Wednesday, 20 April 2016

“Christian Humanism”: a sermon (Acts 11:1-18)

Perhaps you remember the television commercial from some years ago in which two Australian backpackers were travelling through the Himalayas. They were eating a meal in a local village. One of the backpackers used sign language to ask their hosts what they were eating. One of the villagers drew a picture of a sheep. The backpackers say “lamb” with some reassurance - until the villager finished his drawing to show exactly which part of the sheep – which part of a male sheep - provided the meat. The Australians then reached into their backpacks for the upset stomach remedy which the commercial was advertising.
Many of us have strong reactions to particular foods. Sometimes, it’s just an individual preference. At other times, it’s because of an allergy. For many people, there are cultural reasons why they believe some foods are good to eat and others are not. For many people, there are religious reasons for their choice.
  • Muslims and most religious Jews don’t eat pork, ham, bacon, or any other meat from a pig.
  • Most religious Jews also don’t mix meat and dairy products in the same meal. Nor do they eat shellfish.
  • Most Hindus and Buddhists are vegetarians.
  • Muslims, Mormons, and some members of other faith groups don’t drink alcoholic beverages.
  • Mormons also don’t drink coffee or tea.
For many people, there are religious reasons for their choice not to eat some foods or drink some beverages.
In our lesson from the Book of Acts, Peter was forced to confront his religious-based attitudes to food. While he was praying, he had a vision in which he saw food of all kinds. Some food was kosher; Jews (such as Peter) were allowed to eat it. Other food wasn’t kosher; Jews couldn’t eat it. A voice called out to Peter, instructing him to eat. Peter identified the voice as the voice of God and replied, “By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
God’s response came loud and clear: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
At the simplest possible level, this story about Peter’s dream is for the purpose of explaining why Christians don’t follow the Jewish dietary laws, even though Jesus and all the earliest disciples (such as Peter) were all Jews. 
Now, for myself, I’m happy that I don’t need to follow the Jewish dietary laws. The one about not eating shellfish doesn’t bother me in the least, but I eat bacon, ham, and pork (far less since the time I gave them up for Lent earlier in the year). There are many foods I enjoy, such as lasagna or pizza, which involve mixing meat and dairy products. 
Personally, I have the greatest respect for the Jewish people, their religion, their spirituality, their culture, their ethics, and their many positive contributions to the shaping of our contemporary society. I believe that much of what is good in Christianity is a direct result of our heritage from Judaism. I also believe that much of what is bad in Christianity is a result of our ignoring one or another aspect of our heritage from Judaism. Many of you know I’ve been personally involved in multifaith relations, particularly Christian-Jewish relations, through much of my ministry. 
Nevertheless, I’m happy I don’t have to follow a kosher diet. 
Personally, I’m glad that this passage tells us that no foods and no beverages are “off limits” for Christians.
But I believe there’s much more to this lesson than explaining why a Christian can eat a ham sandwich, or even why a Christian can enjoy a glass of wine. I believe that this passage is one of the most important passages in the whole New Testament, outside of the gospels. And it’s about far more than food and drink. It’s about our whole attitude as Christians toward the world around us. 
Despite the words to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” there is a strong tendency among many Christians today to view the world around us as very profane, as hostile, and even as evil.  
I cannot help but feel uneasy at this tendency. I believe that Christians should not isolate ourselves in a warm, fuzzy “Christian” ghetto. We need to be a creative element within the broader society. We need to engage ourselves in the fullness of the community’s life, affirming God’s answer to Peter: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” We need today to recover a sense of what I like to call “Christian humanism”. Now this phrase has some problems in our culture. 
One problem is that many extreme secularists have tried to claim a stranglehold on the word “humanist” as a sort-of up-market term for an atheist or any other extreme secularist.   
The other problem is that the more narrow and rigid sort of Christian uses the term “humanist” as an insult hurled both at those they regard as extreme secularists, as well as at the sort of Christian – such as you and I – whom they regard as soft on extreme secularists.
 Both of these uses of the term ignore the fact that, when the term “humanist” was first used during the Renaissance, the people who were so described by this word were not militant non-believers, but people such as Erasmus or Sir Thomas More, people of a strong and committed Christian faith but also with a commitment to live out the faith in the midst of a broader culture.
In this connection, using the term “humanist” not as some contemporary people misuse it, but in its real meaning, I believe we need to recover a sense of “Christian humanism”, a conviction that God loves this world, and that God also calls us to love this world in Christ’s name and to be a creative presence in its midst. 
This conviction includes the attitude that God has placed us in a natural world - and a human community - that is: 
  • essentially good - most of the time;
  • essentially reliable - most of the time; 
  • essentially healthy - most of the time.
From this conviction we can celebrate any examples of goodness, mercy, and generosity within the community as signs of God’s presence - whatever the beliefs of those practising these examples of goodness, mercy, and generosity.
From this conviction, we can share an enthusiastic interest (and hopefully an active participation) in the public life of the community, the nation, and the world - knowing that this is the arena of God’s passionate concern.
From this conviction, we can be stimulated by the creative arts, even when the arts are a bit provocative, knowing that human creativity is an extension of God’s creativity.
From this conviction, we can engage in dialogue with people of other faiths and spiritualities, as people who also love (and also are loved) by the same living God.
This “Christian humanism” affirms God’s response to Peter: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 
There are real difficulties, though. 
There are many people in the community outside the church who hold firmly to the old Australian stereotype of Christians as wowsers. Many will assume that we will want to describe much in the world around us as very “profane”. (Remember, the whole stereotype of “Christians-as-wowsers” is one of the two classically convenient excuses for many of our neighbours to reject the Christian faith, alongside the denominational conflict that was already a thing of the past a generation ago.) Still, there are many in the community who are all too happy to assume that all Christians will always be negative, bigoted and narrow-minded wowsers.
Then there is the sort of Christian who assumes that it is our Christian duty to maintain the old stereotype; ... our duty to be wowsers; ... our duty to be negative, bigoted, and narrow-minded; ... our duty to call many things “profane” ... often ... and loudly. They’ll think we’re letting down the side if we are too closely engaged with the culture around us. They’ll call our Christian commitment - and maybe even our right to describe ourselves as Christians - into question if we seem too accepting toward the wider community.
If we seek to make links between our faith and the life of the community, we risk being misunderstood - both by other Christians and by the wider community. With God’s help, we can wear these difficulties.
In Peter’s dream, I believe God challenged him to a “Christian humanism”; a “Christian humanism” that went far beyond questions of whether or not Christians can eat a cheeseburger. I believe God challenges us to a similar “Christian humanism”; a conviction that God loves this world, and that God calls us also to love this world in Christ’s name and to be a creative presence in its midst. 
“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
The meal we celebrate in our worship is a sign of this. We use common elements of bread and wine as a means of God’s close relationship with his people. The bread and the wine themselves are not particularly sacred to begin with, but they become God’s own means of relating intimately with all who would draw near.   
“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

(For a hymn based on this passage, you may be interested in following this link.)

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