Sunday, May 17, 2009

Six Easter
Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

These things I command you, that ye may love one another.

I am still friends with my best childhood friend. We have known each other for forty years, ever since I moved in to a house just a few doors away from her. We played together often: swimming in summer, snowball fights in winter, Trick-or-Treating in the fall and games of hide and seek in the woods behind our house in the spring. We loved to pretend that we were owners of a restaurant and would spend days getting everything ready. Weíd plan and make menus, Ďhireí entertainment, rearrange furniture and decorate. By the time we were done with the planning and prep, we were so tired of the game we went on to do other things.

We both had pools, so you could see us running through the neighborís backyard in our swim suits with our beach towels flapping behind as we went from one pool to the other. We could be found playing flashlight tag late into the warm summer night. Weíd hide in her cool basement during hot summer days playing our favorite board games or reading Archie comics or we would hang out on my patio, drinking Pepsi and playing incredibly long card games of War or Slap. We had other friends who sometimes joined us, especially when we were older. But I donít remember a year, or even a week, going by without spending time with my best friend.

She was my best friend, but as with all relationships we had some rocky times. Most of our fights were over the silliest little things. Unfortunately, most of our fights were because one of us was being selfish. When we didnít want to share or if the other stepped over some boundary we would stamp away in a huff. When we didnít want to do what the other wanted to do, we found some excuse to go home to avoid doing that thing the other wanted. Our fights didnít last long; sometimes they didnít even last a whole day. Sometimes we fought because we were tired or not feeling well and we didnít even realize something was wrong. Sometimes we fought because we had just spent too much time together and we simply needed a break. I just know that my friend was not always a good friend, but I also remember that I did not always love her as I should have loved her.

We have two new kittens in our house, and I have been watching carefully as they build up their relationship with our older cat. Samson and Delilah were born in the same litter and the previous family wanted to keep them together, so we accepted both. They will be five months old soon and they are in every sense of the word kittens. Having two kittens doesnít seem to mean that we will have two times as much kitten trouble. It appears that the kitten trouble multiplies. These two get into everything. They are still small enough to fit into places where they should not fit. They climb on furniture where they are not welcome. They get their noses into cups of drink, usually managing to spill the cup and everything in it.

Now, letís add Tigger to the mix. Tigger is not entirely sure what to think of these two kittens. Sometimes it is very obvious that he wants to be their friend. He sits and watches their play intently, perhaps as amazed as us at how much energy they have. He has tried to get them to play his games, but they donít quite understand what he wants them to do. Felix and Tigger used to play a game of chase tag where one of the cats would hit one and then run up the steps with the other close behind. Somewhere upstairs they would change direction and the first cat would chase the other down the street. Tigger will do the things he used to do with Felix to get Felix to chase, but the kittens do not realize he wants them to chase. They just sit there wondering why Tigger just batted at them.

I worry sometimes that Tigger is just going to be a big bully. He tends to growl and hiss when they come near, which is not very welcoming to the kittens. I want him to learn to love Samson and Delilah, to share in their playtime and to even be comfortable sleeping near them. He wonít ever be happy if he lives his life as a bully, always fighting and hissing and growling with the new kittens. There is hope; I can see it every time Tigger gets playful when the kittens are nearby. One day they will all figure out how to live together happily, playing and sharing like best friends.

It doesnít help that the kittens are definitely kittens. When we try to play with Tigger, they want to jump right into the game. When we want to give Tigger a treat, they are right underfoot begging for something to eat, too. But, they are respectful of Tigger, giving him the room he needs. Heís coming around. Iíve noticed recently that he is less likely to hiss or growl at them when they are begging for food or playing with the toys. Sometimes his hisses donít even seem to be mean. It is almost like heís just trying to establish his dominance. At least once I am sure he hissed just to hiss.

But the kittens are trying, especially Delilah. The poor girl has been sick recently with a liver infection, and is having to take all sorts of medication. If you have ever had to give an animal medicine, you know it is a hard task. They generally do not enjoy having pills forced down their throats, and they sure donít take them willingly. Delilah has gotten used to the process, however, and is even a willing participant because I give her some treats after sheís had her medicine. Tigger and Samson have learned that she gets treats, so they come running when it is all over.

The thing that is most impressive is how Delilah welcomes the other kitties into her treat time. Last night she even shared some of her treats with Tigger. They were gathered around me, enjoying their treats. Delilah and Tigger were standing very close to one another. When Tigger finished his, he looked at Delilah and she looked at him. Then she pushed one of her treats his way. Iím not so sure she did it on purpose, although it happened twice and she did not get upset when Tigger ate the treats.

We donít often see the same attitude from children or even adult humans. We donít like to share when we have something special, especially if we know that it is a reward for something weíve had to suffer through. We would even wonder why the others got the treat when they didnít have to take the medicine. Iím sure I didnít always act that way with my best friend and she didnít always act that way with me.

Cats are creatures of habit, and as long as she had enough, I donít think she would mind one way or another. And yet it made me very happy to see her Ďsharingí with Tigger. It was like she was trying to show him that she loves him and that she wants to be his friend. It seemed like she was willing to sacrifice for his sake and to help build their relationship.

Christís commandment is that we love one another and lay down our lives for our friends. We are commanded to bear fruit, lasting fruit, fruit built on love. His command is that we live as He lived, in selfless, sacrificial love. Sacrifice means giving up something, perhaps even something we love or something we have earned through our own suffering. It means changing our ways. But when we practice sacrificial love we do not experience a sense of loss or emptiness because those things are no longer for us to enjoy. We find the real joy in the relationship we have with Christ through our obedience to His command. The grace of God does not come to us because we are obedient. Instead, we receive Godís grace which fills us with His love. As we abide in love, we can do no other than be obedient. Abiding in Godís love is a life of joy, even when it means sacrifice.

How hard it must have been for Peter in todayís lesson from Acts. He knew that God does not play favorites, and that the Gospel message was going to be shared with the world. But it is still hard for us to accept that Godís grace is meant for everyone, even those who do not fit into our understanding of faithfulness. The people in Corneliusí house were Gentiles. Peter wasnít even supposed to be there according to his understanding of his faith. It was a sacrifice for him to take the risk necessary to go and share the Gospel message with them.

They had such firm beliefs about how things must be done and who might be allowed in their fellowship, that this event at Corneliusí house must have rattled their understanding of faith. They werenít allowed to eat with Gentiles, but in giving the Holy Spirit, God broke down a wall that Peter could not rebuild. He asks, ďCan any man forbid the water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit as well as we?Ē We might want to forbid someone from coming into our fellowship, but if God welcomes them, how can we say ďNoĒ?

Peter says, ďGod has offered forgiveness and mercy and grace to these Gentiles, who are we to suggest they canít be part of our group?Ē So, he calls the gathering to join in the celebration of baptism, to welcome them into the fellowship of believers. Baptism is the means of Godís forgiveness, but in this particular story we see that the Gentiles received that forgiveness from Godís own hand first. Baptism is also a way for the Church to say, ďWelcome to our midstĒ and for us to promise to be a part of their new life with Christ.

We may have very good reason to keep people out of our midst. At least in our situations they seem like good reasons. Iím sure when my friend and I had our fights, our reasons seemed important and friendship ending, and yet within days, or perhaps even hours, we were having fun at our old games. Some who hear and believe the Gospel might be people who donít seem to fit in our group, but we see in this story that God does not have the same requirements for becoming part of His Church. So, we are called to care about them all, to share our faith and do whatever we can do to make them a part of our fellowship. Since God loves them, there is no reason why we shouldnít!

There isnít a lot of joy in keeping people from fellowship. Bullies do not lead happy lives. They generally do not find comfort or peace in their bullying, and often are looking for some sort of relationship but they do not know how to make it happen. They are, more often than they would admit, afraid of something. Bullies donít pick on people larger or stronger; they pick on those smaller and weaker.

There is a special museum in Xiían, a city in central China. This museum is located underground and is the excavation of an army of terra-cotta warriors created to guard the tomb of Chinaís first Emperor. These 7500 amazing life-size clay statues are being carefully exhumed and restored for modern archeologists to study and people to see.

The ruler was Qin Shi Huangdi. He began his life as a ruler in China when he was just thirteen. He was a warlord who fought against other warlords for twenty-five years, taking control of more and more men until he had an army of over a million. He dominated the people, using violence to gain power over his enemies until he was the most powerful man in the land. He then took on the name Qin Shi Huangdi, which means ďFirst Divine Emperor in China.Ē He was in some ways a good ruler. He unified China, built the great wall, and developed a capital city with excellent infrastructure. He was so confident about his power and position that he claimed that his dynasty would last ten thousand years.

But, Qin Shi Huangdi was afraid of death. He built hundreds of palaces that were connected by underground tunnels. He could sleep in a different palace each night to avoid assassination. He even refused to die a normal physical death, so he sent his wise men to locate the fountain of youth, which they never found.

Though the Emperor accomplished great things, he did it with excessive cruelty, slaughtering people and destroying the treasures of the culture. Finally, the prime minister conspired with others and the Emperor was assassinated when he was just forty-one years old. The conspirators sent a forged letter to his only son and convinced him to commit suicide, leaving the legacy that this dynasty was the shortest in Chinaís history.

Qin Shi Huangdi lived in fear, for though he was a very powerful man, he did not know grace, mercy or love. He knew only his desires to live forever and treated his people as if they were only the means by which he would get what he wanted. He was the exact opposite of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, which we see revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus came not to gain power, but to bring forgiveness. He came not to build a kingdom through violence, but to unify people by the Word of God. He came to give us the love of God so that we can live in that love and share it with others. He did not fear death, but laid His life down for our sake.

The terra-cotta warriors stand as a testament to the life of the first man to unify China and who brought good things to the people of that great land. Yet, it is also a testament to how human ways pass quickly. The dynasty of Qin Shi Huangdi lasted less than a lifetime because the emperor did not know the power of love, only the power of the sword. He came to an end as he brought the end to many. But the kingdom of God is eternal; He reigns here and now and in the future, because it is built on love and mercy. Our Lord Jesus grants salvation freely to those who believe in His name. Through Him we are heirs to a kingdom that is built to last, to endure even longer than ten thousand years. It is in that kingdom we are called to live.

Todayís psalm is a song of praise and thanksgiving for the good things God has done. The psalmist tells us about those things: about how God has won the victory over Israelís oppressors and how He has saved them from exile. The psalmist sings about Godís faithfulness and His love for His people that is lasting. Telling others about the great things God has done is just one of the many ways we can sing His praise. The psalmist tells us other ways. We can sing a new song. We can sing praises with a harp. We can sound trumpets. The creation even gets involved with the heavens and earth joining in the noise of praise. The sea roars, the floods clap their hands, the hills sing.

We praise God in so many other ways, also. We gather in worship together, hear the Word together and study the Bible together. We gather in fellowship and at meals. We celebrate the sacraments. Our worship and praise does not stop at the front door of our churches, however. We praise God when we share a word of hope with someone in distress and when we give a cup of water to the thirsty. We praise God when we pray for the healing of the nations and our neighbors. We praise God when we tell His story and introduce others to the saving grace found through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Most of all, we praise God when we love one another. Our Gospel lesson for today is from a very intimate moment between Jesus and His disciples. Jesusí time was quickly growing short and there was so much more for the disciples to learn. Our passage is found in the middle of a lengthy speech by Jesus, given to them on the night He was betrayed. He talks about many kinds of love: the love between brothers, the love of neighbor, the love of enemy. He talks about living in love and what that looks like in the world. He talks about how God manifests Himself through love, in love and with love. And He commands us to love one another. The passage for today is directed at our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, but as we live in that love we are reminded that God desires all to be part of our fellowship.

We are often bullied by the world because of our Christian faith. Non-believers do not understand our perspective or attitude; they are, perhaps, afraid of what they see in our lives. Faith means change. It means transformation. It means living differently than the world. We are commanded to love our God and our neighbor. Jesus taught that we should love our enemy and do nothing to bring him or her harm. Jesus taught that it is better to suffer persecution for the Gospel than to turn to the ways and methods of the world. As Christians, we are to obey God, live by His commandments, and show the world our gifts. We'll face many people who do not understand our faith and they will respond with anger and bullying. When we love as God has commanded us to love, the world will see the light of Christ and experience the reality of life in faith. Our love, or Christís love in and through us, might just help the bully see that life is much better when lived in love and hope and peace.

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