Sermons

Sun, May 06, 2018

Changing the construct

Series:Sermons

Physically, the human eye can perceive millions of colours.

However, we don't all recognise--

or describe--

those colours in the same way.

Remarkably, researchers have found that most of the world's languages have five basic colour terms--

but there's considerable variety in those five terms.

For example, some languages--

including, historically, Welsh and Japanese--

don't have separate terms for blue and green.

They use the same word for both.

 

Our language--

and our culture--

shapes how we perceive, categorise, and understand our world.

What we see--

and how we understand--

is fundamentally shaped by our enculturation.

To make sense of our world--

and, especially, our social world--

our brains construct mental patterns or models.

We make connections between our experiences.

We overlay them with assumptions and values--

drawn from past experience...

and cultural conditioning--

and these patterns or models then shape the way that we experience reality thereafter.

Thus, when we encounter something new--

a new experience or a new piece of knowledge--

we filter it through this worldview:

we try to make sense of it...

by reference to these mental patterns, frameworks, and models that we have constructed.

But this worldview doesn't just help us to make sense of our experience;

it also shapes and controls what we experience.

In effect, our worldview acts both as a lens and as a set of blinkers.

It can prevent us from seeing, hearing, or experiencing things... 

which don't fit with how we have constructed our world.

And, when we do encounter an experience that doesn't fit--

or can't be explained by our existing worldview--

then we're forced to rethink...

to rearrange all of our other patterns, models, and images...

to re-draw our whole worldview.

And nowhere is that probably more the case--

or more difficult it seems--

than in terms of our religious worldview.

We all have a certain construct or image of God--

one that has been shaped by our culture, tradition, and experience.

But this image of God also controls and shapes how we experience God.

How we experience God--

and the sort of God that we experience--

will be determined by the image of God that we have constructed.

The image or metaphor of God as 'Father'...

is one that arose among our ancestors in faith...

as they sought to describe what they understood and experienced of God's providential care...

but, also...

the sense of loyalty and obligation that they felt in return.

They understood God as 'Father' according to the model of their world and culture.

Having inherited that image, we do the same.

We understand God according to how we have experienced our fathers;

and that shapes how we understand and experience God.

 

All of which brings us to this morning's reading from the Book of Acts.

Here, the author presents Peter undergoing a radical change in his God-construct:

"Peter began to speak to them: 'I truly understand that God shows no partiality'."

Unfortunately, our English translations don't do it justice.

Literally, in the Greek, Peter says, "Truly, I am beginning to comprehend".

The author is describing a process of change and re-thinking.

Some translations say that what Peter was beginning to comprehend was that "God shows no partiality".

Some older translations read, "God is no respecter of persons".

In one sense, that isn't a particularly novel idea--

because we do find it in the Old Testament:

the idea that God isn't swayed by a person's wealth or status...

or even how they looked...

despite the fact that all of those were important within their culture and world.

It was an affirmation that God wasn't biased or corruptible;

that God didn't play favourites.

And yet, that concept was only understood in intra-Hebrew terms--

God wasn't biased and didn't play favourites among the Hebrew peoples.

After all, it was axiomatic that the people of Israel, as a whole, were chosen--

they were God's favoured people.

What was truly radical for Peter, in this story--

and for the intended audience of Acts--

was that God didn't respect those ethnic distinctions...

or religio-cultural boundaries.

 

Our reading comes after Peter had received a vision--

which he interprets as a divine message--

that he shouldn't regard as unclean or impure what God has declared clean...

or acceptable.

He's then summoned to the house of a Roman centurion--

Cornelius--

who has had a vision telling him to send for Peter.

Once again, the author of Acts crafts the story carefully...

infusing the whole with an almost magical element...

labouring the point that all of this takes place under direct divine dictation...

in fulfilment of divine will.

The author of Acts is suggesting that God doesn't practice favouritism...

period;

that God isn't bound by their traditions, expectations, or boundaries;

or even their sensibilities.

God doesn't play favourites.

Ever!

 

And yet, the further that Peter's speech goes on... 

the less that he grasps the full implications of what he claims to be realising.

He begins by acknowledging that God accepts people of any race...

provided that they respect God and do what's right.

But, then, he begins preaching at Cornelius and his companions... 

trying to convert them.

But, with a delicious touch of irony, the author has the Spirit act...

interrupting Peter's speech.

Note...

none of those present makes any sort of response to Peter's preaching;

there's no profession of faith...

no act of repentance...

no promise of change in their way of life or circumstances.

The only response comes from God--

who intervenes to cut Peter short--

demonstrating, unequivocally, that Peter still hasn't understood.

God doesn't play favourites, period.

God's acceptance is more radically inclusive than we can imagine.

God accepts unconditionally.

It's we humans who place limits or restrictions on that.

Whether it's expecting--

as no doubt Peter and his companions expected--

that these people ought to be circumcised and become Law-abiding...

giving up all of their pagan religious practices--

which, of course, Cornelius couldn't do as a Roman soldier;

or whether it's Christians in more recent times...

who have gone forth as missionaries to preach the Gospel...

because, without it, they believe that people are destined for hell.

In this story, the author of Acts offers a resounding, "No!"

God is not like that.

 

But we still struggle to grasp that, don't we?

In so many ways, we continue to believe in...

worship and proclaim...

a partial God.

It's at the heart of so much of our theology...

our hymns...

and our missionary endeavours.

It has so shaped our God-construct that that's how we experience God...

and that's what we expect God to be like.

But, maybe, like the Peter of this story...

it's time to admit that our God-construct needs to change;

that we, too, are only beginning to understand. 

 

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