Peter and Cornelius –
Learning from strangers
St Mary and St Chad Longton
May 3rd 1991
Why, I wonder, did God take so much trouble to bring Peter and Cornelius together?
We know that there was a flourishing Church in Caesarea at the time, probably founded by Philip the Deacon; so why did they have to send off for Peter some 40 miles away in Jaffa?
And then I thought of a possible answer. Both Peter and Cornelius had something to learn from each other.
Peter's lesson, was that Gentiles, that is non-Jews, were intended by God to be fellow-heirs with the Apostles and the saints in the kingdom of God. It's not easy for us to appreciate what a tremendous eye-opener this was, until we realise that it took several attempts before the truth really sank in. It was the meeting between Cornelius and Peter which really broke the ice, following as it did hard upon that vision, which Peter had experienced, of the great sheet being let down from heaven full of animals, clean and unclean, rather like Noah's Ark.
And then Cornelius needed to understand that the Church of Christ was not an assembly of angels or supermen, but very ordinary creatures like Peter, tactless, impulsive, fallible as anyone else. His instinct was to fall down before Peter and worship him like a god. This instinct needed the firm but gentle correction which Peter was able to give it.
And that may explain why the Holy Spirit has brought us together in Longton today. Each of us has something to offer the other.
What have you given me? Well, to begin with, Stoke-on-Trent is never again to be quite the same again, because I now know and have seen for myself that here is yet another Church of faithful Christians who, under their parish priest, has held fast to the faith "once delivered to the saints", "believed always, by all Christians, everywhere".
Of course I knew there was such a place as St Mary and St Chad's. But that's a different sort of knowing from what I know now. It's the difference between 'knowing that' and 'seeing that' when one is piloting a ship over the dark and stormy sea, the map lets us know that there should be a lighthouse some miles away over the horizon; and knowing because we can actually see the light itself. People assured me that there was a congregation of faithful Christians at St Chad's. I took their word for it. But now I have seen for myself that there really is one.
I too can assure you that you will find the same thing at St Stephen's Lewisham. You may take my word for it. But it's only when you dare to venture into the deep dark South of London you will discover that there really is another outpost of God's kingdom, constantly under threat, "unknown yet Well-known, "rumoured to be dying but very much alive".
It's terribly easy, isn't, to imagine that you on the only ones who have remained faithful. Like Elijah on Mount Carmel you think that "I even a I alone am left of God's people". But what does the spirit and say? "And you're wrong it he says there are at least 7000 others who have given into the ideas popular in secular society, who haven't bowed the knee to Baal. And perhaps someone needs to say that to you there are several 1000 Parishes up and down the country where the faith once delivered to the saints is taught and practised and the errors of trendy clergy are being successfully held at bay.
But there is something else that a visiting preacher can offer. Not a new message so much as an old message with a new voice. Have you noticed how often children are prepared to do something if asked by a comparative stranger but are not nearly so willing to do such a thing for their parents.
We had my young grandson aged four-and-a-half to stay with us on his own the other weekend. Of course he'd been to stay with us before with his parents. Being a "live young wire" with a mind his own he gave us cause to be thankful that grandparenthood carries all the advantages of parenthood with none of its drawbacks.
On his own he was as good as gold. And part of the reason I believe in that we simply weren't his parents whom he sees every day, but his grandparents whom he had not seen for some time. So although the things we asked him to do were no different from the ones he was expected to do at home, he did them without question. No "why should I/ Why shouldn't I?"
The same is true of you and me today. What I've said is no different from what Father Lantsbury has said to you over the last seven years. But because I have not been here before, it may just come over with a different ring to it.
What is this message? It's the one which rings out so clearly from the second lesson and the Gospel. Love God; keep God's commandments; love one another; continue in God's love.
It sounds so obvious to us, yet it is far from easy. Let us look briefly or each of these four commandments.
"Love God" – but we can only love someone we have got to know. We can respect or fear honour someone we don't know, but God seeks more than from us just as we seek more from our children and grandchildren. It's not just their respect we want. When John said elsewhere in his letter "Perfect Love casts out fear, he meant that the former supersedes the second not that fear in itself is a bad thing. "The law" says Saint Paul "is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ".
Which brings us to the second point. "If you love me, keep my commandments", said Jesus. Well, part of my reason for coming to you today is that, as you know, there are many priests around who try and make out that it doesn't really matter whether we keep God's commandments or not. "If we feel like it let's change the whole nature of the sacred ministry and ordain some women as priests and see what happens"; or "if the baby you're carrying in your womb is a problem or likely to be one then destroy it". Every three minutes every day someone in this country is destroying her unborn child rather than accept the gift which God has given them.
Love God; keep his commandments. Number three on the list, "love one another" sounds deceptively easy. And yet how much more difficult it is to love some of ones fellow Christians than it is other people! Why should this be? Well partly because we choose our friends, but our fellow Christians have been chosen for us by God. If you like, we've been lumbered with each other just as we've been lumbered with the particular parents or children God has given us. So it's small wonder if, as Jesus said, a man's enemies will be those of his own household – not because our parents or children are any worse than anyone else's, but because we are so to speak "thrown together" with them just as we are "thrown together" in our own local parish church. It takes a great deal of effort sometimes to love one's parents or brothers or sisters, with all their shortcomings, because we have to live with them. It's even possible I daresay and they feel the same about us!
"Remain in my love" said Jesus. Perseverance is the only way to succeed. There are many people who give up their Christian faith because it is difficult. Not difficult in the sense that we have serious doubts about its truth but because it makes demands upon us which we're not keen to fulfil. And once we begin to fall behind with or turn ourselves away from those demands, it is curious how doubts can always be found at the doorstep clamouring to be let in.
But this is the most curious thing of all. Despite the fact that we find our parents and children and mothers and sisters and fellow Christians such a trial and so difficult to love, it's precisely when people move away from home to go to university, or move house to another neighbourhood that they are most at risk of falling away from God. The casualty rate is something appalling.
I wonder if it would help to remember Peter and Cornelius. Out there in the big wide world where you were going to school or university or moving house to, there is a church. In that Church there are people who will be at first perfect strangers to you. But because you're a perfect stranger to them, it may well be that you will be able to say things to them with a new voice, not new things but old things like "love God; love one another; continue in God's love, keep his commandments" and because your voice his new they will listen to all what to say to them.
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