Rev’d Jonathan Gale
In his book, Mind Your Own Business, Murray Raphel shares the following story. “Years ago, in Russia, a czar came upon a lonely sentry standing at attention in a secluded corner of the palace garden. ‘What are you guarding,’ asked the czar. ‘I don’t know. The captain ordered me to this post,’ the sentry replied.
“The czar called the captain. His answer: ‘Written regulations specify a guard was to be assigned to that area.’ The czar ordered a search to find out why. The archives finally yielded the reason. Years before, Catherine the Great had planted a rose bush in that corner. She ordered a sentry to protect it for that evening.
“One hundred years later, sentries were still guarding the now barren spot.”
Now if the church, as Archbishop Matthew Arnold famously said, “is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members”, and we take Jesus Great Commission to go out into all the world, seriously, what does that imply for us as individuals? The church may be a body but it is made up of individuals and we each respond as such because God is interested in us as individuals.
On 3rd February 1960 the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, spoke to the South African parliament and said these words, “The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.”
The South Africans stared him down and took absolutely no notice of his “Winds of Change” speech. The needs of African people were ignored, Apartheid was entrenched, and the rest is history.
However many individuals stood up against the apartheid system that developed, one of whom was my brother who was sentenced to six years of community service for refusing to do compulsory military service. Those individuals made a great difference, and so can we when we understand that God calls both individually as well as collectively.
We all remember the story of how Jesus gives Peter the responsibility of pastoring the church. Jesus asks him three times whether he loves him and three times Peter replies that he does. Each time Jesus responds with, “Feed my sheep.” But we tend to forget the verse that follows 18 In all truth I tell you, when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.’ (John 21: 18)
There is a reason the Holy Spirit is called the Comforter (in Greek parakletos – the one who comes alongside you). It’s because God is an adventurer and if we co-operate with him, he will take us to places that are not comfortable for us. It’s for that reason that we have the Holy Spirit, to walk with us and provide guidance and encouragement on the way.
When the Jewish exiles were faced with an unknown future, God speaks to them through the prophet Isaiah
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
You see God is concerned about us and will not abandon us. But he’s loves us too much to allow us to continue the way we are because he knows that will end in tears.
18 Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
When what God leads us into is tough, he will make a way in the wilderness and provide rivers in the desert.
The Jews had lost their temple and their beloved system of sacrifice, based in Jerusalem. In Babylon, God leads them into locally based synagogue worship with a focus, not on animal sacrifice, but on the Word and active worship. This is a blessing, and it is something new.
But hardly had they settled in Babylon and begun to develop the kind of business acumen that would stand them in good stead for literally thousands of years, when God has them heading back to the backwaters of Judah, now a rundown little territory dominated by Samaritans and Arabs.
God never lets us get comfortable. If we are, we have to ask ourselves whether we are walking with God or on a wander of our own design.
Can you imagine what it must have been like for Peter when presented with a tarpaulin full of what the Law described as unclean animals and he’s told by God to eat them? Traumatic. Jewish people took obedience to the Law of Moses very seriously.
I remember my mother’s stepfather, a man we called Uncle Bert, telling me how as a little boy he watched a mischievous old man give some ostrich biltong to his Jewish friend. (You all know what biltong is? Dried meat). They were all standing chatting outside a country store as often happens in rural areas. When the friend had eaten it all he told him it was ostrich biltong. Ostriches are defined as unclean in the Law of Moses. Uncle Bert described how the Jewish man instantaneously projectile vomited up the biltong right there where they were standing in the street.
Peter sees a vision while he is in prayer of a sheet full of unclean animals being lowered toward him, and God tells him to eat. He objects and God tells him not to call unclean what God has called clean.
Later, Peter receives a message and is called to a meeting of Gentiles – and Jews avoided Gentiles as they believed they would be spiritually contaminated by them – and 44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.
And yet Peter – when he sees these man speaking in tongues, just as he had done at Pentecost – holds back any disgust he may feel and says, 47‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’
Peter is faced with heading a church that has people with a strongly pagan background flooding into it. I’m sure he feared losing it to the Lord knows who. And yet he trusts and does it anyway. Thousands of years of religious tradition are at stake and Peter gives it away. Why? Because Israel’s ultimate purpose was to be a light to the Gentiles! To be a blessing to all humankind.
Our ultimate purpose, as Christians, is to Go into all the world to preach the gospel to every creature. (Mark 16: 15) It’s to turn outward and to carry within us the burning desire (and many early Christians were literally burnt for carrying out this mission) to carry with us the burning desire to see people encounter God in Christ.
You see Peter, for all his hot-headed ways, was a man of faith, not of fear. When Jesus clashes with the Pharisees accusing them of placing the traditions of the elders above the will of God something typical happens. The disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’
You realise, don’t you, that people are not going to like this new-fangled thing you’re introducing? Jesus of course couldn’t be bothered spending mind-time on that and dismisses them as blind guides.
Peter, bless him, gets the wrong end of the stick and we read in verse 15: But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’
Peter was open to learn.
He’s open to rebuke too and he’s rebuked often in the Gospels. You see people of faith are not stubborn; they make mistakes precisely because they take action. And act often enough and you’ll make a few mistakes.
Fear will hold us back as we fear making mistakes. Faith understands that the needs of those who don’t know Christ are far more important than our need to feel comfortable and safe.
Ronald Rolheiser points out that this business Jesus spoke to Peter about of being led by a rope or belt around his waist to places he didn’t want to go, is a description of what is required of the baptised Christian.
It’s the mature Christian who is entrusted with the consecrated life – a life that goes out on a limb – a life of faith.
Here’s the thing: we serve the same Jesus that Peter served. He was a simple man with a simple set of focussed skills – fishing skills. Before he met Jesus his life had been limited to a small freshwater lake and its surrounding towns.
Peter, fresh off the boat, is called to fish for people. When we become Christians we too are ‘fresh off the boat’ – called away from a life we are comfortable with and challenged to set off in an adventure with god that stretches us.
If we, like Peter, are to “fish for people” (as Jesus called it) we will need too to climb out of the safe little boats that have served us with dubious success over the years, and begin to step out into the new territory so that we are spending our time on God’s objectives, not our own.
And what are they? That’s where prayer comes in.
- Isaiah 43: 1 – 3, 18 – 21
- Acts 10: 34 – 48
- Matthew 15: 1 – 3, 6 – 9, 12 – 15