The Plot We Are In

January 8, 2017

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Acts 10.34-43, at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 8th January 2017, the 1st Sunday of Epiphany.

Happy New Year!

When you should stop saying this is a nice point of etiquette: possibly when you’ve said it to the person already or perhaps when you haven’t and the year’s worn on a bit? Maybe both.

The switch from 2016 to 2017, from New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Day, is in one sense instantaneous, but in another, like all transitions, there is a liminal period, a threshold of indeterminate length which has to be negotiated, by rituals such as exchanging cheery messages and the peal of bells.

The problem, though, is that chronological time is just a continual flow of moments – it’s simply the hand whizzing round the clock, which corresponds more or less to the earth whizzing around the sun, though we had a whole extra second in 2016 – I hope you didn’t miss it, tacked on there at midnight!

Another way of putting the problem is that the time of the clock and calendar lacks narrative. Stories, we all know, have a beginning, a middle and an end. They have a direction because of the characters that inhabit them and interact with each other. On +Tim’s recommendation we’re watching the American political drama West Wing at present. We’ve just finished Series 3 and we are hooked. Many a time at the end of an episode, we find it hard to stop: the plot has brought us to a point of unbearable suspense. After the assassination attempt, has the President survived?

Epiphany is a season where we remember several stories that belong to a single plot. Jesus Christ has been born, but what exactly does he reveal of God? There a three stories that feed into this plot and help build a picture: the baptism of Jesus, at which the Holy Spirit descends on him and God’s voice affirms him as his beloved Son; the miracle at Cana in Galilee, where Jesus turns a vast quantity of water set aside for a purification rite into wine for celebration; and the journey of the Magi, where astrologers come from the East to worship the new-born king. I don’t intend to talk about any of these today, just to point out that they are all part of a plot which reveals in one incident after another who Jesus is, which carries us forward step-by-step into discovery.

We are not in the Christian life whizzing around in circles, but we are moving forward. That is Luke’s great conviction as we move from the Christ’s ascension, to the birth of the Church in Jerusalem, the heart of Judaism, and then outwards from there to the four corners of the earth. Frontier after frontier is crossed and in the process the meaning of the message that is being carried forward is deepened and broadened.

Our reading today picks up the plot in Caesarea. An angel has visited the home of a Roman soldier named Cornelius, telling him to ask Simon Peter to visit him. We know that Cornelius is devout and God-fearing and generous to God’s people and that God wants to reward him by bringing him the message of salvation. Peter comes as God’s ambassador. He speaks and starts with an incredible statement: ‘God shows no partiality’. In fact he says, ‘I truly understand that God knows no partiality’.

How does he know? We might expect here to be given several proof texts from the Hebrew Bible, but we aren’t. Perhaps this is because Jewish proof texts would not have made much sense to a Roman household or perhaps it’s because the story has its own force.

Let’s risk an analogy. At the moment scientists are worried that a massive iceberg is about to break off the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica. If it tears away, then it will allow the glaciers that were being held back to flow directly into the sea and this will raise water levels worldwide. The iceberg has become disassociated from the shelf because of global warming and more immediately but the impact of the tides, levering away this piece of ice about a quarter of the size of Wales. (The scientists come from the University of Swansea, so they should know.)

There are also two major forces at work in this story. There is upheaval as Jews and Gentiles are being shaken and stirred together by heavenly visions given to both Peter and Cornelius. The work of the Spirit, giving visions to Gentile and Jew alike, is the immediate cause of this tectonic shift. The old rules of separating clean and unclean are being suspended.

But the underlying cause, like the global warming thinning the ice, is not the visions. It’s something else: the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  It’s Jesus exercising and establishing his rule. The Son of God is warming the planet.

True enough, the message of Jesus began smaller. It began when Jesus was baptised in the river Jordon, and during his lifetime continued largely within the ambit of Judea and Jerusalem But after his crucifixion God raised Jesus on the third day and allowed him to appear to witnesses. These apostles were commanded to go out from Jerusalem and testify to him, that he was now appointed by God judge of the living and the dead.

Jesus is Lord means Jesus is Lord of all; and if not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all. The message of salvation is revealed in even greater depth and glory as it crosses a new frontier and Cornelius and his household accept its truth.

The plot is actually thicker than that. Remember that Peter began his message to Cornelius, ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality’. The Acts of the Apostle is saved from being a triumphalist tract by a sense that the characters are always being stretched by the situations in which they find themselves. Peter only understands his message more deeply because he is propelled into an encounter with a Roman soldier. He sees God going ahead of him, showing no partiality, by speaking to Cornelius just as vividly as he did to him.

There’s a simple and hopeful lesson to be had. We are not simply whizzing through time. We are in the midst of a plot, an adventure, as the glory of God is revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. There are other thresholds to be crossed in our own time, which will bring us fresh knowledge if we dare to cross them.

Dean Catherine is in the national news because she and a member of Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi, have collaborated to produce a modern setting of Psalm 133 called ‘How Good it Is’. It was recently premiered in Birmingham Cathedral by the choristers. I’ll leave you to Google it. Everyone has been both stretched and enriched by the project and its creativity has had a real impact in the media. At the heart of the story is two people meeting on equal terms and sharing faith and hope together.

We are in the midst of a plot – the message we hold in trust is still unfolding – and how it moves forward is going to be affected by the way in which we, the characters, interact. We are called as God’s ambassadors and without us the story may stall; but more importantly it involves God. We are collaborating with him. What a creative and fascinating combination of energies this is. I wonder what twists in the plot will develop in 2017 as we move into a new episode in our own history with Dean Catherine.

The story of Peter meeting Cornelius reminds us that there is only discovery in crossing a threshold; then comes a deepening and broadening of the Christian message, and an understanding that Jesus Christ is Lord, not just of our own small band, but of all creation.