Sermon for May 19, 2019 | Easter 5
Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35
With the vast majority of Christians throughout the world, the biblical readings for Sundays’ liturgy are prescribed for us in a list of readings called a lectionary – rather, rather than being left up to the whimsy or personal agenda of the preacher or musician. Thus, each Sunday, we hear the voice of Israel in the first reading and the psalm, the voice of the early church in the second reading, and the voice of Christ in the gospel reading. One of the delights in having this list of readings is that we often hear conflicting viewpoints among the readings: a sure sign to us that there is not one message but a diversity of voices in our holy book. A case in point would be today’s first and last reading.
The gospel reading, narrated by John, draws us to the last supper of Jesus. The first time I heard this reading was not in church but listening to a recording by the choir of Canterbury Cathedral singing a setting of this famous text: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” Well, the singing of the text in pitch perfect harmony by a men and boys choir – their singing so ethereal – gave the impression that loving one another is the easiest thing to do. And, I ask, who would have a problem with such an invitation? After all, it is the default of so many Christians and their preachers when they have little else to say. You know: we’re all about love, love, love – as if Christians were the only people who love, as if Jesus or Christians invented love. But the problem is this: in John’s gospel, the invitation is directed only to those who are a part of the community of Christ followers: you Christians love each other. Period. Well, I have a wee bit of empathy for the author of this gospel who has placed on the lips of Jesus a commandment intended to support group cohesion. After all, John’s community at the end of the 1st century was beleaguered and angered by a nasty separation with and from their religious and cultural mother – the Jewish faith – and, at the same time, anxious about their status as a new religion that could be prosecuted by the state. And yet this invitation to love one’s co-religionists – while not a bad idea given the ugly squabbles that have marked Christian communities from the beginning – was nonetheless focused on one’s own, you know: people like us.
We hear something quite different in the first reading from Acts. Here the author narrates a vision received by Peter, a disciple who was hesitant if not opposed to welcoming gentiles, non-Jews, into the movement of reform started by Jesus, himself a son of Israel. It is an odd vision in which a great sheet descends from the heavens filled with “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air” – all of these, according to biblical law, prohibited for consumption by observant Jews. Indeed, what does Peter say when, to his utter shock, he is told to eat this strange assortment? All this mess is unclean and profane. Why not ask me to eat chicken poop? It would be no different than consuming a pig, a lizard, or a snake. But, then, what does the voice from heaven say? “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” But I wonder: is this simply an odd story about expanding Peter’s culinary taste beyond kosher laws? Or is it about this: the human capacity to make and live with a list of those you and I consider “clean” – you know, good people like us, who agree with our convictions – and those you and I might consider “unclean,” those persons or categories of persons who will never be invited to our tables for food and drink and conversation. Or is it about this? That the God who created you and me, creates nothing unclean and impure; that no person, no group, no category of humankind is foreign to God? And if no category of humankind – based on race or ethnicity, gender or sexual identity, socio-economic or educational status, health or cognitive capacity – is foreign to God and thus is cherished by God, what are we to make of the way in which Christians who, while claiming to hear and obey the commandment to love, can act so terribly to others who look and act and think differently?
I am mindful of my aunt Esther who, as an Italian Catholic with a high school degree, married my mother’s brother and thus entered into an English and Norwegian family filled with Lutherans and Episcopalians, in which a university degree was expected. Short of height and pleasantly ample in girth she was, I think, eager to be accepted by her new in-laws. Thus she never entered into discussions political or religious at family gatherings; rather, she would joyfully serve food and drink, offering an expansive hospitality. Well, except this once at Christmas when we happened to be gathered in her home. A middle-aged cousin, the senior warden in his parish who had been in church every Sunday since the day of his baptism as a newborn infant, and had taught church school for years, was railing against women priests and pastors, against gays and lesbians, against foreigners – he said – who were taking jobs away from good and decent Americans. My mother was becoming nervous because she could see that her husband, my father, was about ready to intervene in the diatribe (this would only lead to escalation) until the usually quiet Esther stood up and faced this unhappy man and said with utter conviction, “I don’t know what you are being taught in your church, but in mine, we are trying to follow the practice of Jesus.” Stunned by her unexpected declaration, our unhappy cousin could only say, “What?!” with an incredulous look on his face. “I think you heard me,” she said. “I believe with my whole heart that a thoughtful love sees through the prejudice we all have been raised with.” End of conversation. Absolute silence, well, that is, until my uncle Norman asked if anyone wanted their drink refreshed. But, of course, in that two sentence declaration, we all heard the challenge of the gospel: “What God declares clean, you must not call profane.”