It was interesting to me, the other day, my youngest daughter, 9-year-old Susie and I, happened to be eating supper at the table together – Patty and Sarah were away for an appointment – and I suddenly had this moment of awareness, in the middle of mouthfuls of spaghetti, that everything around us was quiet, peacefully quiet, that we were munching our food in blissful silence; each chewing over our own thoughts, just as much as were chewing on our good food.
Neither of us had the need to talk, and yet we were very comfortable simply to be in each other’s presence, simply to be sharing together some extended period of time in unrushed, unhurried silence. It’s hard to put into words, but even though we weren’t talking, rarely had I felt closer to my daughter.
This is exactly what happens out of the holy habits of silent prayer and meditation.
Good things come out of silence. Community is fostered. Friendships are opened up. Social barriers and suspicions seem to dismantle very quickly when you’ve sat in silence with someone. The fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, justice, truth – come to the fore.
Especially these days, in our fast-paced, noisy urban, competitive society, locked into the 24-hour news cycle, the internet and our mobile devices, so much more is the need to reconnect to God, to the Holy One, who resides in the silent depths of our hearts, and fills all of creation with loving presence.
And it is out of that quiet centre, that silent holy habit, that the active exterior life of justice, service and compassion naturally flows. One leads to another.
This is what happens in the Book of Acts, chapter 11 – our second reading today.
First, some background: In the first century, many of the first followers of Jesus were Jews, referred to as Jewish Christians.
But here was the question for that early Church: What to do with the increasing number of non-Jewish people – the Gentiles, Greeks, Romans – who were wanting to follow the way of Jesus? At first, many of the apostles and key leaders of the Christian movement, including Peter, strongly believed that any non-Jew (or Gentile) who wanted to follow the way of Jesus, had first to become a Jew, and adopt all the Torah-related laws and practices like eating kosher food and being circumcised.
But this “policy” created tension between the Jewish Christians, and the Gentile Christians. Gentile Christians didn’t want to become Jews first.
It’s in the midst of this brewing conflict, that we pick up the story in Acts chapter 11, where Peter has a dream in which God tells him that non-Jewish Gentiles are just as legitimate followers of Jesus, as the Jewish Christians, that they are not “unclean”, and do not have first to follow all the Kosher and Torah laws.
In God’s eyes, Gentile Christians are no different than Jewish Christians. No division. No distinction between “them and us.”
Well, Peter is transformed. His world view is broadened. Peter’s fear of the Gentiles crumbles. The chains of old patterns of thought, keeping a barrier between “them and us”, break. Peter is profoundly moved and emboldened to take decisive action in the name of Jesus, to convince the rest of his colleagues in Jerusalem, and to reach out, in wide, loving acceptance, of the Gentile Christians.
And the Christian movement is forever changed, from that point on; more inclusive, embracing “the other.”
God’s movement throughout the sweep of human history, and as evident in the scriptures, has always been one of pushing out the frontiers, widening the circle, embracing others who are “different” in some way with blessing and well-being.
To this day, the Spirit of God continues to challenge, and call the church to new frontiers, to breaking old barriers, and embracing “the other.”
It was Archbishop William Temple who coined this phrase: “The Church’s sole mission and reason for existence, is for the benefit of those who are not yet its members.”
God’s ever-widening circle, with the march of time.
But in the Acts story, here’s the clincher, for me. A seemingly small detail, easy to overlook, but one of significance: Peter had been praying.
This life-changing dream or vision that Peter had, which led to this monumental change for a more inclusive, wider-embracing Christianity in those early centuries – all this came about because a key leader, Peter, was first encountered by the living God in a dream that he had while he had been praying, while he had been spending intentional time in quiet prayer and meditation.
Frequently throughout the book of Acts it’s mentioned how Peter, and the other apostles and disciples pray, regularly. And out of this holy habit of connection with the divine, of living a life of prayer, both individually and together as a community, out of this practice sprang up all the good impulses toward widening the circle of God all-inclusive love, the amazing healing ministries of the apostles and disciples, the passion and joy of discipleship.
I like the real story from some seventy years ago – a powerful example of how the quiet, faithful habits of the people of God over time, eventually lead to bold, edgy and courageous actions of justice and compassion toward others.
A congregation in France had been for years gathering regularly and weekly in their village church to pray, to worship, to listen to God’s word in the scriptures. And over time, they had been regularly hearing the teaching and preaching of their parish priest, Fr. Andre Trocme, who in his sermons and bible studies had always been highlighting the forgiving and non-violent love of Jesus.
Then, war broke out. It was the early 1940s. The Nazis under Hitler were bent on the extermination of the Jewish people, and taking over all of Europe.
These Christians in that village church in occupied France decided to take in and hide hundreds of Jews, so the Nazis wouldn’t get to them, thereby sparing their lives. This was an incredibly bold and heroic act, since any act of resistance against the Nazis would’ve been punishable by death.
When asked later why these Christians did this, they simply said, “We never thought of not doing it.”
No second thought. No `analysis paralysis,’ or risk assessments. No hesitation. A lifetime of holy habits over time prepared them for this moment when the extreme need suddenly arose, and they knew exactly what to do – automatically, un-self-consciously, swiftly.
For the blessing of the world. The well-being of others. God’s ever-widening circle.