Readings: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strong rock and our redeemer.
We return to that holy scene of the Last Supper in today’s Gospel passage. Jesus has finished washing the disciples’ feet and we have been made aware that Judas is to betray him. As Judas is leaving the scene, Jesus delivers one last commandment to his disciples: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.
Sometimes it can be hard as a preacher to try to come up with new ways to talk about something that shows up so often in the gospels. Love. How many sermons have been preached about this one topic? As our PB, the Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to say: “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”Jesus certainly loves to talk about love. But having PB and J every week becomes boring or less appetizing, doesn’t it? Get it? PB, the Presiding Bishop, and J, Jesus…ok that was a terrible joke, but I couldn’t resist.
How many times must we return once again to that most difficult of tasks, to love one another? Yet return to it we must. Over and over again. Because the reality is this: it is so easy to hate. And it is so hard to love. Truly love. As Jesus loved. And continues to love. But this is how Jesus marks his disciples for the world to see: everyone will knowthat we belong to Jesusif [we] have love for one another.It is this notion of the “other” that often complicates matters for us. But Scripture tells us about that, too.
Peter is confronted by Jewish Christians who wish to know why he would eat with Gentiles. He explains to them, step by step, about a vision that he saw. The vision included animals that were considered unclean by Jewish law being brought down from heaven on a large sheet. Peter is told to kill and eat. To which, like the law-abiding Jewish man he is, he responds, by no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.The voice, which is described as coming from heaven, tells Peter that what God has made clean, you must not call profane. In good Peter fashion, this event occurs three times before the sheet is brought back up to heaven. About that time, three men invite Peter to come to Caesarea, which the Spirit encourages Peter to do, telling him not to make a distinction between them and us. There he brings these Gentiles the good news and they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The beginning of this passage is noteworthy. Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.Rather than celebrate that more have come into the fold, the first inclination of the circumcised believers is to ask why Peter would hang out and eat with uncircumcised men. In the infancy of the Christian tradition, the idea of one anotherstill held a notion of duality, of us vs. them. That is the power of this story! Peter states that the Spirit tells him not to make a distinction between them and us. And at the end of the story, after the Gentiles have received the Holy Spirit, Peter queries, 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?This silences his accusers. In the space of the silence, a shift occurs. Suddenly the notion of the “other” expands and they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’But the shift is at an even deeper level. For God tells Peter that the animals that have been deemed unclean are to be considered clean. The “other” is not just in terms of humanity. It is on the order of all creation!
The model for this kind of expansion of the heart to make room for all to be included in the love to which God calls us is in those last verses of the passage from Acts. It involves silence, and praising God. We discussed silence last week – the kind of silence in prayer that allows for listening to God and hearing what God has to say to us. And one of the ways of praising God is through the practice of gratitude. Through giving thanks. Which is what we participate in every week as we gather together at the altar. The Eucharist – the great Thanksgiving! Where we tell the story of our salvation and recall the institution of communion at that Last Supper. Where we acknowledge our need for community and communion with God. Where the idea of love is given a posture and form that we can practice. Cultivating our hearts to love through gratitude can break down those first inclinations to exclude, to abandon, to criticize, to separate, to divide, and turn them into habits of inclusion, welcome, praise, gathering together, and unifying.
It begins with small steps. Find three things to be grateful for. If it is a person, be specific in what aspect you currently are praising. Then reach back and think about what has given that person that trait. Give thanks for that. And continue the process until a smile reaches your face because you realize how gratitude for that one aspect has turned into gratitude for a universe of things. It is through this habit that your heart will begin to expand. Because if each gratitude holds a universe of gratitudes, your heart cannot but continue to grow exponentially. By this – with hearts growing through gratitude toward love – they will know that we are Jesus’ disciples. They will know we are Christians by our love.