Sunday, April 24, 2016

A New Commandment

Fifth Sunday of Easter – Year C
Acts 11.1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21.1-6; John 13.31-35
Sunday, April 24, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

The Easter season is about how we are inheritors of new life through Christ’s resurrection. In the first part of the season, we focused on Jesus’ resurrection appearances to his disciples and how these experiences shaped their lives and reframed their ministry in the time following Jesus’ departure. These were the ones who knew Christ’s message firsthand and who were charged with spreading the Gospel. Now, they would spread an even greater message – that something new is happening. And that new thing is nothing short of new life.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen a shift in the tone and message of the Scripture readings. The focus is less on the original disciples themselves and more about how the message of Christ’s resurrection begins to spread beyond their small group. How it ultimately spread to the entire world. How we became inheritors of the new life Christ promised to all who follow him.

Now, in the latter part of the Easter season we move more and more into looking at what this means for us as ones who follow Christ – what it means in more tangible ways. As God says in our reading from the Revelation to John, “See, I am making all things new.” But it is not just at the end of the ages that God is making things new. That began with the resurrection of Jesus, has continued to this day, and will continue on to the end of the ages and beyond.

To see what this means for us, what part we have to play in this new thing that God is doing, we need to take a step backwards, to the moments before Jesus’ death, to Maundy Thursday. To the evening of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. Following the meal, he delivered what is known as his Farewell Discourse. In this discourse, Jesus attempts to reassure his disciples by explaining the significance of his death and why this is happening. He assures them of his on-going presence with them and promises to send the Spirit to be a teacher and guide as they move forward in ministry following his departure. In short, these are Jesus’ final marching orders to the disciples.

Today we hear the very beginning of the Farewell Discourse. This portion sets the tone for the remainder of the discourse. And indeed, it sets the tone for the entire work of the Church that will follow. Not surprising, the theme of Jesus’ message to the disciples is love. He tells them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).

I wonder if the disciples were puzzled by this new commandment. Not by the nature of it. But because it was sort of a no-brainer. After all, the greatest commandments of the Jewish religion are “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5) and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). These were central to their faith, and had been reinforced by Jesus over their three years together, in both his words and his actions. He is really not telling them anything that they had not grown up hearing in their homes and in their synagogues. So why did Jesus feel the need to remind them of what they already knew? And particularly to focus on love of neighbor – what he now couches in terms of loving one another?

Maybe Jesus thought they, and we, needed a little reminder. Because if we are brutally honest with ourselves, we don’t always love others the way we should. At least some others. There are just those people that we don’t particularly care for. Those that we find difficult to love. Loving others can be hard work. But I think there is something even more behind Jesus’ “new commandment.” As if trying to love one another isn’t difficult enough at times, I think what Jesus is really doing here is expanding the already established commandment to love others. Not in terms of who is loved. Because the commandment inherently covers everybody. Jesus is expanding HOW we are to love everybody.

Jesus starts off saying, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” So far, so good. But then he adds the proviso, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Just as I have loved you. That is the condition Jesus places on that love. That is the key to how we are to love. Just as I have loved you. Not that we are to love one another because of the fact that Jesus loves us. Well, yes, that goes without saying. But to love one another the WAY Jesus loves us. This is where it gets difficult. Where it truly becomes a new commandment.

We need to remember that in his writings about Jesus, John had what is called a high Christology. He focused more on the divinity of Christ as the Son of God, as God incarnate, than he did on Jesus’ humanity. And that means that the love that he exhibited was more divine in nature. That his disciples are to love one another with the same love that God has for all his creation – loving the way God loves. In short, with unconditional love.

Another way of looking at this is to recall the first commandment – to love God with heart, soul, and might. Recalling that, as we are reminded in Genesis, all humanity is made in the image and likeness of God, Jesus is inviting us to see the image and likeness of God in one another. And if we truly love God, we must also love that which bears the image and likeness of God – each other. And since we presumably love God unconditionally, we also are to love each other unconditionally.

This has huge ramification on how we approach the other. The disciples’ first test of this is found in our reading today from Acts. The Acts of the Apostles is the story of the early days of the Church following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Up until now, the ministry of the remaining disciples had been to the Jewish community. That all began to change with the conversion of Paul, which we heard two weeks ago. The original disciples are still focused on proclaiming the Word to the Jews, on attempting to reform the religion of their birth. But Peter has deviated from that path. One of the original twelve, the one who has become the de facto leader of the disciples and therefore of the Christian movement, has gone off script and is doing something new.

In the chapter between Paul’s conversion and our story today, Peter had the audacity to break Jewish law and fraternize with Gentiles, even sharing a meal with them. But it was not just any ordinary Gentile. Peter has been in the company of Cornelius the centurion, a leader in the Roman military. He went to Cornelius at his invitation to preach the Gospel so that he and his family might learn more about God. While Peter was preaching, the Holy Spirit came upon all present. They had a conversion experience and came to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord. And then, Peter baptized them, making them the first Gentile converts to Christianity.

In today’s story from Acts, Peter explains why. He is called on the carpet by the other apostles. In response, Peter recounts his conversion experience. How he had a vision in which God presented him with all sorts of creatures – four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. Under Jewish law, some of these would have been considered appropriate food, while others would have been considered unclean and unfit for consumption. In the vision, God commands, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat,” to which Peter replies “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” God responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter comes to realize that God is doing something new. That the old laws, old definitions and barriers, are being broken down to make way for something new, something more expansive.

It is in the wake of this vision that Peter receives the invitation to go to Cornelius. Before, he would have said “no.” But in light of his vision, Peter recognizes that the tearing down of barriers is more than about food. It is about what is considered clean and profane in a broader sense. That it applies to people, as well. To those who are to receive the Gospel. There is a shifting of perspective, or rather, a broadening perspective, of who is to be targeted in ministry, of who are to be recipients of the Gospel message.

Peter’s experience is critical, is foundational, to the expansion of the Christian movement beyond the Jews. What Peter experiences is really what make possible the ministry to the Gentiles that Paul would undertake. Peter’s account of his own conversion, which opened the way for the conversion of Cornelius and his family, testifies to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. And that the Holy Spirit is not just limited to a select few, but is accessible by all, available to all.

Resurrection is about new life. What Peter experiences in his vision and the results of his subsequent actions are indeed a resurrection, a bringing about of new life – of extending the new life promised by Jesus Christ to all people. Peter was not responsible for the conversion of Cornelius. He was merely providing the opening for the Spirit to break beyond human defined boundaries.

The Holy Spirit was also at work among the church leaders in Jerusalem. There was a tension between those who held a narrow view of who was to be included within the Gospel and those who were seeking to expand the circle so that all God’s children would have a place at the table. They could’ve held to their rigid beliefs that their message was only for the Jews. Instead, they recognized that God had been at work through Peter and particularly through the Holy Spirit to bring the Gospel message to the Gentiles. “They praise God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’” They, too, experience a conversion. They, too, begin to live into the fullness of what resurrection and new life are all about.

Jesus’ new commandment invites us to see the world differently and particularly to see others differently. For Peter, this takes on a whole new meaning in the vision he experiences. This is a definitive revelation from God as to the depth of the meaning of the new commandment to love one another unconditionally. It shows that the boundaries we create between “us” and “them” have no meaning before God. It invites us to be a part of that tearing down of boundaries, so that God might indeed make things new. So that God’s Spirit might bring about new life where it is sorely needed.

What in our own lives – what relationships, situations, thoughts, beliefs, places in our hearts, are in need of having barriers broken down, of being opened to conversion into something new? What in us is in need of resurrection?

Resurrection is about new life. Even we who are the beneficiaries of the resurrection can still experience even greater depths of new life. The reality is that God is continually making all things new, made possible through the commandment to love one another as God through Christ loves us – a transforming love that continually makes all things new for all God’s people – including us.

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