Acts 11:1-18; Rev. 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
There’s a wonderful hymn written by Frederick Willliam Faber. It begins: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea, there’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty. The third verse concludes: “For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind, and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.” The message of the hymn, is that God’s love far exceeds our own, transcending our institutions, doctrines and orthodoxies.
Now, as a general rule, human beings are people who like tradition—thrive on it, really. Today’s lessons challenge us to open our hearts and minds to the thought that God can do new things in our world—even going to far as to make a new heaven and a new earth.
In the lesson from the Book of Acts, we learn that the Holy Spirit is nothing if not frequently surprising. In chapter 10, Peter encounters Cornelius, a centurion. Now, Cornelius is a gentile, he’s not Jewish, what’s more, he’s not simply a soldier; he’s a commander of 100 men in the Imperial Army—He’s an important cog in the Roman machine. Both Cornelius and Peter realize that the Holy Spirit has given them a vision of the hope of God and Cornelius is baptized. By the time we arrive at chapter 11 of the Book of Acts, Peter is encountering fallout from his association with Cornelius. Here, we learn that the earliest Christians, Jews, who had accepted Jesus, had become concerned. They go to Peter and say: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them.” In other words, why are you hanging around with gentiles? Don’t you realize that eating with them makes you unclean? And Peter tells them his vision—he tells them that all people are chosen by God, not just one nationality or one way of worship and lifestyle. And he says that this is the result of divine inspiration. God’s love embraces everyone. And, if God’s love embraces everyone—then there is a place for all people in the family of God. And amazingly, the church listens, accepting Peter and Cornelius. That, indeed, is proof that the Holy Spirit is at work. A new heaven, and a new earth. A community of God that embraces everyone.
The question for us is this—how do we get there?
Here’s one example of community and expansive love—the kind of love which embraces everyone. In Kenya, in 2016, a group of Muslims shielded Christians after gunmen ambushed a passenger bus. The gunmen, suspected to be part of the jihadist group al-Shabaab, sprayed the bus with bullets, killing two people. But when they demanded the 62 Muslim passengers to help identify the Christian passengers, the Muslims refused and told the militants to kill everyone or leave.
Defeated, the militants left hurriedly, according to the witnesses of the attack. The gesture has since united Christians and Muslims in Mandara County, which lies in the country’s northern region along the border with Somalia.
Anglican bishop Julius Kalu of Mombasa said: “I think it’s an act of bravery for the Muslims who risked their lives to protect the Christians, this is the true meaning of religion, and we congratulate them.” Kalu said true religion protects neighbors and defends the weak and the poor. He attributed the development to recent campaigns focused on peaceful religious coexistence. Boil it all down and what it comes to is that it’s hard to hate when people are determined to love you back.
Here’s a thought. God loves everyone and it is the will of God that we do the same. This is what our lessons tell us this morning—that the grace of God is extended to people who keep kosher and those who think the best meal in the world is pork barbeque. God loves Jews and Gentiles—even centurions. God has a place for Paul the former persecutor who implicates himself in the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, as well as Peter, James and John. Women are given a place in the kingdom as are people of every hue of the rainbow. My goodness, even the psalm for today exhorts creation itself to join in the praising of God.
In the Gospel for this morning Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment; they are to love one another just as Jesus has loved them. This, Jesus tells them, is how folks will recognize them as disciples amidst the clamorous and competing claims of the world. Love is the best sign that we are following the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
How do we show our love for others, particularly for those who are angry and even violent? What might our response have been had we found ourselves as passengers on the bus in Kenya? What if we were asked to betray others to save our own lives?
A gut response in the face of violence and oppression is to find the perpetrators and punish them. If someone stomps on you—stomp on them harder. I get that—but I wonder, how this leads to a new heaven and a new earth—the kind of redeemed world that Jesus speaks of in the Revelation to John?
How might love hold people accountable for their deeds and at the same time issue an invitation to a better future, one which is worth living?
The overarching theme of today’s readings is the expansive love of God. Today we are invited to take a look at the world in which we live—one which often appears to be teeming with strife; with polarized groups of people, violent rhetoric and competing claims of truth. We are to look at this for what it is, see it, acknowledge it, and, then envision something different. Like the Muslim travelers on a bus in Kenya, who found themselves at odds with their attackers—they didn’t accommodate to the attackers demands; nor did they cower in fear (though I am certain they were afraid); they chose a different path—a better way, one of loving their neighbor as themselves. Their example of radical love can be an inspiration for us as we confront challenges in our own society. Let us live into the command of Christ: love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.
(Frederick Nwili, Religion News Service)Brian Brock in his book W