BACON SANDWICH, ANYONE?
A sermon preached at the church of the ANNUNCIATION, Brighton on 10th May 2015
Text: Acts of the Apostles Chapter 10 verses.34-35;44-48.
Have you noticed that, every Sunday since Easter, the first reading has been from the Acts of the Apostles, the life of the very early church in the light of the Resurrection, kicking off with the famous bit about living together under the rule to each according to his need, from each according to his means?
Looks like an unambiguous direction that we, as Christians, should vote Communist if there is such a candidate in any election!
Have you also noticed that the second reading every week has been from the 1st letter of S.John, which talks all the time about love – God’s love for us and our need to love Him and to love one another? Love, love, love. “All you need is love”. And the Acts of the Apostles is telling us how they put this into practice.
The Greek word for “love” which John uses over and over again in his 1st letter is agape.
It’s not the only Greek word for “love”. There’s also eros, that is the Greek god EROS, the cheeky chappie in Piccadilly Circus, who stands for romantic passion and sexual attraction.
And thirdly there’s philia, a word which covers the sort of affection looked for within families or between friends. A bond of loyalty.
So if the 1st letter of John, written, like the gospel of John, probably more than 50 years after the Crucifixion sums up Christian love in terms of agape, then what exactly does this word mean?
It’s a flexible term - like our own ‘love’ - but the general idea includes things like warmth, compassion, openness, vulnerability and a willingness to forgive.
I’ve even heard tea and coffee in the parish room after Mass called an agape and it really is in this church (except when nobody volunteers to heat up the urn!) but not I’m afraid in other parishes I’ve visited, where visitors and newcomers standing about in embarrassed isolation.
If you really want to know what S.John meant by it, just listen to him this morning: GOD IS LOVE. And he says he means by that the miracle that God first loved us. It is from being convinced of this that Christian agape flows.
We see the epitome of God’s love for us in the figure hanging on the cross. In the heart of Jesus is such dynamic and overflowing love that His outstretched arms continue to embrace the whole of humanity.
And He gives us no less than a commandment: “love one another as I have loved you”.
So Christian agape is a form of love which has to engage the heart and requires all my energy. That is certainly asking a lot more than philia (dutiful friendship) or eros (having a crush on someone).
How does it work, then? Well, for a start, Christian agape needs the community of the church.
The church as a body may sometimes drive you up the wall – I know it does me, especially when it spews out e-mails demanding audits and statistical returns – but trying to be a closet Christian who keeps himself to himself and has a private hotline to God is, in Christ’s book, just a nonsense. He didn’t say “love me”, He said “love one another” and He added “as I have loved you”
Wow, that means not only going the extra mile but even – if it ever came to it – laying down my life for my brothers and sisters in Christ. Could I ever have the courage and the conviction to do that? Certainly not on my own.
You see where this is leading, don’t you? It’s already leading to PENTECOST, which we celebrate in two weeks’ time.
We can’t live a Christ-like life overflowing with agape off our own bat. We need the help and the strength of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost we will see that the Holy Spirit is nothing if not strong. It blows like a mighty wind and it burns like fire.
Now. Look at the Holy Spirit in action in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
Peter, that fallible, impetuous, stubborn man, after all he has gone through since he first met Our Lord, still has one more mountain of faith to climb, one more hard, corrective lesson to swallow.
He must eat all the fierce words He has spoken in heated debate with Paul, about God reserving His kingdom for the Jews.
The Holy Spirit is equal to the task of converting Peter. It sends Him a technicolour dream of unclean non-kosher foods (bacon sarnies, pork crackling, frazzles, the lot) being lowered down on a tablecloth from heaven and invites him to tuck in.
And eventually the penny drops “The truth I have now come to realise” admits Peter ruefully and with great humility, “is that God does not have favourites.”
And then a few verses later “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came down on all his listeners. The Jewish believers were astonished that the gift of the Spirit should be poured out on the Pagans too.”
But Peter’s heart is now on fire and God’s love is flowing through him. There’s no stopping him. He cries out “Could anyone refuse the water of baptism to these people?”
There you have the Holy Spirit in action at full tilt. Its energy is awesome. Unless you’re prepared to let a bomb go off in you, said Thomas Merton, don’t make friends with the Holy Spirit.
But look at where that energy is directed – it is directed to love, to agape.
It has broken through the bulkhead of Peter’s prejudices. Love has poured in and now love is pouring out towards the Gentiles. Come and join us, brothers and sisters, I was wrong. We are all equal in the sight of God, we are all one in Christ.
This is the same Holy Spirit that has worked patiently down the years ever since, waiting and waiting until the time was right and then pouring love into the right hearts at the right time and place to achieve the unthinkable – from the abolition of slavery to the breakdown of racial discrimination, the recognition of the equality of the sexes and of sexual orientation.
But those are grand themes on an international scale.
The Holy Spirit is not just Our Lord’s legacy to the world in general. It is His gift to each one of us individually. It is His way of keeping in touch with us.
At one level, the Holy Spirit operates very similarly to what we would call conscience. It might stop us in our tracks if we are tempted to cheat, over something as trivial as being given too much change and silently pocketing it. “Hang on a minute”, prompts the Holy Spirit, “What on earth am I doing?”
But the Holy Spirit pushes us way beyond decent or honest behaviour. It wants to fire us up with the love of God, with Christian agape.
And the more we allow Holy Spirit to explode within us, the more we will be filled with Christ and the more instinctively we will come to know the will of God and to do it. And this means showing God’s love to others by our own words and deeds.
I am acutely aware of the number of lost souls around us who are weighed down, not always by hardship and poverty but often simply by feelings of guilt, failure and low self-esteem which are instilled by a godless society and are quite unjustified.
Christian agape, driven by the Holy Spirit, demands that we free such unhappy people from this negative spiral. Every human being needs to feel loved. No-one can function properly or fully integrate into society otherwise.
Some of us are blessed with loving and supporting parents, children, families and friends. Some of us are not.
But the Holy Spirit is there, ready and waiting to blow down anyone’s defences, invade anyone’s heart and give the reassurance of God’s love. And Christ commands that we allow His Spirit to do this precious and vital work through us.
Right. That’s my twopenny-worth on love and the Spirit. Trouble is – what else am I going to say when we get to Pentecost?