Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Sunday, May 19, 2019
Texts: Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
In the name of the risen Christ. Amen.
Sometimes, God’s love, and God’s new work among us, is controversial.
That’s one take-away from our First Reading this morning from Acts. The controversy, is this: Peter had a vision of God’s work, and so Peter set aside scripture and centuries of tradition, to do something new.
In the reading from Acts, we read of Peter’s vision of a large sheet descending from heaven, with four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. Accompanying this descending sheet was a voice: “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”
But, there was a problem with this command. Peter saw on that descending wild kingdom sheet, animals ritually unclean, animals described as unclean by scripture and tradition. Not all of them, but mixed in with the clean wildlife, were the unclean wildlife. And so Peter did what any God-fearing, scripture reading, tradition-bound man of faith would have done.
“No! Absolutely, not!” he replied. “I am a good religious man, nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
Standing on scripture and tradition, he rejected the voice and the vision.
But the voice answered back. Three times it answered back: “WHAT GOD HAS MADE CLEAN, YOU MUST NOT CALL PROFANE.” The voice called Peter beyond his understanding of scripture and tradition, and into God’s work, into God’s new definition of clean and unclean.
After the third interaction the sheet was withdrawn, but messengers arrived. And the Holy Spirit told Peter to receive these messengers, and make no distinction between them and him, and these messengers took Peter to Cornelius, a Roman centurion, an enemy of the people. But with Cornelius, and with this group of uncircumcised Gentile Romans, Peter discerned that the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon them. And Peter ordered that they be baptized.
He said: “If then, God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17). Peter looked past scripture and centuries of tradition to baptize gentiles and announce to them the promises of Jesus Christ.
This was the controversy!
“So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him …why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
These circumcised believers in Jerusalem knew God’s word. They knew that way back, prior to the birth of Isaac, God said to Abraham (Genesis 17): This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised … “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised … shall be cut off from his people, he has broken the covenant” (verse 14).
Circumcision was the dividing line between faithfulness and sinfulness. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant, but there was no covenant, no promise, no visible relationship with the uncircumcised non-believers. But, Peter’s vision opened him to a new way of thinking.
In faith, trusting all that he knew about the power and love of God, Peter discerned the work of the Holy Spirit among these uncircumcised Gentiles. If the same Holy Spirit had been poured out upon them, Peter reasoned, then who was he to hinder God? Peter stepped outside of scripture and tradition, into obedience to God’s new work.
This new leading of God, this work of the living God, not bound by our understanding of scripture, not limited by our experience of tradition, was the work of love, real love, bold love, strong love, extending outwards.
This new work of God’s love was controversial for the Peter and the circumcised believers in Jerusalem then, and God’s radical love remains controversial today.
Some of you may remember Margaret Payne.
Margaret served twelve years as bishop of the New England Synod. She was one of the first female bishops in the ELCA and the first, and still only, female bishop of the New England Synod.
I heard a story told of her, that in the fairly early days of female ordination, the time when she, as a seminarian doing hospital chaplaincy, was assigned by her all-male classmates to preach on the scripture that said women should be silent in churches and should not have authority over men.
In their callous assignment of that scripture to then-Seminarian Margaret Payne, what the men wanted to do, was to stand on scripture and centuries of tradition. They wanted to make the point: who does she think she is? There are some ways God works (through ordained male clergy) and there are some ways God does not work (through women clergy).
But, next year we will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the ordination of women in the Lutheran church in the United States. Lutherans began ordaining women because many believed that God was giving the church then, like God gave Peter, a new vision of faithfulness and a new leading of the Spirit.
Many recognized God telling the church, like God told Peter, “Do not call profane, or unworthy, or unqualified, that which I have made clean.” They recognized that, “If then God gave women the same gift that he gave men, who were men to hinder God’s work among women?
This story of Peter today, is a story that invites us into God’s new work.
Our Second reading, from Revelation, points out this new work continues among us today.
“I saw a new heaven and a new earth …” writes John recorded in Revelation.
Professor Barbara Rossing points out in her writing on Revelation, that we should read this in expectation of some replacement earth to be delivered at some far off time, but the new earth breaking in right now! “See, I am making all things new!” said the Lord. RIGHT NOW AMONG US, God is leading in new ways, in new understandings, and into new relationships.
And as we read the Gospel of John this morning, we can trust that this new work, this new heaven and earth breaking in among us, this work of God not constrained by scripture or tradition, this new work … is the work of love.
“I give you a new commandment,” said Jesus, “That you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
God doesn’t lead us in new ways to confuse us, or punish us, or abandon us, God leads in new ways, in order to lead us into love.
Love of the Gentiles …
Love of the poor, the hungry, the homeless …
Love of the sick, the prisoner, the stranger …
God’s work, the every present, ever working, ever active God, is working among us to lead us to love!
And that work of love is present here this week at Trinity in two special and important ways.
This Wednesday night, we will host an Interfaith event called “Community Outreach to Hope and Recovery.” You are invited to attend this Wednesday night at 7:00pm and you can read more about it in the bulletin. The goal of this effort is to stand in prayer, solidarity, and support with those in recovery.
This work is God’s love. This work calls us past our negative stereotypes in which we might call addicts, or those in recovery, weak, profane, or dirty. Participating in this interfaith prayer service, is a way we should not call profane, those whom God calls clean and beloved and worthy.
The truth is, many addicts are fellow baptized believers, washed clean in the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Standing with them in prayer and solidarity is a way with our actions, we proclaim the truth of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ. Wednesday night will give us a vision of God’s love inviting us into new relationships of love and understanding with those often marginalized and cut off.
This Thursday night at 7:00pm, on behalf of the New England Synod, we will host Pastor Imad Haddad of the Lutheran Church of Hope in Ramallah, Palestine. Did you know there are Palestinian Christians? Palestinian Lutherans? Fellow baptized believers in Jesus Christ in Palestine?
Palestinian Lutherans bear special witness to the radical nature of God’s love. Palestinian Lutherans call us to the vision of human community where physical and social walls are taken down and where Muslims and Jews and Christians live together in peace, and fellowship, and safety. Palestinian Lutherans cast the vision that being faithful to God’s call of discipleship, is not just about spending an hour in church on Sunday morning, but teaches us that our call as disciples is public, and requires disciples is to actively work for liberation, and dignity, and the rights of all people.
Thursday night will give us the vision of God’s liberating love leading us past our prejudices, fears, and misunderstandings, into a new loving relationships between Christian, Muslim, and Jew.
Friends in Christ, in faith, we are invited into this controversial love!
In faith, we are invited into this controversial love of God knowing that God’s love is not a zero-sum game. God’s love that leads us outward, God’s love revealed in the new heaven and the new earth, is not diminished as it is extended, it grows greater and more powerful.
God’s controversial love is for us! This love is for us, especially in those times when others say that we do not deserve it, or that we have failed, or that God is not pleased with us. Washed in the water, and fed at the table, at those times, we can feast on the controversial love of God which holds us, and sustains us, and nurtures us.
Joined to the living Christ through faith, may we be bold to move beyond scripture and our traditions in those times we have a vision of God calling us to love in new ways.
Joined to the living Christ, through faith, filled with the vision of love, may we NOT call profane or unclean, what God has made clean.
Joined to the living Christ through faith, may our words and actions proclaim all people clean, and loved and redeemed.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!