We might say we love people in theory, but loving them in practice is much harder. It’s what Peter experienced when the Holy Spirit sent him to Cornelius, and what we experience whenever God challenges us to love someone outside our comfort zone.
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Second Sunday of Easter, year B
Texts: Acts 10:44-48, John 15:9-17
Where are the limits of your love? How far are you willing to go, and how much are you willing to lay down before you draw the line? Who are those people who you pray that God loves, because you don’t think that you can?
Today we see the early Church wrestling with the limits of its love. Our reading from Acts is the culmination of a story in which Peter visits the home of a faithful centurion named Cornelius. But the apostle doesn’t go there of his own volition; both he and Cornelius’ household are guided by the Holy Spirit. Peter is staying in a nearby city when he has a strange vision of a giant sheet descending from heaven, filled with all manner of unclean animals – four legged creatures and reptiles and birds. And he hears a voice saying, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Now, because Peter is Peter, he fights back – not once, but three times. He objects that he has never eaten anything impure, and he has no desire to start now. To give Peter his due, the problem isn’t just that he thinks that eating a lizard sounds gross. He objects because he loves the law. It’s a fundamental part of who he is. The teachings of Moses were how Peter and his people stayed faithful to their God in a world that constantly threatened them with extinction and assimilation. And now God is instructing him…to let go of that? To turn away from the sacred teachings that have meant not only ritual purity but identity and survival and a sure relationship with God? What God is asking of him is terrifying. God is telling him that he must die to himself in order to be reborn as something new.
Then three men appear and tell Peter that an angel has instructed them to bring him to the home of a Roman officer, and Peter understands what God is asking of him: in order to carry the Gospel where it needs to go, he has to break bread with Gentiles. He will need to lay down his life as he has known it in order to serve others. He goes and announces the good news of Christ to all of Cornelius’ household. And before he’s even finished talking, the Holy Spirit comes down on his audience. That same Holy Spirit that descended on Peter and the believers in Jerusalem on Pentecost now comes to this Roman household. There’s no difference. In this moment, there is no more us and them, just one Spirit-filled people. Peter’s companions are astounded by this sight. They can’t believe that God would come to these foreigners.
Now, this shouldn’t be news to any of them. Peter traveled with Jesus, saw him heal people of all faiths and ethnicities and walks of life. On Pentecost, he quoted the prophet Joel saying that God’s Spirit would be poured out on all flesh – all flesh, not just some. Peter and his followers knew that God’s love could extend to Gentiles, at least in theory. But as we’ve been hearing these past weeks, love isn’t love when it’s just a theory. Peter had proclaimed the expansive love of the Spirit, but embracing the physical reality of what that meant, that was something harder. When he was asked to make that love incarnate, to see it and touch it and eat it, his first instinct was to fight back. He wanted God to love all people, but he hadn’t been ready to do it himself.
And isn’t that what we always do? In this place, we are bold to proclaim God’s limitless, unconditional love for all people. We strive to create a community where everyone can find warmth and welcome, and to live lives that carry God’s mercy into the world. But believing in God’s love is much easier than being God’s love. In reality, there people with whom we’d rather not share fellowship. There are places we’d rather not go. There are differences we’d rather not work to overcome. So who are you afraid to love? Who do you wish you could love not just in theory but in practice, but don’t know how? Is it people with different political beliefs? Is it people of different nationalities or languages? Is it people of different social classes? People whose bodies look or work differently from your own? Who makes you want to leave the room, or look away, or cross on the other side of the street, and say, “sorry, God, but this person isn’t for me.” I wish I could say that my answer was “nobody.” I wish I could love all people without reservation or qualification. But if I said I did that, I would be lying. I believe that God’s love is for everyone, but faced with the flesh and blood reality of what that asks of me, I often shy away. All the time, I choose to love people who are easy and comfortable and safe rather than allowing the Spirit to lead me somewhere new.
But the Holy Spirit is not about what is easy. She pushes us out of our safe, comfortable places and challenges us to be more, to believe more, to love more. No matter how big we think God’s love is, it will always be bigger than that. When we see its incarnate reality, it will leave us astounded. The immensity of God’s love breaks us open and shakes us out of what we know. Sometimes that comes at a real price. Like Peter, we might be asked to rethink who we are and what we believe. We might need to let go of things we cherish – good things that have served us well, but cannot take us where we need to go next. We might need to lay down parts of our lives so that we can recognize new people as friends. This can be scary and painful, so thanks be to God that we don’t do it alone. The Spirit goes out before us and does the real work. She brought Philip to the Ethiopian official, and Peter to Cornelius, and she shows us where we need to go now. She is the one who inspires, and who baptizes, and who brings new life. Our job is simply to follow along, to recognize what the Spirit is doing, and to not withhold the water.
The best way – and indeed, the only way for us to know God’s love is to love each other. Christ says that we abide in the love of the Trinity when we keep God’s commandments, and the ultimate commandment is that we love one another. There are times when that love can only emerge through sacrifice, even loss. But Christ tells us that the love that lays itself down is the greatest and most godly love of all, and he promises that the feast that awaits us at God’s great banquet is far better than whatever meals we eat at our own tables. It is only natural that we feel some fear when we let go of the familiar and venture into the unknown. There’s nothing wrong with trepidation, so long as we hold to God’s truth that perfect love will cast out all fear. If we follow where the Spirit leads, yes, we will astounded, but on the other side of that astonishment is the fullness of the body of Christ. On the other side of that astonishment is God.