When you look into the Bible and begin to interrogate it for stories of discernment or guidance, you do find a lot of strange things happening. Actually the Bible is pretty strange all round. Some of it seems at times inpenetrable to me.
I’m probably not supposed to say that as an Anglican priest. But I hope the effect will not be to unsettle people but to release them from feeling inadequate because they struggle too. I think there’s a whole other post here waiting to be written. But I think for the moment I must lay those thoughts aside and press on with what I wanted to discuss here, which is the third of the sessions I ran on the recent weekend away for the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s.
In the preceding session on our weekend, we considered how we might receive direction from unexpected sources. Alongside that we experimented with the charism of prophecy as we considered an issue that is about the long term future of the Anglican mission in Somerstown.
This time we looked at the relationship between visionary leadership and the wider missionary community as we considered an issue that is much closer on our horizon. (In the subsequent session we thought about a very immediate question.) We looked at the story in Acts 10 and 11 of Peter’s vision, the expansion of mission that followed, and the wider Church’s response.
It’s interesting to me that the one to whom (according to the fourth gospel) Jesus says: ‘feed my sheep’ — a seemingly pastoral comission — ends up (according to the book of Acts) leading the Church in mission. Now of course I’m stitching two narratives together here that may or may not have had any influence on each other. But if I may be allowed to proceed on the basis of the wider canon rather than just a single author/redactor, I think this is gryst to my mill. When people have asked me: ‘But how will we be fed?’ I have most frequently returned to an assertion that following God in mission is how we are fed. And so, taking the New Testament as a whole, I am happy to affirm that Peter, charged by Christ with feeding the ‘flock’ does so by leading them into new dimensions of mission – he is the first to take the gospel into a Gentile home. It seems to me to be only a logical outworking of Jesus’ own response to the question of how he would be fed. Jesus said: ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.’
The second part of that question as people ask it – indeed I was asked it this weekend by a group of ordinands in training – is expressed as concern for me. I’m not sure the concern is always genuine but maybe I’m just an old cynic. ‘How do you get fed?’ Above all, my answer to that is: by getting involved with God in mission. I don’t get the kind of weekly teaching that others are looking for. But I am learning every day. And of course I have the benefit of working with a trusted colleague with whom I pray daily and meet weekly. It’s very difficult to ensure that our meetings are focused on prayer and theological reflection instead of just ‘business’. (Yes I know we shouldn’t make a divide between what’s spiritual and what’s not. But believe me, some of the stuff we have to deal with week by week is neither inspiring or uplifting!) Nonetheless that relationship is a source of stimulation and growth for me. But above all, I am spiritually fed, sustained, enlivened, encouraged, challenged, shaped, whatever you want to call it through being with Jesus in the world.
I’ve lost the thread again, haven’t I! Forgive me for riding my hobby horse all the way through this reflection on Peter’s vision.
On the other hand, to be fair to myself, it’s not entirely irrelevant. I think the point that Peter feeds the church by leading them in adventurous mission is a valid one. But having banged on about that – at length [sorry] – what else can we say about discernment through this passage that we looked at on our weekend away?
- THE RIGHT PLACE?
I’ve often heard evo charismatic types talking about being in the ‘right place’ to hear from God. But I don’t think Peter is there. He’s hungry and tired. He goes up on the roof and falls into a ‘trance’. It sounds to me like Peter is either knackered and falls asleep, or his blood sugar drops so low that he starts hallucinating. Now I’m not saying that Peter isn’t in the right place spiritually. There’s no suggestion that he isn’t but he seems to me to look for all the world like someone who is overworked and under pressure. And yet in the midst of his exhaustion, when his body finally forces him to rest, he hears from God.
I don’t want to equate my experience with Peter’s but I think Peter’s story here does connect a little with my own. It’s often on my days off, when I really want to be switching off from the pressures that my role inevitably brings, that I somehow manage to have the most clear thinking about the issues I’m facing. I’m not suggesting that those occasions are always or perhaps ever about me hearing from God. I don’t think God, having established sabbath as a creation ordinance, would particularly or especially want to frustrate my desire for rest and recreation. But it may be that on occasion for me, as for Peter, a pause from overwork allows me to finally hear the still small voice that has been speaking to me as my unconscious mind has continued to wrestle with issues of finding a way forward. Which brings me on to my next point…
- THE UNCANNY
In her book, the Creative Mind, Margaret Boden writes about those moments of sudden inspiration that scientists and artists often report. These often appear to interrupt our conscious thinking. Margaret Boden’s thesis, developed through her extensive research into cognition, is that the unconscious mind continues to work on problems while the conscious mind is doing other things. The interruptive nature of the moments when the unconscious mind furnishes the conscious mind with a new insight has led some to the idea that they therefore must come from outside ourselves. I don’t see why these moments cannot be both inspired and the conclusion of an unconscious process. ‘Uncanny’ refers to experiences that are both familiar and strange. These moments of insight will inevitably be of that sort. But is that a credible explanation for what is going on for Peter here. On the face of it, this text seems to suggest a sudden God-given visionary experience that radically transforms Peter’s mental space. This is a paradigm shift moment. But I think there’s a familiar unfamiliarity about what Peter experiences at this point. We can focus on the shocking nature of this experience for Peter as a Jewish man and see it as a wholly revolutionary moment for him. It is revolutionary. It is strange. But there’s also a sort of logic to it if we consider the whole of Peter’s narrative.
Peter is a man for whom the expression of the love of God for outsiders has some precedent. The whole of the Jewish identity had been focused on Jerusalem and the temple. To be Galilean was to be a ‘hick’, an outsider. Peter is disconnected from the arena where the proper worship of God takes place. And yet he is called by one whom he increasingly understands as making present the divinity of God in Galilee. In fact this man who he comes to call Messiah is Galilean himself. God comes to him, the outsider, as an outsider. And since Jesus’ ascension, he has had experiences of God connecting with outsiders through him. On the day of Pentecost, Peter preaches not to native Jerusalemites, but to diaspora Jews visiting the city from all over the Greco-Roman world, most of whom don’t even appear to speak the lingo. And then Peter has ended up endorsing Philip’s ministry among the Samaritans – an absolutely despised people as far as Jewish people are concerned.
His experiences up to this point might well have suggested to Peter that the love of God is reaching out in an ever-widening circle. This would have been something that Peter would doubtless have puzzled over consciously and, most likely, unconsciously too. In the light of all that, Peter’s step into the Gentile world doesn’t look so much like a totally unexpected change of direction but more like a logical expression of God’s embrace of the other particularly in Peter’s ministry.
This is a paradigm shift for Peter. But it’s a predictable paradigm shift. It transforms his mental and spiritual landscape but in a direction in which he was, to some degree already travelling.
- AUTHORITY: FOCUSED AND DISPERSED
There is a good deal of authority invested in Peter. (How much depends on your churchmanship!) But he is clearly for a time, the leader of the Church in Jerusalem and its mission. Authority has been invested in him by Christ himself. Peter does not immediately consult on this new direction for the Church’s mission. He pioneers it in response to his vision. And then he shares the story with the wider Church.I am not much of a one for power – having it or reaching after it – at least I like to think I’m not. But I recognise that there is a degree of authority vested in me by virtue of both my ordination(s) and my licence. I am engaged in mission here in Somerstown with the authority of the local inheritor of the apostolic commission: the Bishop.
I think this story and that fact suggests that there are times when those with responsibility for leading the local church in mission are called upon to press forward with a new direction. On occasion to say: ‘This is where we’re going’.
My colleague and I are saying something like that in regards to the issue of whether the Anglican mission in Somerstown is best served by there being two parishes or one. We are clear that there should be one parish.
But there is no absolute authority at work here or in the first century Church. If we model our discernment process on this occasion we’re looking at, it becomes apparent that there are some moments where it’s legitimate for vision to come from authorised leaders, not the whole community. And even for those leaders to pioneer the initial expression of that vision.
However, there does come a moment when that vision and its pioneering inception do need to come back to the whole community for affirmation or (presumably) or rejection. Peter comes back to the Jerusalem church to share the story of his experiences with Cornelius & Co. The Church affirms that this vision and action of Peter’s is an authentic expression of its mission, as much as it opens up a whole new dimension of the experience and outworking of God‘s saving action in Christ.
In our setting, Alex and I are saying one parish for Somerstown and pioneering it by working as close colleagues. But in order for the reality to match the vision, that vision and action must be tested by the church communities it will affect – not just the two parishes but the wider cluster, deanery and diocese as well as the patrons and ecumenical partners.
This idea is a much loved device of Richard Dawkins in his attempts to debunk providence and God’s being. Religious people are always looking for meaning in random events that aren’t there – so I think he would say. It’s not remarkable that events coincide. It’s simply statistically inevitable.
I don’t disagree with that. I actually do think that coincidences are, on the whole, real chance events. I don’t think really that they arise because of magic or direct interference in circumstances by divine agency. But that doesn’t mean that I think they’re devoid of meaning. On the contrary, I think coincidences are pregnant with meaning – because it is we humans who find and assign meaning in chance events. But also, along with Chris Sunderland, author of In a Glass Darkly (see the appendix to his book, pages 262-269), I want to affirm that events that coincide by pure chance are also the means by which God’s purposes unfold. This brings us back to where I started a couple of posts back. There’s a role for chance and particularly coincidence as we exercise discernment.
Peter’s vision happened just before Cornelius’ two representatives arrived. We can choose to think on the one hand that it’s because God directly intervened to ‘fix’ the circumstances. Or we can choose to believe that coincidences are, by their very nature, the surprising coming together of otherwise unconnected occurrences in ways that stimulate our capacities for pattern recognition and meaning-making. This event only seems remarkable because it has been recorded but that’s only because the thousands of other occasions when coincidences didn’t happen aren’t!
But however we interpret this phenomenon, I would still want to allow for and recognise the role of chance in finding a way forward. Maybe God fixed these particular events because this had been God’s plan from before the beginning of time or maybe this real coincidence provided the opportunity for the realisation of God’s desire that non-Jews should have the opportunity to come to faith in Christ. It doesn’t matter. We should look at coincidences as opportunities for discernment.
I planned beforehand (and then forgot) to talk about the role of the abbot in Benedict’s Rule during this session of our weekend away. That seems to me to offer a helpful model of the relationship between authorised leadership and the whole community. A matter for another post I think. This one is, surely, long enough!