The risen Christ whom we proclaim is Lord of all things has the only authority over the scope of God’s salvation, and claims that the Triune God’s plan is to make all things new in him. Our job is to love the world as Christ, and proclaim this Good News to all.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Fifth Sunday of Easter C; texts: Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The post-Easter followers of Jesus were continually confronted with changing realities, with experiences that profoundly shifted their world-view, their faith, the foundation of their lives. Realities such as the fact that the beloved Master whom they saw killed was now alive. Experiences which taught that things they believed to be true about God and the world were in fact not true, such as, the power to kill someone isn’t really as strong as they thought. And they were repeatedly forced to recognize that they still had a lot to learn about the love of God revealed in the risen Jesus, a lot to learn about what God’s intentions for them and for the world were.
An example of this is our story from Acts today. It’s the story of Peter defending his decision to eat with non-Jews, Gentiles, and in fact to welcome them into the church through baptism. The event actually happens in chapter 10. Today’s story from chapter 11 is Peter re-telling what happened and why to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem.
Peter describes yet another earth-shaking, faith-changing reality they all now had to face: God intends the kingdom, the rule of the risen Christ, to extend beyond the boundaries of the Jewish faith.
This is a massive shift of thinking: never had they contemplated this was the goal.
The record of Scripture suggests that whatever the disciples believed about Jesus it always assumed and lived in the reality that he was Jewish. Even the religious leaders who had him executed likely didn’t consider the possibility that his mission was to the whole world.
That’s kind of understandable. The Messiah was a Jewish concept, a promise to God’s chosen people. Jesus was a Jewish teacher, with Jewish disciples. He was killed because the leaders thought he was blaspheming the God of the Jews. The one true God, but still, the God of the Jews.
But had they read their Scriptures more carefully they might have noticed something. The Jews were God’s chosen people for a reason, a purpose: to be a blessing to the nations, to the whole world. It’s central to God’s original covenant with Abraham in Genesis, repeated several times.
And in Isaiah it’s stated clearly in chapter 49, in one of the servant songs, where the prophet speaks the word of the LORD regarding the work Messiah will do: “It is too light a thing,” says the LORD, “that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (49:6)
So from the beginning it was in God’s plan to bring light to the whole world in Jesus. But no one really seemed to be thinking much about that, not Jesus’ opponents, not even his followers.
I suppose it’s natural. Human beings love being part of “in” groups. We want to be the insiders, the special ones, and to do that we need to know who the outsiders are, the ones who aren’t us. It’s how we ever justify war, or oppression, how we know we’re part of a good group, by claiming that “they” are a “they,” not an “us.” But God’s plan in Jesus was to end “we” and “they” permanently. That’s what Peter needed to learn. And then teach to the rest of the Church.
This is God’s new reality (or at least a reality of God’s plan that is new to us) which we also need to be prepared to face.
The most profound part of this story is actually not the vision Peter has, but what the Holy Spirit does, and Peter’s deeply wise recognition of his own limitation.
Peter saw the Holy Spirit become present in the lives of ones he thought were outside God’s salvation. He saw that the Gentiles received precisely the same gift of the Spirit he and the other believers received from Christ. And he wisely realized it wasn’t his decision to make anymore about who got that gift. Who am I, Peter said, that I could hinder God?
This is the wisdom we need to find. In the Revelation to John, the part we heard today, the risen Christ, the One sitting on the throne, says “See, I am making all things new.” (21:5) All things are made new in Christ Jesus, all things. And, like Peter, we need to understand what that means.
The risen Jesus has brought this hope to the world: all peoples are in God’s love and care, all things, all people, all creation, will be made new. After the resurrection, there are no “in” groups, no “out” groups. No sense that Christians are the only ones inside God’s love because they know the truth. All of God’s people are welcome, even if they don’t know what God has done in Jesus for the world.
And if God chooses to bless and to offer life to the whole world, who are we to hinder God? When we understand this, we begin to see this truth in many places, and other questions occur to us.
What if Jesus was right in John 3:16 and 17, that God loved the whole world, the cosmos, the universe, enough to send the Son to save it, not to judge it?
What if Jesus was serious when he called Paul to become God’s messenger to the Gentiles, to non-Jews?
What if Jesus meant it when he said he intended to draw the whole world to himself in his death and resurrection?
Of course we’d be foolish not to believe Jesus and take him seriously. But that’s just what we do. We treat the Church as if it’s an exclusive club, and as if we get to make the rules about who’s in and out. We treat those who do not believe in the lordship of Jesus as if they were lesser people, not worthy of God’s love. Or if we’re feeling benevolent, we worry that those who do not believe are condemned to eternal torment after they die. And we treat those with whom we disagree about issues of faith as people unworthy of our attention and love and respect, let alone God’s.
But it’s actually quite simple: we proclaim that the risen Christ is Lord of all things, and has drawn all creation into the life of the Triune God by his death and resurrection for all.
If that’s so, then perhaps we might actually want to reflect that we believe that to be true.
This is the point where Christians start asking with concern, “Are you talking about universalism? To that we can only say, it’s not about labeling, or anything anyone else might or might not define as universalism.
If God the Father so loved the whole cosmos that he sent the Son, through whose death and resurrection, as the New Testament writers persistently affirm, the entire universe is subject to his rule, then the entire universe is subject to his rule. And then all Jesus’ words about the limitless love of the Father, about the fact that the will of God is that all are found, all are saved, not judged, all these words also apply and are valid.
A cosmic view of the Lordship of Christ Jesus demands that we, at least, cannot put limits on his ability to love and save all whom he wishes. And frankly, it doesn’t really matter what we call it, or whether or not we believe it. God will do what God will do, and saying “who am I that I could hinder God” is not magnanimously saying, “We need to let God be God.”
It’s actually saying we don’t have any power to alter God’s plan anyway. I’m sorry if this is news to anyone here, but we don’t get to vote on the shape and scope of God’s plan of salvation. Which is probably a good thing for a large part of the world. So it would be wise for us to get on board with what the Triune God actually says is the plan.
Of course, we don’t know precisely how Christ is going to do this, make all things new, draw all people to himself. We don’t know how he’ll bring in people of other faiths, or people of no faith. But we believe he will, that he intends to.
And I think that what Jesus says to us today is that it’s not our job to figure out how he’s going to do this, to come up with some theological plan that explains how it will work. Paul tried doing that for three chapters in his letter to the Romans and ended up tied up in knots, sure of only one thing: God will save the Jewish people because God promised Abraham. Paul never could figure out exactly how it would happen, though.
And that’s OK. Because that’s not our job. Our job, according to Jesus today, is simple: Love each other and the world as he loved us. When we do this we’ll be a sign to the world that we follow Jesus. When we do this, we will let the world know about Jesus’ love. And we’ll be a part of Jesus’ plan.
When we understand what the risen Christ actually wants us and needs us to do, we then have a chance to begin doing what we’ve been anointed to do.
When we spend our time trying to set rules for who’s in and who’s out, we miss God’s deep and abiding insistence that all are in. When we live as if we believe evangelism is getting others to agree with us we miss our call to do the only evangelism – good news telling – we need to do, and that is to love as Jesus loved us. And when we spend all our energy trying to sort out just how Christ will make all things new, all people new, and draw all people in, we waste energy needed to be loving people in the world, signs of God’s love for all.
And that’s our call. To see the world, and other people, as God sees them, not as we’ve been used to seeing them. And to love the world, and other people, as God loves them, not as we think they deserve. We mostly can’t figure out how God is going to accomplish this, and we don’t need to. (Which should be a big relief.) All we need to do is obey, and love, and watch God’s plan unfold.
In the name of Jesus. Amen