The Wideness of God’s Mercy

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

I disappointed a lady sitting in the garden this week. When she saw me, she called me over. “Father, can I ask you something?” I said, “sure,” and introduced myself. She explained that she was Roman Catholic and was curious about our church. Wasn’t I glad that the Supreme Court seems to be moving against Roe vs. Wade? Didn’t I agree that this would be so much more in keeping with God’s plan?

I took a deep breath and began to try to explain that the Episcopal Church affirms the sanctity of all life, and, at the same time, affirms the importance of a woman’s faith-informed decision over her own body.  I pointed out that our church differs from hers also in our belief that education around contraception and human sexuality is a priority and an enormous part of the conversation. I explained that I could refer her to carefully researched and written reports of the Episcopal Church General Conventions that give voice to the nuances and complexities of the issue, but she said, that for her, it was all very simple. I explained that I needed to go, but I couldn’t resist saying to her that I really find very little about following Jesus “simple.”

There is a temptation to make religion “simple,” to draw lines and make lists. It keeps some people in and others out.  At its mildest form, it makes us self-righteous and pulls us away from others.  At its extreme, it becomes the kind of racism and hatred that motivates killers like yesterday in Buffalo and like too many places around the world and in our country.

But to create that kind of religion is to pick and choose one’s scriptures, to deny the work of the Holy Spirit, and to ignore the way in which scripture reveals Jesus Christ.

In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter runs into this kind of thinking when he returns from missionary activity and goes back to Jerusalem. The 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.

It turns out that this dream prepares Peter for what comes next. He meets 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?

Those of other faiths or denominations with Christianity?
The uneducated. Those who live outside urban centers. 
Those who speak different languages.
Those who have different sexual or expressions.
Those who get married and have children, those who choose not to, etc, etc., the list goes on.

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” points 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. 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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