It was the late John Wimber (founder of the Vineyard Network of Churches) who suggested that ‘Faith’ is spelled R.I.S.K. Julia and I were reminded of this at the beginning of this New Year when we read some words of Willie James Jennings (Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale Divinity School) about ‘the risk of faith that comes to each of us’ at one time or another. We have been slowly and steadily working our way through Jennings’ marvellous commentary on the Book of Acts in our daily devotional time together for almost a whole year now. NB. This is book of the year for me – if you haven’t got it, go out and buy it. Of the scores of books I have read over the last 12 months this has been ‘the one’ that has gripped me the most. But I digress … we have been slowly and steadily working our way through this book because Jennings’ brilliant way with words simply forces us to … the thoughts he shares with us simply cannot be rushed. In particular, we have spent a lot of time thinking about those chapters in Acts 4-13 that fall between the exciting events of that first Pentecost in the Christian Calendar and the thrilling story of the Apostle Paul’s Missionary Journeys. With the exception of the story of the Conversion of Saul/Paul of Tarsus (Acts 9) these chapters are probably, if not the most neglected in Acts, certainly the most rushed through, such is the Church’s obsession with ‘Pauline Theology’ (as against the Teaching of Jesus in the Gospels). But what pearls have emerged for us as we have slowly and prayerfully worked through what these extraordinary passages of Scripture reveal.
Thinking about what God might be saying, at the beginning of this New Year, to us, to our church at Abbey, and even to others wider afield, we have especially felt enlightened, encouraged and challenged by the story of God’s dealings with the Apostle Peter and the Roman Centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10). When we read the Scriptures together we are continually looking for God’s ‘now word’ to us – that rhema word (Ephesians 6:17) that stands out from the page, that comes to us as if underlined in red ink by the Holy Spirit. And this whole passage seemed to be just that!
We are familiar with the story. Peter, seeking to listen to God and make sense of his new-found Christian faith, is already beginning to move beyond the man-made restrictions of his Jewish faith. He has already stepped outside of the comfort zone of religious respectability by staying at the house of a tanner named Simon (Acts 9:43), a man designated ‘unclean’ by the religious Jews because of his profession. God is already revealing to Peter that the Good News of the Gospel is not just for Jews but for all – even for those respectable society deems unacceptable, beyond the pale. Whilst staying at Simon the Tanner’s house, Peter has a vision of a sheet descending from heaven full of ‘unclean’ animals that no self-respecting Jew would consider eating … and God tells him to kill and eat them (v.13)! Unknown to Peter, at exactly the same time Cornelius, a god-fearing Gentile (who lives a good distance away in Caesarea) experiences an angelic visitation instructing him to invite Peter to visit him because Peter has some great news that Cornelius (in his quest to really know God for himself) both needs and longs to hear. Those of us familiar with the story can ‘join up the dots’ but right now Cornelius doesn’t know what Peter is going to tell him, and Peter is really, really confused because it seems God is asking him to do something that completely goes against the grain … against everything he had been previously taught God didn’t approve of? Peter is so stunned, so numbed, by this that God has to repeat the vision twice more (v.16) before Peter wakes from his self-inflicted stupor.
Even then Peter resists the divine command. Even when Cornelius’ servants knock at the door to extend their Master’s invitation Peter is still ‘wondering about the meaning of the vision’ (v.17), ‘still thinking about the vision’ (v.19). ‘Surely,’ we say to ourselves, ‘anyone with an ounce of common sense would immediately link the two occurrences – the command to kill and eat the alleged unclean animals and the request from a bunch of Gentiles?’ But for Peter this is all too extraordinary. He is suddenly, almost forcibly, being asked to slow down and catch sight of the birth pangs of God’s new order (which actually is not new at all but something God planned from the very beginning) – that the Good News, the Gospel, is not just for Jews but for all peoples, everywhere. Indeed. It takes a divine kick up the backside by the Holy Spirit to get Peter moving again (vs.19,20).
Peter is not being disobedient. Indeed, as Jennings astutely recognises, ‘In Peter we have a servant who lives on the other side of betrayal, denial, repentance, and forgiveness. His obedience was refined through suffering and trial, beatings and death threats. Peter obeys but now that obedience must take flight with the Holy Spirit into an uncharted world where the distinctions between holy and unholy, clean and unclean have been fundamentally upended.’ This is a moment when the old word of God connects to a new word of God, a moment where purity is expanded to cover what has been conceived as impure, a moment of struggle for Peter to allow his vision of faithfulness to God and the covenant with Israel to expand. We are reminded of the oft repeated words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount – a word especially to those entrenched in an immovable religious system, in a hidebound interpretation of Scripture – ‘It has been said to you, but now I say to you’ (Matthew 5:21-33).
For Peter, the crucial question is, ‘Is it possible to be faithful to the God of Israel in a new way?’ As Jennings penetratingly observes, ‘God has brought Peter inside this question and presses him towards its positive answer. This is a risky time, second only to Good Friday and Holy Saturday, in which God risks with Peter and Peter risks with God. Will Peter hear this new word from God, and will Peter believe this is a new word from God?’ If Peter (and his fellow believers) had not believed that this was indeed a new word from God – God’s ‘now word” to them – then Christianity would have at best remained in the backwaters as a small insignificant sect within Judaism, and at worst would probably not have survived at all!
When Julia and I accepted the call to Abbey Baptist Church, Reading in 2018 we came to a historic town centre church that, despite its amazing history, was struggling. Numerically small (around 20 active members at that time) and with a declining, ageing, almost exclusively white British congregation, the future looked bleak. Over the last 18 months, however, we have seen an amazing turn around dating from the time the church held a Vision Day, at the end of which, it committed itself to transitioning into an international, intercultural church and prayer centre (Reading is a large multicultural town with 35% of its inhabitants originating outside the UK and where over 150 different languages are spoken). Since that time (largely as a result of our outreach work amongst refugees, migrants and immigrants) we have seen the church grow significantly both numerically and spiritually with a number of baptisms and Sunday congregations regularly in excess of 100 people drawn from a number of different nations.
In this extraordinary turn around at Abbey – all born of God, I would make clear – I would want to give credit to the bravery of ‘the old Abbeyites’ (as they like to call themselves), that handful of elderly white people who were brave enough to hear from God, and take a courageous step in response to God, that ultimately meant a huge change in the way Abbey had functioned in the past and would continue to do so in the future. Only one person left as a direct result of the cultural changes. There is a strong sense, however, that this is only the beginning of something extraordinary. What does God have in store for us next in this New Year that stretches ahead of us. Will we hear this new word from God, and will we believe this is a new word from God?’
This, however, is not something exceptional … it is meant to be the Christian ‘norm’. ‘This’ according to Jennings ‘is the condition of risk in which Christianity comes to exist and without which authentic Christianity does not exist. This is the risk of faith that comes to each of us … The risk here is found not in believing in new revelations but in new relationships. The new word that God continues to speak to us is to accept new people, different people, that we had not imagined that God would send across our paths and into our lives.’