Sunday, 24 April 2016

Easter 5: Being a grown up

Do you remember desperately wanting to be grown up when you were a child? Most children do. It’s the only time in our lives when we want to add years to our age rather than take them away. Children will tell you proudly that they are 5 ¾, not 5 or 5 ½, and it really matters to them. They want to claim every month, every week, every day they’re entitled to. I’m not sure when that stops, but at some point we realise that being grown up isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not just the grey hairs and the wrinkles; it’s that sinking feeling that when you’re grown up, people expect you to know what you’re doing, be able to cope, have some answers for life’s knotty problems, and that can be a bit daunting.  

I vividly remember bringing my first child home from hospital, sitting down and bursting into tears, suddenly hit by the thought that I was now responsible for this fragile, tiny being. I was the parent. But how could that be? What did I know about anything? And what if I got it wrong? I know from talking to many new parents as they prepare for their child’s christening, that this is a very common feeling, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying.

It’s not just having children that can make us feel like that , though. Getting that promotion at work sounds fine until the moment when you realise everyone is looking to you for a lead and you don’t have a clue what you’re doing. Or it may be that you need to take a decision about your personal life, about a job or place to live or relationship. No one else can make the decision for you, but where’s the crystal ball, the magic wand you always assumed you’d be given when you finally grew up? We can’t always even tell whether we’ve made the right decision after the event because we’ll never know what might have happened if we’d chosen differently. Being a grown up can sound great when we’re 5 ¾, but the reality is often different.  No wonder we’re so susceptible to conmen and megalomaniacs, anyone who will offer us black and white answers, even if their solutions haven’t got a shred of substance, sense or common decency about them.  It is so much easier to be a sheep than a shepherd.

In our first reading today we find Peter trying to be a grown up, trying to take a tough decision as he sits on the rooftop of a house in Joppa, praying.  The question that’s troubling him is what’s to be done about the Gentiles – the non-Jews -  who want to follow the way of Christ. Jesus had been a Jew of course, and so were all his first followers. He’d encountered Gentiles during his ministry, and welcomed and included them, often praising their faith and love. He’d challenged Jewish rituals and rules when they were imposed without integrity and compassion, but it was still his community and there was never any suggestion of leaving it behind wholesale.  

After the resurrection, though, increasing numbers of Gentiles wanted to follow the way he’d taught and that threw his Jewish followers into disarray. Should these non-Jews have to follow all the Jewish rules and regulations too – there are apparently 613 commandments in the Hebrew scriptures?  What difference could it possibly make if they ate pork or shellfish? What was intrinsically unholy about these things? Wasn’t it enough to live a good life, to love others, to give up worshipping other Gods? Jewish purity laws may have seemed obvious to Jews like Peter, but that was just because they’d grown up with them. To everyone else they just looked like tribal markers. The arguments were long and bitter; they went right to the heart of what it meant to be the people of God in this new kingdom Jesus had brought in.

That’s the background to Peter’s vision on that Joppa rooftop. He literally can’t stomach the thought of associating with people who eat what to him are obviously unclean foods, but if he can’t eat with them, how can they become his brothers and sisters in the Christian community? The fact that he struggles with this doesn’t make him some kind of unfeeling bigot, just a human being, who’s imbibed certain ideas with his mother’s milk, learned them at her knee, and for whom they are so deeply dyed that he’s almost unaware of them until they are challenged. When God invites him to eat the unclean animals in his vision, Peter even suggests that God must be mistaken. God may be telling Peter to do this, but what would Peter’s mum have said?  God has to point out that he’s the one who makes the rules, so he can change them too, but we can see how much of a struggle it is for Peter.

It turns out to be a struggle that matters, because straight after this vision, Peter  is faced with a real, practical challenge that touches on all this.

Some men come to him, sent by a Roman centurion called Cornelius who wants to know more about Christian faith. These are exactly the kind of people his mum warned Peter against, filthy foreigners…What will he do? He’s not sure until he gets there, but at least he sets out. His vision has opened his mind to the possibility that God might want to have something to do with these people. And when he gets there, he discovers that God has gone before him and has made himself at home in Cornelius’s household.  
Peter accepts the revolutionary idea that all people can be called by God – just as they are, but it doesn’t come easily. It’s not obvious.

It is a great blessing that we have this story in the Bible, along with all the others in which we see Jesus’ followers struggling and often failing miserably. They might have been regarded as saints in the end, but they are also, unmistakeably, people like us, people who often feel clueless in the face of big decisions. Many of these less than flattering stories can only have come from the individuals concerned themselves. No one else was with Peter on that rooftop. They want us to know that this is how it is to be human, and that Christian faith, whatever else it brings, doesn’t come with a neat package of answers. You have to bring your own brain, take responsibility, and accept that you may be wrong. Even a saint who has spent three years in Jesus’ constant company can only do the best with what he has.

But there is also some more practical help for us in today’s readings, as we struggle to make our own , grown-up decisions in life, and it comes in the Gospel reading.

This passage from John’s Gospel is also about people who are in over their heads, even if they don’t quite know it yet. It is set on the night before Jesus dies, at the Last Supper. Judas, we are told, has already “gone out” – gone out to betray Jesus, that is. Did they but realise it, the disciples have just a few short hours left with him. Soon they’ll be plunged into confusion and terror. They’ll look around for Jesus, as they always have done before when they’ve been frightened, but he won’t be there, at least not in the way they are used to. “Where I am going you cannot come”, he says, ominously.

Jesus could, I suppose, have left them a detailed set of instructions for the days and weeks ahead – go to such and such a place, say such and such a thing, do this or that, keep your heads down, turn up at the tomb on Sunday… But he doesn’t. His only advice to them is “Love one another just as I have loved you”. That seems ridiculously vague  and wishy-washy. How is it going to help them deal with the complexities of crucifixion, resurrection, spreading the Gospel, building a new, multicultural community? How is it going to help us decide what job to do, which relationships to choose, how we spend our time and money, how we vote in the EU referendum? But actually, Jesus was right. When faced with intractable dilemmas, forced to choose between unsignposted pathways, the reminder to “love one another as I have loved you,” is spot on. It sets our priorities right. Our natural tendency is always going to be to choose what feels like our own best interests. Politicans play on that. Advertisers rely on it. But doing that narrows our view of the world, and that, in the end that won’t be in anyone’s best interests.

It’s like sitting in a tree and deciding that, since we are only sitting on the one branch, we can saw it away from the rest of the tree and not suffer.  We discover to our cost that the branch needed the tree more than the tree needed the branch. We are part of one another. What happens to those around us affects us too, so if we don’t try to work out what will be best for them, we will harm ourselves as well. That’s especially true, Jesus reminds us, of those who are least and poorest in the world’s eyes, because they are so easily overlooked, and yet they may have the voices we most need to hear. They are the ones who know and tell the real unvarnished truth of how the world is, when we may be insulated by our wealth and power. They know the impact of careless trading policies, climate change and inequality far better than the rich ever can.

There is no decision we can take that is just about us. When we love one another as Christ did – sacrificially, joyfully, generously - we reconnect ourselves to tree of life, see the world anew, and receive back far more than we could ever give away.   Peter let the Gospel go, out beyond his comfort zone, for the love of the Roman, Cornelius and his household, and in doing so, he found God at work in a new place and in a new way which otherwise he would have missed completely, and we would all be the poorer for it.

Grown up decision-making is tough; anyone who tells us otherwise is lying, but God is love, says the Bible, and that means that wherever love is, God is present. And if God is present, whatever route we take through the trackless wilderness of life, we will find him there filling the world with blessing for us and all who need it.

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