The Wideness of God’s Love

Peter vision

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 19, 2019.  The scriptures are Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, and John 13:31-35

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Yesterday, a former colleague of mine from Washington, DC was consecrated Bishop of Colorado. Kym Lucas (with respect, the newly Right Reverend Kimberly D. Lucas) is remarkable for a number of reasons: preaching, pastoral care, prophetic witness, spirituality—all that stuff is there. But Kym is a woman. She is an African American woman. She is a cancer survivor. And she is married to a white man and together, they have four beautiful children.

For many, many reasons (none having to do with her spiritual, administrative, pastoral, and theological qualifications), the Church, through history, would have (and in many places still does) denied her full participation in ministry. All along, and today, people pull out of Holy Scripture sentences or perspectives that meant one thing in their time-and-place, but (given the ongoing revelation of God, the ongoing power of the Resurrection, and the deep work of the Holy Spirit), these sentences and words, here and there in scripture, do not and cannot mean the same things today.

Women ordained? There’s scripture that denies it.
Married people ordained? One can create a theology based on scripture.
People of mixed race getting married? Have you read the Exodus?
A person with a medical condition being chosen as a religious leader? Check Leviticus.
A dark-skinned person being a leader?

Again, one can find a text somewhere and use it to justify just about anything you might be afraid of, or suspicious or, or even something that for whatever reason you are uncomfortable with or simply dislike.

In Washington, DC, at the Museum of the Bible, there’s an exhibition through September 1 or what is called the “Slave Bible.” Originally published in London in 1807, it was edited and printed for missionaries on behalf of the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves. Missionaries going to British colonies used the Slave Bible to teach enslaved Africans how to read and introduce them to the Christian faith. But unlike other missionary Bibles, the Slave Bible only had parts of the Bible in it. It left out the Exodus story, that might inspire and help slaves dream of a future and hear God’s love for them, and it contained just about every reference to hierarchy, order, and servanthood you could imagine.

I don’t know where Bishop Lucas is preaching today, but I bet she has a few things to say about today’s first scripture, from the Acts of the Apostles. You can bet, for sure, that the “Slave bible” did not include today’s story about Peter’s vision. And I wonder how many people in churches today have never read or heard this scripture.

In this morning’s scripture, God’s love turns out to look very different from what Peter had expected. Peter was devout and religious. He had studied and learned his scriptures. He said his prayers and understood Jesus as the long-promised Messiah—all of which was within the Judaism of his day.

Everyone knew that the Messiah was for the Jews only. When Peter returns from missionary activity to Jerusalem, the Jewish faithful there criticize Peter because they’ve heard that he’s taking the message about Jesus beyond Judaism and reaching out to Gentiles—which is to say, everyone else. The uncircumcised. The uneducated. Those people of other heritage, or mixed blood, of all kinds of unspeakable practices.
But Peter begins to explain how God brought him to a new understanding. He tells them about his dream or vision. He saw what looked like a big sheet, coming down from heaven. And in the sheet were all sorts of animals– four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, birds of the air. A voice said to Peter, “Get up, Peter, go and kill these things and eat them.” But this was like serving steak to a vegetarian—even more so, perhaps, because there were traditions and customs and years of observing these dietary laws as a good and faithful Jew.

There’s no way he could eat all those different things. It would be against his upbringing. It would be against his tradition. It would violate the sanctity of his religion. But the voice came again and told Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” In other words, if God says it’s good, it’s good. The very next thing that happens is that this new insight of Peter is put to the test as he encounters Cornelius.

Cornelius is not only a Gentile, a non-Jew. But Cornelius was also a soldier, an agent of the Roman state, one who might follow orders to burn and sack a Jewish village whenever it was the whim of the emperor. But God had been working on Cornelius just like God worked on Peter through the vision.

Peter and Cornelius talk. Cornelius is converted. And then, Cornelius and his entire household receive the Holy Spirit and are baptized.

The vision of Peter invites us to think about our own perspective. Who is included in God’s love? God’s mercy? God’s forgiveness?

Cradle Episcopalians.
Uneducated.
Those who speak different languages.
Those who have different sexual or expressions.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “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.” Earlier in this same chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus has joined his friends to celebrate the Passover meal. But before they eat together, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.

The Gospel describes what Jesus is about to do by saying, “It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the last.” That last phrase can also be translated that Jesus “showed them the full extent of his love.” That “full extent” point to his dying on the cross, but it also includes the ways in which Jesus gave of himself, the ways in which he showed us what love looks like, during his life.

We had a week’s worth, if not a life’s worth of looking at what love looks like just about a month ago in the liturgies of Holy Week. We saw it on Maundy Thursday as we set up chairs and a bowls, and we washed feet. During the foot washing, the choir sang anthems and the antiphon repeated throughout comes from the thirteenth chapter of John: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.”
At Holy Trinity, we try to do what Jesus talks about in scripture. One comes forward and kneels before the other person. Another washes that person’s feet. It might be a stranger, a visitor, a homeless person, or a bishop. But we look for Christ in that person and there is something of Christ that indeed seems present. For me, that’s the easy part, the washing of the other person’s feet. The harder part is allowing another to serve me, to wash my feet. But that completes the circle of love Jesus is pointing to.

This “new commandment” is not a commandment like a law, a law we must do, or there will be a penalty. It’s more like a rule that, practiced over time, shows its worth. The commandment to love through service is like a “best practice,” something that brings success emotionally, spiritually, and socially.

God surprised Peter and those early followers of Jesus by showing just how wide God’s love is. Jesus surprised his friends and disciples by showing just how radical God’s love is.

May the Spirit enable us to be part of the Jesus movement of witness to love and service, love that takes us into eternal life.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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