Sunday, May 21, 2006

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

Make a joyful noise unto Jehovah, all the earth: Break forth and sing for joy, yea, sing praises.

Since most of the Christians that read this writing can not trace their roots back to the original Jewish origins of the Church, this particular passage from Acts is of special interest to us. It is here that God verifies to the leadership of His Church that others are welcome and gifted to be His disciples, not based on their heritage or obedience but rather by His grace.

We have many other stories that point us to the knowledge that the Gospel is for all people. The wise men came to visit the baby Jesus and recognized in Him the truth of His purpose on earth. Jesus crossed cultural, generational and gender barriers by reaching out to women, foreigners, the sick and the possessed without concern for the consequences. He forgave sins, healed dis-ease and transformed lives without regard to the outward identity of the people He met. He looks at hearts and makes people whole.

The book of Acts is a fascinating look at the early Church. We see through the stories of the disciples and the communities of faith which were established in those early days that it was never easy. There was conflict and confusion. The leaders sought to be obedient to God's will, but they did not always like what they saw happening in the congregations of believers. People were following Jesus that did not embrace the values set forth by the Jewish community. It was understood that new Christians had to become Jewish before they could become Christian. They thought that God would not bless the converts unless they adhered to the Law as established by Moses and carried through to that day by the priests.

Peter was adamant about the expectations of the Church toward new believers. He was doubtful about Paul's ministry to the Gentiles and their differences were a source of difficulty in the early Church. Peter held to the Law, did not eat with Gentiles, and he did not think that it was possible for Gentiles to be saved while they were Gentiles.

God did a powerful thing. He gave a Gentile named Cornelius a vision and command to call Peter to his house and then prepared Peter's heart for what was to happen. We don't hear the whole story in today's reading, but it is worth remembering to see how that Peter's words are truly miraculous. Peter was in prayer when he received a vision of his own. In this vision, a large sheet was let down to earth containing food that was considered unclean and he heard a voice speak, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat." Peter saw this food as unclean and refused to eat. "Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean." God replied, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."

Then the men from Cornelius found Peter and took him to the centurion's home. He told them it was against the Law for him to be there, but that God had shown him a vision and that he understood it to mean that no man should be called impure or unclean. "So I came without raising any objections. May I ask why you have sent for me?" Cornelius told him that he too had a vision and that in it he was promised the answer to his prayers. Then and there Peter proclaimed the Gospel to the room full of Gentiles.

We hear in the lesson that even while Peter was speaking the Holy Spirit fell upon the gathering, blessing the Gentiles with the gift of tongues, a gift that had otherwise only ever been given to the Jews. In this mighty act of God's grace, Peter realized that Gentile believers were part of the family and were to be welcomed into the community of God, not according to an old set of rules but according to God's grace. This was a radical event in the life of the Church and it was an event that would change the dynamics dramatically. Of course, there were those that did not agree to the change and continued to demand adherence to the Law. Paul wrote extensively in his letters about those who would force Gentiles to become Jews before being accepted as Christian. However, Peter saw here that God can and will bless those whom He will bless, and He calls us to welcome all believers into the community of faith even if, and when, their presence will wreak havoc on everything we know, or think we know, is true.

It is important that Peter asked, "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?" not because the baptism would make them clean. God had already done so with the baptism He gave. No, the baptism signified a welcome into the family and community of God, it made the Gentiles part of the body of Christ. In this Gentile Pentecost, God reached out to the world with His power and His grace and He proved to the community through the same gift that it was His intent to spread the Gospel to all nations.

Isn't it strange then that the Gospel lesson for this week would have such an emphasis on the commandments? Twice in this passage, God's love and blessings seem conditional. John writes, " If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love." And, "Ye are my friends, if ye do the things which I command you." So, what do we do with this paradox? We believe God. Jesus says, "Ye did not choose me, but I chose you."

The grace of God does not come to us because we are obedient. Instead, we receive God's grace which fills us with His love. As we abide in His love, we can do no other than be obedient. It is Christ in us that abides in God and Christ abiding in us that is obedient.

What are Christ's commandments? In this passage, in the context of this lesson, His commandments are that we are to love one another and to 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.

It was indeed a sacrifice for Peter to go to the house of the Gentile centurion named Cornelius. It was a sacrifice for him to go in to a room filled with Gentiles and speak a message he thought had been given solely to His people. It was a sacrifice for the community to welcome these new believers into their midst, knowing that everything they knew before would be turned upside down. Peter decided to be obedient, to take the risk and to follow God's vision for the Gospel.

God does not call us to take a risk without giving some assurance. Peter's assurance rested in the miracle of the Gentile Pentecost. There he saw God at work in the lives of these strangers and he knew that this experience was from God. The Holy Spirit testified to the truth and to the grace of God.

It is undeniable that the scriptures tell us that our faith is a personal gift and that we live in a direct and intimate relationship with God, our Father. We are His children as individuals. He loves us as individuals, gifts us as individuals and calls us as individuals. However, this week's lessons focus on a different aspect of that relationship. Notice in the Gospel lesson that Jesus says, God loves Him and He loves us. We abide in His love by keeping His commands just as He kept the Father's commands. We are His friends, not because we have an individual and intimate relationship with Him, but because we are chosen to live in love with our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is about family, about community. It is about the community living together in love to the glory of God.

There is a strange statement in today's epistle lesson. In the NRSV John writes, "everyone who loves the parent loves the child." We know that this refers to God as the parent and those who have been born of God through faith His children. So, if we love God, we love His kids. Yet, we all know people who have had kids that are impossible to be loved. What makes it hard to love them? I suppose my experience would say disobedience. We do not like the child because he or she shows no respect to their mother or father. We do not love them because they do not seem to love their parents.

So, we take this experience to the relationships we have with other Christians. They do not live up to our expectations. They are not obedient to the rules we have established or follow our ways, so we set them apart from our community, loving them only when they join according to our expectations. We put our own conditions on the love, "If you love me you will do what I say." These commands are burdensome; they are demands that separate people from each other and from God. The love is dependent on the obedience.

With Christ, the command is not burdensome because the love is not dependent on obedience but rather obedience is dependent on the love. It is in faith that we abide in the love of Christ, obeying His command to love one another with a sacrificial love while bearing fruit that will last. Faith and community are connected. Christ loved us, chose us and calls us friends so that we will obey His command to love one another. In love He has made us part of a body, calling us to love that body. As we love one another, we will see the fruit God calls us to bear, the fruit that is the witness to our love for God.

The love we give is to be like Christ's love sacrificial. We think of sacrifice in very negative terms. Sacrifice means giving up something, perhaps even something we love. It means changing our ways. Peter's sacrifice was to be disobedient to a law to which he had been faithful a law which defined his faithfulness. He risked losing everything by stepping out of his world into another because he loved God. What he found was joy, because the Word he shared with the Gentiles bore lasting fruit.

Sacrifice does not necessarily mean physical death. It means letting go of one's own self for the sake of another. It means hearing the call of God and following, even when God's call sounds different than you expect. It means loving God's kids even when they do not stand up to your expectations. It means facing change for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus even when change will rattle your whole world. Jesus chose you as His friend and He has appointed you to go and bear fruit. Sometimes that means entering into a world that is beyond our understanding and outside our expectations. We are afraid of what we might find, but when we step out in faith in the love of Christ we will find joy. Abiding in God's love is a life of joy, even when it means sacrifice.

The song today is a victory hymn. Perhaps victory sounds too much like war talk, as if the battle we are fighting with our brothers and sisters in Christ is war. After all, when there are divisions in the Church we take sides. We follow those whom speak to our ideals or those who value our opinions. We square off against one another, not living in love but abiding in our self-centeredness and our desire to keep our community free of those whom we consider impure or unclean.

God calls us to see others through His eyes. "Do not call anything I have created unclean." Instead, we see everything through the lenses of our own lives, our own experiences and our own rules. We reject that which does not fit into our tidy box.

Ask yourself, "Is there joy in my life of faith?" If you can't answer yes to this question, then perhaps you should look at your relationships with your brothers and sisters in Christ. God is calling you to live in love, sacrificial love. We can say over and over again that we love God, but if we do not love God's kids in service and grace even those who don't fit into our expectations then we do not truly love God. Loving our brothers and sisters just might turn our world upside down, but God will not leave us without assurance. He will make known His victory and reveal His vindication. We will remember His steadfast love.

The psalmist writes, "Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break into joyous song and sing praises." Perhaps today is the day God will bless us with our own miraculous Pentecost moment when we will speak with a new tongue a tongue of praise as we see Him do marvelous things amongst us. All the ends of the earth have seen His salvation, salvation found in our Lord Jesus Christ, salvation that has been given even unto the Gentiles strangers or foreigners amongst us because they believe. Thanks be to God.

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