Materials for Worship on the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Nerys writes, In our readings today the people of Israel are called to sing a new song, the disciples are instructed to obey Christ’s new commandment, and the Holy Spirit interrupts Peter’s sermon to do a new thing, filling a houseful of unbaptised Gentiles with the power of God’s love. As we continue to reflect on what it means to abide in Christ, I wonder how we respond to his invitation to the new freedom that he offers us?

When I first came to Scotland, I found going on hikes with Davie quite disconcerting. He would climb over a gate into a farmer’s field to reach an ancient monument or veer off a footpath into the heather to get a better view or to find a shortcut, and I would stand there anxiously asking ‘Won’t we get into trouble for going this way?’

Having been brought up with the strict trespass rules of rural Wales, I found Scotland’s freedom to roam very unsettling. I imagine that in today’s passage from the Book of Acts, 10.44-48, Peter and his companions must have felt similar anxiety mingled with amazement when the family and friends of Cornelius, the Roman centurion, showed signs of being full of the power of God’s Holy Spirit as they responded to his sharing of the Gospel with them.

This dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the culmination of the story Luke tells to explain the huge shift among the early Christians towards a new understanding of the love of God. In Joppa, Peter is given a horrifying vision where Christ urges him to eat all kinds of creatures that were forbidden by Jewish law. In the meantime, in the garrison town of Caesarea, the devout, God-seeking Cornelius is visited by an angel who instructs him to send for Peter. The Spirit of Love is at work in the lives of both men, guiding them and the Church to a new place beyond ethnic, geographical, cultural and moral barriers, a place where nothing is off limits. In the house of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit falls upon all who were listening to the good news of Jesus Christ. All are included in the ever-widening circle of God’s love. All are offered a new life characterised by a freedom that none of them could previously have imagined.

In Wales there has been a campaign for many years for a Right to Roam Bill like the one we have here in Scotland, but there are those who are fiercely opposed to this call for greater freedom. Some, no doubt, have legitimate reasons to be wary of it but many seem to be driven by a fear of the unknown, preferring to live with restrictive, inconsistent and out-of-date laws rather than to embrace change.

In Jerusalem, the hard-liners among the apostles are reduced to silence when Peter shares his amazing experience of the Holy Spirit, but they do not stay silent for long. This new vision of God’s kingdom, free from the restrictions imposed by law and tradition, is inconceivable to them. In their minds, the only way the Church could survive the intense political and religious pressures it was under, was for them to resist this new-found freedom and choose to stick to the well-worn paths of their ancestors’ religion.

Peter’s opponents had forgotten that God has always been doing new things. Psalm 98 reminds us that out of love for all nations and the whole of creation, God had been intervening continuously within the history of the people of Israel. The psalmist urges them to remember this and join with creation to sing a new song of praise for the marvelous things God has done for them. God’s nature doesn’t change. God’s faithfulness and steadfast love for humanity remains the same for ever. But as we bring to mind the things God has done, our understanding of God is altered, and our lives are opened to new possibilities. This is when a new song will arise within us which we are called to live out and share with others.

This is what happens as Peter preaches in the house of Cornelius. He speaks of the new and unexpected thing God had done through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, of how the prophets point to his identity as Lord of all, and of the new wider vision of God’s liberating love which he, Peter, had received. As they catch that vision and respond to it, God’s Spirit stirs within all those who are listening and a new song of praise pours out of them.

Peter orders the Gentile believers to be baptised, welcoming them into the Church, breaking down boundaries that had previously been uncrossed. His action marks the beginning of a movement which would enable the apostles to carry out their commission to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. It also reflects the new relationship with God which Jesus speaks about in today’s Gospel reading, John 15.9-17, a relationship of mutual love like that of friends rather than slaves, which brings to his followers a new freedom but also a new responsibility.

At this time of year, posts appear on the Dunblane Network page which remind me that the right to roam in Scotland is not an absolute freedom to do whatever we like. These posts come from local farmers urging dog owners to be considerate of the sheep and lambs in their fields. Underpinning the idea of freedom of access to land is a code of behaviour based on three principles – taking responsibility for your own actions, showing care for the environment and respecting the interests of others. We are no longer constrained by law to take certain routes, but we are expected to discern how to behave appropriately for the good of all.

Those who abide in Christ also, have been given principles to live by rather than a set of rules. This is the new commandment which John’s Jesus shares with his disciples at his Last Supper. When we choose to love God, we enter into a relationship with Christ based on our knowledge of God’s unconditional love for us. This ever-deepening relationship sets us free to live a life which is not dictated by fear of being excluded from God’s blessing. As a result, we don’t worship or serve others out of duty or a desperate desire to please God but as a joyful response to Christ’s selfless love for us. We work hand in hand with God in praying and acting for the world and its people, informed and empowered by God’s Spirit of justice and peace.

It’s interesting that many of the organisations that lobbied for Scotland’s Freedom to Roam Act are now working hard to introduce others to the joys of the open countryside, especially people from inner-city areas and ethnic minorities. My prayer for us at St Mary’s is that the more each one of us experiences the joy that comes from abiding in the love of Christ, the more our desire to share that wonderful freedom with others will grow and our lives bear fruit that will make a difference and will last. May we, like Peter, be open to being surprised by God and by the new things God is doing within and among us.