But Jesus didn't say that. Instead, as Paul writes in Philippians, 'Though he was God, he did not demand or cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing, he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal's death on a cross' (Phil. 2:6-8). Paul also says in the same passage, 'Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had' (Phil. 2:5).

Jesus expressed the same idea another way in our reading from John a few weeks ago, 'As my Father has sent me, in the same way I send you' (John 20:21). And it's echoed again in today's reading, 'Just as I have loved you, in the same way you should love one another' (John 13:34). And he goes on to say that it is precisely this kind of love which will prove to the world just whose disciples we are.

So never say never! I'm glad Peter eventually relented, even though it took three goes with the sheet trick for God to break down his resistance (God is very patient). Because without Peter following Jesus' example, putting aside his sense of superiority and, to use Paul's words again, 'counting as loss the things he once counted as gain', he would never have stepped outside of his comfort zone, never preached the gospel to the Gentiles and we wouldn't be sitting here today. In John's gospel we have Jesus giving the new commandment to Peter, and in our Acts reading we have Peter discovering what it means to live out that commandment - to never say never, and thus be able to love others as Christ loved him.

To finish, I should say that I am not about to take up smoking, just as I dare say Peter didn't run off to the butcher that afternoon and sit down to roast pork for dinner that night! Whether or not I smoke, or whether or not Peter eats pigs, is not the issue. It is what these things reveal about my/Peter's attitudes and the deeper issues of the heart. And we've all got issues!

I should also point out that it is not by coincidence that it was when Peter was praying that the wheels were set in motion for this momentous shift in the spread of the gospel. Prayer is very powerful. And I know from experience that when we pray, God has an uncanny knack of putting his finger on very specific, sometimes almost trivial, things, depending on who we are, to expose what needs to change at a deeper level. And it's as we become aware of these things and cry out to God for mercy, that we can begin the process of learning to welcome the humiliations which come our way as God's way of subduing our ego and making it possible for us to love as Christ loves us.

It was humiliating for Peter to eat with the Gentiles - in Jewish culture, sitting down to share a meal with someone meant total identification with that person (that's why Jesus was always in trouble for eating with tax-collectors and sinners). And that's why Peter, too, was hauled over the coals by his Jewish compatriots on his return to Jerusalem - 'You went into the home of uncircumcised people and even ate with them!' It was humiliating for Peter, but that's what it took.

Father Richard Rohr, my favourite Franciscan teacher, has a great one-liner: 'We should all pray for at least one good humiliation a day.' Paula D'Arcy, another speaker who I enjoy listening to, says it this way: 'We must move from the place where we say, "There but for the grace of God go I", to a place of, "There, with the grace of God, I will go".'

So remember... never say never!


Alison Clark

Homily by Alison Clark