Sunday, May 2, 2010

Is it REALLY a "New" Commandment?

Hint: If not, it'd be an even shorter sermon than usual.

Here it is; comments and constructive criticism welcome.

Acts 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' But I replied, 'By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' But a second time the voice answered from heaven, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, 'Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."

Revelation 21:1-6

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life."

John 13:31-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you 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."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I wonder if it struck you like it struck me, the one word that seems to pop up in every one of our readings. Jesus gives us a new commandment. The One who is seated on the Throne says “See, I am making all things new.” Peter’s testimony is all about how God is doing a new thing among the Gentiles.

I talked a little last week about how advertising tries to make us believe that the same old thing is “new and improved,” how what we have isn’t good enough, and so on. And sure enough, this week we are confronted with God’s version of “new and improved!”

But, really, how new is all of this? We’ve had these words in our readings today for close to two thousand years. They’ve been translated, commentated, pontificated, evaluated, argued over, and put on plaques and sold in Christian bookstores. Is the commandment, is what God is doing – is what Peter experienced – really “new?”

I want to submit to you this morning that, in fact, it is. It’s new because even now, with all of these millenia of understanding and all these generations of experience, we still don’t really understand it.

“I give you a new commandment, that you 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.”

Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you,” and I think that this is where we miss it so often; we really don’t understand the breadth and depth and intensity with which God in Christ Jesus loves us.

When we say that Jesus loves us, do we really understand what this means? Looking in the Gospels, who did Jesus show God’s love to? The Jewish people, certainly, but also to the Samaritans, a people at theological and cultural odds to the Jews. There were also the Gentiles, both those who lived on the borders of Judea and those who were part of the occupying forces of Rome. There were rich people and those who lived in poverty, and even the lepers – people feared and loathed because of a disease. The love of God in Jesus Christ knew no limitations – no borders – no qualifications – no prerequisites.

It is that kind of extravagant, unrestrained love that Peter saw when he visited the Gentiles. Now, we may have forgotten, in our day and age, just how big a step this was for Peter, and how shocking and confusing such a thing would have been for the believers in Judea. After all, things were happening very fast. Not only were thousands of Jewish people responding to God’s grace, but now there was news out of Samaria that even Samaritans were coming to the faith, and sure enough, Peter and John had confirmed it. Follow that with Philip bringing a eunuch to the faith, a eunuch! For these believers whose whole understanding of God was defined by the culture that had lived in all of their lives, the ground was shifting beneath their feet. They must have thought, even with all of these new things happening, at least Samaritans follow the Books of Moses, at least they understand the Law and don’t eat unclean things. At least the Ethiopian was a Jewish eunuch.

Then Peter goes and sits on the roof in Joppa while they’re making lunch, and everything changes yet again! And once they hear Peter’s testimony, and comprehend Peter’s evidence – because, make no mistake, Peter is indeed on trial here – they have no choice but to agree that God’s love in Jesus Christ extends even farther than they could have ever imagined. God’s love doesn’t look like they want it to look, and God’s beloved don’t look like they want God’s beloved to look. Left to their own devices, the disciples would have been quite happy to let the Good News stop at the borders of Judea and Samaria… but in Peter’s testimony they begin to see that God’s love truly is unstoppable!

“I give you a new commandment, that you 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.”

To love like Jesus loved is to love without reservation. To love like Jesus loved is to love friends and enemies. To love without hesitation and without limitation. It is a radical, unheard-of love, and yes, even in this day and age, it is new. It is love lived not in thought or emotion or in words, but as a verb – as an act of the will, deliberate, direct, and in spite of the consequences.

Our reading from the Book of Revelation, like last week’s 23rd Psalm, it’s one we hear most often at funerals, and rightly so, because the words bring comfort and assurance. But we also read something amazing in that passage – God is no longer in heaven, up there, out there, away somewhere we do not and cannot know. Quite the contrary: God, who has made all things new, comes to dwell with mortals! How amazing that, even in the end, when all of God’s enemies have been defeated, even when there are no more victories to be won, we do not go to where God is, God comes to us!

The kind of love that imitates Jesus recognizes that God living with humankind is not just something for the unknown future, not something simply for the end of the twilight. The kind of love that imitates Jesus recognizes that, in the Holy Spirit, God is already present with humankind, and responds in the only appropriate way: by loving, actively and deliberately, with extravagant abandon.

If you’re waiting on me to define what that kind of active, unbridled love looks like for you, I can’t do that. We are individuals, with our own histories and unique experiences, and what love looks like will be as personal and unique as each of us are. But think of the person or people you find least loveable. The ones who disgust you, or frighten you, or who seem not worth the effort. Oh, and don’t forget the ones you find most loveable – the ones who bring you joy, comfort, who energize you. Oh, yeah, and everyone in between. All of them.

Love them. Find a way. That’s what Jesus did.

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