Groucho Marx who famously quipped 'I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me.'
What was he railing against? Was it clubs and institutions per se? Was it that he knew that his own deep character flaws? Did he understand the propensity of many clubs and institutions to insist that its members all act and behave in the same way? Did he crave to belong to a club that was so eclectic and diverse that it accepted all manner of folks?
I suspect that it was a mixture of all of the questions that I have just raised and this raises a paradox: we all want to belong, but sometimes, often, we are frightened of what belonging entails, or demands of us. We want to be made welcome, yet at the same time we are afraid of losing are individuality. Yes, we need to be clear clubs and institutions can stifle us and force us to put on a false persona.
And, the Church is no different. At times the Church has failed to understand its own rules. Churches can seek to create a congregation of little me's, moulded in the image of a charismatic leader and his or her acolytes. But, here is the problem Church's like this don't conform to the set of rules described in today's readings.
For our guiding rules – theologies if you prefer – must be inclusivity, diversity, love and grace. Jesus came for all and he wants all to join his Church, even folk like Grouch Marx, even folk like you and me. And, if we fail to get that message out there our aspiration to be an hospitable church will be fairly meaningless.
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter's great vision, must have been scandalous to both Peter himself and the Jewish community. Through the vision Peter is to learn about grace, diversity and inclusion. He is to learn that not every believer is expected to be a theologically modified clone of the other. Grace means widening the parameters, flexing the club rules, opening the doors to all manner of people. Grace means looking beyond mere externalities and accepting that the potential to live a Christ like life, comes from within. It is about the rule that governs our hearts not the clothes we wear or the food we eat. Grace is divine, the law had become a set of human constructs. We must as a Church always try to get to the heart of things.
But, in order to keep any institution afloat, and thriving, we do need some rules, or perhaps at least a rule. And the Church's rule is love. And, it turns out that love is an active and dynamic rule. Love
can't be put under a microscope for analysis, it can't even be hard coded into a set of rules and placed in a governance manual, the Jews, through the Pharisaic elite had tried to do this, and look where this led them. But, love can be experienced and felt and the effects of a community where love rules are not invisible, as Jesus said: 'By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love one for another.'
Love implies looking into the heart of the other and saying 'I know that you are beloved by God.' The twentieth century mystic summed it up like this: 'The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.'
Love, grace, diversity, affirmation, inclusion these must be our guiding rules and principles. These underpin our aspirations to be an hospitable, holy and healing community. We must desire to be community where each and every person knows that that they are known by God, and where they can truly be themselves, for only then will everyone know that we are his disciples, Amen.