Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean

Readings: 2 Kings 2: 1 – 2, 6 – 14, Psalm 77: 1 – 2, 11 – 20, Galatians 5: 1, 13 – 25, Luke 9: 51 – 62

Last Thursday night, as Britons were waking up and going to the polls which would end in a result no one seems to have expected, Christine and I were enjoying a delicious iftar. To my shame, I had not known that iftar is the Arabic word for meal, and this was a meal of celebration in the middle of Ramadan, the holy month of Islam. Of course, I am well aware of the importance of meals in both Jewish and Christian traditions – the weekly Shabbat or Sabbath meal focused on the family where the mother gathers everyone together; the annual Passover Meal celebrating the dramatic escape of Israelite slaves from Egypt; the Last Supper enjoyed by Jesus and his disciples and almost certainly based on a Passover Meal; and the Eucharist which Christians celebrate on the first day of each week or even, as we do in St Peter’s Cathedral, daily. There are many examples of meals in both Old and New Testaments and Jesus frequently used a meal or banquet to describe the Kingdom of Heaven.

What I had not known is that meals are just as important to Muslim people – and why not? We share a common heritage in being monotheistic people of the Book and in tracing our origins to the Middle East and the all-important concept of hospitality. The ancestor of all three religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – Abraham, was well-known for his hospitality. Later this year we will offer a study course based on Rubrev’s beautiful painting, often thought to represent the Trinity, of Abraham, entertaining God’s messengers to a meal (see Genesis 18).

But back to iftar and our meal on Thursday night. As you probably know Ramadan is kept as a month of prayer and fasting – no food or drink is to be touched during daylight hours. That’s not so bad in the southern hemisphere’s mind-winter time zone, but imagine being in the hot desert climate in the north. One of the five pillars of Islam, fasting is taken very seriously. Everyone, except for young children and those who are pregnant or have some serious illness, fasts. The intention of the fast is to increase piety, teach self-discipline and improve awareness of personal spiritual weaknesses. So far it is not that different from our Christian concept of fasting as practised during Lent and at other times. But it is the breaking of the fast that really caught my attention. Iftar meals are great community events – much wider than family. They are often eaten out of doors and anyone and everyone is invited. Hence our invitation. During this time special gifts of money are given to support organisations that feed the hungry. Table fellowship increases the sense of inclusiveness and belonging. Were I to write about the ideal way of celebrating the Eucharist, I could do a lot worse than quote, as I have just done, from the programme notes given to us last Thursday.

It’s that word ‘inclusive’ that sticks with me. It’s one of the words found on the front page of every service booklet we produce at St Peter’s Cathedral where we proudly state that St Peter’s Cathedral is a Christ-centred, sacramental, inclusive … community. What a great statement. Alleluia!

And then I think of Brexit and the vote taken three days ago. I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of the situation with Britain and Europe, but it does seem to me that the vote was not one for inclusiveness. It reminds me of a particularly dark period of time, which we don’t often read in our Sunday lectionary, of Israel’s history. In the 4th century BC the figurative walls were put up and the people looked inward. Those who had married outside of the nation had to put away their foreign wives. In South African language, the lager was drawn together – the wagons pulled into a circle, everyone huddled inside fearful of the enemy outside!

What can this possibly have to do with St Peter and our patronal festival, or even today’s readings – those for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost incidentally, and not those set for the Feast of St Peter. It’s Peter’s fellow evangelist and apostle, St Paul, who wrote the words that captured my attention and made me want to stay with the Sunday readings and not those set for Petertide. Writing to the Galatians in chapter 5 Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free” and later, “the whole Law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Galatians 5: 1 & 14) Freedom has to do with loving one’s neighbour. And here we were the other night freely enjoying a meal with people of other faiths (for although it was a Muslim iftar meal the guests were intentionally of other and no faith). Love your neighbour – but who is my neighbour? We know well the story which Jesus told in Luke’s Gospel on being asked that question – the story of the Good Samaritan. The unexpected one, the stranger, enemy even, turns out to be the neighbour.

What about Peter? What did he make of this neighbour commandment? One can easily imagine that he agreed with James and John in today’s Gospel reading wanting to call down fire from heaven to consume the wicked Samaritans who would not welcome Jesus and his retinue (see Luke 9: 51 ff). We know Peter struggled with the concept of servanthood Jesus put before the disciples at another meal, when he washed their feet. And Jesus had to tell Peter three times before he got the message that his future job was to take care of the flock, ‘feed my lambs’, all of them – not just those who were like Peter, or those whom he liked and got on with.

Which invites us to consider another meal, one we don’t read at all on the Feast of St Peter, but perhaps should. I am thinking of the meal he was told to prepare in the dream he had one day. You will remember the story; Peter was in Joppa when he had a dream. (Acts 10) In the dream a sale cloth came down from heaven – filled with all living creatures. Peter was told to kill and eat – of any of the animals. As a good Jew he was appalled. He kept strictly the Levitical rules of what was and was not allowed to be eaten. Never would he eat with non-Jews lest he become defiled, made unclean. Peter woke from his dream to find visitors at the door. They were messengers sent from an important man, Cornelius, who lived in Caesarea – about 60km away. Today that would take less than an hour to travel, but in Peter’s day it was a good two day journey along the coast.

Cornelius had issued an invitation to Peter to come and explain to him who and what Jesus was all about. We can only imagine Peter’s surprise at this request. Didn’t they know that he, a Jew, could not possibly associate with Cornelius and his friends – non-Jews, even if they were friendly? And yet there was the dream. Peter may not have been the brightest, I often think of him as one who continually put his foot in it, but he made the connection. “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (Acts 10: 28) The rest, as they say, is history. Peter did talk to Cornelius and the Holy Spirit came upon the assembled company – in exactly the same way as the first disciples had received the Spirit at Pentecost. Amazed, and obedient, Peter baptised Cornelius – one of the first non-Jews in the church. (Acts 10: 48)

How different it could have been! You and I would certainly not be here today celebrating our Patronal Festival in this much-loved, much-prayed in sacred space of St Peter’s Cathedral. Two chapters before today’s reading from Galatians (Galatians 3: 28) St Paul writes “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” For Peter and for Paul there could be no shutting of the borders, no withdrawal behind the city walls or the imagined safety of the wagons or the boundaries of nationality. No – all are one in Christ.

Next week Australia goes to the polls. You will have the privilege of exercising your democratic right to vote. I say ‘you’ and ‘your’ for I am a resident alien and do not have a vote here. Will your freedom in Christ influence your vote? Will the inclusiveness we are so proud of at St Peter’s Cathedral make a difference to where you put your mark? Who will you invite to come to the table?