April 28, 2013
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
In John we receive a new commandment. How will they know we are followers of Jesus? They will know by how we love. This is not a romantic notion. This is a messy notion. Love in all its messy forms – forgiveness, compassion, sharing, listening. Forgiveness is messy because it has to be practiced where life is messy. Listening, when it really matters, means listening where life is painful, or shameful, or guilty. Sharing the way Jesus talked about it means not with those who can pay you back, but with those who cannot. Compassion means encountering people where they are, and aren’t we all somewhat messy?
Jesus commands love. Love one another, even as Jesus has loved us.
Peter was going about this message when he was up on the roof praying. He was out preaching and healing and doing those things Jesus had taught him and commissioned him to do. Only now he was moving into areas of Gentiles. Technically, in the Bible, the word “Gentile” means someone who is not Jewish. But we could also read it to mean “Them.” “Not us.” Those other people over there. The ones we aren’t supposed to talk to, or do business with, or like. You know: “Them.”
And the group back in Jerusalem is questioning Peter about why in the world he would go to such people.
He answers them with a story. A story about a vision.
In this vision, Peter saw something like a large sheet being lowered, with all kinds of animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air on it. And in this vision a voice said “Kill and eat.”
Peter protested against the voice, for he had been raised a good Jewish boy and had kept kosher, the dietary practices that marked the Jews as people of God, all his life. Following Jesus had often challenged his assumptions, but this was going against everything he knew about what it meant to be part of God’s covenant. This went against the earliest things he had learned about what it meant to be a part of God’s people.
Three times this was presented to him, and three times he protested, and three times he was told “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
By now we all know that when it happens three times, we better be paying attention. Peter, of all people, should be aware of this.
Then the vision passes, and immediately three men show up. (Paying attention yet?) They were from Caesarea. You can tell it is a Gentile town because they named it after Caesar. These men want Peter to come with them, to meet Cornelius, a Centurion. Cornelius is what Luke calls a God-fearer. He is a Gentile, but he is attracted to this faith in God. He has not converted to Judaism, but has helped out with the synagogue. He knows the stories of Abraham and Moses, but is not yet a part of the covenant.
And Peter goes with them, and when he meets Cornelius and there Peter makes a leap of faith. Cornelius says that he knows it is not right for Peter to come to his house and to meet with him, since he is a Gentile. But Peter, fresh from this vision of food, immediately takes that same lesson and applies it to people.
What God has cleansed, Peter is not to call unclean.
And when Peter preached and taught them about Jesus, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they exhibited the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
And Peter knew that it was true. For the Holy Spirit came upon these Gentiles the same as it had to the Apostles at Pentecost.
If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave
to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ,
who was I that I could withstand God?
Here is our dilemma. From our youth, we are taught whom to love and whom to hate, whom to trust and whom to fear. Jesus comes with a new commandment. Love one another, even as I have loved you.
To have the same love for one another that Jesus had for us is to look past all of those things that separate us. It is to look past even those things we have known from childhood about whom to love and whom to hate, who we should fear and who we can trust. To follow Jesus is to let God decide who is clean and who is unclean. Our job is to love one another as Jesus loved us.
And this means in the messy places of life. Jesus didn’t sit in a palace and just let in the good and the clean and the noble. He kept getting criticized for eating with “Them.”
This is not an easy commandment. Grudges are easy. Racism is easy. Sexism is easy. Homophobia is easy. Judging people by how much money they make or don’t make is easy. Judging people by where they live is easy.
Following Jesus is difficult. Some days it is as difficult as trying to have a new heaven and a new earth. If we were to try this on our own, we could not make it.
Thankfully we are not on our own. As we heard this morning from another vision:
Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them,
and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more,
neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more,
for the former things have passed away.
Thanks be to God.