God’s love in Christ is for all God’s children, no exceptions: will we remain witnesses of that love in our actions and life together?
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fifth Sunday of Easter, year C
Texts: Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
At first, Peter didn’t fully grasp what Jesus was commanding.
When the disciples first heard “love as I have loved,” they didn’t know what it would mean. Their night of betrayal and denial, Jesus’ horrible death and amazing resurrection, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, were all still to come.
Today we meet Peter after Easter, after Pentecost, and see what’s really at stake for him and the others in this command. Peter’s core beliefs about being a child of God, covenanted with God as God’s people, are now challenged. We 21st century Christians too often ignorantly dismiss this crisis as unimportant. It was anything but.
Remember, at this point, every disciple of Jesus was still Jewish.
These women and men believed that Jesus was God’s Anointed, God’s Messiah promised in their Scriptures, now risen from the dead, and that they had life in his Spirit.
But at their core they were still God’s chosen people, living under the covenant God made with their ancestors more than a thousand years before. They kept going to Temple, to synagogue, celebrated Sabbath, ate according to Jewish laws. Being followers of Christ’s Way didn’t stop them being Jewish. Being Jewish was how they’d always made sense of the world and God, and God’s relationship to them.
Now a Roman soldier and two Gentile slaves knock at Peter’s door, sent by a Roman centurion, Cornelius, saying their master was visited by God’s angel and told to go get Peter, who would give him and his whole household news of their salvation. They said God wanted Peter to go to a Gentile home, unlawful for faithful Jews, and proclaim Christ’s name.
Love as I love, Jesus said. Now the implications shatter Peter’s reality. Can God’s love in Christ extend beyond Judaism? he wondered. Is being circumcised, following Jewish food laws, practicing Jewish worship and community life, not necessarily a requirement to joining Christ’s Way? Is everything I hold dear about who I am and who God is something I can even let go?
At stake here was whether Peter and this new movement were still living in the way of Christ.
Without question God now included non-Jewish people in God’s love in Christ. Peter had a triple vision just before these men arrived, of animals God’s Word previously declared unclean. But in that vision God declared them all clean. Then God’s Spirit spoke directly to Peter when these men arrived and said not to make a distinction between them and him, where previously faithful Jews were taught they were completely distinct from Gentiles.
Now, Jesus said “love as I have loved.” So God’s new Way shouldn’t have been a complete surprise. Peter certainly knew that Jesus fed a group of thousands of Gentiles with some bread and fish just as he’d fed another group of thousands of Jewish people. That Jesus praised the faith of another Roman centurion while healing his slave. That Jesus listened to the plea of a Syrian woman, expanded his mission beyond Jewish people, and healed her daughter.
But the final proof for Peter was, after going to visit Cornelius and proclaiming Christ, the Holy Spirit poured out on all these non-Jewish people just as Peter and the others with him experienced at Pentecost. At that point, Peter realized he couldn’t hinder God in any way.
But here’s what was at stake: Peter and the others were sent by Jesus to represent God’s love in Christ in the world. If they refused to baptize Gentiles, or forced them to become Jews first, that didn’t change the fact that God’s love was already with these non-Jewish people. God’s Spirit already filled them. But it would mean this new Church no longer represented God’s love in Christ faithfully. God’s love would move forward and this new Church would no longer be relevant, no longer faithful, no longer apostles of God’s love in Christ.
So, is someone knocking at our door, sent by God, asking us to consider whether God is moving in a new direction?
What deeply held ways and beliefs is God’s new way calling us to face and reconsider?
How is God’s Spirit lifting up for us the evils of racist laws and systems and structures that force our siblings of color to prepare their children how to avoid being killed by police, that disempower millions of God’s children from living where they want and earning what is fair and right? What is God asking you, and me, and especially this community of faith here at Mount Olive, to let go of? To do? Should we be talking about reparations, and how would that look? Other things? How are we concretely, truly, loving all whose skin color is not white as Jesus loves them?
How is God’s Spirit lifting up for us the evils of prejudice based on gender identity, systems and laws that give rights to some of us that others don’t have? Laws that threaten our young people who don’t fit into the tight categories of gender our culture has normed, targeting them literally as fair game for assault and discrimination? Systems that marginalize any not identifying as male, whether through pay disparity or lack of opportunity? What is God asking you, and me, and especially this community of faith here at Mount Olive, to let go of? To do? How are we concretely, truly, loving all God’s children, whatever gender, as Jesus loves them?
How is God’s Spirit lifting up for us the evils of the genocide some of our ancestors inflicted on the peoples who lived here, so that now we’re all living on stolen land, even worshipping today on stolen land? What is God asking you, and me, and especially this community of faith here at Mount Olive to let go of? To do? How are we concretely, truly, loving our indigenous siblings as Jesus loves them?
The Scriptures are as clear to us as God was to Peter that day.
God’s love is on the side of those oppressed and marginalized, those crushed into generations of poverty, those who increasingly are even targeted by powerful political leaders in our country. God’s love is for all God’s children, whatever they believe or don’t believe, whatever they look like, however they understand themselves. God’s love in Christ is clearly for all, and ignores all categories we make.
The only question for Peter, for you, for me, for this community at Mount Olive is this: will we remain on the side of God’s love in Christ? Will we continue to call ourselves witnesses of the resurrection, bearers of God’s love in the world? God’s love for all is reaching out and picking up everyone God can find, not asking for ID or conformity or anything like that. Will we be left standing by the side of the road, watching as God’s love spreads without us, irrelevant to God’s mission in this world?
Love as I love is still Jesus’ command.
Your leaders here have already begun thinking about how following Christ’s love might call us to new paths at Mount Olive. This will take prayer and contemplation from all of us. It will take listening to God and to our siblings around us. It will have to lead to action.
So today, let us pray together. Let us come to this Meal of life that gives us love and grace and healing and ask Christ to make us his body and blood for the world. Let us listen, like Peter, to when God speaks, whether through the knock on the door, or the Spirit’s voice inside our hearts or through Scripture, or even a vision.
God’s love for all in Christ is absolute. May the God who loves us dearly and forever help us get on board, however God needs us to do it. For the sake of all God’s children. But also for our own sake, that we might remain faithfully God’s people in this world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen