Last week I introduced the idea that in order for people to be able to respond to Jesus for who he is, they need to find a place amongst those who are Jesus’ sheep; that is, they need to hang out with people who are hanging out with Jesus and hang out with Jesus themselves. So we heard Jesus say to those Jews who gathered around him in the Temple, in response to the question to state publicly that he was the Messiah, “I have told you, but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”
Today, from the book of Acts, we hear the account of Peter’s explanation to the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem why he went to the home of Cornelius, a Roman soldier. Cornelius and his family were converts to Judaism, known as devout and God-fearing, and gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (Acts 10:1-2) But even so, the believers in Jesus considered themselves a sect of Judaism, therefore Cornelius was still considered a Gentile with whom Jews could not associate. Besides, hadn’t Jesus told his disciples, at one stage, to go to no one but the lost sheep of Israel?
When Peter goes to Jerusalem, the leaders in the church criticised him, asking, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Peter tells his story of his triplicate vision and ‘the voice from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” of the arrival of the servants of Cornelius, that six fellow believers had accompanied hi from Joppa to Caesarea, and Cornelius’ vision of an Angel telling him that “[Peter] will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” So Peter went, because he believed that was what the Holy Spirit was telling him to do.
Peter explains that while he was telling Cornelius about Jesus Christ, his baptism by John, the work and ministry of Jesus, his crucifixion and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins, “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.”
When this happened, Peter recalls, “I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
We ourselves would recall, as was important for Peter to include in his account to Cornelius, when Jesus was baptised, ‘the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”’ (Luke 3:21-22) The Holy Spirit does not appear again at Jesus’ transfiguration, when similar words to these are spoken, because Jesus has already been confirmed in his belonging to God at his baptism by the Holy Spirit.
The presence of the Holy Spirit is, therefore, fundamental to our understanding of belonging to Jesus, for ‘Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him,’ (Romans 8.9) and ‘it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,’ (Romans 8.16) and ‘In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.’ (Ephesians 1.13)
There is, then a clear difference between belonging to the church, being one of Jesus sheep, and belonging to Jesus. It seems clear that Cornelius was one of those who belonged to Jesus’ sheep – he was open to God in prayer and responding to how he understood God to be, in generously meeting the needs of others. His belonging to Jesus became marked in the receiving of the Holy Spirit and they began speaking in tongues and praising God. (Acts 10:46)
This was enough for the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem, who were silenced in their criticism, ‘And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”’ Through Cornelius it was realised that Gentiles could also share in the fullness of belonging to Jesus, not just being God-fearers. God had challenged and transformed the values of the developing early church.
There are, then two forms of belong that are related to two works of belonging. The first is our work, our choosing to belong to the church, belonging to Jesus’ sheep, hanging out with Jesus and hanging out with others who are hanging out with Jesus. But we are not saved by our work, we are dependent upon God. God’s work in our belonging, is the gift of the Holy Spirit, it is the Spirit that enables us to belong to Jesus and participate in the Divine Godhead, ‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.’ (Romans 8.14)
There is then, two aspects o our mission. One is enabling others to find a sense of belonging in our being church, to hang out with Jesus amongst those who are hanging out with Jesus, for the purpose of enabling them to find a sense of belonging to Jesus by his Spirit.
One of the things that give us a sense of belonging is our common values, those things that are important to us, those ideals that inform our priorities and choices. I have come to realise, in my study of how congregations operate, that some values, which may create a very strong sense of belonging for those who are a part of a parish and congregation, can mean that others feel excluded and unable to belong.
In our review of our mission action plan of 2007 we explored those things that we valued about St Stephens, the top 10 in order of importance were:
Seeking God’s Will
Relationship with God
All these values are good, but it seems to me that, if we are going to ‘Grow a Christian Community for All’ there is something wrong with the priority of these values. Your Vestry simply identified and prioritised what they believed to be the values of St Stephens without looking critically at them. Relationship with God and Evangelism, for example, need to have a higher priority.
For the purpose, therefore, of creating a church with priorities to fulfil our vision, rather than hang on to the things we value, which are clearly not enabling us to fulfil the vision, we need to be creating values that will transform us as a church. If we are to be a church that is enabling people to have a sense of belonging amongst us, so that they can find belonging to Jesus, then we need to put in place values that will speak to that desire and motivate the strategies to fulfil this desire.
For this reason, as a part of our ongoing work reviewing our Mission Action Plan and its presentation, I will be asking Vestry to explore values that we need to have in order that we can fulfil our vision and mission. I know that some of these values will be different to the things that you value and this will create some tension amongst us, but, as the reading this morning shows us, God did not leave the early church in the values they had, but created in them new values to inspire their mission – and aren’t we grateful, because if God had not done so, we would not be sharing in the wonder of Jesus’ salvation of us.