Acts 11:1-18/John 13: 31-35
24 April 2016
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.” Amen
Before I begin I want to thank the Rev. Marshall Jolly from Grace Episcopal Church in Florence KY. His sermon on these lessons enriched my thinking greatly.
So. Here we are on the Fifth Sunday in Easter, well past Easter day, well into the Great Fifty Days of Easter. “Alleluia” is back in the liturgy, things are back to “normal” at church. And yet, did you notice? Our Gospel lesson takes us back to just before Jesus’ arrest and trial, crucifixion, death, and, yes, resurrection. Today we read a portion of the Maundy Thursday Gospel lesson. Listen to what Jesus had to say: “I am with you only a little longer…where I am going, you cannot come. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another…By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” I wonder what those first disciples thought.
It’s been so long; all we have are the stories left to us in Scripture. But, you know, the Acts of the Apostles gives us some good clues about how those first disciples responded during the first Easter season. Acts tells us how Jesus’ first followers, having experienced the risen Lord and being filled with the Holy Spirit, began to spread the Good News. During our Easter season we hear how they taught and preached and baptized, in short, how they carried that love for one another out into the world they knew. And the faith spread, their numbers grew. Of course then as now, as their company grew, there were growing pains. Growth can’t happen without some pain after all. And it took work, it meant risk. We heard part of Peter’s story today in our first lesson. Remember, Peter was by then a passionate believer. He taught and preached and worked among the Gentiles to great effect.
The Holy Spirit was present with him. First Cornelius and his household then others of the Gentiles came to faith in Jesus Christ. The news traveled fast, right back to Jerusalem.
Well. The leaders in Jerusalem knew Peter had been preaching and teaching among those Gentiles. Then they began to hear that he was even easting with them. Eating with them, of all things! Peter was summoned back to Jerusalem to answer to his actions. You see, teaching and preaching were one thing. Teaching and preaching were OK. But eating with Gentiles? Everyone knew that was just plain unacceptable. It absolutely violated a key part of Jewish faith life at the time. It was so much more than a cultural observance, it was so much more than a matter of ritual purity, it was a matter of worship and of identity. It got at the heart of what it meant to be a faithful Jew. Remember, that the vast bulk of the Empire
was not just non-Jewish but actively hostile to those who were Jewish. Those dietary observances reminded everyone of the distinction between who was included in God’s covenant with Abraham and who was not. In eating with Gentiles Peter was blurring the lines between who was a part of God’s family
and who was not, he was forsaking God’s laws. For Peter’s part well, he had had a vision, his heart had been cracked open, he had been converted in some sense.
How did that happen? First the vision, it came to Peter in a dream. All sorts of animals were let down in a sheet of sorts and he heard God saying, “Get up, kill and eat.” Peter, being a good Jew, responded saying: “By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” It was then that Peter heard something surprising. God said to him in that dream: “What God has made clean; you must not call profane.” If you have ever had a dream so vivid that it stayed with you on waking maybe you can imagine Peter’s response. A dream that vivid just must have some meaning. But what? I can see him stewing on it all day,
wondering “did I hear right? Was that really God telling me that Gentiles should be treated just as we are?” Surely he remembered Jesus saying “I give you a new commandment…love one another.” How did that fits? Peter went with friends to a Cornelius’ house where he remembered something else. Jesus had said that the faithful would be baptized not just with water but with the Holy Spirit. When Peter saw the Holy Spirit fall on the Gentiles just as it had fallen on the first Jewish believers he found himself asking himself a potent question. “Who am I that I can hinder God?” And so he began to share meals with his Gentile friends. Of course Peter’s decision to eat with those Gentiles had consequences. He was called up on the carpet so to speak. It’s interesting what happened next. And what didn’t happen for that matter. Peter simply told his story. And those leaders simply listened.
There was no blaming, no finger pointing, no standing on tradition. Those leaders simply fell silent in awe at what God was doing. They began to rejoice in fact, they praised God for what God was doing in holding out “even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” What about us? It’s worth remembering, I think, as we too learn and grow and work to live out our own resurrection lives that when God is doing a new thing maybe our best response is one of awe and praise that allows God to lead us into action. God willing Easter has settled into our hearts again. God willing those alleluias linger on our tongues. I hope Peter’s dream calls to us still. Thing is there are still people who are labeled as “outsiders” or even as “unclean”. There are people who consciously or unconsciously are excluded.
And there are people all around who are in urgent need of hearing our Easter Good News, who need to hear that there is a “repentance that leads to life.” Peter shows us how we risk hindering God each time we label or exclude another. Peter shows us what it means to love one another in resurrection life, life that breaks down our human notions of clean and unclean, of insider and outsider, of accepted or excluded to show others that in Christ God is making all things new. Who are we to stand in God’s way? Jesus said: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another…By this everyone will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another,” I wonder. I wonder what great things God can, and will, do through us if we but allow God to work in and through us as we offer Jesus’ love to others?