He was a good Jew, was Peter. Even though he followed Jesus and was one of the leaders of the early church when Jesus left them for good, he had all the habits and the outlook of his Jewish upbringing. So food was kosher. There were things you just didn’t eat. In fact, even thinking of eating them was pretty disgusting.
So Peter himself is shocked by the vision he had one day when he was praying, inviting him to eat some of the forbidden animals. This was worse than finding horsemeat in your lasagne, much worse. How would you feel if someone invited you round for a meal of curried dog or roast kitten?
And Peter soon discovers that God wasn’t actually giving him a lesson in expanding his diet, but in expanding his mission. The lesson was that the Christian faith was not just for the Jews, it was for the Gentiles as well. So Peter accepts the invitation to proclaim the good news about Christ to Cornelius in Caesarea.
Yesterday, Meg O’Hara and I went to a training session run by the Diocese to get us as a church to get ready for mission. This was planned by Bishop Justin before he left for Canterbury, and the programme is going ahead without him, led by Bishop Mark. It was a really good day, and we both learnt a lot.
And it was a bit like that vision for St Peter, because we were being invited to look at things differently. Just because you have always understood things in a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s always right. Just because we have tried everything, doesn’t mean we can’t try again, but with new hope and in a new spirit using up-to-date thinking and methods. Just because people used to come to church, doesn’t mean the church should die a death waiting for them to come back. Just because we expect the vicar to do all the God-talk doesn’t mean that we can’t find the resources and the confidence to talk about God ourselves.
At one of the sessions I went to in the afternoon, a woman from Sunderland was talking about a difficult situation at work when she persuaded a colleague, who didn’t go to church, to pray about the situation they were dealing with. And it really helped. So next time there was a problem, the colleague said, ‘let’s go and pray about it’. Wow! She still hasn’t got as far as going to church herself, but that is a real witness about the impact of prayer and the impact of that woman offering a faith-solution to the problem. And the woman who was telling us had only been going to church herself for 18 months. That was really impressive.
One of the things that came up was how we need to change the way we see things in our churches. For example:
Every church thinks they are really friendly, but if you actually look hard, you find that the welcome is not as warm as it might be. They quoted one bishop who said that before you talk to people you know at church, you must talk to someone you don’t know for at least three minutes.
It is really difficult for people to step into a church for the first time – do we make it easy for them to do so, or difficult? Imagine what it is like to come into this church for the first time. What could we do to make it a more pleasant experience?
The event took place at All Saints Lobley Hill – the first time I had been inside, and Meg too, I think. And they gave us real coffee. And they made me a cafetiere of real coffee when I asked for decaffeinated, in a way that didn’t make me feel as if I had make a stupid request, because I don’t drink instant coffee. That for me was a real welcome.
They also raised the question of the church noticeboard. Does it give the people the information they want or just the information we think they need? If you go to Tesco, the sign tells you that “Every little helps”. And if you go to Asda, they’re “saving you money everyday”. So you know in just a few words what they are about. What does our noticeboard say about us?
We need to look at things in a new way. And then we need to make adjustments, change things here and there, so that people have a better idea of what we are about, and are interested to come in and find out more. Because people want to know. They are interested.
Do you want the church to grow?
So do I. And we want the church to grow so that more people can discover how much God loves them and how much better life is when you have a relationship with Jesus Christ.
We have this great treasure. We know about the Living God. We know how you can find God. We know the way to the love and peace and hope that comes when you come to know God for yourself.
Jesus says that we should love one another. That is more than being nice to each other. Loving our neighbours here in Bensham means helping the hungry to find food – we are doing that through our support for Gateshead Foodbank – but we also need to help those who are spiritually hungry to find the spiritual food that we have in abundance, if we could only see it.
As a church here in Bensham, our mission hasn’t exactly been effective, as it? It’s a tough area, I know that. But we can’t let things go on in the same old way. Not any longer. The hardest bit is learning to see things in a new way. The hardest bit is turning to God and saying: ‘OK. We haven’t got things right. Help us!’ The hardest bit is being ready to start afresh.