Easter 5 Acts 11.1-18
Radical inclusion is a bit of a buzz word in church circles at the moment, although precisely what it means and whether it is being achieved is much debated. Inclusion as we understand is not an explicitly Biblical concept and some, like the "Rich Young Ruler" exclude themselves. However, the ministry of Jesus does seem to be one of “widening the circle”, engaging those on the margins or who are deliberately ostracised.
As this week’s reading from Acts highlights, there is nothing new under the sun and inclusion was as contentious in the early church as it is today. Following his visit to the home of Cornelius the centurion, Peter finds himself criticised for eating with uncircumcised men and is forced to justify his actions to the Church in Jerusalem. Should he have shown such radical inclusion in the face of religious conventions and tradition?
Initially Peter had, like those who are now questioning him, assumed that the salvation achieved through Jesus was limited to those who were Jewish. Like many Jews of his day, he would have had little to do with gentiles, and would have deliberately kept himself separate from them. Eating with them in their homes would have been particularly problematic, as there was little reason to suggest that any food served would comply with the Jewish requirements.
Thankfully, God is not constrained by the limits of the human imagination. His plans are for the salvation of the whole world, not just the Jews, and Peter, like it or not, will play his part. Having prepared him by way of a vision, God asks Peter to share the good news with Cornelius’ household. When the Holy Spirit descends upon them, Peter sees no reason to withhold baptism. This convinces the Jerusalem church, who now rejoice that “God has granted even to the Gentiles repentance unto life”. Although the question of how to include the gentiles continues to vex the infant church, there is now no question that salvation extends to them too.
God’s sphere of concern was much wider than the apostles had envisaged. Often, we too, can fail to grasp the full extent of God's grace and mercy. This passage prompts us then, to consider whether our own view of salvation is too narrow. Who are those who we consider outside the scheme of salvation, unworthy, or unimportant, too different from ourselves to matter? Who do we consider beneath our notice or unworthy of our respect? Is God challenging us to tackle our biases?
Historically, Christianity has been an anthropocentric religion. We have thought about the incarnation in terms of God becoming man, rather than the creator becoming part of creation. We have framed the atonement in terms of individual salvation, rather than a renewed heaven and earth, and have privileged making disciples of all nations (Matthew) over proclaiming good news to all creation (Mark), but there is an urgent need to articulate something more inclusive.
Inclusion involves listening to and incorporating the voice of the marginalised and oppressed into theology and praxis. As we finally recognise the extent to which humanity has oppressed the Earth and marginalised the needs of those with whom we share the planet, is it not time to widen our circle, not only to include those people who differ from or disagree with us, but other species, eco-systems and indeed creation itself? That would be a truly radical inclusion.