Easter 5C: Blowing Boundaries Open

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Wall, November 9, 1989
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Wall, November 9, 1989

FIRST LESSON:  Acts 11: 1-18

This story is actually told in Chapter 10 and then again in Chapter 11 of the Book of Acts.  The issue that was rather hotly debated was whether the newfound faith of these early Christians was intended only for Jews or whether it was to include Gentiles (while allowing them to remain Gentiles).  In other words, was circumcision so important as to keep people out of the community of faith?  The biggest concern was eating and sharing bread and food with these “unclean” believers.  And there was no lack of voicing of people’s opinions about this matter.  Conflict and confrontation was open and loud, rather than being swept under the carpet the way we often do today.  Perhaps it is a reminder that voicing conflict can indeed be transformational for a community.

So Peter has heard this confrontation and conflict and responds to it.  His response is to tell a story (Gee…wonder where he learned that!).  He retells the story of what happened to him in Chapter 10.  He tells the story of his vision and the sheet with all of the creatures and the reminder that nothing of God is profane (and that everything is in effect “of God”.)  He did not charge in angrily shouting theological platitudes.  He just told them a story.  As Stephen D. Jones says in Feasting on the Word (Page 453), “a story invites people across the separating chasm, making everyone the winner.  Jesus knew this as he changed so many hardened hearts with parables.  His parables often left people with questions for them to explore, rather than theological issues for them to debate.”

Peter was not trying to go outside the boundaries.  He just recognized that God had somehow shown him a different way of looking at something.  The point for Peter is that God had given those Gentiles the same gifts of the Spirit received by the apostles and the more orthodox believers.  That is a turning point for the whole Book of Acts and, for that matter, the whole Christian message.  Here, Peter was in no way demeaning Jewish belief; he was just saying that God’s vision was a larger one.  Rather than characterizing this Way of Jesus as an alternative boundary, it becomes an alternative vision, a different way of viewing all of Creation.

It is a good reminder that theological reflection is not a list of rules; it is a way of living, a way of understanding how God is at work in our lives as well as the lives of those around us.  It is also a good indicator that bringing people of a different culture or a different lifestyle or a different focus into a faith community requires us to rethink and re-reflect theologically on the statements of that faith.  It is in that way that our faith community grows and truly transforms the world.  It is not a matter of “accommodating” or “tolerating” or even compromising; it’s a matter, rather, of continuing to listen to God and how God is working in the world.  According to Peter, the things in the faith that do not change are speaking the name of Jesus, bearing witness to the resurrection, and acknowledging the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps everything else is open for discussion…

If Golgotha was the day of reckoning for our salvation, then the day that Peter dreamed of innumerable unclean creatures made clean in God’s estimation was the day salvation actually came to our house, to you and to me. Before that moment, Christianity was not available to those who were not born and ritually inducted into Judaism. But ever since the early church was opened to Gentiles, Christians have struggled to be as open in other times and places, and as willing to embrace those we thought were unclean but whom God has declared clean.

Christians have always struggled with two images that describe the church: is the church the Virgin Mother, pure, unsullied and unstained? Or is she an Earth Mother gathering her wayward children to her skirts? In the church of the Virgin, no eye is pure enough to see God, no tongue clean enough to speak God’s name. This church is vigilant in covering her children’s ears and tries to keep them from seeing or touching the world’s impurity. Its clergy are a model to the flock in morality, goodness and self-control.  In the church of the Earth Mother, however, the dirty hands and unwashed faces of her children are a delight. “I am come that you might have life,” Jesus said, “and that you might have it abundantly.” This church’s children gather to her like Ma Kettle’s kids come in from the barnyard, frogs in their pockets and grass stains on their jeans. What they lack in cleanliness they more than make up in joy. Her clergy are earthen vessels.

Of course all churches are a mixture of these symbolic figures. Christians are neither all heaven nor all earth, but a wondrous mixture of dust and glory, which is why churches are hospitals for the soul—less like sterile operating rooms scrubbed and sanitized for elective surgery and more like MASH units where mangled bodies of injured humans are rolled in for emergency treatment.

The situation of the 21st-century church is not that different from that of the first-century church in Jerusalem. Today we struggle to maintain a holy community in the church where the glory of God can shine brightly in the lives of God’s humble servants. But we do so realizing that we are only human, and that strive as we may, we are not all holy.

In the first century the dividing line between exclusionary holiness and holy hospitality was circumcision, dietary laws and ritual observance. Today it is homosexuality, gay marriage, women’s ordination and the right of property ownership. Today’s fixations are not the issues that divided Christians at Chalcedon or Nicea or even Jerusalem, but they are, nonetheless, issues on which we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

It would have been so much easier if the Spirit had left well enough alone and not blown where it did, showing Peter the wider dimensions of a gospel meant for all people, both clean and unclean. But the Spirit is a spirit of love and cannot resist drawing disparate elements together; it has a broader vision of the future and a greater hope for our humanity than we have ever imagined, a vision articulated by the 148th Psalm, which sings of a time when all the earth and all created things shall praise the Lord. Angels praise God, sun and moon, sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, kings and peoples . . . all of us praise the Lord. Salvation, occurring in all times and places through the Holy Spirit’s direction, is today offered to one and to all. (From “Dreaming in Joppa”, by Jon M. Walton, in The Christian Century, April 17, 2007, available at http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=3194, accessed 28 April 2010.

 For us, who is it that we deem “impure” (either intentionally or without even thinking), that we view as unworthy of church membership or church outreach or just love and acceptance in general?  What boundaries have we improperly drawn through this glorious vision that God holds for us?

 1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What does that truly mean that the Gospel is available to everyone?

3)      What would it mean for us to live as if theological reflection were a way of living, rather than a way of rule-following?  What would that mean for our faith?

 NEW TESTAMENT:  Revelation 21: 1-6

We are probably accustomed to hearing this passage read at funerals.  And yet, this vision reveals what God has in mind for all of life—even now.  This is the New Jerusalem that God is bringing into being—not after we are gone but now, as we speak.  And the reason we as Christians know these things is through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  This is the way that the vision for all has been revealed to us as Christians.  Eugene Peterson writes, “The Biblical story began, quite logically, with a beginning.  Now it draws to an end, not quite so logically, also with a beginning.  The sin-ruined Creation of Genesis is restored in the sacrifice-renewed creation of Revelation.  The product of these beginning and ending acts of creation is the same:  “the heavens and earth” in Genesis, and “a new heaven and new earth” in Revelation.”  (From Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, 169)

For many people and indeed many Christians, the hope lies in heaven only.  This is a reminder that hope is here and now—if we will only imagine it and claim it.  It speaks to the broadness of Creation and perhaps reminds us that we should care for THIS Creation rather than banking on the possibility that we’re going to leave it all behind anyway!  But remember—God is here, making the Divine Home among us, among the “unclean” to go back to the Acts passage.  Wasn’t that what the whole Emmanuel, God-with-us, was about?  Wasn’t that why Christ came as God incarnate?  The hope expressed in Revelation is the one that makes all things new.  Isn’t that remarkable?  It is not about personal conversion; it is about world order.  It is about staking one’s very life not on the way things are now but on the way things could and will be, the way God envisions Creation.

This passage is a promise to us.  Perhaps it is a call for patience; perhaps it is a call to not be so hard on ourselves (in spite of St. Augustine’s purporting that we are hopeless and helpless sinful creatures!); perhaps it is simply a call to imagine—to imagine what God can do in our lives and be open to what that looks like, to be open to newness, to be open to the place between endings and beginnings.

This is not a dream for a different place, for a different city.  It is the dream for THIS one, the place where we are living now.  And it’s not just putting us back in that perfect utopian garden in which we started.  After all, we have grown WAY beyond that, fully embracing that whole free will thing and all.  I don’t think that’s what God has in mind.  I think the Garden was a beginning.  Maybe God even MEANT us to break those boundaries.  Maybe that was the whole idea, the place that we learned that boundaries were meant to be explored and pushed and, yes, even blown wide open so that the Spirit of God could blow through unhindered and recreate all that is.

 While our passage today starts off with a beautiful and all-encompassing vision of a new heaven and a new earth, there is a very specific city, the New Jerusalem, at its center. “While the story of the Bible begins with a garden, it ends in a city,” writes Michael Pasquarello III (Feasting on the Word). And Dana Ferguson develops this further: “Why a city? Because cities are places where people live together in dependence upon one another. A city works when everyone in it does something to contribute to its welfare. It is the welcome place where people arrive home at the end of a long and confusing journey. It is where God lives” (Feasting on the Word). What an intriguing way to spur our religious imaginations about our own cities and communities (no matter how large or small), as places “where God lives.” Imagine what it might look like for our cities to be places where we live not in competition and anxiety but in graceful community, welcoming people home and inviting them in. Such a vision is the opposite of destruction, separation, loneliness, and exile. (From a reflection by Rev. Kate Huey, available at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/may-2-2010.html, accessed 28 April 2010)

 1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does that “newness” look like for you?

3)      What does it mean for you to look upon this passage as a promise for THIS place, rather than a new place?

4)      What gets in the way of our own “imaginings”?

5)      What does it mean for us to participate in God’s vision for Creation?

 GOSPEL:  John 13:31-35

This Gospel passage is also read for Maundy Thursday.  But on this fifth Sunday of Easter, we are asked to go back to before the crucifixion.  The Gospel writer uses the word “now”, implying that all that has happened up to this point is coming to fulfillment.  It is Jesus’ way of preparing the disciples for his impending death, for the time when they will feel deserted and alone.  He urges them to have patience and to lean on each other, to care for one another and forgive one another.  It is a plea for them to abide in the life that he has shown them.  Rather than allowing their fears and their insecurities to pull them apart, Jesus is laying out a life that will bring them together.

This was a completely different way of looking at things, a completely different concept of what “glory” is.  This glory is the one that feeds that self-giving love that is contained in the “new commandment”.  Glory comes not from being placed above but by allowing Christ’s love to take root deep within oneself.  In other words, we find life and love in community, in the community of Christ.  Without that relationship, everything else falls apart.  No doctrine or theology can replace it. 

Joan Chittister refers to friendship as a “social sacrament”, a sacred act far beyond connections or acquaintances.  Perhaps Jesus saw it the same way.  Once again, the spiritual walk is much, much more than rules or doctrines.  It is about seeing everything and everyone around you as part of God’s Creation.  And, interestingly enough, if you back up to the verses prior to this passage, we read of Judas’ impending betrayal of Jesus.  And then this.  Yes, even Judas, is part of that love, part of that Creation.

Now is the time.  It is time for Jesus to go.  But it is not the end.  It is time for those who love him and follow him to step into place, to experience what it is like to bask and embrace in the holy and the sacred.  Love one another…for that is the way that you will experience the holy and the sacred.  But this is not some sort of passive, saccharine-type love.  This was active.  This was putting oneself aside for another, putting one’s life down for another.  This, again, was breaking all those boundaries open in the name of love.  For it is in each other’s eyes and each other’s lives that you will experience God as Christ said that you could experience God.  And THAT is what glorifies Christ—your being there, your living in that sacredness, your embracing and being holiness.  It is a love that surrenders to God and God’s vision for us.  It is a love that imagines what God can do.  So, love one another…rest deep in God’s love.  That’s what it is about.  “Where I am going, you cannot come.”  You cannot come because there is much work to be done here.  You have to stay and be Christ in the world.  You have to stay and blow all those boundaries wide open.  You have to stay and love one another.  That is the way that we are called to be.

The following chapter goes on with Jesus’ words.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself.”  Jesus’s absence breaks open a new boundary.  Jesus’ Presence, always and forever here, is in our Presence, in our love, in our willingness to follow, to choose that new vision that God holds.

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does this “new commandment” mean for you?

3)      In what ways does the Christian community feed your own faith journey?

 Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Turn your face to the light and the shadows will fall behind you. (Maori Proverb)

 Faith is being grasped by the power of love…it is recognizing that if at Christmas Jesus became like us, it was so [today] we might become more like him.  (William Sloane Coffin)

 People do not enter our lives to be coerced or manipulated, but to enrich us by their differences, and to be graciously received in the name of Christ.  (Elizabeth Canham)


We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, and we pray that all unity may one day be restored:  And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

 All praise to the [Creator], from whom all things come, and all praise to Christ Jesus, God’s only Son, and all praise to the Spirit, who makes us one:  And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.  Amen.

 (Peter Scholtes, 1966)

Easter 4C: Living Resurrection

SunriseFIRST LESSON: Acts 9: 36-43

Rather than talking about conversion as we have the last couple of weeks, now the story shifts to Peter’s miraculous raising of Tabitha, or Dorcas.  This is not the first time that Peter has emulated Jesus in this way.  Earlier in Acts 3, we read of Peter’s healing of a lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the temple. So, this raising is not as out of the blue as it sounds to us at the onset.

Here, the congregation in Joppa (and particularly the women) has lost one of the pillars of its community. She was nothing short of a beloved saint, their own Mother Teresa, if you will.  The fact that we are given not only her Aramaic name but also her Greek name Dorcas may imply that her ministry went far beyond even her own community.  In both languages, the name means “gazelle”.  This seems to be a deep and profound loss.  In fact, Tabitha is so powerful that the community does not want to let her go.  She is literally called mathetria, or a “female disciple”.  This puts her on equal footing with the New Testament disciples that we know so well. 

The emphasis is not really upon Peter, but upon the community.  They had lovingly anointed and cared for their friend’s body and then waited prayerfully outside while Peter went inside.  This is a congregation who had lost a friend, a role model, a mentor.  This is a congregation who had lost the one who would stand up for them, these helpless widows.  This was one who was bringing about change.  But it also shows that this was a congregation who believed in hope, who believed in the possibility of new life and resurrection, who believed in a God that could transcend death.  It also shows a congregation that was willing to get involved in each other’s lives, to even weep together for their friend, and to dare to hope that life would return.  This was truly a healing community.  This was a community that was open to being transformed.

Now there is no way to verify whether or not there was really a raising.  We have been told before that Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit.  This may count as a legend or the writer may have just took some poetic license and put it in.  But, regardless, it is a story of transformation—death to life, brokenness to wholeness, hate to love.  It is the story of the power of death and despair once again being overcome and recreated into life.  It is that hope that binds us all.  Maybe we need more stories like that.  They invite us to look for God’s hand in today’s new beginnings.  They invite us to feel the continued echoes of Christ’s story, glimpses of the mystery of God.  Martin Marty said this about this text:

 “Church rolls were never swelled because people sat up after having been dead. They swelled and endure because people who have faced in faith what Karl Rahner called death, ‘the abyss of mystery,’ are content to leave the details and reportings in the realm of mystery. They want something else. Through and in it all they have seen and known and experienced Jesus Christ’s rising as something that breaks the mold and ushers in a new age in history, including in our personal histories.”

 1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What does that mean for you that this community believed in hope and in each other?

3)      What does that have to with transformation?

4)      What does it mean to “look for” new beginnings?

5)      The 18th century writer Voltaire said that “it is not more surprising to be born twice than once; everything in nature is resurrection.”  What would that mean for our lives if we looked at everything as resurrection?

6)      How much could others sense echoes of Christ’s story in our lives?


 NEW TESTAMENT:  Revelation 7: 9-17

First of all, remember that the writings that we know as Revelation are full of rich imagery and metaphors, some of which make sense to us in our time, and some of us do not.  Remember that the book was written when the Christians of Asia Minor were being persecuted by Roman officials for their refusal to acknowledge and worship the emperors.  Some Christians became martyrs; others weakened and left the faith.  There were enough leaving that there appeared to be a crisis as to whether or not the fledgling new religion would survive.  So, the writer tries to sharpen and make clear the alternatives of worshiping either Caesar or God.  The passage today is one of words for those who are desperately striving to remain faithful.

John begins the chapter by talking about all the people from the twelve tribes of Israel who will be in “heaven” with us—144,000—the perfect number, the complete number of 12 tribes times 12 times 1,000.  The twelve tribes of Israel—the ones to which we as Christians have been grafted—are there.  The writer is reminding us that we may be surprised at what comes next, at who comes next, at how it’s construed.  It is a reminder that in spite of our plans, in spite of our prejudices, in spite of our boxes that we build, God is recreating everything and everyone.

But whatever it is that we call “heaven” or the “afterlife” or (not my favorite) “our great reward”, the work will not be done.  Whatever you think comes next, we will indeed rest from our labors, but the worshiping and ministry and building of the Kingdom of God will continue.  We will be guided to the waters of life, true life, and God will wipe away every tear from every eye.  No more tears….just meaning and relationship and shalom.

But when we read this, it is not just an account of the future.  It is, after all, a testament to the idea of the Kingdom of God that is now as well as something to come.  We are given glimpses of what will be, a “vision”, if you will, to work toward.  The writer known as John broadens the vision beyond what we can imagine—people gathered from every nation and language on earth, all giving praise to God, to the TRUE one on the throne.  In a sermon, “Glimpsing Heaven in Thin Places”, the Rev. Dr. Nora Tubbs Tisdale says this:

I’m guessing that included in that crowd, too, are going to be a lot of people who surprise us by their presence there.

My maternal grandfather, a lifelong Presbyterian minister, died some years ago at the ripe old age of 98. There were many things I loved about my grandfather–his integrity, his intellect, his deep faith in Jesus Christ. But we regularly disagreed on a host of social, political and church issues, including the ordination of women to ministry. Sadly, my beloved grandfather never came to terms with what I did with my life and always thought that I was forsaking my true calling by going into ministry.

My husband, however, made me smile through my tears on the morning of my grandfather’s death–which just happened to take place early on World Communion Sunday. “Nora,” he said, “Who do you suppose is serving your grandfather communion in heaven this morning? Clergy women perhaps???”

If truth be told, we all have our blind spots, our prejudices. And, consequently, I have a feeling that we’re all going to be surprised by who is sitting at the Lamb’s eternal banquet table with us in heaven. Surely we will see people there we considered unforgivable, unredeemable. People against whom we have long held grudges or prejudices. People from nations we branded with the label “enemy” or people we failed to even see in this life because of their poverty, disease, or station in life. They will all be there. For no matter how inclusive we think we are in our embrace of others, heaven–according to John’s vision–will be far more so.

But inclusivity will not be the only surprise awaiting us in heaven. I think we’re also going to be surprised by what people are DOING in heaven.

When heaven is depicted in romantic art, what we often see are a group of cherubs playing their harps, while people lounge around on clouds of ease, as if on a perpetual vacation.

But when we peer through John’s veil, what we see is that heaven is actually a very active place. And what is it people are busy doing? They are worshiping and serving God and others–doing those very same things that gave them the greatest joy, the greatest meaning, in their life here on earth. (Available at http://day1.org/1117-glimpsing_heaven_in_thin_places, accessed 21 April 2010.)

But, as I said, this is not just meant to be a vision for the future; it’s a vision for now.  It’s the way to encounter holiness even here on this messed up old earth.  (And maybe the messed up old earth is what we’re supposed to be working to transform into God’s Kingdom anyway.  You think?)

 1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does this idea of glimpsing holiness now mean for you?

3)      What changes if we embrace this image as one for “today” instead of one for “whatever comes next”?

 GOSPEL:  John 10: 22-30

This Gospel passage may be a little bothersome for us.  We may identify a little too closely with those that were gathered around Jesus. There’s a part of us that wants so desperately to know that Jesus is the Messiah, to hear it explained and spoken to us with clear, plain, undeniable proof.  We read this and we begin to question a little bit whether or not we’re even qualified to be a sheep!

The image of the shepherd is a powerful metaphor for the Messiah in Israel’s collective memory.  They didn’t need to have it explained to them; it was part of them.  And by Jesus implying that they were not part of his sheep, he was saying that they were not part of his way.  The claim that he makes that he and God are one is not necessarily some sort of partial-Trinitarian claim.  It is rather an expression of unity.  He is saying that he and God are unified, united in the work that is being done.  And he’s implying that those who understand this are also part of this unified Spirit of God.  But only those who are part of this way, who understand what it means to be united with God, who embark on that journey toward a oneness with God—only those will actually hear the holiness that is God.

For us Christians, the story of Jesus—his teachings, his miracles, his healings, his birth, his life, his death, and his resurrection—and making that story our own is the way that God is revealed to us, the way that we find that way to God.  As (once again) anti-Semitic as this version sometimes sounds, Jesus is not claiming here that he is the only way that God is revealed; he is claiming this his way of relating to God and working with God is the WAY to God.

People who like black and white answers and who prefer plain meaning to subtlety and allusion may find this passage frustrating.  Who are we kidding?  People who like black and white answers and hard and fast rules of who and what’s in and who and what is out will find the whole Christian walk frustrating.  We usually find ourselves asking, “How long will you keep us in suspense?”  Wouldn’t it be easier if you just told us what to do?  Wouldn’t it be easier if you made it plainer to understand?

The truth is that for most of us the challenge is not in following Jesus.  We like the road.  After all, we know how it ends up.  The challenge is not following, but recognizing Jesus’ voice.  That is the hardest part of this Scripture passage.  We have not really learned what that means.

In keeping with the metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep, remember that in Jesus’ day, sheep were in constant danger—from thieves, wild animals—they could be snatched away at a moment’s notice.  But they knew the shepherd and they listened.  As long as they could hear his voice, they knew they were OK.  They knew they would not be snatched away.  They knew that they would know where to go if they just listened.  In fact, if you’ve ever been around livestock, it seems that is all they know.  They just follow the master.  Maybe they’re not as dumb as we think.  Maybe they do a better of job of shutting out the competing voices than even we do.

Now don’t get me wrong…going this way with Jesus, hearing the Shepherd’s voice, if you will, does not guarantee an easy road, regardless of what those preachers of the prosperity gospel may tell you.  You can do everything right; you can walk the same road that Jesus walked; you can open your lives to others; you can feed all the sheep in the world—and bad things will still happen not because you did anything wrong.  It’s just part of life.  But read on…”I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.  No one will snatch them out of my hand.”  

            But you have to listen.  And you have to know to what and to whom it is that you’re listening.  That is probably the hardest of all. 

 1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does that mean to listen to the voice of God above all the other noises to which we are subjected?

3)      What does this passage say to us about transformation?

 Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 Miracles are retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.  (C.S. Lewis, 20th century)

 The note we end on is and must be the note of inexhaustible possibility and hope. (Evelyn Underhill)

 Blessed are the ears which hear God’s whisper and listen not to the murmurs of the world.  (Thomas a’ Kempis, 15th century)


Truth-telling, wind-blowing, life-giving spirit—we present ourselves now for our instruction and guidance; breathe your truth among us, breathe your truth of deep Friday loss, your truth of awesome Sunday joy.

 Breathe your story of death and life that our story may be submitted to your will for life.  We pray in the name of Jesus risen to new life—and him crucified.  Amen.

(“Prayer of Illumination”, from Prayers for a Privileged People, by Walter Brueggemann, p. 179)