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
To read the Revelation passage
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 community 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)