Love one another, as I have loved you, 6 Easter (B) – May 13, 2012

May 13, 2012

Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

This is my commandment, Jesus tells his disciples, that you love one another, as I have loved you. The language of commandment is deliberate; the author of John’s gospel is making an explicit reference to God as law-giver to accomplish at least two purposes: to affirm Jesus’ divine mandate, and to help readers to understand the weight given to loving one another.

The law was given to Moses as a gift – the gift of a loving God who desires the best for God’s people. The requirements of the law are not a test that will be graded at the end of life; they are “requirements” for a life lived in God.

Jesus’ commandment to love functions in the same way. The commandment is not expressed as “love each other, or else.” Instead, Jesus reminds his followers that he has loved them, and they are to love one another in the same way – offering themselves to one another with humility, vulnerability, respect and delight. In John’s gospel, Jesus embodies his commandment by washing his disciples’ dusty feet before they eat together; he takes on the role of a servant. This makes it abundantly clear that his command to love is not about fond emotion, but about action. In order to obey Jesus’ commandment to love, his followers have to do something.

The early church history found in the Book of Acts gives us story after story of the earliest followers of Jesus trying to obey this commandment. As the stories of Acts unfold, it becomes gradually apparent that the first Christians are challenged, over and over, by the Spirit of God to reach past their usual boundaries in order to share the love of the risen Christ with surprising people. Apparently, when Jesus commanded them to love one another, he meant everybody: eunuchs, Greeks, women and even the Roman oppressors, which brings us to today’s story from Acts.

In today’s lesson, we hear the very end of the story of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, a Roman centurion. It’s a story you’ve heard before: Peter is praying on the roof, when he has a vision of a sheet full of unclean animals in the sky, and hears a voice telling him to get up, kill something, and eat it. In the meantime, Cornelius, who is described as a God-fearing man, also has a vision while he is praying, a vision that prompts him to send some of his men to fetch Peter.

Peter’s experience of the voice from heaven, telling him not to judge things as unclean that God has deemed clean, prepares him to go meet with Cornelius. It’s hard to overstate what a challenge this must have been for Peter; his culture and his religion both told him that going to the home of a gentile was both wrong and a little nauseating. Peter has to do something that is completely contrary to what he feels in order to obey the heavenly vision.

Peter manages to go to Cornelius and tell him about Jesus, or at least begin to. No sooner does he begin to speak than the Holy Spirit comes upon Cornelius and his household, and Peter is forced to realize that, though he thought he was making a big concession by agreeing to visit this gentile at his home, and though he thought he was bringing the Good News like a gift, and though he thought he had the upper hand, God’s Spirit bypassed everything he thought and came upon Cornelius and his household in some unmistakable way. Somehow, Peter must acknowledge this experience of the Spirit at work in people who look, speak and eat differently from him.

This is the continuing challenge of the church, as we work to heed Jesus’ commandment to love one another. It is human nature to want to draw a circle around ourselves and maintain borders that define who is part of us, and who is not. It is the Spirit’s nature to push us past our borders, and ask us to grow. If there’s a surefire test for whether the Spirit is prompting us or not, it’s this: if we think we are called to shrink our borders, include fewer people, be more selective in our society, we can be absolutely sure that those feelings don’t come from God. God’s desire, embodied for us in Jesus and demonstrated for us by the early church, is that we expand our understanding, make the effort to love people who are not like us and to accept with grace the fact that our vision of God and God’s kingdom is necessarily limited. We need to hear about the vision of others to broaden our perspective.

As Peter discovered when he went to the home of Cornelius, we do not have anything like exclusive access to God’s truth, God’s Spirit or God’s love. We have a piece of the puzzle, and others – people who in all likelihood don’t look or talk like us – have other pieces. God is bigger than we are, and by definition, not comprehensible in full by humans. It takes all of our puzzle pieces – and more – to begin to comprehend the reality of the Holy among us.

There is a humility required of us if we are going to manage to love one another as we are commanded to do. If a person believes that he or she has all the answers, that person has no need of community, except perhaps to make him feel superior. If, however, we understand ourselves to be limited beings, loving an unlimited God, we might choose to seek God wherever God might be found – in the least and the greatest, in the communities of which we are a part, and outside their borders. We might find ourselves stretching our boundaries, bother personally and in community, to include multiple voices, harmonizing the same theme: love God, and love one another.

It might be helpful to remember that Jesus loves us all. Jesus loved Peter, a Galilean fisherman with a tendency to speak first and ask questions later. Jesus loved Cornelius, a devout Roman soldier. Jesus loves you, and Jesus loves me. Jesus doesn’t love me any more than you, or vice versa. By grace, we are all beloved, and all have the opportunity to exercise that love in how we treat others.

The medieval mystics who contemplated the astonishing love of Jesus that we are commanded to embody found a perfect image to talk about it: they described Jesus as our mother. Anselm of Canterbury, a major theologian of the 11th century whose work dealt with such weighty questions as proving God’s existence and atonement theory, wrote: “Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.” He goes on to compare Jesus’ agony on the cross to the labor pains of a woman giving birth.

Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us. And the way he has loved us is with the sacrificial love a mother bears for her children – all her children. Like the early church, we are still caught up in the question about just whom we are called to love, just who belongs; but Jesus has no such questions. Elsewhere in John’s gospel, Jesus puts it this way: “I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” No asterisks, addenda, or exceptions.

We are one, in spite of all our pretending otherwise. And somehow we are also each unique. What we can learn from Peter and Cornelius is that not only are we in equal need of God’s love and grace, but we also need one another so that our vision of that grace can expand. Each person we meet and each person who meets us brings something to the party.

We are called by this story to step over borders and push through boundaries. We are called to seek commonalities, respect and honor differences, look for the spirit of God at work in the lives of people who are not like us, push ourselves to give and receive hospitality as a sign of the reign of God, where all are called to the table by God’s grace.

So. We are led, inevitably, to the table. In the Eucharist, we meet the risen Christ whose ongoing presence continues to fracture and remake the world of our understanding. We also meet each other, and the bread and wine are signs for us of that deep unity that undergirds and precedes all our differences. In the self-offering of Jesus, we find a model for the kind of self-offering we are called to do, across the boundaries that divide us. Every meal we eat, every bit of hospitality we offer, every encounter with the unknown in another reminds us of God’s deep, abiding grace that binds us, in spite of our differences, into one body.

Here is Anselm again:

“Lord Jesus, in your mercy, heal us;
In your love and tenderness, remake us.
In your compassion, bring grace and forgiveness,
For the beauty of heaven, may your love prepare us.”

Amen.

 

— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the assistant rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, California. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.

 

We are they, 6 Easter (B) – 2009

May 17, 2009

Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

In the Acts of the Apostles, we see our Christian Church in its earliest, most perfect and probably most idealized form. There were no buildings, doctrines, vestments, or rituals; just the power of the Holy Spirit giving the preached Word of God the power to transform death into life, making the lost found, the captive free, the lame to walk, the blind to see, and giving the hopeless hope.

For whom is the gift of the Holy Spirit intended: some or all? And to whom are we, if fortunate enough to have received the gift of God’s Spirit, going to give it: some or all?

In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we hear preaching that explodes the myth of “us and them” and “we and they.”

We are they.

Our passage from Acts begins, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard he word.” We need to remind ourselves of all the marvelous things that have happened in this tenth chapter of Acts to appreciate the new song, as the 98th Psalm reminds us, that we are called to sing to the Lord, “for God has done marvelous things.” How marvelous that the Resurrection of Christ is not for the few, but for the many!

At the beginning of the chapter, we hear of Cornelius, a Roman soldier of rank, prestige, and honor. He’s wealthy, owns slaves, and may have gained all he had through pillage and plunder. He would’ve been, to the faithful and observant Jew, which includes Simon Peter, a person of derision, maybe disgust, and probably hatred for participating in the oppression of Israel and the economic exploitation of the people so as to provide for the glories of Rome. So, Peter will be quite surprised when God makes it clear that Cornelius is loved by God, too, and there is nothing that Peter can do about it.

Shortly before God arranges an introduction of Peter to Cornelius, God gives the well-meaning-yet-often-befuddled Peter a vision of a four-cornered sheet full of animals that would make Peter unclean if he even touched them, much less ate them. Peter may not follow the rules, but he certainly knows them. “Kill, and eat,” a voice says to Peter.

“By no means, Lord,” Peter replies, even though he is famished, “for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”

The voice replies, “What God has made clean, you shall not call profane.”

Then the clean Peter meets the unclean Cornelius. God has made Cornelius, too, and it is not for Peter to call him profane. In God’s economy, the lost are just as much God’s as the found. Clearly, as the Acts of the Apostles makes abundantly clear, the ones who are being saved by Christ are not to stand still waiting for the lost to come to them. Peter has been sent to Cornelius, not the other way around.

Peter preaches a sermon that begins with these words of the new song, full of the marvelous things of Christ’s resurrection: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” It is during this sermon that the passage before us takes place: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”

Cornelius and his unclean cohorts receive the gospel message with abandon, like the people of Nineveh did when Jonah prophesied, and the Holy Spirit pours in and blows through their unclean lives just as surely as the Spirit does ours. “The circumcised believers,” Acts 10:45 tells us, “were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”

Every time the verb “astound” or the noun “astonishment” shows up in scripture, pay close attention, because chances are there is an example of God acting in our lives as God wants, not as we want God to act.

When the understanding of a Biblical passage turns on understanding the rite of circumcision, we are rightly uncomfortable to go into detail. Simply put, the circumcised believe they are clean and that the uncircumcised, like Cornelius and those named gentiles, are permanently unclean. We can see the tectonic shift underway; we can hear a new song being sung: What God has made no one shall deem unclean.

Peter finishes his sermon directed not at the ones being converted, but to the smug and certain who already think that their Christian faith and forgiveness by God makes them privileged over others. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

The Church is but a few days old, yet the congregants are already complaining among themselves, conspiring to send a letter to their equivalent of the bishop and standing committee, complaining that even the gentiles – yes the gentiles, can you believe such a thing? – have accepted the word of God.

We can almost hear them saying, “Who is sitting in my pew?” And “I am all for inclusion, as long as we don’t lower our musical standards.” And “We shouldn’t have to print the leaflet just because it’s easier for people who don’t know how to use the prayer book!”

We are not the hosts at God’s table; we are guests ourselves. We aren’t called to welcome as much as to act like we have been welcomed ourselves into the grace of God. We don’t forgive the sins of others; we testify that our sins have been forgiven. We are all beggars hungry for the bread of God, telling the other beggars where the bread may be found.

Jesus made it all quite simple: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Too many Christians believe that we are called simply to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and that when we achieve that belief, it somehow separates us from those who don’t. We fall into the sin of believing that we are clean, and those who don’t believe are unclean.

But as the philosopher Kierkegaard observed, “Christianity is not a doctrine to be taught, but a life to be lived.”

Are we called to believe in resurrection, and teach it as doctrine, or are we called to practice resurrection in the life that we live?

Jesus instructs that we are to practice resurrection when he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

We go astray when the Risen Christ is worshiped but not followed. To love one another is a call to action, modeled on Jesus’ love for the disciples. For the people with whom we are called to share the Good News of the resurrection, their future in the faith is often dependent on our ability to practice resurrection and not just preach it.

To practice resurrection with the very substance of our lives will be a constant expansion of our capacity to love. Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

Take a moment and look around. Who is not here? There are so many, but they will not come to us. We must go to them, not in arrogance, but in humility. We must go with a love that shows resurrection to be substantive and life-giving, not as a doctrine. We must show a love so sacrificial, charitable, welcoming, and abundant that it reveals that we would give our very life so that they would receive that transforming love imparted by the resurrection.

Many will say, “I can’t go so far as giving my life.” Let us then say, “We believe in the resurrection,” and testify to that belief with what our earthly lives reveal about our faith in God.

When the worship ends, the service begins. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”

So let us ask God for what we need and go, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Alleluia, Alleluia.

 

— The Rev. Timothy B. Safford is rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia.