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Sunday Service, 28th June 2020

Opening prayer

Almighty and eternal God, faithful to your people across the centuries of time, we pause in what we are doing at present to acknowledge you and give you your rightful place within our lives. Help us not only to give you central place but to keep you there at the centre of all that we do and say and think.

As the months have passed we have come to realise how much we need each other and how much we have missed each other’s company. There is a yearning, deep within our hearts, to be able to join together in worship and in service as soon as it is safe to do so. We look forward to that day with anticipation.

Forgive us our debts as we forgive others. The Lord’s prayer couples together forgiveness and being forgiven. Help us, Lord, to show the same depth of forgiveness to others that our Lord exhibited during the days of his earthly life. We admit that the process of forgiving others can at times be difficult; help us, amidst those difficulties, to open our hearts and our lives to those who have wronged us.

Be with us in the days that lie before us, be our rock and our salvation, our Shepherd and Guardian of our souls.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hymn 173 Sing to God new songs of worship. Listen here.

Scripture Reading

Acts 10: 115 (NRSV)

In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, ‘Cornelius.’ He stared at him in terror and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’ He answered, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.’ When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.

About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, for a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’

Sermon by Rev. Robert Gemmell: Time to move on

I will never forget my first week as a student at London Bible College. I was one among some three hundred souls, stuck in a building on the Capital’s Marylebone Road – a foreigner in a foreign land. Had I realised that it would have been fairly simple to board an overnight bus back to Glasgow on the Friday evening and return to London overnight on the Sunday evening I would have found my way to Victoria Bus Station. But I didn’t. Instead I found my way to a football ground on the Saturday afternoon, and went up to Westminster Chapel on the Sunday morning.

Looking back over the years I am glad that the doors of London Bible College opened up for me. From my narrow, non-conformist Scottish background, the Lord used those four years in London to begin the process of opening my line of vision to alternative ways of worship and understanding of God’s truth. I would now accept my earlier position as a first landing stage from which to propel myself out into a wider, more diverse, more exciting world.

Peter’s experience, as recorded by Luke in Acts Ch 10, must have been of a similar nature. There was nothing particularly wrong with the theological position he held at the time. It was based on his Jewish heritage, something he, no doubt, held dear. But through his extraordinary vision came the startling realisation that he had to move on and out from where he stood. And that is a process that none of us finds easy. For Peter it meant a complete turnaround from positions he had held throughout his adult life, a rethinking of his philosophy for life. For him it could almost be described as ‘a new birth’. The Gospel’s mission was to be worldwide: ‘Go then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples; baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28: 19–20)

Back to Luke’s account recorded for us in Acts Ch 10, back to its two main characters Cornelius and Peter. Cornelius, resident in Caesarea, is described as a captain in the Roman regiment called ‘The Italian Regiment’. He was devout, a man of prayer, a seeker after God; someone who had a great respect for the Jewish people and their traditions. An ‘angel’ of the Lord told him to send for Peter. Two of his house servants and a soldier were soon on their way to find Peter in Joppa.

By this time, Peter had found his way to Joppa, about 30 miles down the coast from Caesarea. The following day Peter went up on to the roof of the house to pray. Prayer led to a vision, a vision in which Peter sees a sheet of unclean animals descending from heaven and is told to eat. These animals had all been declared unclean by Jewish law as contained in the book of Leviticus and it was prohibited to eat them.

Take a moment to join Peter in his rooftop experience as this great sheet descends from heaven. ‘Get up Peter!’ says a voice. ‘Kill and eat!’ Peter is horrified. ‘Certainly not. I’ve never done that before and I’m not going to start now. It’s unclean.’ With our modern perceptions and knowledge of the New Testament it’s very difficult for us to grasp just how significant this was for Peter.

We are then presented with a response which has echoed down through the centuries and still challenges all kinds of prejudice today. ‘Do not consider anything unclean that God has declared clean.’ While the context is about unclean foods I think it is possible to understand its significance much more widely to say that it is not our task – or indeed our right – to make subjective decisions on other people’s lives.

In bringing our two characters back to centre stage we become aware of the uncertainty that the vision produced on Peter’s understanding – what did it mean? What was the Lord saying to him? Here we find ourselves in the company of a first-century Galilean trying desperately to make sense of these extraordinary and revolutionary ideas. On the other hand we also find ourselves sharing company with a first-century Roman captain accepting that he was at that moment outside the people of God, but waiting humbly to hear a fresh and startling message.

Enter Cornelius’s cortege, their explanation to Peter, Peter’s acceptance of their invitation to the home of Cornelius, his journey to Caesarea and subsequent preaching of the Gospel, evoking as it did a positive response from the host: ‘While Peter was still preaching the Holy Spirit came upon all those who were listening to his message. The Jewish believers who had come from Joppa with Peter were amazed that God had poured out his gift of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles also’ (verses 44–45).

Peter’s eyes were now clearly open to the Spirit’s prompting. He had moved from a position of thinking the Gospel was only for the Jews to understanding that it was indeed to go out into all the world and that now included the Gentiles.

I am as guilty as the next on the subject of unthinkingly accepting a situation. I well remember taking a college friend of mine to watch a Rangers v Celtic match at Ibrox soon after we finished at LBC. Rog supported Spurs in those far-off days and we had previously spent a few afternoons up in Tottenham of a Saturday. But back to Ibrox and to Rog’s amazement at 45,000 spectators verbally abusing 45,000 other supporters at the other end of the stadium and that being tolerated, even by me, as ‘acceptable behaviour’. LBC had started a process within my life but I certainly didn’t arrive back in Scotland as the finished article. On that day at Ibrox, Rog helped me to see that my acceptance of the supporters’ behaviour had been unthinking.

We can all add our own idiosyncrasy to the subject, whether it be our acceptance or non-acceptance of the views and behaviour of others with whom we have come into contact with over the years, or our belittling of things that others hold dear. Believe it or not there are some hymns that I would seldom, if ever, choose for a worship service but I realise that I must keep telling myself that it is not my task to belittle folks who enjoy them.

As I suggested, LBC began a process within my life, a process that I believe extends to today. College taught me to think things through for myself. It taught me a certain line of theology but stressed that there were other strands of theology which had to be considered and learned from. Yes, college taught me a great deal, but it didn’t really prepare me for a ministry in Drumchapel in Glasgow. But my social work course at Jordanhill helped. That and the experience and wisdom of others continued ‘the process’ that is still open ended today.

What are the things in life that we would want to hold on to no matter the circumstances? Things that are not only precious to us but are also fundamental to our faith and to our Christian walk? There is a story told of a little boy saying his prayers. He’d just been learning about poverty and sharing. He asked God to help poor people and help him to share everything he had. Then in a small voice he said, ‘Except my little rabbit.’ What are our little rabbits? They may be things which are part of who we are, but they may be things we should consider relinquishing.

I have often said that I wish there could have been a follow up to the Gospels, telling us how situations resolved themselves over the years. For example, what happened to Zacchaeus? Or to the rich young ruler – did he change his mind over time?

Another question I would like answered is – what if? What if Peter hadn’t responded to the message conveyed in that vision? How would that have changed the pages of history over the years?

But he did respond positively and through his response not only was Cornelius brought to a living faith but a door that had been closed to the Gentile world was pushed firmly open. The opening of that door has allowed us to know the Good News of Christ’s love and through it we have found – and continue to find – that his love is for us, and his Spirit within us allows us to extend that love to others whoever they are and whatever their circumstances, just as he himself did. Every day is a learning day and a day for new experiences. May your experiences this week enable you to be as Christ to all with whom you come in contact.

Photo by Nidharshan Viraj on Unsplash

Hymn 536 – May the mind of Christ my Saviour. Listen here.

Prayer of thanksgiving and intercession

God of compassion, we pray for the many who are oppressed by political and economic circumstances. Those persecuted on grounds of faith, or ethnicity, or background.

Families torn apart by age-old feuds, petty tensions, ill-founded jealousies and destructive attitudes.

The men and women ground down by lack of food and opportunities of inclusion.

The children oppressed by discrimination and disadvantage, lack of resources and failures of education.

The downtrodden and those seen as unable to make a positive contribution to the life of the world.

Empower, encourage and endorse the disciples of Jesus who try to address the needs of the isolated and lonely.

The workers who day by day bring food and shelter, care and compassion to the hungry and the homeless.

Those who hear the world’s poorest cry out for justice and mercy and respond without question or analysis of impact.

The generous who see gifts always as opportunities for sharing their good fortune.

The faithful, who day by day take time to pray and listen attentively to the Word and welcome the presence of Your spirit among them in their daily lives and for whom the proclamation of the Gospel is a privilege.

In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen

With thanks to Rev Nigel Robb, Presbytery Clerk of St Andrews Presbytery

The Blessing