Fifth Sunday of Easter
Behold, God’s dwelling is with people, and he will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.
I love reading a series of books by Jodi Taylor called “The Chronicles of St. Mary’s.” St. Mary’s is an institution that does historical research by viewing history in “contemporary time.” Don’t ever call it time travel, it upsets the people at St. Mary’s. They have these pods that are able to take them to specific times and places where they record the specific event they’ve been assigned, all while trying not to die. They usually get into some messes, but they must be careful as to now do anything that will disrupt the flow of history. There are, of course, some bad guys who want to do just that; they also want to end St. Mary’s one person at a time. This up close and personal view of history “in contemporary time” makes for some very humorous adventures that leave the readers wanting more. It also makes us want to be able to travel through time.
Though physicists are still discovering new ideas, it was Einstein who best laid out the reality of time travel as we understand it today. The science is somewhat complicated, but what Einstein discovered is that time is not constant, but that it is relative to the one who is traveling through it: the faster you travel, the slower time moves. In other words, if you were to travel into space at nearly the speed of light and return to the earth after two years, you will find that much more time had passed. According to his theory, it appears time travel is possible. However, it is impossible to return to the past.
Clifford Pickover wrote, “Most cultures have a grammar with past and future tenses, and also demarcations like seconds and minutes, and yesterday and tomorrow. Yet we cannot say exactly what time is. Although the study of time became scientific during the time of Galileo and Newton, a comprehensive explanation was given only in this century by Einstein, who declared, in effect, time is simply what a clock reads. The clock can be the rotation of a planet, sand falling in an hourglass, a heartbeat, or vibrations of a cesium atom. A typical grandfather clock follows the simple Newtonian law that states that the velocity of a body not subject to external forces remains constant. This means that clock hands travel equal distances in equal times. While this kind of clock is useful for everyday life, modern science finds that time can be warped in various ways, like clay in the hands of a cosmic sculptor.
“The line between science and mysticism sometimes grows thin. Today physicists would agree that time is one of the strangest properties of our universe. In fact, there is a story circulating among scientists of an immigrant to America who has lost his watch. He walks up to a man on a New York street and asks, ‘Please, Sir, what is time?’ The scientist replies, ‘I’m sorry, you’ll have to ask a philosopher. I’m just a physicist.’”
As long as there is a clock close-by we think we know the time. Yet, the reality of time is far more complicated. Scientists like Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan spent much of their careers seeking to better understand time and all that is related. It was much simpler when we could keep the concept of time locked in a box or a watch or a clock. Even so, we joke about time likehow we wish we could have twenty five hours in a day or eight days in a week. Perhaps time travel would help us with our hectic schedules!
We try to keep God locked in a box. As we look back to the beginning of creation, 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, ravished by time. In his sin, 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 could not disrupt their plans.
But like time, God is not constant and can’t be locked in a box. He is bigger than anything we can create. God is not hidden behind a curtain or held by our ideology and biases. That’s what Peter learned in the vision and encounter with Cornelius. He learned that God’s grace is available to all those who hear, not just for those who exist in a certain time, place or culture. He took that news to the Jews and opened for them a whole new world. The new world was one in which God’s love extended to people from all nations. This new world is made visible in the love of Christians for one another, the love that Jesus Christ commanded for His disciples. It is in that love, not a feeling but an active love between brothers and sisters, that God is glorified in this world and He is manifest for all to see.
The Easter season lectionary for this year includes several passages from the Book of Revelation. A few weeks ago we saw an introduction to the main character of the epic, Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:4-8). Then we got a glimpse of worship in heaven (Revelation 5:11-14). The next week was another vision of worship (Revelation 7:9-17). This week is a vision and a promise that everything will be made new again (Revelation 21:1-5). Next week we will see the culmination of all God’s promises when we return forever to the Garden God intended for us all along (Revelation 21:10-22:5).
Those who have studied Revelation will ask, “Where are all the exciting bits?” After all, Revelation is about beasts, war, and bloodshed, right? It is about strange creatures, symbolism, and how everyone we hate is the anti-Christ. I’m being facetious, of course. Those things are certainly a part of the book of Revelation and they need to be understood to understand what is coming for us at the end of time. However, as we’ve studied the book this year, we’ve noted something amazing.
It isn’t a timeline as many interpret it. We can’t interpret the events in Revelation as if it fits into a calendar or a clock. It is a series of visions that tell the same thing in different ways with God and the Lamb as the center of the picture. It is like a kaleidoscope, the action moves from evil, sin, and death, to a call for repentance and then a moment of worship in heaven. God is in the midst of all of it John is showing us how bad life is when we live according to the world and how wonderful life is when we keep God in our focus, trusting in His promises. Note how often we see worship in our scriptures during this season. These are just five moments among many more throughout the book. The question it raises is this: Who do you choose? Do you choose God or the world?
We will face difficult times. Those visions that seem extraordinary are reminders that we will experience hardship in this world, but that we can trust that God has promised that those with faith will one day dwell with Him again forever. The point is to keep us focused on God’s promises as we walk through those dark and perilous times without turning to the world for false security, righteousness and salvation.
Christianity is about overcoming obstacles. The cross and the resurrection are certainly the most obvious events in which God has overcome our greatest obstacles, but there are many other ways in which we overcome. Jesus teachings were about overcoming fear, barriers, biases, hatred, doubt, hunger, loneliness, imprisonment, thirst, despair, sin and death. Many of the Christian writings, both canonical and the writings of Christians throughout the ages, have this focus. Often those difficulties are based on the messages that are received from society in general. In today’s world, self-help books fill our bookshelves, so Christian writers also share ways in which the Christian message can help people overcome their difficulties.
Things were not much different in John’s day; the gods which the people worshipped were different. Ours have names like “work”, “money”, “leisure.” Though the Hellenistic culture in which John lived was in many ways similar to our own, they had a list of gods which they honored with temples, pilgrimages and religious rituals. The Christians had to overcome people’s reliance on those gods while drawing them into the heart of the One true and living God. They also had to fight the Jewish community who rejected the message of Jesus Christ and the ministry of the apostles in the world.
The Jewish community of Jesus’ time had strict rules about their socialization. They could not eat with people who were not circumcised. In the days following Jesus’ resurrection, as the apostles were beginning to teach and preach the Good News to the world, they continued to live according to the rules of their community. Peter refused to fellowship with those who were not circumcised.
That was until he had a vision from God; God showed him a better way. As the three men from Caesarea approached, Peter was on his roof praying. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter was upset by this command, because the food before him was unclean according to the Jewish law. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This vision happened repeatedly, to ensure Peter that what he heard was the truth of God. When the vision ended, the men from Caesarea asked Peter to go with them.
Peter did not hesitate to visit the home of Cornelius. Peter told Cornelius it was against his law for him to be there, but asked why he had been called. Cornelius shared the story of the angel and Peter understood that the vision was not only about food but also about people. So, Peter stayed with Cornelius and shared the Good News with his whole household. They believed and the Holy Spirit came upon them. The circumcised Jews who had come with Peter were amazed that God would pour out His Spirit on gentiles, but they heard them praising God in other tongues.
After this visit, Peter returned to Jerusalem to tell them about God’s grace to the Gentiles. They were not so upset that God would bless the Gentiles, they were upset that the Gentiles were expected to be accepted in their community and at their table fellowship without changes that would fulfill their laws. The early Christians, Jews who believed in Jesus, thought the promises of God were for them alone. To them, Gentiles were unclean. They could not gather in fellowship or eat with those who have not been given the sign of the covenant between God and Israel. If a believer wanted to be part of the body of Christ, they had to become part of Israel first. They required Gentile converts to become Jews first through circumcision, then they could inherit the promise of eternal life in Christ. Peter discovered that God’s grace was not dependent on being a certain kind of person, but that He can bless whomever He pleases. Those who have been saved by the Word and by the power of the Holy Spirit are part of the same fellowship and are welcome at the same table based on God’s grace.
Like time, God cannot be defined simply. He is bigger than anything we can create. God is not hidden behind a curtain or held by our ideology and biases. That’s what Peter learned in the vision and the encounter with Cornelius. He learned that God’s grace is available to all those who hear, not just for those who exist in a certain time, place or culture.
The Old Covenant between God and His people required circumcision of the flesh. That was the sign that the Jews belonged to God and that He was theirs. The New Covenant required something even more difficult: circumcision of the heart. This raised the question, “What is the sign of the relationship between God and His people if circumcision was no longer necessary?” Jesus answered that question in the passage for today. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The world we will know we are His if we love one another as He loved us.
The beginning of this passage Jesus says, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and he will glorify him immediately.” How was God glorified in the life of Jesus? Was it through the miracles, through the Word? Yes, but the true glory came at the cross when Jesus obediently and willingly died according to God’s plan for the world. He defeated sin and death so that the gift of eternal life would be ours. He loved us that much.
In the verses that follow this reading, Peter told Jesus that he would follow Him wherever He went. Yet, Peter denied Jesus three times that very evening. Peter would eventually follow Jesus to the cross, but not until he finished the work God commissioned him to do. Jesus loved. Peter followed Jesus. We are called to glorify God by loving one another as He loved us.
They say birds of a feather flock together and this is true of human beings also. We like to be with people that have similar interests and background. We like to gather with people that have similar cultural heritage. It is more fun to hang out with a group of people that like the same types of foods and enjoy the same types of music. It is certainly easier to work with people who have the same goals, desires and opinions. This is especially true when our common bond is something as important as the covenant sign shared by the Jews. Over the years, however, the Jews made those common bonds into walls, walls that divided them from the rest of the world. The same thing often happens to us; our differences become reasons to keep people away, walls that separate us from others. But Jesus said, “Men will know you belong to me if you love one another.”
Many people enjoy a life of faith in God but they prefer to do it alone. They argue that the Church is not a building, but individual believers in personal relationship with Him. They claim that God can be found anywhere, in the quietness of the fields and under the shade of a tree. While this is true, there is something to be said about joining together in the fellowship of the saints, not only through time and space as we see in the texts from Revelation, but also in the here and now. After all, our worship today is a reflection of the eternal worship we will eventually join when we die. Our praises, sung together in the presence of God is far more beautiful to His ears than those we sing alone.
Just as the center of Revelation is worship, so too is our life of faith in this world as we wait for God’s promises to be fully and completely finished. We are called and gathered by the Holy Spirit to join with the entire creation to sing praises to God our Father. He hears our praise wherever we are, because everything He has made sings along with us. Yet, there is something very special when Christians raise their voices together to glorify God in the here and now.
In the psalm for today, we are humbled by the fact 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.
In the final verse, the psalmist says, “He has lifted up the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints; even of the children of Israel, a people near to him.” 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. But we don’t have to wait for the final chapter of Revelation because Jesus restored us to our Creator and the Spirit of God dwells among His people. His love is manifest in our lives. We can look forward to the Day when we will dwell with our Father and we will clearly see His Glory. For now, we live in this world, bound by the constraints of space and time, but called to love one another so that God is glorified through our lives of faith.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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