A Higher Ethic

Acts 11.1-18

John 13.31-35

Easter 5

Sunday 15 May 2022

A higher ethic                                                                     ©Suzanne Grimmett

Whom might we believe it is acceptable to exclude from the fullness of life?

In what way do we fear we could be excluded? What is it about ourselves that could make us less worthy, less an object of the desire and longing of God and of others?

There is a question posed by theologian James Alison;

For whom am I a repugnant beast? And there is a counter question;

Whom do I perceive to be repugnant?[1]

This may sound an offensive question, but I think it is helpful in the context of our readings today of animals being presented, that, if they made it to a menu, would certainly be viewed by Peter as utterly repugnant. It is also a pair of questions that help us to stand on both sides of the most visceral lines that divide us.

In many ways they are horrifying questions, tapping into the deepest wells of our shame. Have you ever been the victim of exclusion? Have you ever been bullied or abused? The result of such evils are so often an annihilation of self-worth, and a sense that something must be inherently wrong, broken or abhorrent about us. This builds a shame that we bury – shame is the feeling humans will do anything to avoid. When shame surfaces, we will work very to squash it down and avoid feeling it. Who wouldn’t, when shame causes us to feel ‘trapped, powerless and isolated’, to quote Brené Brown. So we get angry, or scapegoat the other, project our shameful feelings on to a different group, creating repugnant beasts of others, or leaning on new narratives about ourselves and our group that appear to offer the certainty that we need to protect ourselves from such big, bad feelings. It is ironic that the fear of being isolated results in human behaviours and social divisions that end up isolating others.

If we have ever felt that kind of isolation we may have also felt that rush of hope in the words of Jesus that we are to love one another just as we are beloved of God. To allow this good news to break through is to truly hear that there are no repugnant people. We are to help people believe that whatever their history or experience or story may have told them, they are holy and made in the image of the divine.

The story before us from Acts has been told once by the narrator already. It is told first “as it happens” and then in Peter’s report to the understandably confused church at Jerusalem. Questions had to be answered: had Peter betrayed Israel’s sacred covenant?

“Why,” they ask, “do you share intimate space with the Gentiles?”

To this Peter can only respond not with doctrine or scripture, but with experience.

There are, of course, dangers of responding solely on the basis of experience. In countless acts of violence and religious wars and grabs for power we hear, “God blesses this decision” or God is on our side.” We are witnessing, to use a current and horrific example, a vision of power and supremacy interwoven with nationalistic Christian theology in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is this kind of interweaving in culture and ideology which can corrupt perceptions. 

How then are we to discern what our experience is revealing?

The proper use of experience, suggests Willie Jennings, is to confront the cult of the familiar.[2] The familiar can retain a strong hold on us as we are wired to seek security and certainty and avoid the shame of exclusion at all costs. We need a significant event or inbreaking of Spirit to shake us out of what we have always known and believed to be unchanging.

The problem for Peter is that he would have been so very reluctant to do the confronting of the familiar that he was asked by God to do. Rightfully, he knew Israel’s history to be one of exclusive covenantal relationship with God for the good of the world- but not becoming part of the whole world. Israel was to show the world the ways of Divine life.

Being faithful included keeping himself separate- from unclean spaces like the tanner’s house, and from unclean people like the tanner and like the Gentiles who summon him. Instead of coming as the one with all the answers, Peter is being divinely instructed via a dramatic intervention to show him an inclusive love of God that was bigger than he could have imagined.  Jewish bodies were to have nothing to do with Gentile bodies, but the Spirit prompts Peter to cross that line with a vision that had to be repeated three times to ensure he got it. “See these unclean animals, Peter? Take and eat!”

Peter is told to go then, with these Gentile visitors and, as he tells his Jewish brothers and sisters, “to not to make a distinction between them and us.”

The desire of God is stretching through Peter and these visitors to reach out to all the world.

The church has had to confront the cult of the familiar in the past. There were times in the church when fierce debate would use Bible verses to insist that slavery was God ordained. Interracial marriage was not that long ago seen as something unholy. Divorced people were routinely excluded from communion with the body of Christ and women from holy orders.

The cult of the familiar and the fears that confine our vision to see the known as the only expression of the good and holy have always troubled the church, making it resistant to the revelation of God and new moves of the Spirit.

But how do we navigate concerns about claiming experience of God as a basis for ethical decision making? Maybe you sometimes have fears that you or others are being influenced by the experience not of God, but of social or religious movements, articulate friends, or political pressure?

How does Peter deal with this possibility? He responds with the truth that he has witnessed- that the Gentiles have been touched by God, just as the Jewish believers had been. The Holy Spirit had fallen upon them in the same way. Peter says, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

You will know them by their fruit, says Jesus. (Matt 7:16) This is the witness of Peter; God has joined with them and to stand against this move would be to be moving in the opposite direction to the Spirit.

God is joining peoples together and saying that no one should be called unclean whom God has declared clean. Peter is to take hold of those animals and not be afraid to eat. Through eating he becomes part of something bigger than he could ever have imagined. This new eating grows out of that other invitation to eat offered by Jesus, our Saviour and friend, “This is my body which is given for you.”[3] (Luke 22:19)

What kind of challenge can we hear for ourselves? Can we imagine that God might be calling us from one way of being faithful into a new way of being faithful we may not have imagined? If God is the God of joining, how might we be open to the new joining the Spirit is doing now?

No doubt either through our parish email or the news, you will be aware of General Synod debates over sexuality and marriage equality. It would be so easy at this time to cling to the cult of the familiar and allow our fear to draw simple lines around our relationships that can give us the illusion of security, yet not draw us automatically towards goodness, honesty and integrity. Jesus always raises the bar on goodness, I find.

At General Synod we also discussed at length the terrible findings of domestic abuse research which revealed the suffering in marriages that are not mutual and honouring of the other but defaced by a dynamic of power over one another, particularly when the doctrine of male headship is invoked. These to me are like those white-washed tombs Jesus describes; pristine in outward appearance and in the eyes of the church, but inwardly rotten. 

At the same time, we can be judging and pronouncing as wrong those intimate relationships between people of the same gender or those diverse in gender which are manifesting the fruit of being loving, committed, and mutually self-giving. How might we need to recognise the touch of God and instead of relying only on the familiar rules and outward appearance, perceive more deeply the dynamics of love and mutual self-offering which point to the presence of the Holy Spirit?

In a speech to General Synod +Jonathan Holland said, “It is the love that matters to Jesus, not the gender. If we see the fruits of the Spirit in any couple in a loving relationship, same-sex attracted or other-sex attracted, then God is in them and their loving relationship, for God is love and those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them.”

Can we listen to each other and seek to discern together where God’s Spirit is leading? Will we be known by whom we exclude, or by the way we love one another?

+Amen


[1] James Alison, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination, (Herder and Herder: 1996) p 102

[2] Jennings, Willie James, Acts, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017, p 117

[3] Jennings, Willie James, Acts, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017, p 107

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