‘Crossing barriers, in the name of Jesus’
The unpredictability of the Holy Spirit in uniting people in the name of Jesus, and the church’s often misunderstood response to it, was highlighted in the sermon during the Communion service on Sunday morning
Mark Ord preached on Acts 11: 1-18, when Peter relates to his fellow believers how he ate with Cornelius, the Roman solider.
The church hears the wonderful news that outsiders have trusted in Jesus - and their immediate response is to criticise Peter. (‘But didn’t you go to the outsiders and eat with them?’)
Mark said it’s easy to ‘lampoon the church here’, but they were concerned about essential red lines of faithfulness and identity being crossed - for the sake of inclusivity and welcome.
The anxiety in the church stems from a misapprehension of its role: that of ‘patrolling the borders, rather than transgressing them’; having a ‘my house-my rules’ approach to hospitality.
By contrast the Holy Spirit – like Jesus – ‘seems altogether more reckless.’ The Holy Spirit had orchestrated the meeting, and was at work without Peter even realising: it started 24 hours earlier with an outsider and an angel, and a long history of seeking and some of finding already.
‘Peter knows nothing of this,’ Mark, of BMS Birmingham, said. ‘He is a member of the church, which thinks – for all sorts of reasons – that things start there and get decided and planned there, that borders get established there - and then patrolled.’
The Holy Spirit works in ‘a different place, with different people and in a different way.’
Mark said the meal seems risky, but 'reassuringly' Cornelius is a good, god-fearing person, even though he is a Roman soldier. Peter never would have known or even dreamt this if he hadn’t shared a strange meal with him. His life up to that day was organised to ensure that he never did that.
To hear the 'disturbing echoes' that the Roman soldier terminology demonstrated generated, Mark introduced a number of present day examples.
‘From this day on Peter could say, I know Cornelius, he’s a Roman soldier, but he’s a great guy, a really godly person.
‘I know Gemma she’s in a same sex partnership, and she’s a really godly person;
‘I know Ali, he’s a Muslim, and he seems to know God;
‘I know Jason he voted Brexit…
‘Our lives too are organised to make sure we don’t know these people, never share a meal,' Mark said, adding, 'If we are going to tut at those ancient tut-tutters – we should listen to the chorus of tut-tutting that is going on in the church of which we are part.’
Mark told delegates the Spirit’s way of being in the world is to cross barriers… to arrange meetings, encounters, dinner parties.
‘In bringing about salvation, the Spirit unites, through meetings with strangers, through meals shared and risks taken – through eating what’s set before you and embracing whoever is set before you - in the name of Jesus.
‘Evidently, the Spirit has got the rest covered. I wonder what the church made of that.’