Scripture Readings Acts 10 and John 10
I think it was 1990 and I was assistant minister in First Antrim. I used to always vary my route into the city. One night I took a wrong turn over the mountain and arrived into a part of west Belfast that was like an alien planet. The green, white and orange… the graffiti… It was almost claustrophobic for a Culchie from Ballymena.
Now I wasn’t sectarian. I was a Horslips fan and loved a bit of Moving Hearts. I painted my face Green, White and Orange for the 1990 World Cup games. David O’Leary’s penalty against Romania and Packy Bonner… oh Packy Bonner! I had an Irish flag in the house…
BUT boy was this uncomfortable. There was an uneasy fearfulness… a knot in my stomach… almost an out of control panic …until the colours went neutral.
I imagine it must be how Peter was feeling when he was heading into Cornelius’s house in the reading we read earlier.
Peter had had a disturbing dream. God was telling him something and changing some of what he most held dear. He has a dream where he argues with God about what he shouldn’t eat.
Surely not Lord… I am a good Jew and I know I shouldn’t eat this… this is wrong… He questions God’s judgement and leading… He has the dreams THREE times.
While he is wrestling with the dreams and what God is saying to him he gets a knot churning invitation.
Cornelius a Roman Centurion. Now remember who they were and what they did. The bullying occupiers who put Jews on crosses around the country. Violent oppressors and murderers!
As Peter himself said to Cornelius and his family “You are well aware that it is against the law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I shouldn’t call any man impure or unclean.”
I wonder if Peter was drawn back in his mind to our Gospel Reading. Peter was there when Jesus explained that he was the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. Images there of “Behold The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.
Jesus hinted in John 10 that they would have to cross thresholds of mercy… outside their own sheep pens to reach other sheep.
Here it happening in Peter’s life. Cornelius wasn’t of his sheep pen… could he be one of God’s sheep.
So, Peter goes to Cornelius and leads this Gentile into an understand of God’s mercy… BUT if we think this story is about Christian Peter crossing the threshold of mercy into the pagan Cornelius’s house to convert him we are not understanding the point.
Luke, who is writing this story down, has told us that Cornelius already believe in God, acted on his belief and prayed. And that God had told him to invite Peter to explain the Gospel to him.
The real conversion here, is that once Peter crosses that threshold it is the Christian Peter who gets his Christian life smashed up and reworked.
What happens here is against all Peter’s preconceptions and prejudices. The Gentiles are lost, unclean, confused. He was not even supposed to be among such people. And when he crosses that threshold he discovers God is already there. All that Peter thought was right was made wrong and all he thought was wrong was suddenly right.
The Christian Church changes right here. This is a big story that opens the Church up to the entire world. God was up for sharing his mercy way beyond Jewish prejudices and pre conceptions… and thresholds!
I have had those Peter moments…
Growing up, the Catholic Church was beyond the threshold.
So I remember sitting on my own in a Catholic Cathedral in Shanghai and praying, “God are you here? Surely you are!” God was dealing with my preconceptions and prejudices.
One day, years later, in Fitzroy, and long before I became minister, I saw Fr Gerry Reynolds in the distance. Should I cross the threshold of mercy and shake hands with a priest. My prejudices were holding me back but there was a nudge of the Holy Spirit… so I did… and mercy surged back through Fr Gerry to me. We became friends who argued theology and loved each other in Jesus. I miss him almost everyday... and especially tonight.
I remember turning left at Kennedy Way to head up towards Lenadoon to meet Fr Martin Magill. A Ballymena Culchie in Lenadoon! I discovered a whole new city with schools and Churches and Parks and Fuscos Ice Cream! It might even have been those roads I was frightened on in 1990. Friendship with Fr Martin Magill opened up ministry and mission that I had never ever dreamed of.
I, like Peter, found that when I crossed the threshold of Mercy… I found mercy…
God crossed thresholds of mercy.
God made himself vulnerable in a manger of straw.
God, the Good Shepherd, laid down his life for the sheep on a cross of wood.
God burst through the tomb with new hope and life in resurrection.
If that mercy nourishes us in the bread of the eucharist. If that mercy cleanses us in the wine. If, as we remember the redemption of Christ's cross, we through God’s grace are lavished with his love and mercy… then lean in and listen… because God might call us who receive his mercy to take that mercy across the thresholds to the traditional other… those we thought were beyond the pale.
And when we cross the thresholds don’t be surprised when we find God already there… and that his mercy flows back to us from places and people we didn’t think his mercy should be in.
When I crossed the threshold into Lenadoon to visit Fr Martin Magill at Oliver Plunkett’s in 2011 I could have believed what mercy I would become involved in. Over a coffee, a bit like Cornelius and Peter, the Holy Spirit interrupted and we started the 4 Corners Festival that has led lots of people across their corners of Belfast to meet their Cornelius, to give and receive mercy… to bring themselves and the city and wider society that which we hear Jesus coming to bring us in John 10:10: -
Jesus says…”The thief comes to steal and destroy. I have come that you might have life and life in all it’s fulness.” That is why the shepherd laid down his life for the sheep.
So… can I ask us all… to walk through The Door of Mercy at the back of Clonard. It is not a magic door that dispenses mercy… it is a symbolic door… when you have found God’s transformational mercy and grace… walk through it as a commitment to God that you are prepared to be like Peter… that you are up for crossing thresholds of mercy in our wonderful but wounded city… to prove that the mercy of Jesus life, death and resurrection can be the powerful force that heals our hearts, our city, our country and our world.
Let’s do it… let’s cross the threshold of mercy!