SERMON ON THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
St. James Episcopal Church San Francisco, California April 28, 2013
By Elizabeth Nelson
Lectionary: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:13-35
“The Spirit told me to go with them, and not to make a distinction between them and us.”
Today’s readings start to direct our attention on beyond the events of Easter, to help us get ready for what’s going to happen next. The first thing that’s going to happen next is the coming of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost – a Spirit that will transform Jesus’ disciples from a baffled, frightened group that meets only behind locked doors into a cadre of men and women infused with the same conviction of God’s love that infused Jesus ... men and women made fearless and plain-spoken and compassionate and creative in the way they remember Jesus being, but that they themselves have never been before. That’s the first thing that’s going to happen next.
The last thing that’s going to happen next – and all the New Testament writers believed it would happen soon – is God making a new heaven and a new earth ... where not just individual souls, not just some human communities, but all creation will be infused with the conviction of God’s love; where anything in our natures –anything in Nature! – that’s governed by hunger and fear and pain and decay and death will be no more, and all things will be made new. Someday soon. Any millennium now.
But today’s Gospel takes us back before the coming of the New Creation, back before the coming of the Holy Spirit, back before Easter. It takes us back to the night before the Crucifixion, and Jesus is telling his disciples – his little ones, his kids – that he’s going to be leaving them soon, telling them what they need to do after they can’t see him any longer. And what they need to do is: Love one another. Love one another the same way Jesus has loved them.
That’s the Gospel teaching that we’re given today: Love one another. And in case we’re in any doubt about what “love” looks like, or in case we’re in any doubt about who’s included in “one another,” we’re given this story from the Acts of the Apostles, about Peter and his fellow Christians.
Most of today’s reading from Acts, Chapter 11 is taken up with Peter telling a story that got told once already in Chapter 10: about the vision God sent him, about how he was summoned to the home of a Gentile who’d been told by an angel to listen to what Peter had to say, about how that Gentile and his household responded to Jesus’ message when Peter shared it with them. There’s one detail from Chapter 10 that nobody mentions in Chapter 11, possibly because it’s too heinous to say out loud: The man who summoned Peter, the Gentile whose house Peter and his companions visited, the Gentile Peter baptized and welcomed as a fellow believer, was not just any Gentile; he was a Roman Centurion. He was part of the army of occupation that was making life miserable for the people of Israel. He was a brother officer of the men who had nailed Jesus to the cross.
I’ve been trying to make real to myself what it could have been like for Peter to get that summons and answer it, what it could have been like for the community of believers in Jerusalem to find out about it after the fact. All I’ve come up with is a really bad analogy. I apologize for it in advance, and I’m going to share it with you anyway.
When I try to feel my way into this story, I find myself remembering what my own life was like in late 2003, early 2004. The war in Iraq had been going on for several months, and I could still barely breathe with how grieved I was over that war and how alienated I felt by the decisions and actions of my country’s government. I was stumbling around, with no previous experience in activism, trying to find a way to live out my convictions. I had done some reading; I had stood with others holding up some signs in some public places; I had written a couple of letters to some people in Washington (okay, maybe more than a couple of letters); I had helped to start up the prayer for peace and justice that still goes on after the 10 o’clock service here at St. James.
In the scope of the empire – not even a blip on the radar.
Just suppose that, during that time, there’d come a knock at my door one day and two men in neat dark suits had said to me, “Ms. Nelson, we work for Vice President Cheney. He’s been told that he should listen to what you have to say about the situation in Iraq. If you’ll come with us now, please, we’ll take you to him.” That did not happen. If it had, though, I can imagine myself having a couple of reactions – at least a couple of reactions – one after the other:
First: I’m supposed to talk to him? Seriously, me? And then: I’m supposed to talk to him? Seriously, him? I can imagine also how some of my friends here in San Francisco might have reacted if they had heard about an invitation like that, after the fact: You went where? You talked to who? You told him what?
If that had happened, it would have taken the Holy Spirit – plus a truly awesome and explicit vision – to bring me, in that situation, to the understanding that Peter came to: “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” Because, I’m sorry, in that situation – in many situations – the distinction between Them and Us is perfectly clear to me ... and I’m guessing it’s clear to you, too. You and I may disagree about whether (for example) Mr. Cheney is one of Them or one of Us, and that’s fine. But I’ll bet all the money in my pockets that you do have a Them. I have a Them ... several sets of Them. Those early believers in Jerusalem had a Them. It’s human nature to distinguish between Us and Them.
And it’s the nature of God’s Love to pour out its healing and forgiveness and creativity and renewal on Them, the same way it pours those things out on Us. When Jesus commands us to love one another the way he loves, he is commanding us to love Them.
That’s today’s Gospel. Is it good news? Think for a minute about Them, about who you believe Them to be. No distinction between Them and Us. Seriously, is that good news?
This is where we need the Holy Spirit to infuse us with the conviction of God’s love. It’s where we need the reminder that love is defined, always, by what we do, not always by what we feel. It’s where we need each other – to share love and share stories, to challenge one another to keep widening the circle of Us.
And maybe it’s where we need the vision of a new heaven and a new earth ... the end of division and conflict and suffering, all creation united in the life of God’s love. Someday soon. Any millennium now.
Jesus told his disciples, “The same way I have loved you, you should love one another.”
Peter told his fellow believers, “The Spirit told me to go with them, and not to make a distinction between them and us .... and who was I that I could hinder God?” God, help us. Come, Holy Spirit! Alleluia. Amen.