Saturday, April 27, 2013

Come to Joppa!

RCL Easter 5C
28 April 2013

Saint Faith's Anglican Church

           Yesterday Katherine Cotton, Peter Hatfield, Pam Sywulych, Christine Wilson and I spent the day at Saint Dunstan’s in Aldergrove attending a workshop on evangelism led by Michael Harvey, one of the founders of the ‘Back to Church Sunday’ movement.  What intrigued me was Michael’s clarity about what his ministry was about and what it was not about.  He came to help us learn how to confront our fear about uttering the following nine words:  “Would you like to come to church with me?”
            Nine words that form the substance of an invitation to do something beautiful for God and for God’s creation.  Nine words that invite someone to be part of a community that has good news to share in a world filled with bad news.  Nine words to ask a friend or a neighbour to join in seeking the truth in a world in which lies and falsehoods abound.  Nine words that can transform the life of someone we know.
            It is fitting that the workshop was held on a day before a Sunday when we hear today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, a reading filled with invitations made to ordinary people that lead to them becoming something more than ordinary.
            Peter, who tells the community at Jerusalem the story of his encounter with a Roman solider, was the first of today’s characters to be invited into a relationship with the living God.  Minding his own business and fishing on the Sea of Galilee, Peter had a good life.  Then his brother Andrew came along and invited Peter to meet Jesus of Nazareth.  Led by the Spirit of God, Peter said ‘yes’ and he began his roller-coaster career as a follower of Jesus who came to exercise leadership among the earlier community.  Without Andrew, however, there would have been no ‘rock’, no leader of the apostolic community.
            Then comes the second invitation behind Peter’s story we heard today.  All we know about Cornelius is that he was a centurion, a non-commissioned officer in the Roman army.  He was stationed in Joppa, just north of modern-day Tel Aviv, and had a sizeable household.  We also know that he was a ‘proselyte’, a Gentile who followed the Jewish religion but had not officially converted to Judaism.  Such a conversion would have meant the end of his career and many Gentiles who were drawn to the religious and moral teachings of Judaism shared Cornelius’ religious journey.
            The mystery is how Cornelius came to be a ‘God-fearer’, a term often used to describe proselytes.  Did another Gentile invite him to visit the synagogue?  Did a Jew in Joppa invite him?  Did Cornelius find himself in a synagogue out of curiosity, a way of better understanding these people among whom he had been sent as a representative of imperial Rome?  Luke, the probably writer of the Acts of the Apostles, doesn’t tell us.  But one thing is clear:  Cornelius was invited by a warm and living body to explore the path of the Law and the Prophets.  Led by the Spirit of God, Cornelius said ‘yes’ and eventually he becomes the first convert among the conquerors of Judea, a turning point in the story of the Christian movement.
            There are other invitations in chapters 10 and 11 of Acts.  God invites Cornelius to send messengers to Peter.  God invites Peter to consider that God’s plan might stretch beyond the limits that Peter seems to think define that plan.  Cornelius’ messengers invite Peter to come to Joppa to visit the home of a Roman soldier.  Time and time again the invitation is extended; time and time again the Spirit of God leads people to say ‘yes’.  Each ‘yes’ transforms the world:  the fisherman becomes the leader of the apostles; the soldier becomes a follower of a crucified and risen rabbi.  Each ‘yes’ contributes to transformation of a Jewish renewal movement into a movement that now spreads its message on every continent, in hundreds of languages, in thousands of forms.
            At the heart of the message is a call to a life shaped by the justice, steadfast love and humility shown in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Our message is not about institutions, about buildings, about styles of worship; it is a message about a God who is for us not against us, a God who seeks love not servility, a God who chooses to create rather than destroy.
            This is good news to a world that is filled with bad news, whether acts of terror, wide-spread hungry and poverty as well as greed that is willing to sacrifice impoverished workers on the altar of profit.  The truth that we proclaim is not a truth that seeks to enslave others but rather seeks to set us free from fear and free from the powerful who see people as means to achieve their own advantage.  The humility we are called to live is one that knows that we, as a community who follow the way of Jesus, exist primarily to take care of our neighbours and our neighbourhoods by doing all that we can to help all our sisters and brothers live abundantly.
            But the path we follow is not meant for ourselves alone.  It is a path that all who are made in the image of God are welcome to walk.  What they need is an invitation to walk it.  Just as Andrew invited Peter to meet Jesus, just as some unnamed person invited Cornelius to follow the way of the Law and the Prophets, so do our friends and neighbours who face the challenges of life need someone to say, “Come and see.  Come and discover a way of life that brings hope in the face of despair, a God who is with us even when the waves seem to crash over us, a community that reaches out to friend and stranger alike.”  Our only task is to make the invitation; the rest is in God’s hands.
            It is within our power to become Andrew’s for today’s Peter’s.  It is within our power to become the friends for today’s Cornelius’s.  We are inviting people to share with us in working for justice in a world marred by injustice, to share with us in showing steadfast love in a world marked by passing fancies and fads, to share with us in living humbly with God so that all God’s creatures may be free and enjoy life in its fullness.  Amen.

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