Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Sermon on Acts 10:34-43 - Welcoming Inclusive Love

Immigration is a big political issue at the moment, particularly now that restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians have been lifted, allowing them to come and work here in the UK. 

The question about immigration and whether it is a good thing or not for the UK, is being openly debated by all parties, not least in part because they are concerned about the threat that UKIP is posing with its call for a tougher stance on immigration and to leave the EU.    

As someone who is married to an immigrant, and who has many Polish friends, the question about immigration interests me a lot.  It is good and healthy for us as a nation to have an open and honest debate about immigration, and the impact it has on communities.

The trouble arises when the facts are ignored, and people revert to lazy and inaccurate national stereotypes and prejudices.  This is often fuelled by the tabloid newspapers, which are full of stories about poverty, criminality and people coming to Britain to exploit our welfare system.  When I read in the newspapers last year that more than a quarter of babies in England and Wales are born to foreign mothers, I thought to myself ‘that’s my family’!  It is for this reason that Beata on a number of occasions has said that as a Polish person, she doesn’t always feel as though she is welcome in this country. 

Britain however has a long and justifiably proud history in welcoming migrants to our shores, which has added to the rich cultural diversity of this nation. 

As Christians how should we respond to the question of immigration? 

In the parable of the sheep and goats, in Matthew chapter 25, Jesus said “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”  We may have very different views and opinions on immigration, but whatever our stance, Christian love should be at the heart of all our relationships.  However we can sometimes be diffident when facing people from another culture or unsure of how to communicate welcome appropriately and sensitively across cultures. 

Our response should be motivated and guided by what the Bible says about relationships with incomers and people who are different from us. 

The author of Hebrews writes ‘Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.(Hebrews 13:1–2)

And when Jesus was asked what is the greatest command in the law, he relied “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’  (Matthew 22:37-40).  When asked ‘But who is my neighbour’ he goes on to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. 

The heart of Christianity is hospitality, which is rooted in God’s love for us, and as our reading from Acts reminds us God’s love is open to every single person, irrespective of who they are or where they are from. 

Peter’s speech in Acts chapter 10, in which he says “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism  but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34) is a gigantic “aha!” moment, when Peter comes to realise that God’s love truly extends to every single person.

Up to the beginning of Acts 10, those who believed Jesus was Lord and Messiah were Jews and Samaritans.  Both groups had heard the Gospel, and had been baptised and received the Holy Spirit.  But now, everything was being changed for ever, as God forced Peter to come to the astonishing realization that God has include Gentiles as part of His people.

The setting of this speech is significant.  Firstly Peter is in the city of Caesarea, this was the coastal city that King Herod had built for his Roman patrons. Not only was this the capital of the Roman province of Judaea, it was also thoroughly Roman in its character and structures. The city’s crowning building was a grand temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus and the goddess Roma perched on a hill overlooking the harbour.  Up to this point in Luke and Acts neither Jesus nor his followers have set foot in such a pagan location.
Second, Peter is in the house of an Italian officer in the Roman army named Cornelius (10:1). As Peter initially reminds Cornelius in verse 28, Jews do not visit the homes of Gentiles.  So Peter is in a city and a house where God’s people should not be. Indeed the only reason that Peter is in such a Gentile location speaking to a house full of Gentiles is that God had arranged this encounter (see 10:3-8,17-24,29-33).
What is absolutely new here are the implications of divine impartiality. The character of God as an impartial God now means the character of God’s community is impartial. The dividing lines separating Jew and Gentile based on who is clean and who is not according the law have been obliterated. This does not mean Israel as God’s people has been obliterated. Rather the basis for membership is now radically redefined. God accepts people not on the basis of ethnic identity.
Peter’s speech ends with an announcement of forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ name for everyone who believe in Jesus (10:43). What has changed is the scope of everyone. At Pentecost, everyone meant Jews from every nation. Now, however, everyone means everyone in every nation who believes in Jesus.  Because Jesus is Lord of all, and is the one God has ordained to be the judge of the living and the dead (10:42b), all Jews and all Gentiles who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins through his name (10:43). In God’s salvific plan, all now really means all.
Returning to the question of immigration, just as God’s love extends over all, and shows no partiality, so we are called to show that same love and impartiality to all as well, and to remember Jesus’ words in the parable of the sheep and the goats, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' (Matthew 25:40)

I want to finish with a Celtic Blessing for Hospitality


I saw a stranger yestereen,
I put food in the eating place
Drink in the drinking place
Music in the listening place
And in the sacred name of the Triune
He blessed myself and my house
My cattle and my dear ones
As the lark said in her song ‘Often, often, often
Goes Christ in the stranger’s guise.’