Sermon – May 9, 2004

How many of you totally got that little story about Peter today with the four-cornered sheet and the animals? How many completely understood that story from Acts? I don’t think we can leave that hanging. Let’s start there this morning.

This is a vision that Peter had in Joppa . . a very purposeful vision that was meant to declare to Peter and by extension anyone else, would be the judge of whom God blesses, whom God will call God’s children. The whole incident had actually happened earlier in Caesarea at the home of Cornelius, a Gentile. While Peter was having his vision, Cornelius was also divinely instructed to send some folks to encourage Peter to come to his house. And they did so and Peter came, and he stated the presenting problem that the story address. When he showed up he said, “You know it is unlawful for a Jew, a guy like me, to visit or hang out with people like you Gentiles. But, I had a vision where God said nothing he created was unclean. So, here I am.” Well, he has this conversation, then he begins to preach the gospel, and lo and behold, these Gentiles had the same spiritual experience as the disciples and others had in Jerusalem on Pentecost day. Hmmmm. What’s going on here? Well, the confirmation of the vision . . .God is calling and claiming God’s people. So Peter hurried and baptized the kit and caboodle and headed to Jerusalem to inform the church there. And that is where we pick up our story. Peter has left Caesarea and is going to report to his church. Well, the reacted the same way as Peter would have felt compelled to act if God had not stopped by to change his mind. “Why did you eat with those Gentiles. . . don’t you know any better. We’re trying to run a church here and it doesn’t help if you go out publicly hanging out with the rabble and the outsiders. Well, wait a minute, Peter says, let me tell what’s up. God says, what I have made clean, you must not profane. In rejecting the other, we are proclaiming that God got it wrong. And they listened and they were speechless . . . . the church there grows, matures in front of us, and they declare so . . . .” God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Now, too often the church too often has left it at that, assenting to that, acknowledging that that’s how God feels about folks, nice story, good job Peter, good job God . . . but then too often the church steps away. Having said that, we don’t seek the other , don’t act toward the other as Jesus would have us act.

The lesson the church was learning in this story was a greater understanding of what Jesus means in our gospel story when he says we are to love one another. . . . that’s not just the one you are rubbing elbows with . . . but the radical other. . . the completely other. . . . love them, church. Learn this. If we leave this impartiality for God to sort out, then we are not living the commandment of Jesus to love one another.

Jesus didn’t want us to get just a little bit of religion. There was a cartoon that quoted Jonathon Swift speaking about the religious fighting between factions in Indian, that is portable to our own historical experience, I think. He says, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, and not enough to make us love one another.” That is a tragic statement because that love is what the Christian church is about. That love is what the Christian church is about. This is what Christ went to the cross for.

Jesus says “love one another as I have loved you. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.” As Peter discovered, one another is whole lot bigger than he wanted to think or we want to think. That love is what the Christian church is about. . . . the church is not about moralizing and railing against the sinners, the others, whom we are called to love. It is about loving them, those against those whom we would moralize. Those we feel morally superior to. Lately its been gays and lesbians, earlier it was women, before that we were on the Communists . . . always looking for a villain.

The love that seeks the other, the umbrella of love that has been lifted over us and all people, is an active love. It is not warm fuzzies, it is not even a feeling. It is an action. This is love in motion, love that engages. It is not sentimental, not the Hallmark Card kind of love. It is the kind of love that Jesus expresses. You could read this text another way, “Just as I have loved you”,. . . in the same manner as I have loved you, following my lead, following my example, in my way, love one another. It is not enough to leave it with the notion that, well, God says they are OK and then be satisfied with that. No, Jesus says those who follow me practice an active love.

What does that mean? What kind of love?

First, a sacrificial love. A love where we give of ourselves. It always costs us something to love another. Taking without giving is selfish, even predatory. To love as Jesus loves is to give something of yourself up. If we have not let go of all those things like that which Peter and the Jerusalem community had to give up, these things that in their keeping separate us from God, we cannot love as Christ would have us love. A sacrificial love is one that gives oneself over to the other in Jesus’ name.

This is a humble love, one that puts the other first. Jesus shortly before this conversation with the disciples washed their feet, so that there would be no misunderstanding of the servant nature of love. This love first sees the other’s need before our own. It is a humble love.

We are called to love passionately, with heart and spirit, where it is a primary impulse and not an afterthought. A passionate love holds the other as valuable and important and it is willing to contend and struggle to protect and nourish the other. It is this passionate love that has given life to our social outreach programs, our urgency to feed the poor and care for the sick and despairing. This kind of love recognizes the wreckage that a war-driven economy visits on the least, the poor the needy, the helpless. A passionate love calls that as it is.

To love like Jesus is to love unconditionally, through all the reasons not to, past all the prejudices we bring in, over all of the white noise that we receive on how we ought to act toward another person or race or people that we get from the usual suspects, the media, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, . . the old prejudices handed on to us from our parents, our schools, our politics. To love as Jesus loves is to love through all these things.

And to love as Jesus loves is to see in the other all the possibilities . . . remember he called fishermen, tax collectors, women, common folks who had no inkling of what was in store. Had their calling been based on their resumes, skills, the possibilities of their succeeding, they would not have made the first cut. Peter and the Jerusalem church had to be alerted, called to see the possibilities of God’s love among the Gentiles. To love in this way is to imagine the possibilities and to honor them in those we are called to love. To expect the possibilities of peace even from those who can speak only war, to expect the possibility of reconciliation among those sworn to everlasting hatred, to expect God’s grace to shine forth through the mundane and the common, the simple and unsophisticated, to expect new life even as death and danger hover nearby. This kind of love sees the possibilities.

God shows no partiality. God chooses the Gentile as well as the Jew. God loves us just as we are and calls us to love others just the same. When we hear these texts we ought to be dancing in the street, because we are the Gentile, the ones God had to make special accommodation for, we are now inside the circle.

In fact, friends, here’s a surprise . . . .all things are now inside the circle. Jesus makes a startling claim in Revelation today, “I am the Alpha and the Omega” . . . the beginning and the end, I was and I will be. . . none preceded me, none will follow. . . . and so in this meantime, in this time between, in my time, here is what you shall do . . . . you shall love one another as I have love you. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Sacrificially, humbly, passionately, unconditionally, imagining all the possibilities. . . . so that even in this time, the thirsty may receive water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

This is our calling our hope and our future, we who live in this meantime. It is the one true thing. I guess the Beatles came close . . . All You Need is Love.