When God Breaks the Rules
A sermon on Acts 11: 1-18 & John 13:31-35 by Nathan Nettleton, 9 May 2004
© LaughingBird.net

When God accepts and gifts those who are supposed to be excluded according to our theology, then its time to change our theology to a rule of love instead of a rule of purity.


As strange as it may seem, I would like this church to be one that attracts a lot of criticism and causes a lot of controversy. I would like us to be the kind of church that frequently gets denounced as irreligious, scandalous and to be avoided at all costs. I would like there to be people arguing that we should be kicked out of the Baptist Union. It is not that I have a death wish for myself and the church, or that I’m masochistically into being hated, criticised and abused. It is that it is my job and my desire to see us being radically faithful followers of Jesus Christ, and if we are doing that we will violate the religious sensibilities of quite a few of our peers and attract a lot of controversy and abuse. The Christ we follow was called blasphemous, irreligious, scandalous, libertarian, demonized, and a threat to public order and national security. Those who will truly follow him can expect no less.

For Jesus, much of the trouble came from the religious community and its loyalists, especially its leaders. That has continued to be a frequent pattern ever since. It is the nature of the gospel that the very things Jesus calls us to do frequently run counter to our religious instincts and seem to violate the very things we thought we were standing for as followers of Jesus.

In tonight’s first reading, we heard of the Apostle Peter running into strife with the religious leaders, and by this time it was the leaders of the Christian church, a group that Peter himself belonged to. He was in trouble for engaging in behaviour which they considered scandalously immoral: fraternising and even sharing intimate table fellowship with people who were outside the bounds of religious acceptability. Now you may not think this sounds like a moral issue - perhaps more an issue of ritual purity and/or ethnic identity. Many of us have been brought up on a modern evangelical teaching that says that there is a clear distinction between moral law and ritual law in the Bible, and that Jesus overturned the ritual laws while maintaining and even strengthening the moral laws. Now this teaching can be a helpful way of thinking about Biblical law and modern ethics, but it is very very important to realise that it is not actually a biblical teaching. Nowhere does the Bible teach this distinction, and nowhere in the New Testament stories are we dealing with people who would have understood or agreed with that distinction. It is a thoroughly modern philosophical distinction which is applied to the Bible rather than found in the Bible. And its usefulness is absolutely dependent on understanding that limitation.

So when we are dealing with the discussion between Peter and his apostolic peers in Jerusalem, we are dealing with a story of people who understood the debate to be about the limits of acceptable Christian morality. The world view they had been reared on said that things such as the kosher food laws, circumcision, and sabbath keeping were basic tenets of human morality, and that therefore it was only by adopting the Jewish religious lifestyle that people could become morally acceptable to God and God’s people. For them, these questions were no less questions of moral integrity than honesty, sexual fidelity, recreational drug use, and killing. The questioning of Peter was just as anguished as it would have been if he had been accused of distributing pornography or snorting cocaine.

But Peter’s answer to the charges is quite clear. Yes, I did do what I am accused of, and I did it because God made it clear to me that we are wrong about this. What Peter was saying was, in effect, that there are things which we have regarded as important questions of morality which are actually of no consequence to God. Even though it was something that we regarded as extremely important, it actually doesn’t matter at all. God wants us to get over it. As Peter says, “God gave me a vision in which I was under orders from God to do something I had always regarded as immoral, and when I objected, God said, ‘Who are you to decide what’s moral and what isn’t. If I say it’s okay, then it’s okay.’ So I had to adjust my moral theology.”

Now there are two things that I think are really important for us to learn from this incident. The first is that our moral assumptions are formed by the culture within which we are reared, and although they are taught in religious language and with reference to Biblical laws and teachings, they may not have anything to do with what God requires of us. They may be valid teachings about what it takes to fit comfortably into a particular society, but that doesn’t mean that they accurately reflect what it takes to fit into the realm of God. And we can safely assume that this particular debate over eating with Gentiles was not time Christians have had to rethink their moral categories. There have been other big ones that have now been long settled. Christian moral assumptions about slavery were a big one. Moral assumptions about the subordination of women were another. There are more running today, and there will continue to be, because God seems to continue to disregard our moral laws — the moral laws which we thought were God’s moral laws.

The second thing I think we need to take out of this incident is a model for how to deal with the dilemmas created when God seems to overrule our moral convictions. In this story, Peter was clear about how worked it through, and after explaining it all, the Council of the Jerusalem Church endorses his approach. And now the story continues to be read in our churches as an authoritative text for us to learn from. The approach could be summed up by reference to a line from Jesus: “By their fruits you shall know them.” What Peter says is that when he assessed what was going on with an open mind, he could see that the Spirit of God was at work in the lives of these people who he had been taught to think of as immoral and therefore beyond the influence of God’s Spirit. But since the clear evidence was that God was not discriminating against them, but was in fact blessing them and working in and through them, then we’d better adjust our perceptions of where the moral lines fall, and stop declaring unclean what God is obviously treating as perfectly acceptable.

Now it has to be acknowledged that this is not always an easy task in practice. The questions are often complicated, and sometimes we are actually in a position of having to work out whether we can tolerate something in one context which we might not want to endorse in general. For example, in many African countries, the churches had to wrestle with questions of polygamy and what to do when a man who already had several wives converted to Christian faith. Insisting that he only have one wife meant forcing his other wives and their children out onto the streets and making them destitute. An uncritical application of traditional Christian teaching on marriage was therefore the cause of a massive injustice and a social evil. The moral teaching had to be rethought. In this case, it is not only about discerning whether God is saving and blessing people who are already polygamous — that is discerning the fruits in the person — but discerning the fruits of the law itself.

If a moral law or teaching actually produces poisonous fruits, then that moral teaching is almost certainly wrong. It may be well intentioned, but in practice it is being proved to have harmful and unloving consequences. It is a little like the Roman Catholic teaching on the use of contraception. However good the intention of promoting a greater respect for life, the teaching has also compounded problems for families living in poverty; it has hindered efforts to slow the spread of sexually transmitted diseases; and in the west especially it has been so widely ignored that it has caused people to simply stop taking any notice of anything the church says about sexual morality. It has thus been overwhelmingly counter-productive, and so if we apply the “know them by their fruits” principle to the teaching itself, that teaching is shown to be manifestly flawed.

There are numerous contemporary moral dilemmas which might become a little clearer if we approach them with these principles in mind. They are nearly always difficult for us to spot until others start agitating on them though, because we naturally assume that the moral teaching we have imbibed with our mother’s milk is sound, and our gut instincts are shaped around them. For most heterosexual Christians, the thought of homosexual love-making doesn’t so much offend our reading of the Bible, it turns our stomachs. That easily convinces us that it is thereby an offence to some God-ordained law written into our natures at creation. But the truth is that that’s exactly how Peter felt about eating rabbit meat — it turned his stomach. It couldn’t possibly be morally acceptable, could it. “What I, the Lord, have called clean, you must not call unclean.”

So whether the questions are about homosexuality, or swearing, or people living together unmarried, or gambling, or people who smoke marijuana or drink more than we have been raised to think of as acceptable, the challenge from Peter and the Council of Jerusalem is to do our moral discernment differently. I have a little rough rule of thumb here for judging my own reactions. It’s very rough and by no means infallible, but some of you might find it useful too. It is about putting our moral teachings alongside the new commandment we heard Jesus giving in in our gospel reading: as I have loved you, so you should love one another. My little guiding question is this: “Is the reason I am reacting uncomfortably to this person and their behaviour because I am seeing that it is breaching the law of love, or is it because it offends some sensibility in me.” Because my experience is that when what I first react to is a personally offended sensibility, that further exploration has not produced any evidence of lack of love or lack of God’s sanctifying Spirit at work in the person’s life. God’s word to me has been, “What I, the Lord, have called clean, you must not call unclean.”

And it is precisely the approach taken by Peter at Joppa and canonised for us in the book of Acts that tells us to be very very wary of getting caught in a theoretical and biblical approach to these questions without engaging with the actual people concerned. It is simply not acceptable for us to try to work out whether it is morally possible to be both Christian and homosexual without getting to know those who claim to be so, and discerning whether God is or isn’t at work bringing forth the fruits of love and mercy and justice in their lives. I have been converted to the belief that homosexual couples should be given the same respect and rights in the church as heterosexual couples by getting to know some and finding that they are faithful loving Christians who show no less (and sometimes more) evidence of genuine relationship with Jesus and commitment to following him with integrity than anyone else.

We do of course, need to be careful we don’t get trapped by cyclic thinking or sidetracks in this approach. Sticking with the example of homosexuality, cyclic thinking is quite common. You here the argument go that certain sexual practices are “naturally” offensive, and that homosexuals do those things, and therefore that proves that homosexuality is sinful. In reality, not only are we back in the realm of offended sensibilities rather than failure of love, but the argument presupposes that something is wrong in order to prove that it is wrong. In fact there are no specific sexual practices found among homosexuals that are not also found widely among heterosexuals too, so unless you could produce a case to show that such a practice would also be immoral when enjoyed within heterosexual marriage, then it is simply a cyclic argument.

Sidetracks are common too: for example, the homosexual lifestyle is promiscuous, therefore homosexuality must be wrong. Well, for starters, if I go down the street here late on a Saturday night, when I turn the corner from the Commercial Road gay nightclub precinct into the Chapel Street straight nightclub precinct, I don’t see much difference. Aggressive promiscuity is just as evident in Chapel Street. But more importantly, there is a real question about whether it is possible for a sub-culture whose relationships are maligned, vilified and offered no valid recognition by the wider society can reasonably be expected to to develop a culture of faithful relationships. Faithful monogamy is actually bloody hard work for heterosexuals, but we have the benefit of social validation and encouragement. I personally doubt whether I, or most of the straight people I know, could maintain consistent monogamy without the support of a culture that valued it. And if that is the truth, then the prevalence of promiscuity in the male homosexual culture may actually be another case of the traditional moral teaching itself being the bearer of bad fruit. The social condemnation may actually be the cause of the promiscuity.

I think I’ve said enough on this for now. You don’t have to agree with my examples, but there is an important principle in this story that we cannot ignore as a community seeking to follow Jesus. If the council of Jerusalem had stopped with the question of what scripture had to say about Peter’s experience at Joppa, they would have excommunicated Peter and outlawed the acceptance of gentiles into the church without first converting to Judaism. So we need to follow their lead, and alongside our faithful reflection on scripture, we have to allow into the moral conversations the real life experience of what God is doing in and through the lives of those about who we might have moral questions. And when we find God breaking what we thought were God’s rules, and calling, accepting, gifting and blessing people who we thought were beyond the pale, then it is time to recognise that God’s grace is, once again, a whole lot wider than we ever imagined, and thank God it is, because if it were not, we’d probably find ourselves excluded by it too! Christ is risen, and all things are being made new. We no longer need to live in the land of slavery and fear, but we are free to live in the wide open spaces of God’s love and joy. Thanks be to God!