I wonder if you’ve heard the one about the bride preparing for her wedding. She was anxious that she’d forget what order things would happen in during the service, particularly at the beginning when she would be in a bit of a daze. She talked to the vicar about this, and she calmed her down and told that it was easy to remember. She would arrive, walk up the aisle to the altar and then everybody would sing the first hymn. Nice and simple. The great day dawned, the guests were seated, the groom slightly nervously waiting, the bride and her bridesmaids arrived in their vintage cars. The organist struck up the Wedding march, and the bride entered the church, and as she walked up to meet her future husband she was heard to mutter under her breath, “Aisle, Altar, Hymn”, “aisle, Altar, hymn”, “aisle, altar, hymn”.
This morning we’re continuing to explore our church’s value of loving our neighbours. In previous weeks we’ve thought about how we express that value in our welcome and hospitality, and this week we’re looking at “being accepting”. This corny joke illustrates for me some of the tensions that this idea of being accepting raises.
If this were a real couple about to get married we would, rightly, be concerned for the health of their relationship if one of them were going into the marriage with the fixed idea of changing the other to suit them more. It doesn’t accept them as they are. On the other hand, no-one is perfect, and if neither partner were willing to change their behaviour as the relationship goes on, then it’s not likely to survive either. At the far end of the spectrum, there are some behaviours that are completely unacceptable in a marriage, that should not be accepted.
So, when we’re thinking about loving our neighbours – those specific people that I encouraged us to identify last week, what does it mean to be accepting? How do we show accepting love to those we disagree with politically, about the need to wear masks, about expressions of human sexuality, about Brexit, about when loud music should be switched off on the other side of a party wall. Is it possible to accept the person and challenge some of their behaviours?
With those questions buzzing in our minds, let’s turn to the Scripture, to what Jesus and the Holy Spirit show us about being accepting.
Firstly, Jesus. Last week we had a spoof video of “Come Dine with Me” to help us explore what real hospitality looks like. This week we see Jesus caught in a nightmare dinner party. He’s been invited to dinner, but the way he’s been treated by his host isn’t welcoming or hospitable, and definitely not accepting. Roads and paths in Judea at that time were dusty and hot, and it was a common courtesy to provide foot washing facilities for guests on their arrival. Even that basic decency had been neglected when Jesus came in.
Then, as the meal went on, a woman stood behind Jesus started weeping, poured perfume on his dirty feet and began wiping them with her hair. Only one kind of woman wore their hair down in that culture, and Luke confirms this with his description of her as “a woman who lived a sinful life”. The religious leader, the Pharisee, is scandalised, and mutters to himself. Jesus discerns this, and challenges him with a question about forgiveness and love.
Jesus turns the expectations of the prevailing culture on its head. The Pharisee, for all his religious knowledge and purity is far from acceptable to God because he loves little and has not accepted or welcomed Jesus. The woman, for all her sin, is acceptable to God because of her repentance, great love, and heart felt welcome to Jesus. Jesus’ acceptance of the woman does not pretend her sin doesn’t matter, her own grief over it shows that she knows it does, but he accepts her as a person, and offers her forgiveness – freedom from the guilt and shame of that sin. He sees her faith, and accepts its reality, and releases her in peace.
So, that’s one way in which Jesus accepted someone.
What about the Holy Spirit?
Let’s jump forward to Luke’s second book, Acts.
All the way through the accounts of the early church in Acts, and in the letters that were sent between churches that we have in the New Testament, there is an ongoing tension. Jesus was a Jew. His disciples were Jewish. During his ministry Jesus had mostly worked amongst the Jewish people, with the occasional trip to Samaria, where an offshoot of the Jewish people lived. Jesus was the fulfilment of the Jewish law and prophets. Just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus commissioned his followers to take his message to Jerusalem, Samaria and the ends of the earth.
Then Pentecost came, and the Holy Spirit equipped the disciples to speak in other languages, and suddenly there were a whole load of people who weren’t Jews coming to believe in Jesus. As Acts goes on there are more and more of these Gentile believers. This led to some big questions. Do they all have to become Jews to become Christians? Do the men have to be circumcised? Do they have to follow the Jewish law? These questions split the church for decades. What did it mean to accept Gentiles into the fellowship of believers in Jesus?
Some time before Peter had had a vision of a sheet lowered down from heaven containing animals that he was forbidden to eat under Jewish law. A voice from heaven told him to kill and eat, and he objected. The voice said, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean”. Immediately following this, Peter was invited to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, shared the good news of Jesus and saw the Holy Spirit come on all who were listening and bring them to faith in Jesus.
The apostle Paul and his mission team had similar experiences, and this all led to a big council in Jerusalem, where the question was to be decided. After much debate, Peter stood up and made a speech, part of which we read this morning, the key verse of which is this, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.”
It seems from this, then that the presence of the Holy Spirit working in somebody’s life, bringing repentance and faith, is a sign of God’s acceptance of them. Note, that there is once again this dual dynamic of God’s acceptance – the person is accepted, but sin is not – that needs to be repented of.
This is good news for all of us. As I said earlier, none of us is perfect. Every one of us has things that we do, and think that are not accepted by God. We each have flaws in our character, besetting sins, that God does not accept. But, for all that, God does accept us, welcome us, create space for us, as we come to God in repentance and love. God loves us as we are, and loves us too much to leave us as we are.
So, if this is how God accepts people, what does that say to us about what it means to love our neighbours by accepting them. It seems to me that the core of this is love. God loves our neighbours as they are. If they were to come to God, as they are, God would welcome, embrace and accept them as they are. We are called to do the same. They might drive us nuts, we may disagree with them, they may even cause us pain and distress. God loves them as they are, and we are called to love them as they are. If they then come to us, our hearts will be in place to offer them space and forgiveness, as God does. This doesn’t mean we should never challenge their behaviour, but it does mean that when we do, we are called to do so with grace and generosity, giving them space to find a graceful way out.
This may not be easy, but then real love isn’t usually, real love is a life long work of the will, empowered by the Holy Spirit.