A sermon preached at Liverpool Cathedral, Sunday 15th May 2022.
See, says God. Look. I am making all things new.
Sometimes we might wish that God would make the message we’re meant to hear a bit more obvious. Write it in letters of fire across the sky, spell it out in fireworks, put it up in neon lights. Working out what God is saying to us can be a frustrating exercise. But the cumulative effect of todays’ readings feels a bit like God has indeed written ‘See – I am making all things new’ in neon lights for us.
A new commandment. A new heaven, a new earth. A new sweeping away of distinctions between what is holy and what is profane, a new sweeping away of distinctions between who’s in and who’s out.
Newness sounds lovely, but it isn’t all spring blossom and skipping lambs. It can be scary and challenging, upsetting deeply held beliefs and cherished traditions. I tend to imagine the sheet full of animals as rather like an illustration from a children’s Noah’s Ark story, because to me animals, reptiles and birds are lovely things. We can perhaps get closer to a sense of the original shock of this story if we instead try to imagine that sheet filled with the kind of things we might see in a horror film. To Peter, this vision is one of a sheet filled with all the things that he’s been taught to find disgusting being offered to him. His reaction is one of disgust – which scientists tell us is the strongest, most universally recognisable human emotion.
And the result isn’t that Peter is summoned to a friendly meeting on his holidays. He’s there in Jerusalem being criticised. He’s being told that he has crossed a line. It wasn’t even a controversial line – the sort of thing that people might reasonably have different opinions about, or accept there were grey areas on. Everyone knew that you didn’t eat with the uncircumcised. It would have been self-evident to everyone in that room that it was wrong. It wasn’t just ‘common sense’ , it wasn’t even just hallowed religious tradition. It was disgusting. So they ask Peter – what do you think you’re playing at?
And Peter tells them this extraordinary story of the vision he had of something like a sheet being let down from heaven, full of all the things that it was against hallowed religious tradition to eat, against centuries of religious law to eat. In his vision he is three times invited to eat them, and faithfully resists. Then comes the twist – the startling declaration of newness. ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’. And then, lest Peter simply think that that was an interesting prayer experience of great theoretical interest, there immediately comes a knock on the door and the invitation to put this startling new approach into practice. And from there comes the summons to Jerusalem to explain himself.
Our 3 readings this morning give us 3 snapshots from different stages of the question of what it means to live out the new commandment that Jesus gives the disciples. In the gospel, the commandment itself – now, at this turning point, as we’re about to move into the next stage of the story – a new commandment. Love one another. In Revelation, a vision of what that might ultimately look like – a new heaven, a new earth, no more crying, no more pain, the old things have passed utterly away. And in Acts – the messy, complex business of trying to work out what all this means in practice in the world we live in for now. That’s very much still the stage we find ourselves in. As Rowan Williams enjoys reminding us, on a cosmic timeline we are almost certainly still the early church.
That might be why this story of a turning point in understanding what it means to live out this new commandment was so important in the story of the early church that the book of Acts tells it three times over! The version we heard this morning from chapter 11; and then the whole of chapter 10 is taken up first with the telling of this story as it happened in the first place, and then with a recap as Paul tells it to Cornelius and as Cornelius recounts his side of the story. Three times in as many columns in my Bible, we are told that these deeply held beliefs and long cherished traditions can be overturned on an instant, because God is doing something new.
One of the most important threads through this whole story – and through all our readings this morning – is the emphasis that this newness is God’s initiative. ‘See: I am making all things new’. ‘A new commandment I give to you’. In the two dramatic visions in our readings from Acts and Revelation, this divine initiative is emphasised visually, with the new thing being seen as if its physically ‘coming down’ or being let down ‘from heaven’.
I’m reminded of another story of Peter being startled by God doing something new and unexpected. Our gospel reading this morning comes at the end of chapter 13, which tells the story of the last supper. In John’s gospel, that meal is framed by two ‘newnesses’. Here at the end, when Judas has gone out to betray Jesus, Jesus gives effectively his last wish – now, now that we are moving into a new stage of things, I give you a new commandment – love one another. That’s like the close brackets, the second quotation marks, that mark out this chapter.
The open brackets, the opening quotation marks, the opposite bookend to today’s reading, is Jesus washing the disciples feet. And the person we see there being the one who is horrified by things not being done properly, by protocol not being observed, by religious and cultural conventions being ignored or overturned – is Peter. Peter is the one who when Jesus takes the slaves role and washes the disciples feet isn’t having any of it. You might remember the story from Maundy Thursday. Peter is the one who says ‘Are you serious, Jesus? You’re really planning to wash my feet?’ And when Jesus says patiently ‘look, you can’t understand what I’m doing now, but later you will understand’, Peter is adamant – ‘No way! You will never wash my feet.’ Its only when Jesus insists – unless I wash you, you have no part in me – that Peter changes his mind, and characteristically throws himself fully into this new experience – ‘then not just my feet, but my hands and my head too!’.
Peter is often the disciple that I most identify with. He’s outspoken, he can be bolshy, he can be impetuous, he argues with Jesus – but when he’s in, he’s in body and soul. He has been deeply formed by the teaching and traditions of his upbringing – he argues and resists what he sees as inappropriate innovations, even dangerous temptations – but once he has seen that God is behind these new things, he throws his full weight and passion and life behind them.
It can be a difficult and confusing task, to discern what in the newness and change that is pressed in on us from all sides is of God’s initiative. We’re rarely given a vision quite as clear and compelling as Peter’s vision of a sheet full of all the things he’s been taught to find disgusting being offered to him by God. But what we are told, again and again in the Bible, is to expect the unexpected.
God – the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the One who bookends the whole of creation – might be unchanging and unchangeable. But what God asks of us, what God calls us to do, can change radically from generation to generation.
And whilst we rarely get so clear a vision of what we’re called to do now as Acts presents us with, what this story also shows us is the simple ways in which Peter comes to trust this unexpected declaration of newness. What is first discerned in prayer is confirmed in an invitation from an unexpected person. Accepting that invitation and telling his story, Peter finds confirmation in the story the other tells him in return. Further discernment takes place even in the acrimonius atmosphere of criticism and debate that takes place in Jerusalem.
There is a message here for us today, I think, about not being afraid to tell our stories of what new things we feel God is calling us to do and to be and to say; about not being afraid to hear the stories of other people, even other people who we have been taught to think of as other; and perhaps most challengingly, not being afraid of criticism and debate.
But the big message that today’s readings seem to be putting up in neon lights for us today is a challenge to us to remember that God never promises not to overturn our most preciously held religious beliefs, habits and cultural taboos.
On the contrary, it seems to me that God promises exactly the opposite – that we should learn to live with the expectation and awareness that God is always re-creating the world, that God will at any moment present us with new ways to more fully live out that new commandment to love one another.
We’re invited to explore together what that might mean, not just with people like us but with the most unexpected people that God puts in our path, telling our stories and hearing theirs, and being open to what God might now – here – today – be making new.