Sunday, May 6, 2007

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

Praise ye Jehovah. Praise ye Jehovah from the heavens: Praise him in the heights. Praise ye him, all his angels: Praise ye him, all his host.

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. Since the speed of light is constant, for the observers from earth time appear to slow down. Traveling at the speed of light, time appears to stay the same for you. Thus we find that 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 – how 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 cannot be defined so 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 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 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.

In the story from Acts, the apostles and brothers around Judea had heard that Peter ate with Gentiles in Caesarea and that they had received the word of God. He was criticized in Jerusalem for going into the house of an uncircumcised man. In today’s passage, we hear his explanation. He tells of a vision from the Lord while he prayed on a rooftop. A large white sheet filled with all sorts of animals, both clean and unclean, was lowered from heaven. Peter heartd a voice tell him to eat. Peter refused, “Not so, Lord’ for I have never eaten anything that is common and unclean.” The voice ansered, “What God hath cleansed, make not thou common.” This happened three times. Men sent by Cornelius arrived just as Peter’s vision ended and God told Peter to travel with them. Cornelius’ house was full of people when they arrived. Though it was against the Law of Moses for Peter to visit with the Gentiles or eat with them, he knew the vision was meant to show him that he should not call people impure or unclean.

So, as Peter shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ with Cornelius and his friends, the Spirit came upon them, a Pentecost for the Gentiles. They began speaking in tongues and Peter knew that they too had been saved. He ordered that they all be baptized with water since they had received the same gift as the Jewish believers. The kingdom of God was available to all me whether they were Jew or Gentile. The Jews wanted to require the Gentiles to change their identity by taking on the sign of the covenant between God and His people, but Peter realized that it was not necessary for them to do so.

Peter took the news of the Gentile conversion 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. Now, Jesus spoke a great deal about love – loving God, loving neighbor, loving enemies. God is love. That’s what we hear, and God is manifest in the love we share with others. This is especially true between brothers and sisters in Christ. It is the love between Christians that would stand as the sign of the new covenant.

Jesus said, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” 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. Christianity is a new covenant with a new sign. Blood no longer needed to be shed as a sign of the covenant. Christ required something even more difficult – circumcision of the heart.

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.”

Does this mean we have to lose our identity to become unified in Christ? I have recently been involved in several conversations with mothers of young children. These mothers enjoyed these conversations not only because they were able to communicate with adults about adult things, but they also enjoyed knowing that the day will come when they will be able to have a life again. It seems like their entire life revolves around the needs of the children. I’m not sure it gets any easier as the children grow older. As a matter of fact, teenagers need a mother even more. My kids don’t necessarily need me to cook their meals or do their laundry, but they need the support of a loving parent. Their hectic schedules require full-time participation to support their activities.

It is said that a mother sacrifices everything for the sake of her kids. I suppose that is why some women do not want to have children. They do not want to have to sacrifice so much for another person. Yet, even though a mother’s love is often seen as sacrificial, the reality is that the best mothers are those who continue to retain their sense of self through those years. Though it is hard, it is important for those young mothers to remember that they have their own identity and to find some way to be true to themselves through those childhood years.

We may not have the same distinctions between people as they did in Peter’s day. It may not be Jew verses Gentile in our community, but we all have bonds that can turn into walls between people. Our differences might be geographic or gender related. We might have different political opinions or goals in life. We might have a different perspective about how things should be run in the church. These differences often cause trouble within our churches or had feelings between churches. However, Christ calls us to love our brothers and sisters in Christ.

This is not meant to be just in words or an emotional love. The question in the story from acts was not about whether or not the Gentiles could be Christian. It was whether or not the Jews could share in fellowship with Gentiles. The love that Jesus called His people to live did not mean that someone had to give up their identity or their heritage. It meant that they would welcome each other despite their differences at the table of forgiveness, the Lord’s Table where we remember His sacrificial love for us.

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 originally planned, 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.

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, “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. Because of Jesus, our Creator once again dwells among His people and His love is manifest in our lives. We can look forward to the day when God will walk among us and there we will see clearly the glory of God. 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.

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