Acts 11: 1-18; Ps 148; Rev 21: 1-6; JOHN 13: 31-35
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. AMEN.
This morning’s readings circle around the concept of love as the disciples heard it, in traveling around, with, and continuing to follow Jesus. The readings present an odd combination of images and associations. The chosen psalm is straightforward praising the Lord for his mighty acts. Since Halleluiah is the theme and concept for Eastertide, this psalm echoes or leads to both. Reciting this psalm in Easter season, we are suggesting that the Lord had done great deeds for them, and by extension, his deeds for us include the resurrection, ascension, and on-going life of Jesus our Lord. The psalm is joyful and suits the feeling of the season.
Today’s Gospel is one of the two choices for Maundy Thursday: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” (As we’ve been taught, mandatum est, translated from Latin, means “a new commandment” and the letters are contracted, making “Maundy,” and so naming the day in Holy Week of this Gospel.) The commentary I read, suggests that this is a new commandment, because it is not based on the Jewish requirement from Leviticus, which in a long passage of legal pronouncements includes, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” The commentator asserts that this is not self-sacrificing love, and it is self-sacrificing love which is the hallmark of Christian love and superior. The risk of “our love is better than their love” is both obvious and continuing. If ours is better than theirs, we are better than they, and then it’s an altogether too short step to “away with them,” whether that is achieved by “away” being to a subservient social position, deportation, or gas chamber and soap factory. It is this particular ranking of Christian love over Jewish love that seems to me risky, wrong, and a continuing arrogant danger for Christians. To go one step further back in thinking, consider the First Commandment. “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other God before me.” It recognizes that people have other gods—love of family, love of home, etc.—that are genuine and worthwhile, but none can come before God—while “next to” is possible, and often simply human.
In the Acts reading, Peter was challenged because he’d permitted uncircumcised Gentiles to eat with circumcised believers, Jewish believers. Peter, in explaining his doing this, tells the story of his dream of seeing creatures considered un-Kosher, unpermitted foods, and being ordered to kill and eat them. The voice in Peter’s dream kept saying, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Right then, just such people arrived where Peter was, and he was ordered not to make a distinction between them and him and his companions. The man, to whose house Peter had gone, reported that an angel had come to him saying he should find Simon, called Peter, who would give him a message and that then his whole household would be saved. “Then as Peter began to speak to the man, the Holy Spirit fell on him, as it had upon Peter himself and his companions at the beginning. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then G*d gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder G*d?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised G*d, saying, ‘Then G*d has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”
Two things are to notice about Peter’s account of his coming to accept Gentiles, non-circumcised people, as true believers acceptable in and to the group. First it took three times for Peter to have the dream, understand it, and accept it. Usually we read that a dream from the Holy One is to be puzzled over and accepted. There are a couple of stories where people had dreams three times before they understood, but this dramatic one with pictures of all the unclean foods and the command to eat them would seem pretty clear. It just is hard to be told to make changes and then to make them. Second, it is worth observing, that this account does not actually include Peter and his companions eating with the Gentiles. Peter does remember that if the Holy Spirit accepted him, then it could accept them, and then they’d be on the same footing. It doesn’t say that Peter actually ate with them, though. A life-long practice not to eat shrimp, pork, or cheeseburgers often persuades such a practitioner that he or she really, really, really doesn’t like those foods, so even if they become acceptable, they don’t actually eat them, or even eat comfortably with people who do. These two observations make Peter seem like something of a prig and not all that adaptable, and they remind us each and all that change, change about anything we’ve done for a long time, is hard. We can support changes, but it is hard to do them. It seems odd, though, that Jews following Jesus, wanted to exclude non-Jews—Gentiles—and then Gentiles believers came to exclude Jews.
The reading from Revelation was apparently in code against the reigning Emperor Domitian, who insisted on being called “Lord and God.” Some Christians refused and were tortured and killed for their refusal. John’s writing of his Revelation was to assure Christians that however bad torture or death was for them, they would find triumph in eternal life with Jesus. That he wrote metaphorically was to write both safely against the Emperor, and comfortingly to those at risk. I note that some passages from Revelation are often read at funerals because they are comforting to those who grieve, adapting the imagery used to elude the Emperor’s control, to elude the fierceness and sadness of more ordinary death. This apocalyptic passage today, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and G*d himself will be with them…” is specifically Christian, specifically referring to Jesus as “G*d living among mortals, and they will be his peoples, and G*d himself will be with them.” Other apocalyptic writing was written earlier and in a Jewish context, but such writing was an authentic form utilizing strange and dramatic metaphorical language to makes its points, here, that Jesus as G*d, lived among people, who would be his peoples.
“See I am making all things new” again affirms that change is part of G*d’s plan, whether about food laws or about all peoples being G*d’s people. “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life” and yet it is hard to acknowledge each successive group of the thirsty being as welcome to the spring of the water of life as those in place already. It seems to me that in both the Acts and Revelation readings there’s a description of an underlying resistance to newcomers. (In Nantucket this quite human response is worded this way: each newcomer wants to be “the last person ‘round the point,” with not one more person being allowed in to what instantaneously becomes Their Island, and so anyone additional would make it too crowded.)
Back to the Gospel, Jesus said…I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In a time of so many deeds of “loving one another” to the point of self-offering and even self-sacrificing, we need not name again the stories of those racing toward the blasts to help strangers without pause to consider risk. We know and accept, that such people are disciples, whether or not they are card-carrying Christians. They are disciples of the living G*d, and we have seen them. Rather than making such actions an attempt at Christian superiority, it would seem another way to understand those deeds, is that love for the other is G*d’s gift. People who exhibit that behavior are examples of how to be disciples of G*d, followers of Jesus. Not every such disciple, however, knows or encounters Jesus.
This then is our call, not only to act as disciples of Jesus in our actions for others, but also to tell the story of Jesus, believe it, spread it out with joy. The expansive and expanding love that the Lord demonstrates in Jesus’s life is our story to learn, know, repeat, teach, value, claim, celebrate, and love to tell to others. For most of us that is the way we can live as disciples, because dramatic occasions to fling out our lives for others are simply rare in our contexts. Spreading the story, recognizing and saluting the Righteous of G*d, and noticing ways we can reach into paths of such work are for most of us our way of discipleship. Whether ordinary or spectacular, Jesus lives in, with, and for us, and accepts what we do as our own work of discipleship, fully acceptable: Good News.
© Katharine C. Black 28 April 2013 St. John’s, Boston