Sunday, May 2, 2010

Five Easter
Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

Let them praise the name of Jehovah; For he commanded, and they were created.

We donít know. We simply do not know what God has in mind for our neighbor. We may think we can judge the book by its cover, judging by a personís outward appearance what they think and feel and expect. Even more so, we can not tell by what we see today how God will impact their lives. And since we have been called to be Godís witnesses in the world, we might just be surprised to which neighbor God wants us to take the Gospel.

God cares about all His creation: every bug, fish, bird, animal and even every human being. Human beings might be the only creature that creates buildings in which to worship God, but we are just a small part of the creation that does so. The sun, the moon and the stars all praise God. The heavens and the raindrops glorify God; the earth and all that lives on land and in 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. We may not be able to see it in the way the birds fly or cats sleep, but they are thankful to God and worship Him.

The same is true of our neighbor. This is not to say that every human being has benefitted from the saving grace of Jesus Christ, or even that all our neighbors believe in the God of our faith. However, we are reminded by our scriptures for today that we cannot judge our neighborsí faith by what we expect. That neighbor whom you think can not possibly know God might just be the very person to whom you are being sent to share the Gospel message. The atheist that is unwavering in their lack of faith could be the next one upon whom Godís Spirit will fall.

There had been good reason for Godís people to be separate. They were small in number and uncertain about this new God that called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob into a relationship. They had to learn to rely on God for everything, especially during the exodus as they were led by Moses out of slavery and into the Promised Land. They had to gather wealth so that they could become a nation. We see in the scriptures how easily Godís people fall away when they become integrated with other nations. They lose touch with God, they bow to other gods, they rely on stronger nations and they desire what others have. They were just like we are today. We get caught up in the world, too. Perhaps it would be better if we stayed separated.

That is certainly what we see in some religious communities. They shut out the rest of the world, refusing to even pray with the neighbor just in case that neighbor believes in a different god. In the days of the disciples, the rules were very strict for those Jews living in a Roman city and Greek culture. They were not allowed to eat with outsiders. There may have been good reason. The pagans did not follow the same cleanliness laws or food restrictions. But they were not even allowed to welcome those pagan neighbors at their own tables. Eating with an outsider meant approving of them and their way of life. It didnít help that there was a long history of conflict between the Jews and the world. It was very easy to decide to stay apart, and to keep their God to themselves.

Besides, would God really approve of those others and bless them as He had blessed the Jews? They were His people; no one else could boast such a thing. God blessed them. If they wanted to rely on voiceless gods, let them. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob belonged to them. What they missed, throughout the history of their relationship with God, is that they were called and gathered to be a blessing to the world. Yes, they were Godís chosen people because the Savior of the world would come out of them. But His work, the work of Christ, would not be limited to one people, but would be given to all.

The psalmist says, ďAnd 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.Ē I suppose it is easy to assume from passages like this that the salvation of God is meant only for a few. And yet the rest of the psalm tells us that even the sea monsters praise God. Perhaps a pagan can too?

And so Peter had this amazing experience. God gave him a vision that he understood to mean that all food is good, and then he was taken to Corneliusí house. There he saw that even the non-Jews can believe and that God can bless them, too. The believers in Jerusalem were shocked when they received word that Peter had entered a Gentileís house and even ate with them. When he went back, he was criticized for it. So, he told them the story, sharing Godís vision and his experience. When they heard the story, they realized, like Peter, that God can give even the Gentiles faith.

And so, God can give Ďevení that neighbor faith to believe in Him. His salvation is not limited to the people who attend our church or even those who call themselves a Christian, today. He can grant His life and spirit to those who even now reject the idea of Jesus Christ. This is not to say that all are Christian, for there will always be hearts hardened against the saving mercy of God given to us through the blood of Christ. However, it is possible for all to be saved. God loves all His creation, and we are called to love all Godís creation, also. And it is with this attitude that we are sent out into the world to share Christ with our neighbors. That neighbor we do not understand might just be our newest brother or sister in Christ.

The problem, however, is that we donít even do a very good job at loving each other. The people in Corneliusí house were believers, but the people in Jerusalem did not accept them at first. Even when they accepted what happened, conflict continued to exist between the Christians. Conflict continued as the early Christians tried to understand what God was doing in the world. It continued through the years as each new generation tried to understand what He was doing in their lives. It still exists today as Christians disagree about so many things. It is hard to love someone when we are in conflict with them.

But Jesus says, ďLove one another.Ē Jesus talks about love in many contexts: loving neighbor, loving enemies, loving God. In this particular passage, He is specifically talking about loving one another: Christians loving Christians. He says, ďLove one another because that is how the world will know that you belong to me.Ē Well, if thatís the sign, it is no wonder that the world doesnít recognize us. We donít do a very good job at loving one another. If they donít recognize us by our love for one another, how can we ever expect them to believe in the grace weíve been sent to share?

Despite our failures, and weíll continue to fail just as Godís people have done since the beginning of time, God gives us hope in the future. Our failures can not make God unfaithful. He will continue to work in the world, to call people to His heart and change them forever. He will continue to love people and offer His salvation to them.

In the second lesson for today, John shares a vision of heaven and earth as God intended it to be. The new heaven and earth are as God are like the Garden of Eden, where God dwells among the people, where they can drink of the water of life and live forever in His presence. God promises something new, a world in which there is no death and no tears. This new world, and new covenant, is made visible in the love of Christians for one another. While we look forward to the day when we will never again need to cry and when death will no longer take those we love, we need not wait to love one another. The future which God has promised can exist today, if only we would worship the glorified God in the one way we are truly able: by loving one another. He is making all things new, but all things are already new for Christ has finished the work.

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