By This Everyone Will Know That You Are My Disciples, Easter 5 (C) -2016

[RCL] Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Hallelujah! Praise the Lord from the heavens! Praise the Lord from the earth! Let us praise the name of the Lord, for God’s name only is exalted, God’s splendor is over earth and heaven. Amen.

Today’s readings situate the early church within the Jewish culture of first century Judea. The passage from the Acts of the Apostles depicts Jesus’ early followers as observant Jews and the beginnings of the Church as rooted within Judaism struggling to define what this new way of life means for them.

The writer of the Revelation to John is also situated within the Jewish tradition and in these writings; we have an example of Christian visionary literature built on the foundations of Jewish apocalypses. A revelation or apocalypse is generally a first-person narrative in which the writer relates one or more visions about the future and/or the heavenly world. The image of the divine throne and the precise layout of the heavenly city contain echoes of Ezekiel 1 and Ezekiel 40 – 42, while the new heaven and a new earth and the absence of weeping and crying are echoes of Isaiah 65. Indeed even the reference to the holy city Jerusalem supports an essentially Jewish frame of reference. The text as a whole is a glorious act of worship, telling a story of God’s enduring presence in the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. The vision ends on a note of hope and faith.

In today’s gospel, Jesus announces his impending death to his disciples and offers comfort and instructions for how they should behave when he is gone. John the Evangelist takes pains throughout his gospel to distinguish the Jewish followers of Jesus from “the Jews,” those who have not accepted Jesus as the Son of God and path to salvation. “You will look for me,” Jesus says to the disciples, possibly to tell them of new ways in which they will find him after his departure. New ways such as what Peter discovered when he went to the Gentile household of Cornelius. Jesus emphasizes how his followers are to behave when he is gone in the famous words of John 13:34-35 “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”

These instructions form the basis of pastoral care and service in Christian life and community, from the time of the earliest Christians forward. Jesuit professor Bruce Morrill, in his book Divine Worship and Human Healing: Liturgical Theology at the Margins of Life and Death, writes:

“What distinguished the followers of Jesus and successive generations of Christians was their outreach to the poor and sick, the practical love they demonstrated in openly forming fellowship groups (local churches) that actively reached out in service to the poor, the hungry, and the sick.”

An element of early Christian practice that impressed pagan observers was their shunning of social boundaries in caring for the sick and needy in times of trouble.

These early Christians were called to follow Jesus’ instructions: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

In fact, according to Rodney Stark, author of The Rise of Christianity and an authority on the sociology of religion, poor Christians in the ancient world were healthier and happier than their poor pagan neighbors. Christians cared for one another. They took up collections to support their elders and orphaned children. They offered each other simple nursing care in epidemics. They offered strong community in chaotic times. Stark writes in Christian History Magazine:

“To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity and hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate fellowship. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family.”

These early Christians were called to follow Jesus’ instructions: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Can we say the same today, of our churches, in our cities? Are we taking care of one another? Offering charity and hope? Providing fellowship to newcomers, strangers, orphans and widows?

The beautiful language of the King James version of today’s passage from Revelation contains the words: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, And there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away.” How can the promises of Revelation be applied in a pastoral context? How can we aid and comfort one another? Certainly, we can’t take away all sorrows, old age, chronic pain, death. We are unlikely to alter the path of armies or the destruction of natural disasters. Can we bring a note of hope and faith in the midst of pain, chaos, despair? Can we reach out to victims of destruction and exile?

Certainly what we can do is reach out to our neighbors, remembering that the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles as well as the circumcised. We can love another. We can assure one another that we are all integral parts of a living community, a community both within and without our church walls. By worshipping together, praising God as our Jewish and early Christian forebears did, we join in community and are strengthened in faith as we are soaked in trust and love for one another. In liturgical worship, gathered in Christ’s name, we form the basis for worshipping God in ethical service. These manifestations of God’s glory are distinct yet vitally related works of the same Holy Spirit. Our liturgical worship is both an end and a means. Our communities can stand as a witness to our neighbors of our spiritual commitment and joyful determination to love and serve. We are sent out by the Holy Spirit to love one another, to pastor to one another, to reach out to those whom we may serve, in ways great and small.

As the body of Christ here and now, we are called to follow Jesus’ instructions: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Go in Peace. Remember the Poor.

Amen.

Download the sermon for Easter 5C.

Written by Susan Butterworth
Susan Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is currently an intern with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is in the process of writing a thesis and planned book on the anti-apartheid work of the Anglican dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh. 

The repentance that leads to life, 5 Easter (C) – 2013

April 28, 2013

Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

By now, our bold and joyful refrain of “Alleluia!” has surely lost a bit of its shiny newness.

The bright dawn of Easter Sunday has passed, and the news of our Lord’s triumphant resurrection has begun to settle into our hearts and minds.

But as was the case with the first Christians, the full magnitude of Easter takes more than a day or two to settle in.

Christians who follow the liturgical calendar observe the season of Easter for 50 days.

Fifty days to spread the Good News; 50 days to proclaim resurrection to the world; and 50 days to travel to far-away places with the message that God is doing a new thing in Jesus Christ.

It was during the first Easter season some 2,000 years ago that the disciples discovered that the rumors were true – that Jesus Christ had in fact been raised from the dead. And so, they wasted no time spreading the Good News.

The appropriately named Acts of the Apostles reports how the first Christians spread the Easter message to the world: by teaching and preaching, and by baptizing many into the faith.

But as modern-day Christians know all too well, growth cannot happen without at least a few growing pains.

As we heard tell in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter was no stranger to growing pains.

There was perhaps no more passionate a believer in the early church than Peter. He had been teaching and preaching about Jesus among the gentiles in Caesarea with great effect.

In Acts, it is reported that the Holy Spirit came into their midst and they began “extolling God.”

But even before the days of e-mail, Facebook and Twitter, rumors traveled fast.

Soon, the news of Peter’s work among the gentiles reached the religious leaders in Jerusalem.

They knew that Peter had been teaching and preaching, but now they had gotten wind that Peter was also eating with the gentiles.

They summoned Peter to defend his actions.

Teaching the gentiles? Fine.

Preaching to the gentiles? Fine.

But eating with the gentiles? Absolutely unacceptable!

For Jews – including Peter – the observance of strict dietary laws was not a matter of ritual piety or cultural observance; it was a matter of worship and identity.

In the midst of an empire that was not only non-Jewish, but also often hostile to the Jewish people, dietary observances served as a reminder to Jew and gentile alike of the distinction between those who were included in God’s covenant with Abraham and those who were not.

And so the religious leaders in Jerusalem received the news that Peter had been sharing meals with the gentiles with mix of anger and fear. For them, Peter was not only blurring the lines between those who were God’s people and those who were not God’s people, he was forsaking God’s laws.

But Peter didn’t see it that way – at least not anymore. He had been converted.

He tells the authorities in Jerusalem the same story he had told several times before. He had a vision in which all sorts of animals appeared before him. He heard God’s voice telling him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But as one would expect from an observant Jew, Peter replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”

But then the voice of God spoke again and said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

As Peter went with some friends to a nearby house, he couldn’t help but think about what he had heard the voice say.

“Did I hear that correctly?” he must have wondered. “Surely God didn’t mean that the gentiles are to be treated the same as we are.”

But then he remembered the words of Christ, reminding the faithful that one day soon, they would be baptized, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit.

And then, Peter asked himself one final question: “Who am I that I can hinder God?”

The religious leaders who had summoned Peter didn’t respond with a long, carefully articulated theological treatise as to why Peter was in error. They didn’t rebuke Peter for his actions or label him a heretic. And they didn’t make a motion to enter executive session to discuss what they had just heard so they could render a verdict.

Instead, they fell silent for a moment in awe of what God was doing in their midst. And then they rejoiced, praising God for extending to the gentiles “the repentance that leads to life.”

Far too often, the church forgets that last part.

Far too often, the church forgets that, every now and then, the only worthy response to what God is doing in our midst comes, not in the form of a theological treatise, not in an official church-sanctioned rebuke, and not in deliberations or verdicts. Sometimes, the only worthy response is silence, coupled with awe and praise.

And so, now that Easter has settled into our own hearts and “Alleluias” can be found on our lips once more, perhaps our ongoing Easter mission is to keep watch for the places and people in our midst who have been labeled “unclean,” or “excluded,” or “outsiders.”

These are the people in urgent need of hearing the news that Easter has come. These are the people who desperately need to hear that there is a “repentance that leads to life.”

As the blessed Apostle reminds us, every time we exclude or label someone or something “unclean,” we run the risk of hindering God.

Peter gives us a glimpse of a world in which the news of the resurrection shatters earthly parameters of clean and unclean, accepted and excluded, or insider and outsider. Peter’s Easter witness is lived through preaching and teaching and baptizing and fellowship with all who yearn for the repentance that leads to life.

And if we will allow it, our own Easter witness can reach to the ends of the earth and to the ends of time, proclaiming the miraculous news that in Christ, God is making all things new!

 

— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Ky. He holds a BA in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master’s of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He also serves on the steering committee for Reading Camp, an international ministry begun in the Diocese of Lexington that promotes the growth and development of struggling and at-risk children by providing non-traditional summertime educational opportunities.

Welcome, 5 Easter (C) – 2010

May 2, 2010

Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

The Collect for today asks for us to be able to know Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life that we may follow in the way that leads to eternal life.

Once there was a church that had the phrase “I am the way, the truth and the life” on a sign above its iron gate. The church and its message intrigued a young man, so he decided to go there on Sunday. He was not welcomed. No one spoke to him, or smiled, or offered him a handshake. After the service he left in a puzzled state.

What Peter discovers in the reading from Acts for today is a revelation and a revolution. God reveals that nothing in God’s creation is profane, that the purity code is a limitation imposed by humans, not God, and that keeping that purity could in fact be hindering God. This was something obviously lost on the folks in the small church that the young man visited. They were uneasy with somebody they didn’t know, so they kept their distance.

Have you ever thought about what is going on in the world today in terms of Peter’s experience? Have you ever wondered why many are afraid of immigrants, legal or not? Do you understand that Sunday morning can be the most exclusive, segregated, and separate time of the week? All week long we work with, bump against, commute with, and eat with people who are not like us, but often on Sunday we attend a church that consists mostly of people like ourselves.

There are exceptions, of course. But many of our churches do not look anything like the communities that we live in, the grocery stores we shop in, or the movie theaters we attend. Why is that? Do you ever wonder?

The writer of Revelation, our second reading for today, offers a passage often read at burials. The image of death having been vanquished, of mourning and crying being no more, and of God wiping away every tear is a powerful image, followed by the declaration that God is making all things new. One of those new things is surely the way we experience one another, as diverse gifts of the God who made us all. If we begin to think about people who differ from us in race or culture, then see them as gifts to us from God, that gives us a wholly different point of view toward the many people sent to us by God. We can turn away from them, but are we not then also turning away from God?

When we hear the gospel reading, Jesus’ own words call us to love one another, “Just as I have loved you.” This is not a phrase easily dismissed. Jesus’ entire ministry, including his passion and resurrection, hangs on this phrase. Jesus loved people in a radical way. Today he would be – and often is – in the supermarket talking with the checkers, the stockers, and the customers finding their way through a bewildering array of products. He is there because that is where all the community goes to buy food. He is there because that may be where a lonely newcomer to town gets a smile at the cash register, or even a query, “Are you new here? Welcome.”

But what about church? What about that Sunday morning experience that is often the place where we see only familiar faces, only people like us, only people we know? Is Jesus there? Of course he is, but he is there to welcome the stranger – whoever walks in that door timidly and tentatively looking for new community. Are we ready for that? Do we seek those persons? Would they be welcomed, truly welcomed here?

Not long ago the young man who had visited the church and was made to feel like an outsider was back in the neighborhood and walked by the church he had visited on that Sunday. It had been many years. The sign “I am the way, the truth, and the life” still stood above the iron gate. Then he saw that the church doors were boarded over, as were many of the windows. The church was obviously closed, and looked as though it had been for some time. He walked on, wondering what had happened.

We can draw our own conclusions, but if that church had welcomed him and others instead of being closed to what God was sending them on frequent occasions, the end of their story might have been very different indeed.

 

— Ben Helmer is vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Ark. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island.

A love that fills us, 5 Easter (C) – 2007

May 6, 2007

Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Think about filling up a cup with water. You can fill it only so far, right? Once it has been filled to the brim, what happens when you try to add more water to it? It overflows, of course. The same is true of a sponge that, submerged in water, becomes so saturated it can no long absorb and begins to shed what cannot swell it further.

Can we apply this scientific truth to the human spirit? Can we imagine someone becoming so filled up, so saturated with something, that she or he can’t take in any more? Like a filled-up cup that can only overflow onto others, beginning to fill them?

God’s love is like that, isn’t it? Picture God’s love overflowing from the filled-up one to the nearby one who benefits from the overflow. In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus saying to his followers, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” The love that our Lord called them to display has a special definition: Jesus-like love.

For those who knew him best, it was his love that produced their love for others. It was like water overflowing from the filled-up glass. Jesus’ love filled them up, and yet he kept on loving them, pouring move love into them, so Jesus’ love could overflow onto others.

In the same way, Jesus’ love fills us up so we can let the continuing love that God sends to us overflow onto others. Thereby we can fulfill his commandment: “Love one another – just as I have loved you.”

Jesus’ love is God’s love – gracefully and freely given, with no strings attached. Sometimes we think of this love as “the peace of God that passes all human understanding.” And yet in another sense, in today’s Gospel, Jesus helps us understand much of that peace-giving love. For God gave us Jesus to show us what divine love looks like in human form.

God gave us Jesus, who is love, as God is love, so we could see it – see it not so much as a feeling, or excitement, or emotion, or the longing of one person for another – but rather love that is known by the life and teachings of one who shares the same humanity with each of us. God’s love is in fact Jesus, the person: love in action; love in life.

It is the love that fills us and overflows from us. It is the sacrificing love of the cross, the exemplary love of the Good Samaritan, the care-giving love of the Good Shepherd, the inclusive love that reaches out to outcasts and the under-served, the difficult love that embraces our enemies, the forgiving love of the prodigal son’s father.

The prayer we attribute to St. Francis focuses on this Jesus-like love. It reminds us that love can make us instruments of God’s peace – the very active expression of God. It gives love rather than hatred. It is love that seeks faith over doubt; love that lives through hope rather than despair; love that promotes joy in the midst of sadness; love that allows us to die to self so we may be born to eternal life.

As soon as Jesus had given his followers this new commandment – to love one another even as he had loved them – he gave them one thing more. He gave them a test to determine if they were indeed overflowing love onto others. The test was to examine the response of those within reach of the overflow. He said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Many of us know this from the words of the popular hymn “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

As we think about the quality of our lives, as we step back to see how others might view us through our actions, what will they see? Will they see in us what Jesus commanded? Will they see that we are so filled with God’s love that it overflows onto others?

Of course, this testing is not only about us individually. Does God’s love fill our congregations enough that it overflows to others? How effectively are we acting for the benefit of those in need of God’s love in action?

How aware are we that God’s love – Jesus-like love – fills us? How well do we help it overflow onto others in the form of active care for others? How well do we measure up to the test by which everyone will know that we are Jesus’ disciples because of our carrying out his command?

“Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.