Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-7
John 16:12-22

I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.

Imagine the depth of grief that the disciples must have felt in those days between the crucifixion and the resurrection. I think we can all imagine it; we’ve all dealt with the loss of a loved one. The grief is bad enough when we’ve lost someone who has led a long and fruitful life, but it is even harder when we lose a person for whom we have great hope and expectation, like when a parent loses a child who is yet to become everything they are meant to be or when a husband loses a wife before their children are grown. We grieve when a leader dies before his or her work is complete. We grieve when a young person dies before they’ve accomplished something great with their talents. Grief is hard enough, but it is multiplied when their time is cut short.

That’s the sort of grief the disciples must have felt. After all, Jesus was going to do great things. He was going to lead Israel into a new golden age. He was going to defeat Rome. He was going to make them a strong nation. And then He died. He was cut off from the world before He could accomplish everything they hoped He would accomplish.

It couldn’t have helped to have Jesus speaking so cryptically to them the night before He died. “I have more to say but I can’t say it right now because you can’t handle it.” These guys were pretty mature in their faith in Jesus, after all, they were with Him for three years and they’d seen it all. Yes, we know that they failed miserably at the end, but not because they didn’t have faith. They failed because they had so much faith. Unfortunately, it was faith in all the wrong things.

But we shouldn’t consider ourselves any better than those disciples. We might see more clearly than they did during those three days, but we have an advantage: the Holy Spirit. See, there is so much about faith in Jesus Christ that we simply cannot understand with the Spirit. We can’t handle it without the Spirit to help us. Jesus did have more to tell them, but it would never make sense without God’s Spirit. Where would we be without that same Spirit? It was only after they were given the Spirit that they could truly get to work.

That could not happen until Jesus was raised to the right hand of God. Jesus was the presence of God while He lived, but Jesus could never be everywhere. He was flesh and blood. He was limited by time and space. However, when He went to heaven, He sent the Spirit who has no limits. The Spirit can be with you and me at the same time, even if we are a thousand miles apart. He can be with our ancestors and our children in every generation. He can be in the hearts of millions, even billions at the same moment. He can guide us into the truth. He can help us bear everything that Jesus has to say to us. He can help us do the work we are called to do.

There were things that had to wait, but when they came, they came with surprising outcome. Take, for instance, the story of Peter in today’s first lesson. Peter was a good Jew. He followed the rules. He ate what he was supposed to eat and he did what he was supposed to do. He honored God and the Law by being faithful as he was able. But under the Spirit’s guidance, things were about to change. The love and mercy of God given through Jesus Christ was not going to be limited in any way. It was not going to be limited to those who had inherited the covenant. There was a new covenant that would extend far beyond the borders of their knowledge and expectation.

Perhaps that was one of the things that Jesus thought would be too hard for them to bear, after all they’d spent generations believing that they were meant to be separate, special, chosen. How would they have accepted the reality of the New Covenant if they had to do so without God’s help? Would they have rebelled against everything Jesus said if He’d thrust this upon them? Were they ready to deal with the death and resurrection if the life it guaranteed was going to be given to all people?

Jesus knew how hard it would be on them. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.” How could they possibly know what He meant by this? Even though Jesus had spoken of His death, they did not really expect it. And then once He was dead, their grief left them blind to the promise that He’d rise again.

While Israel was specially chosen to be separate, God did this for a purpose. Their purpose was to be a blessing to the world. Their purpose was to give the world the Messiah. God never intended to be a private God for one small group of people. He is God. He is God for the whole world. His grace is given for all who believe. God hears the praise of all those who sing out His name and proclaim His goodness. It doesn’t matter to Him whether the voice is coming from a Jew or a Gentile, a man or a woman, an old man or a baby girl. Each one who sings His praise is heard and embraced as His child.

Peter had not been ready to go out into the world and speak the Gospel message to the Gentiles. He considered them common and unclean. Neither were the leaders in Jerusalem ready for the message to go beyond their community. In today’s lesson from Acts, however, Peter tells the apostles a story about a word from God that means to change that point of view. He tells of a vision of a sheet filled with foods that Jews will not eat, foods that might be found on the table of the Gentiles. Peter heard a voice say, “Kill and eat.” Peter told the listeners that he refused because the food was common and unclean. Then he told them that the voice said, “What God hath cleansed, make not thou common.” This happened several times until Peter understood: the Gospel is for others, too.

Isn’t it interesting to read the psalm for today? In that song the psalmist says that we are just a small part of all that worships God. The sun, the moon and the stars all praise God. The heavens and the raindrops, the earth and all that lives on land and in the sea sing His praises. The elements, the mountains, the hills and all the trees praise God. Wild and domesticated animals, clean and unclean and birds of the sky all join in the worship. No man is greater than all this, whether ruler or servant, young or old, male or female. All creation was made by God and all creation sings His praise. If all of creation can sing God’s praise, can’t the Gentiles or pagans do so, too?

The trouble for the Jews, however, is not that the Gentiles can praise God; it is that they have expectations of those who join their ranks. The early Christians were expected to first become Jews and then they could become Christians. They Gentiles were required first to become clean before they could be part of the Church. The lesson to Peter was that it is God that makes people clean, not the works of men. Even in baptism it is not the water that makes one clean, but the Spirit that flows with the water and the words.

Peter saw that first hand with the Gentiles in Caesarea. He witnessed another Pentecost, with the Holy Spirit coming down on those who were listening as he told the story of Christ. He knew that he could not withhold the grace of God from those people because God did not withhold it. He remembered that John baptized with water, but that God would baptize with the Holy Spirit. It isn’t about the works of men, it is always about the works of God.

In the final verse, the psalmist says, “And he hath lifted up the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints; Even of the children of Israel, a people near unto him. Praise ye Jehovah.” That horn is Jesus Christ our Savior who deserves our thanks and praise. He has made things new by loving us so much that He was willing to die. On that cross, Jesus made things new and gave us hope that the day will come when creation is restored as God intended. That promise is for all men, for all who hear His voice. And all those who hear His voice are joined into a community of faith that is much bigger than one small group of people. We worship together outside space and time.

In the passage from Revelation, John sees a vision of heaven and earth as God intended it to be. The new heaven and earth are as God originally planned, where God dwells among the people, where they can drink of the water of life and live forever in His presence. As we look back to the beginning, we see that what God created He called good. The earth, the heavens, the plant and animal life, the man and the woman are spoken into life by God and He said, “It is good.” When sin entered the world, everything became corrupt and perishable. What God intended was destroyed when the relationship between Creator and creation was broken in the Garden. Death and tears became a part of life, pain and suffering something that we all face.

Before Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge, God dwelled with them in the Garden. They were content to live within the bounds of the relationships God had created between man and God, man and nature and man with each other. Once sin entered into the world, man tried to confine God to make Him suit their needs with idols, locking God behind the doors of their hearts and their temples so that He would not disrupt their plans. But God cannot be confined by our small minds or intentions. He cannot even be confined by time or space.

Throughout the history of the Jews, it seemed that He dwelt among them in the Tabernacle, inaccessible to anyone but the priests. No matter what they thought, God was not hidden behind the curtain in the temple. He was still working amongst His people, making them to be a unique nation among the nations, a people through whom the world would see the True and Living God. In this, God gave Israel the Law. He made circumcision a sign of the covenant between them. He made His grace visible in their lives, in His judgment and in His mercy. They were made to glorify Him. Israel’s enemies saw that God dwelt among them. When He removed His hand, Israel fell, but He always turned back to restore her to Him. Through it all, Israel’s unique relationship with God made Him visible to the world.

Jesus extended the grace beyond the bounds of the relationship with Israel to touch the world. God would no longer be trapped in the Holy of Holies, available only to those who came to the temple. He would dwell in the hearts of all those who believe. The Holy Spirit would fill our lives, teach us everything we need to know and guide us into the life God always intended for us to live.

God has done something new, but it isn’t really all that new. It is as He always intended. The psalmist shows us that the entire creation sings His praise. In Revelation we see all God’s people, no matter who they are, joining in the eternal worship of the One who did it all. Death and tears may have entered the world, but God has overcome death and will wipe away all our tears.

The disciples must have mourned the loss of their beloved teacher during those three days, but after the Resurrection, they knew the joy that only God can give. We, too, mourn the losses that are too sudden and unexpected, but in faith we know that death is not the end for those who believe. It is only the beginning. One day we will all join in the praise of the whole creation and all the Church for eternity, dwelling once again with the God who created us, loves us and saves those who hear His voice and believe.

So, let us always remember that even though there is much we can do in this world, there are some things that only God can accomplish. We are commissioned to go out, to share the Gospel, to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But we could do none of this without the Spirit which God gives. Our words, our water, our work is useless without Him. It’s all about God. Without Him we could not bear it at all, but with Him we can overcome everything, even sin and death.

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