Today, we find ourselves in that liminal period between the Ascension and Pentecost, and in the Gospel reading, we look back at Jesus’ prayer for the Church, given at the Last Supper.
That Jesus is praying for the unity of the Church is clear enough. But the language that Jesus uses isless clear. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…. [May they] be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” At first hearing, it sounds an awful lot like a line from a song by the Beatles: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” But that’s where the similarity ends. Jesus’ words are of the utmost importance for the Church and for the world—the Beatles’ words, not so much!
Now, Jesus’ call for unity has been taken seriously by the Church right from the very start. Unity is, after all, one of the four “marks of the Church” mentioned in the Nicene Creed, along with holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Of course, just because the Church takes unity seriously does not mean that the Church has done a very good job of maintaining it. It hasn’t. Christian history is filled with schisms and disagreements. In fact, Christians can’t even agree on the definition of unity!
Every culture in every age categorizes some foodstuffs as too disgusting to eat. Often, it is the case that the foodstuffs that are rejected are the delicacies of another people. When I was in Portugal recently, I was told that salted codfish, octopus, and barnacles are particularly beloved of the Portuguese. Call me squeamish, but even if I weren’t a vegetarian, I don’t think I would want to eat any of those items! Well, the Jews of the first century also categorized certain foods as disgusting filth. And for them the food laws were not unwritten, social norms, but actual written laws. Certain foods were considered filth, and the people who ate them, namely the Gentiles, were also considered filth. And you know what happens when you touch filth, you get dirty!
So imagine the shock and horror of the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem when they heard that Peter had polluted himself by eating filthy food with filthy people. As we heard today, Peter had a vision in which God declared filthy foods to be clean and fit to eat. Peter took this as a sign that the filthy people who ate such foods had now been declared clean by God himself. In other words, part of the Torah had been abrogated! When Peter was summoned to the house of the Gentile centurion Cornelius, he witnessed the members of the household responding to the Holy Spirit by speaking in tongues and praising God. Peter then instructed them in the faith and baptized them on the spot.
When Peter told his story to the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem, who had called him to account, their criticism was silenced. And they acknowledged that God had done a new and astounding thing: he had extended salvation to the non-Jewish peoples of the world, something previously unimaginable. So, while it is St. Paul who deserves credit for extending the Christian mission to Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire, it is St. Peter who deserves credit for first discerning that God had torn down the wall separating the People of God from the Gentile peoples of the world.
Today we get part 2 of the story of Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. You may recall from last week’s Gospel reading that Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. What he read was a mission statement for the Messiah of God: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim the release of captives, to give sight to the blind, to free the oppressed, and finally, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (also known as the Year of Jubilee). After finishing the reading, Jesus began his sermon with the words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Now, I warned you last week that the story doesn’t end well. I wasn’t exaggerating, was I? At first, the reaction of the congregation is one of amazement. They are astonished that the son of the town carpenter could preach so eloquently. Seemingly, Jesus had his audience right in the palm of his hands. But then, almost inexplicably, Jesus verbally attacks his audience, accusing them of lack of faith, of needing to see miracles before they will believe. Why would he do that? Since we aren’t told why, we just have to guess. My best guess is that, being a prophet, Jesus knew what was in their hearts, maybe even before they knew it themselves. And he does what every prophet of God does when confronting faithlessness, he denounces it.
The congregation couldn’t have enjoyed having their hardness of heart brought to light. But Jesus might have got away with it if only he had stopped there. But he didn’t. He went on to quote two Bible stories about how God had singled out unbelieving Gentiles for his favor. The implication of these two references to Scripture was that he would have more success with unbelieving pagans than with the folks in his home synagogue. Evidently, being unfavorably compared with Gentiles was just too much to take, and the congregation drove Jesus out of the synagogue and tried to push him off a nearby cliff. But Jesus escaped, passing right through the angry mob unscathed.
Customarily, when I preach, I focus on the appointed Gospel reading. But for some reason, I just didn’t feel like preaching on grapevines this Sunday, so I’m not going to do it! Likewise, it would make good sense to preach on the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch; after all, Eastertide is traditionally a time to explore the Christian sacraments. But I’m not going to do that either! Instead, I am going to focus on the Epistle and talk about love.
If there is a single key to understanding our God, it is that simple sentence: God is love. That statement explains why God created the earth and all its creatures, including our good selves. It explains why God repeatedly sent prophets to guide his children when they had strayed like sheep. And as St. John points out today, it explains why God became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, lived among us as one of us, and died on a cross for our sake. It was all because God is love.
Now, we need to be a little careful about that statement. For the converse statement, love is God, is just not true. We do not worship love per se. We worship the God who is characterized by love. And out of love for him, we try our best to imitate that love. We respect all our brothers and sisters, without exception. We wish them well. We pray for their wellbeing. We help them when they are in need. And we are patient with them. Now, that doesn’t mean that we will always agree with our brothers and sisters. It doesn’t even mean that we will necessarily like our brothers and sisters. But love demands that we respect them as fellow children of God and treat them accordingly. I will admit that this is not always easy to do. To be honest, some folks make it pretty hard to love them!
But if we would be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, if we would be dutiful children of our God, we really don’t have any other choice than to love. St. John warns that “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” In a real sense, our ability to love is a test of our faith. You can believe every statement in the Nicene Creed and every word written in the Holy Bible, but if you do not love, you are not a faithful Christian.
Now, if we were on our own, without any help, we all might fail the test of love. But we are not, in fact, on our own. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, given to us at Baptism and renewed at every Eucharist, God lives in us, and among us. And with God’s help, his divine love can be perfected in us. In the Eastern Church, this growth in divine love is called theosis, often translated as “divinization.” The idea is that as we grow more perfect in love and conform ourselves ever more closely to the God who is love, we will share more and more in his divine energies and come to experience eternal life in the here and now. That, my friends, is the proverbial carrot!
Now for the proverbial stick! If we stubbornly refuse to participate in God’s love, if we put our own well-being above the well-being of all others, there will be a price to pay. St. John mentions the fateful Day of Judgment. Likewise, Jesus makes a rather scary reference to unfruitful branches being lopped off and burned in a fire.
Beloved brothers and sisters, each and every one of us has a choice to make this very day. We can choose to live for ourselves alone, always fearing the fateful day when our selfishness will be judged. Or we can choose to love our brothers and sisters as God has loved us, casting aside all fear of judgment and living in complete freedom. For “perfect love casts out fear.”
And as a first effort toward loving your brothers and sisters, I would ask you today to carefully consider what you are doing when you share the Peace. That moment of the liturgy is as sacred as any other, though we rarely treat it that way. We tend to think of it as an informal break in the worship that allows us to have a quick conversation about the upcoming book sale, or to catch up with someone we haven’t seen in a while. But the Peace is not, in fact, a break in the worship; rather, it is an integral part of it. It is the time in the liturgy when we are asked to demonstrate our love for one another by word and gesture, and more importantly, to reconcile with anyone in the room with whom we have had a disagreement. So when you share the Peace today, please remember to share some love! For “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
The readings today are a problem for any preacher. We have an Old Testament reading about prophets and false prophets, a letter from St. Paul about food offered to idols, and a Gospel story about an exorcism. There would seem to be no discernible common theme. So how should a preacher proceed? Well, the best this preacher can do is to say a few words about each of the readings and then try to persuade you that each reading is, in fact, a divine guide to watching cable news!
We finding ourselves nearing the end of Eastertide. Just two more weeks to go. This coming Thursday is Ascension Day, when the Church commemorates the final farewell of the Risen Christ. The feast of Pentecost is on the 15th, when we will commemorate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. Today, it seems, we are meant to look ahead to these two events and to prepare. I suppose that’s why the editors of the lectionary offer a Gospel reading from the farewell discourse at the Last Supper. Because, in this brief excerpt from that long discourse, Jesus tries to prepare his original disciples for his imminent departure from this world and for the sending of the Holy Spirit.
Inexplicably, the editors of the lectionary have omitted the question which prefaces today’s Gospel reading: “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” For Jesus had just stated that in a little while the world would no longer see him, but his disciples would see him. As Jesus is wont to do, he offers a response to a question that is not exactly an answer: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Now, he could have just explained that he had been talking about his future Resurrection appearances to the faithful. But instead of answering Judas’ question, Jesus says what he thinks needs to be said. He asks his closest disciples to keep his word, to follow his teachings, to be obedient to his commandments—in short, to stand by him, even when he is gone.
Jesus puts before his disciples a test of their faithfulness: if they love him, they will show it by following the love ethic at the heart of his every word and action. They will love God. The will love their brothers and sisters in Christ. They will love the stranger. They will even love their enemy. Now, by love, Jesus didn’t mean affection. Love for Jesus was less of an emotion and more of an action. You show your love when you feed the hungry. You show your love when you visit the sick. You show your love when you acknowledge the homeless beggar, even if you can’t spare a dime. You show your love when you come to church week after week, even when you feel exhausted. And last but not least, you show your love when you vote for a leader who cares about the weak and welcomes the refugee.