Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 18, 2019
Pastor Brooke Petersen
The last time I preached on this text was 2007. A lot has changed in 12 years. I was one year into my first call as a pastor out of seminary, and I was so captivated by this idea of a widening of God’s call, a place at the table for all of creation, and I can still see this theme throughout our readings for this day. Something new is happening. A new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem, a new mission to a new group of people, a new commandment. Everything is new.
In our reading from the book of Acts we get a bit more in the story of Peter. Peter, that disciple that seems so real- the disciple who struggles and forgets and meets Jesus, and then begins spreading the gospel that has changed his own life.
Acts, the book that we will continue to read from during this season of Easter is the story of what happened after Jesus ascended to heaven. It is much like a sequel to Luke, telling the stories of the lives of these important people after the world radically changed. It is like the second season of a really great television program. When the church was coming into existence, it is fair to say that the mission was mostly to people who looked exactly like these early disciples. They spoke the same language, they knew the same people, they lived in the same places. And, most importantly, they ate the same food. Eating foods that were clean, foods that were commanded by God to be eaten by the people of God, following the codes of purity, was something that set these people apart from their counterparts. Eating the right foods, making sure that one stayed pure, was a part of their identity- it connected them with all their ancestors through time. You didn’t mess with these purity laws, because every time the Jewish people became lax on following these laws they ended up in exile.
And in out text, Peter has a dream. In his dream, a huge sheet comes down from heaven, and on it were these animals that were unclean for eating. A voice comes to Peter and tells him to get up, to go to the sheet and to kill and eat the animals there. Of course, understandably, Peter sees this as a test, and he says, “surely not! I don’t put unclean or profane things in my mouth!” and then the voice comes again, saying, “what God has made clean you must not call profane.” Three times Peter sees this vision. He’s still a little confused, until a knock comes at the door and three men stand before him, and the spirit started urging Peter to go with them and not to make a distinction, so Peter trots off with these men, and somehow, the spirit gets into the middle of all of them, and it is like another Pentecost. God just heaping gifts on these men, without asking if they were circumcised, or if they were Jew or gentile. God wasn’t asking any questions, and we can just imagine Peter looking around him, seeing these people basking in the presence of the Holy Spirit, shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Well, who am I to hinder God? If God isn’t asking questions, then I guess I’m not either.” And so begins the mission to the gentile people. That’s how we got in the church. That’s when all these believers after Jesus saw a revelation of the Spirit that said that God can work in some pretty crazy places, even among us. That’s when people had their eyes opened to see that God was doing a new thing. A new thing among people who were on the outside, a new thing among those who didn’t really fit in anywhere.
Then we have our story from the Gospel of John, the same story we hear every Maundy Thursday- of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, sharing a meal with them, and then giving them a new commandment. A commandment to love one another with the same love that Jesus has for us. A pretty tall order. This commandment is to love one another with more than just the kind of love you can find on a hallmark card- it isn’t a primarily emotional love that can change and lessen with time, it is to sincerely appreciate and love God’s people just for being created. That is what this kind of love is all about. And, this commandment is new, because it is Jesus telling us to love one another in order that they will recognize us as followers of Christ.
It seems kind of telling that the lectionary lists these two texts together, because Acts is all about how people are trying to live out the commandments of Jesus after his death, and this commandment to love one another is the last that Jesus will give to his disciples before he hangs on the cross on Good Friday.
It is very easy to love people who are like you. In fact, I find it easy to love people who vote the way that I do, who support the same causes that I do, who stare at the television in disbelief at the same times that I do. I find it easy to love people who laugh at the jokes I do, who are appalled at the state of the world like I am. When I hear Jesus command to love one another, those are the people that I am willing to get on board with. But, in the same breath that we hear this command of Jesus to love one another, we also hear the story of Peter, who wasn’t so sure about who was included in this love. Could God really work among the people who were outside of the purity codes? Could the Holy Spirit really reside among those people who didn’t get it? Could God work among those people who were on the outside? Who were unclean?
If we are going to follow this message of Christ, this new commandment, that we love one another, then we recognize that the love of God has no boundaries. That means the Holy Spirit can be found in prisons and brokenness, in greedy rich people, in the meetings of conservatives and liberals, in immigration marches, in back alleys, on streets, and right here, among all of us gathered tonight. The Holy Spirit, that could come into the presence of even these Gentile believers, has a way of crossing boundaries and making all things new, even if we aren’t ready for it. That means that we don’t have an exclusive relationship here. We can’t hold the Holy Spirit close to ourselves and keep a monopoly on God’s work. It is everywhere, it is around us in those people that we would look at and think, “surely, God can’t do anything with them…” And where God is, there are the places where we ought to be- loving and serving and doing what Jesus did.
But, here’s the thing. When I first preached on this text in 2007, I felt different. I felt more hopeful. I was excited about the possibility of the first black president. It felt like things could change. I wasn’t watching the news horrified that being signed into law all of over the country were attempts to take away the rights women have over their own bodies. I wasn’t hearing stories of an ELCA pastor being detained by ICE only months before she began her doctoral studies at a seminary where I teach. I wasn’t showing up at protests, and having to explain to my children that our faith compels us to stand up against injustice wherever we see it. Partly, in 2007 I was living much more into my privilege, not listening, not asking harder questions. I wasn’t paying attention and asking myself what was happening to people who didn’t look like me. I thought the real radical nature of this text was that it invited liberals and conservatives to sit together at the same table. And, don’t get me wrong, that’s still there, but that isn’t all. You see, God is always breaking down our boundaries, always inviting more people to the table, but when we get there, what God is serving is more love and more justice. So, yes, everyone is invited, but there’s an agenda for dinner.
Because when Christ sits down with his friends, and commands them to love one another, well, that love is more than just accepting what we have always been and shrugging our shoulders at the status quo. That love is much more than just welcoming everyone to show up but stay exactly the same as they already are. That love is transformational, love that upends what we think God is doing, and calls us to something so much greater. That love is propping open the door so more folks can come in, and then reminding us all that we have work to do. That love is calling out all the white supremacist thoughts and behaviors we engage in, the ways that our lives are built on binaries, the ways that we profit from some people being poor or lost or ignored. That love isn’t just calling us to share a meal, but to share our lives with one another, and to leave that table looking and feeling different. That love empowers us to actually ask people to change. To ask ourselves what we have been holding on to that is getting in the way of justice, to risk and share, and try something new.
Rachel Held Evans, someone many of you might know, an ex-evangelical writer who recently died, wrote in her book, “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.” Imagine that. The Spirit is working in ways beyond our wildest dreams, in places we never thought possible. And, so, with our ancestor Peter, we might just shrug our shoulders, and ask ourselves, “who am I to hinder God?” And then show up, get uncomfortable, tell the truth, and rejoice, because this has been God’s vision all along. Amen, and thanks be to God.