I’m going to start with a quote:
“There were gathered together in the city people from every nation under heaven”.
No, not a report of what’s been going on outside the Lindo Wing for the last few weeks, but a paraphrase of Luke’s description of another new beginning: the beginning of the first church at Pentecost, as you heard a few weeks ago at the beginning of this series.
And that comes right at the beginning of Luke’s second volume – the Acts of Apostles, which charts the spread of Christianity starting in Jerusalem, the centre of the Jewish faith, through the Gentile world to Rome: in those days seen pretty much as the political and commercial centre of the world.
That demonstrates the key theme that runs through all of Luke’s writing: the role of the outsider in Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God.
- Luke’s Gospel alone starts with shepherds in the poor hillside region of Judea;
- Luke alone repeatedly records Jesus’ involvement with outsiders: healing in the house of the hated Pharisee; raising the widow’s son; healing disabled people and lepers.
- Luke alone includes the parables of the prodigal son and the gospel we have just heard of the Good Samaritan.
The book of Acts doesn’t just record the spread of the church:
- It records its struggles as it came to terms with including anyone other than paid-up circumcised members of the Jewish faith
- It records the difficulty it had at first in acknowledging any leadership that wasn’t invested in Jerusalem;
- It shows how it was the insiders who needed to be converted. We probably first think of Paul in this respect but there’s also the story of how Peter, the head of the church, was challenged to change his mind by a vision of all sorts of unclean creepy-crawlies being called clean by God. Read all about it in Chapter 10 – it’s a good read, and Peter ends up saying:
“Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation everyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
- That marks a critical turning point with the central (inevitably male and Jewish) leadership acknowledging that God is in the Gentiles as much as he is in the Jews.
For me that is the starting point in addressing today’s theme of preaching Jesus to the Gentiles –
It’s not so much how we “have God” and convey him to others, it’s more about how we acknowledge that God is already there in the world and others and how we co-operate with him.
This morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles is a prime example of that. Here we have Paul invited to explain what’s he’s been preaching about at the nerve centre of Athens, the Areopagus – a bit like the Chamber of Commerce, the centre of justice and the local university all rolled into one. (If you go there today, it’s a massive rock across the valley from the Acropolis).
He doesn’t start by presenting his own manifesto, or explaining what he’s on about from cold. He affirms them: “I see you are religious…”, he says, and then he goes on to start where they are, using an image they can relate to – the altar to the unknown God.
He then builds from there, pointing out that God is revealed in the whole of humanity and not confined to one place or time, and going on to explain how the Christian Gospel relates to that. He doesn’t dismiss of undermine their existing belief, however inarticulate, but builds on what they have in common.
The story Luke records in today’s Gospel reading, the parable of the Good Samaritan, goes beyond that and there are two significant things here.
- First of all, the method Jesus uses. He’s approached by a lawyer who’s obviously looking for a legalistic answer to the question of how to obey the law. Instead of a neat theoretical cut and dried answer, Jesus tells him a story – a story rooted in everyday experience in which the reality is so evident that the lawyer has to answer it for himself; a story moreover that demonstrates that what is important is the living out of the law’s values.
- The second thing about this story is the sting in the tail. The hero of the story – the one who personifies obeying the law – isn’t an insider. He’s a Samaritan, considered an outcast by the lawyer and his orthodox colleagues, an outsider.
So what insights do we gain for ourselves from Luke’s approach to preaching Jesus to the Gentiles in the context of these readings? How might they help us to reflect upon how we as Christians today share the living out of our faith in our complex world of many different belief systems and institutions, both sacred and secular?
For me there are several important principles that emerge:
- The importance of starting where other people are, and finding common ground, as Paul did.
- The need to make connections, perhaps acknowledging shared values, experiences or doubts even. The unknown God isn’t the exclusive property of “outsiders”, and sharing uncertainties can sometimes be powerful and affirming and create common understanding.
- The record of the gospels suggests that Jesus’ use of stories, analogies and experience was an effective way of conveying the Gospel message and evoking a response. We shouldn’t be afraid of doing the same.
- Most of all, living out the gospel in practical ways that help to build God’s kingdom. What’s vital in this context is working with others and valuing what they do wherever we discern it as working towards the Kingdom (as Jesus did with the Samaritan). Just one example might be Archbishop Justin Welby’s call to work with credit unions, but we can all think of others.
Luke takes “preaching Jesus” beyond the notion of using the spoken word to convey teaching to others. Luke challenges us to engage with the Gentiles who are our neighbours and colleagues today in every institution, every sphere of life and in every place, whether Broomhill, Broomhall or the Manor.
- We are called to recognise and work with God who is already active there, loving and transforming the world – not only through our own work and words but also those of others who share the commitment to and values of what we would name as God’s kingdom.
- We are called to challenge those things that diminish and destroy, and to affirm, work with and name those things that create and restore.
We do so because we share in the body of the resurrected Christ and because we share the heritage of St Peter who came to learn the hard way that: “ … God shows no partiality, but in every nation everyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”