Sunday, May 9, 2004

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

By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

I recently finished my first oil painting in twenty years. I minored in art in college and did some painting before that, but I set aside my brushes when real life in the working world filled my days. I’ve had a hundred different excuses in the ensuing years from lack of time to lack of space. I recently joined an art class and have enjoyed putting brush on canvas again.

My first painting was of a butterfly. I started with a wonderful photograph I took several years ago in Arkansas. When I got the basic outline on the canvas, the composition was all wrong. Though it was true to the photograph, it was awkward in paint. So, I set aside the photo and created a whole new butterfly, completely transforming it in shape, position and color. The painting turned out much differently than I painted in the beginning, but it was much closer to what I intended to create on the canvas.

The second lesson for this day comes to us from the book of Revelation. In it, John sees 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.

As we look back to the beginning, 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. What God intended was destroyed when the relationship between Creator and creation was broken in the Garden. Death and tears became a part of life, pain and suffering something that we all face.

Before Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge, God dwelled with them in the Garden. They were content to live within the bounds of the relationships God had created between man and God, man and nature and man with each other. Once sin entered into the world, 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 would not disrupt their plans.

Yet, God can’t be locked in a box. He is bigger than anything we can create. Throughout the history of the Jews, it seemed that He dwelt among them in the Tabernacle, inaccessible to anyone but the priests. No matter what they thought, God was not hidden behind the curtain in the temple. He was still working amongst His people, making them to be a unique nation among the nations, a people through whom the world would see the True and Living God. In this, God gave Israel the Law. He made circumcision a sign of the covenant between them. He made His grace visible in their lives, in His judgment and in His mercy. They were made to glorify Him. Israel’s enemies saw that God dwelt among them. When He removed His hand, Israel fell, but He always turned back to restore her to Him. Through it all, Israel’s unique relationship with God made Him visible to the world.

Jesus extended the grace beyond the bounds of the relationship with Israel to touch the world. God would not longer be trapped in the Holy of Holies, available only to those who came to the temple. He would dwell in the hearts of all those who believe. Though He has already done a new thing through the cross of Jesus Christ, the old still exists and creation is still corrupt. We are both saints and sinners. Sin has not been eliminated, but it has been overcome. We can look forward to the day that John saw in his vision because we know that God is faithful to His promises. He will come and restore the world, the heavens and the earth will be new. Death and tears, pain and suffering will be eliminated forever.

The early Christians, Jews who believed in Jesus, thought these promises 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 though 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 he received 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 heard a voice tell him to eat. Peter refused, “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common and unclean.” The voice answered, “What God hath cleansed, make not thou common.” This happened three times. Three men arrived at the house and God told Peter to go with them. Cornelius’ house was full of people when they arrived. Though it was against the law 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 were 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 men whether they were Jew or Gentile.

The question to be raised, though, is what would be the sign of the relationship between God and His people if circumcision was no longer necessary? Jesus answers that question in the passage for today. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to 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 is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him; and God shall glorify him in himself, and straightway shall he glorify him.” How was God glorified in the life of Jesus? Was it through the miracles, through the word? The glory came at the cross, when Jesus died willingly for the people. This is why Jesus had to go away. He had to defeat 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 tells Jesus that he will follow Him wherever He goes. Yet, Peter will deny 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.

So, the sign of discipleship is love. But who is it that we are called to love? Who is the ‘one another’ of which Jesus speaks? The first Christians thought they were called to love others like themselves. They welcomed others into their fellowship as long as they became like them. Peter learned that God’s love is not so limited. He realized that God’s grace extends beyond his little world. This is a very humbling realization. It is tempting to think of ourselves as special because God chose us to be His, but God chooses many and grants His grace far beyond our circle of influence.

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 who is it that we consider unclean? Who is God calling us to love as He loved us and to welcome into our fellowship of believers?

As we look at 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 sea sing His praises. The elements, the mountains, the hills and all the trees all 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 the cross, Jesus made things new and gave us hope that the day will come when creation is restored as God intended. Because of Christ Jesus, our Creator once again dwells among His people and in faith we can look forward to the day when He will once again walk among us so that we can clearly see the glory of God when ever tear is wiped away. For now, we live to love one another so that God is glorified through out lives to the world, that they too might know His grace and mercy and be saved.

Thanks be to God.

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