Happy Easter! We are still celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead! I need to keep reminding myself of this: the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in me. The resurrection is not just a really awesome story that we tell ourselves one Sunday a year, and then go back to living life as usual. The resurrection is the event that changes everything; it radically alters the priorities and the freedom we live in for the rest of the year. Because death is not the final answer. Love that brings life is the final answer.
Today’s readings all underlined that truth for me this week: God’s love brings life. It brings life in surprising and challenging ways.
First we had the reading from Acts… the story of the new church, the new people of God that began to form after Jesus rose from the grave and went back to heaven. In those verses we read the Spirit of God fell on the Gentiles, non-Jewish people! It’s hard for us today to imagine what a shock it was for Peter and the other disciples to realize that the Spirit of Jesus Christ would include Gentiles as part of the new Church.
If you remember the Old Testament story, God had chosen a very specific group of people: the Jews, to be his people. To show the world that he is the true God. Those of you who are familiar with the Bible remember the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah: God shaping their families into a people who would represent him to the nations around them. They would be his people, and He would be their God.
We are God’s chosen people who are shaped by obeying his law.
But, the people of Israel, lost their way… they worshipped other gods, they adapted to the cultures around them rather than showing those cultures what worship of the true God looked like, how it shaped every aspect of their lives. So God punished Israel, he let other nations take them into captivity, away from their land, away from their home, away from the Temple where God lived. 70 years later, a remnant of this people returned to Jerusalem, returned to Israel where they sought to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple and became a people fiercely shaped by an identity: we are God’s chosen people who are shaped by obeying his law. Implicit in their understanding of their identity was that they alone were God’s chosen people and the Gentiles were the non-chosen, and so NOT God’s people.
So imagine Peter and the other Jewish believers shock and surprise, when one of the Roman centurions, one of the members of the oppressive, hated Roman army that occupied Israel sent a message to Peter, asking him to come because he had seen an angel who has promised Peter would come and tell him about God. While Cornelius’s servants are on their way to ask Peter to come, God gives Peter a vision commanding Peter to kill and eat unclean animals (animals that according to the Jewish law were not allowed to be eaten because they were thought to be impure); and when Peter protests he would never do that, breaking Jewish law, God says to him, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Three times Peter has this vision, and after the third time, Cornelius’ servants knocked on Peter’s door.
Now I want us to notice something important here: Peter did not go to this Roman centurion’s house because he suddenly had a new gushy, super loving inclusive feeling about the occupying Roman soldiers. Peter went because God was obviously at work among these Gentiles, hated though they may be by the Jewish people. Through the visions God had sent Peter it was clear God expected Peter to bring the news of God’s love to these people Peter would rather have nothing to do with.
This is a mind bending paradigm shift for Peter. God has obviously spoken to this Roman commander, Cornelius. So Peter goes to meet with him, tells him and his household about Jesus, and not only does God “not show favoritism and accept those from every nation those who fear him and do what is right.” (as Peter had said earlier) but the Holy Spirit fills these Gentiles and they begin to show this by speaking in tongues and praising God just as the Jewish believers had on Pentecost! Incredible!!! This falling of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his household was the Gentile’s Pentecost. It is because God sent his Spirit to fill them, we are gathered as Gentiles, non-Jewish people in the name of Jesus, filled with His Spirit today. Praise God for his love that breaks down preconceptions and barriers, allowing us as Gentiles to be members of his body the Church!
In this one moment after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, God reverses thousands of years of the Jewish people’s understanding of what it means to belong to God… by including Gentiles as part of the new people, the church he is creating here on earth. This is a radical kind of love. This love breaks down barriers that have stood for centuries and creates a common ground before the throne of Jesus.
This was always God’s intent. We see hints of it in the psalm we read today where the psalmist says: "The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations." (His salvation is revealed to all the nations!) And later… "He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity." (Shockingly, there is not special status as we stand before God’s throne. We are equals, on common ground.)
And before we get all judgey and superior feeling about these Jewish Christians and their narrow view of God’s work in this world… I believe the resurrected Spirit of God is calling us as his people this morning to examine where we might fall into the same narrow mindset traps.
I can confess to you one of those places I struggle. Whenever I see someone flying a Confederate flag, I feel super offended inside. Don’t they know what a racist symbol that is? Don’t they understand how offensive it is to African Americans whose heritage is the slavery perpetuated by the Confederacy? Don’t they understand that much of our country’s continued racial brokenness finds its roots in that history?
I find it abhorrent, and so, in my mind, I write those people off. I assume they can’t really be Christians, because what kind of Christian supports such a racist worldview? I put them in a “not like me” category, and want nothing to do with them. I also feel extremely superior to them, obviously I’m the enlightened one! (Maybe now that you know this about me, you are tempted to put and dismiss me in a box as one of those wacky liberals?)
The problem is, one of these people is my neighbor. And at Easter, they also fly one of those yard flags that is a cross with Easter lilies surrounding it. And the words of Jesus from today’s Gospel reading start to feel a little pinchy. “Remain in my love… This is my command: Love each other.” And I begin to argue: Yeah, but, you don’t mean people like that, right God? I mean obviously they are wrong, so loving them is sort of out of the question.
“Remain in my love… This is my command: Love each other.”
Who are these people in your lives today? Who do you feel are so different from you, so wrong that you are pretty confident God doesn’t really call us to love them in any kind of meaningful way? Maybe for you it’s the people you work with: rash, profane, obsessed with money… God really doesn’t expect you to be respectful or kind in your interactions with them, right? Or maybe for you its people from the LGBTQ community: this whole gender identity thing is something that disgusts you, and you can’t imagine God calling you to interact with kindness or sympathy to those who sexually identify in a way that makes you uncomfortable! Or maybe its along racial lines, or gender lines, or political party lines… there are so many, many ways we can draw lines putting a whole group of people on one side with us smugly superior on the other.
But today’s Gentile Pentecost story does not leave that option open for us because God’s Spirit is still at work in our world today, and He calls us to reach out to those who are not like us… people we don’t feel warm and gushy about but people to whom God’s love needs to be expressed, and, in obedience, we are called to step into relationships that make us uncomfortable. So, in obedience, this week when I drove by my neighbor’s house and he was out in the yard, I waved to him instead of just pretending not to see him. Maybe someday, I will stop on a walk I’m taking to talk with him. It’s baby steps. But I can’t just dismiss someone because they are different from me anymore.
NT Wright has a quote from his book Surprised by Scripture, in which he’s talking how we as Christians express the glory of God in this world. And I would argue that the glory we are called to express is this radical love in action. Here’s the quote:
“Glory is not simply a kind of luminescence, as though the point of salvation were that we would eventually shine like electric lightbulbs. Glory means, among other things, rule and power and authority; as other writers (notably St. John the Divine) make clear, part of the point of God’s saving his people is that they are destined not merely to enjoy a relaxing endless vacation in a place called heaven, but that they are designed to be God’s stewards, ruling over the whole creation with healing and restorative justice and love.”
We are to be part of bringing restoration and healing to all of creation; and we cannot do that if we are busy drawing and enforcing lines that separate us from whole groups of people we see as radically different from ourselves.
One of the fears that sometimes gets expressed as we begin to press into this sort of living out of radical love is that it promotes an “anything goes” approach to life. I don’t think that is necessarily true. But the only way I am ever going to be able to engage in a meaningful conversation with my neighbor about that Confederate flag is, if instead of just writing him off as an ignorant bumpkin, I approach him knowing there is brokenness in him that is obvious to me, but with roots I do not understand; and there is brokenness in me in other areas of my life (feeling self-righteous being a major symptom) which also needs addressing. So we come to stand before God’s throne as equals, letting his Spirit work in both of us as we seek to understand one another and work together towards a more just society. It’s hard, slow work… but if we as Christ’s Church are going to begin to work against the radical polarization in today’s world, it needs to begin with us… doing the radical work of loving those who don’t feel “normal or right” to us until we begin to meet together as flawed humans deeply in need of a Savior.
I believe that this radical love Christ is calling us to also will require us, like the first century Jewish Christians, to release our assumptions that we are always right.
I believe that this radical love Christ is calling us to also will require us, like the first century Jewish Christians, to release our assumptions that we are always right. I believe we must be willing to consider God is doing a new work in our world, and we may not fully get it… it may be as confusing to us as welcoming Gentiles into the Church was confusing to Peter and his contemporaries. But I don’t want to be on the side of those who resist the radical, equalizing love of God in the lives of others or in my life.
We cannot do this kind of radical loving without the refreshing indwelling of God’s Spirit. So the next two Sundays we will be anticipating and then celebrating together the Pentecostal coming of the Spirit, and the new Church that God created through this outpouring.
As part of our celebration, we are inviting each of you to pick of one of these 4×4 canvases and to create something that reminds you of glory, power and joy of the Spirit of God at work within you. It may be a poem, a picture, a painting… whatever you want!! But we would love for everyone to participate so we have a creative tapestry of the work of the Spirit in the lives of God’s people here at Arbor House. You can bring them back with you to our Pentecost celebration on May 20. God calls us to live lives of radical love that changes us, our relationships, and the world around us. What are areas of your life God is calling you to step into with a renewed vision of His healing, restorative justice and love? How will you respond?
Listen to this sermon: