Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
Jesus’ love for his disciples includes everything from the most menial, earthy act of footwashing to the grandest self-sacrifice of laying down his life. So if we actually think about it, this is no quaint, small, sentimental thing he is asking, commanding. It encompasses the whole spectrum of our lives, and endless possibilities, as modeled by Jesus, of how we might change the course of our days and how we might respond to each other’s needs in love in this dusty and wide world. And yet, if you are anything like me, somehow our imaginations get trapped in that upper room. We imagine a candle-lit cozy evening with a band of friends eating dinner together and we think, Okay: love one another. The room is small. The group is not overwhelming. We can do this!
Obviously, we don’t take these limitations quite so strictly, but it seems that somehow, this blurry and beautiful and thoroughly provincial notion of what it means to be Christian has dogged Jesus-followers from the beginning. We limit our vision, the work of God, to whatever we think when we think of “us,” not “them:” our small circle of family and friends and fellow like-minded folks. After all, it seems difficult enough to love the people who are “our people” well. We often fail at even this inwardly-focused task. Who could blame us for wanting to to keep our gaze, our love, within our own self-defined upper rooms, our families and friends churches and synagogues?
And yet it seems that from the very beginning of the Christian story, based on the experience of one of the very disciples there with Jesus in the upper room,that the Holy Spirit isn’t so interested in perfecting this small circle of love before moving on to bigger things. The Holy Spirit is interested in blowing open the shutters on those gathered in a Holy huddle — drawing the disciples’ widening eyes to look at the whole wide world that God so loves. For God so loved the WORLD, the Gospel of John says. Not for God so loved the CHURCH, or even just God’s holy people of Israel. For God so loved the WORLD, he sent his only begotten son, so that all who trust in him, his way, his truth, might have abundant life. Right now. This is the good news, for everyone. Not just a few.
It is not easy news to stomach, then or now. The passage we hear from Acts today is so bizarre and yet familiar that we don’t realize we have just witnessed a theological earthquake. Peter is asked to explain why he was eating with unholy people, as a respected representative of the Jewish-Christian community: this is not part of the company plan for how the healing of the world is going to happen. It is not, if you will, part of their vision for mission statement. And in response, he tells the Jerusalem disciples about a dream that is more akin to a Jewish nightmare: all sorts of repulsive, unclean beasts and birds, the sorts you have been trained your whole life to see as disgusting and NOT of God, are set before Peter on a sheet and God commands him to eat. Is this not terrifying? And the nightmare repeats itself, three times, but Peter gets the idea: LOOK. God says. The way you see things is not the way I see things.
Peter is humbled. He allows the Spirit to destroy a distinction between “us” and “them” that had given meaning to the Jewish community for more than a thousand years. “The Spirit told me to go with them,” he says, and “not to make a distinction between them and us.”
This is perhaps the most influential text in the Episcopal Church’s movement, over time, towards the full acceptance, inclusion, and embrace of LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ. In the last 50 years, countless faithful Christians have had experiences like Peter’s, and over time it has changed the Church’s teaching on same-sex marriage and the integrity of faithfully living out the loving relationships God created you for, just as Peter’s vision eventually changed the Church’s teaching on what it took to be counted as a follower of Jesus Christ.
One African American pastor I know was raised in a conservative Southern Baptist household, and he can still name the moment this all changed for him: he was at seminary at an ecumenical institution, and a lesbian classmate was scheduled to preach in the chapel. He was torn: his faith tradition told him he could not, in good conscience, submit to her interpretation of the Word of God, and he thought about sitting out chapel that day. But she was his friend, and she asked if he would go. So he went, and he says he’ll never forget the undeniably holy movement that shook his heart as she preached. I knew God was at work, he said. The sheet dropped down and could not be sent back up into the sky. Years later, he would help his family affirm both their faith and their love for his own sister when she came out of the closet.
Of course, this work of the Holy Spirit is much, much bigger than this one issue. God seems to be in the business of slowly broadening the compassion of humanity, breaking down distinctions between the worthiness of “us and them” without erasing difference. We say every Sunday that we believe in the holy Catholic church, but this is a much more exciting and challenging thing than most of us realize.
Peter’s vision, and Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, was the beginning of the Catholic church, which means “whole” or “universal.” Professor Orlando Espin talks about what it means to be Catholic in this way: from the days the church decided that you don’t have to become Jewish in order to be a Christian, the church was catholic, it was for everyone in the world, not just one people group, ethnicity, tribe. The Holy Spirit led us to see that Christ does not require you to become someone else, someone or something you are not, to be included in the holy feast and family. Everyone — in the full diversity of humanity — is invited to the table. This is a difficult thing to name on St. George’s day, for example, but you do not need to become an anglophile to join the church. You do not need to change the essence of who you are, the essence of who God created you to be, when you decide to follow Christ.
We are sort of used to this notion, 2,000 years after Peter was told not to distinguish between “us and them” when it comes to the potential for God to do wondrous things, but we also still often cling to the boxes that feel safe, good, right, clean, beautiful, familiar to us. We still struggle not to put people into categories. Yet God’s vision of who is glorious, worthy, wonderful, is much bigger, much more complicated, than our small notions of beauty and goodness. It is worth pondering this week in prayer: Who do you find scary, foreign, overwhelming, even repulsive?
It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to see where the Spirit will call us to love in new ways ahead of time, and I will not presume to do that work for you or for God. But today invites the question: Who is on the sheet of foreign creatures that comes before you in prayer? I don’t know. But there are so many possibilities in this time of political and cultural differentiation, aren’t there? Is it drug addicts? Sex offenders? Punk rockers or billionaires? Trump supporters, Bernie enthusiasts, or Hillary fans? NRA members or abortion doctors? Homeless youth, military generals, or bourgeois families? Chinese tourists, undocumented Latinos, white bankers?
Oh, it is a big and scary world. So complicated. So tempting to stay where we are and love who we’ve always tried to love, in the ways we’ve always known about.
The Spirit of Jesus meets us in that cozy room of beloved friends, yes, but following his Way means we don’t get stay there, or even here for the rest of the week. His call to love is one that crosses boundaries; the wind that wildly blows apart the boxes we build around our notions of God and community that we imagine keep us safe. For God so loved the world.
Simone Weil says simply, ‘Let us love the country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love.” That is our charge as Christians: to struggle against, and to overcome the world’s resistance to love.
It is a challenge worthy of all our days, to offer real love in the real world — for however long we get to live in this country of here below. And it is how the world will know we belong to Jesus — the same Jesus who, when considering which contrite and humble heart is worthy of the Holy Spirit, does not make a distinction between them and us.
The Rev Laurel Mathewson
April 24, 2016
St. Paul’s Cathedral
The Fifth Sunday After Easter – Year C