Sunday, May 6, 2018

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 10:34-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-8
John 15:9-17

This is my commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.

I spent last weekend at my favorite camp crafting with dozens of other women. We had the opportunity to take lessons or to simply work on whatever we wanted to do. We could nap, read, hike or just sit on the porch and watch the wind blow. It was the chance to get away from “it all” and bask in the companionship of my sisters in Christ. We had times of worship and devotion, but worship and devotion happened at other times, too, as we shared our love of God with one another.

We praise God in so many ways. 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. There were plenty of opportunities to do that during the weekend. One project led a woman to tears because she was making a scrapbook in honor of someone she recently lost. We had conversations about love and loss, about fear and worry, about hope and faith. These were intimate moments between friends who gather once a year to share a weekend together.

The Gospel lesson was at very intimate moment between Jesus and His disciples. Jesus’ time was quickly growing short and there was so much more for the disciples to learn. The 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.

In the passage from Acts we see what happens when we love beyond our own little corner of the world. Peter went to Cornelius and his community to share the message of Christ. They all gathered around to hear what Peter had to say. As he was speaking the Holy Spirit came upon the entire community. God touched each person and changed the whole family. It was particularly surprising to those who had traveled with Peter because that community was not Jewish. The people were Gentiles, but God showered them with His love just as He had showered the community in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.

It was 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 to 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 their whole world could be turned upside down by the message. Peter decided to be obedient and take the risk. He decided to follow God’s vision for the Gospel.

How hard it must have been for Peter. 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 God’s grace is meant for everyone, especially those who do not fit into our understanding of faithfulness. The people in Cornelius’ house were Gentiles. Peter wasn’t even supposed to be there according to the religious practices of the Jews. 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 into their fellowship, that this event at Cornelius’ house must have rattled their understanding of faith. They weren’t allowed to eat with Gentiles, but in giving the Holy Spirit, God broke down a wall that Peter could not rebuild. He asked, “Can anyone forbid these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just like us.” We might want to forbid someone from coming into our fellowship, but if God welcomes them, how can we say “No”?

Peter said, “God has offered forgiveness and mercy and grace to these Gentiles, who are we to suggest they can’t be part of our group?” So, he called the gathering to join in the celebration of baptism, to welcome them into the fellowship of believers.

We may have very good reason to keep people out of our midst. At least they seem like good reasons to us. The community that gathers for the craft retreat is extremely diverse. There are women from every age, young mothers through great-grandmothers. Some come from the city and others from rural areas. We have a wide range of political opinions and religious understanding. Some are extremely talented at their craft and others claim they don’t have a creative bone in their bodies. If we are honest, we’ll admit that we don’t always like everyone. Yet, we all love Jesus and that is enough for us to love each other.

Some who hear and believe the Gospel might be people who don’t 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 shouldn’t! Besides, there is no joy in keeping people from fellowship.

There are those in the world that would rather not hear what we have to say. 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. It is hard enough to live this life among people who are like-minded and have similarities. It seems almost impossible to share it with people who are completely different, who do not live up to our expectations.

We are often bullied by the world because of our Christian faith. 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 don’t pick on people larger or stronger; they pick on those smaller and weaker. The small and weak have to find a way to build a relationship with the bully. We are called to share the Gospel with them so that they will become part of our community. And then we are commanded to love them.

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 Christ’s love in and through us, might just help the bully see that life is much better when lived in love and hope and peace. They might just find joy through our sacrifice.

There is a special museum in Xi’an, 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 China’s 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 “First Divine Emperor in China.” 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 China’s 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 down His life 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 and join in the psalmist’s songs of praise. We are the warriors that stand as a testament to His grace.

Today’s psalm tells us about the good things God has done: how God has won the victory over Israel’s oppressors and how He has saved them from exile. The psalmist sings about God’s 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 are commanded to love, and there are many times when this is very difficult. We struggle when we are faced with those who do not quite fit into our expectations. We wonder how we will ever obey. 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. We love because He first loved us. 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. 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 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 your understanding and outside your 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 psalm 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 gather with those that speak to our ideals and value our opinions. We square off against one another, not living in love but abiding in our self-centeredness. We 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.

Is there joy in your 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.

Our love for Christ reaches further than our brothers and sisters. It also reaches to those whom God wants to join the family. Just as Peter had to go to into a Gentile place and share the Gospel, we may have to go to a place that doesn’t seem suited to our faith. Yet, God desires the whole world to know Jesus. He is ready and anxious to send His Spirit into the lives of those still dead and lost in the darkness of this world. Who are we to keep the Good News from them?

The psalmist writes, “Make a joyful noise to Yahweh, all the earth! Burst out and sing for joy, yes, sing praises!” Perhaps today is the day God will bless us with our own miraculous Pentecost moment when we will join with others in praise to the good things God has done as they experience the salvation found in Jesus Christ our Lord. This grace has been given for everyone, even until the strangers and foreigners amongst us so that they will believe. Then they, too, will be our brothers and sisters in faith, the children of God whom we will love for eternity.

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