Sermon, Fifth Sunday of Easter
Immanuel Lutheran Chicago
May 15, 2022
Peter saw a vision in a trance (Acts 11:5). John “saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). Jesus gave the disciples a new commandment, that they should ‘love one another as he had loved them’ (John 13:34). And with each revelation the faithful were challenged to embrace a radically new vision of life and faith—and they did!
I wonder, how’d they do that? What can we learn from Jesus’ first followers about how to follow God’s prompting? We find a clue in today’s gospel. In Jesus’ last words before his arrest and crucifixion it’s interesting to notice what he didn’t say. He didn’t say, ‘When I’m gone, keep a systematic theology.’ He didn’t instruct them about proper worship, the sacraments, the priesthood, or even what to say or write down as gospel. He simply urged them to love. In fact, he commanded them. Discipleship consists of loving one another in the same perfect and unconditional way that God loves the whole world.
We see love is a theme that weaves through all three of our readings today. The love command is a trusty compass needle that always points the traveler in the direction God is going. Yet, be prepared. The consequences for life and society are can be earth-shaking.
Look at our reading from Acts (11:1-18). It is impossible for us to understate the impact of this staggering love story. Peter’s vision on a roof top in Joppa transformed the early Jesus movement from an obscure subset of Judaism to a world religion open to people of every tribe, race, gender, and nation. Yet, it required early Christians to set aside everything they were taught since birth about how to serve God. How’d they do that?
Peter’s vision proves especially incredible when you consider what the Hebrew Bible says, ‘Clean are cloven-footed animals that chew their cud—except for camels, rock badgers, rabbits, and pigs; “Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean for you” (Leviticus 11:1-8). On and on the Hebrew Bible goes about fish, and birds, and insects clean and unclean.
The book of Leviticus (chapters 11–26) specifies in minute detail purity laws that encompassed every aspect of being human—birth, death, sex, gender, health, economics, jurisprudence, social relations, hygiene, marriage, behavior, and certainly ethnicity, for Gentiles were automatically considered impure. For a Jew of Peter’s time, avoiding unclean people wasn’t just a theological idea, everything he was taught up to that point would have just made it feel icky.
In Peter’s vision he saw God’s love blow whole thing down. In contrast to the purity system with its “sharp social boundaries” (Borg), the emergent Christian movement substituted a radically alternate social vision. The new community of Jesus was characterized by compassion for everyone, not external compliance to a purity code –by radical inclusivity rather than by hierarchical exclusivity, and by inward transformation rather than by outward ritual. In place of “be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), Jesus deliberately substituted the call to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). (Daniel Clendenin, My Journey With Jesus)
Knowing how the wind is blowing makes it easier to hoist a sail to follow the Spirit. You don’t need a mystical experience to mostly understand what God wants us to do—and not do—in our lives. The first answer Jesus’s early followers teach for how to discern the will of God is the love test. Whatever extends love in us, or among others, or in society is the right way.
But there’s more. We notice John has a vision in Revelation. Peter’s story features a trance, strangers who coincidently show up, an angel, and a big church meeting. Peter and the early Jesus community were willing to explore the promptings of their hearts and dreams. They tested them through prayerful dialogue. They dusted for God’s fingerprints through examination of scripture.
Bible scholar Robert Tannehill sees five components here in the Book of Acts the first followers used to discern God’s will: First they were open to divine promptings; second they took these messages seriously; third they sought confirmation from other people of faith to shake their heads in agreement; fourth they asked if the visions could be replicated. We come to find out other people have dreamed the same dream—and finally, number five, public conversation and even debate. (Acts 11 and, eventually, Acts 15). Of course, each step along the way requires personal courage and faithfulness. Discerning and carrying out the will of God is rarely free of the weight of personal controversy and consequences.
Like Peter, St. Paul’s advice to the Christians in Corinth for seeking the guidance of the Spirit was to “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (1 Cor 14:29). Paul taught the Corinthians to think out loud with one another as they weighed the Spirit-prompted utterances offered by the prophets.
In Acts, Peter conveyed to the church his vision of the action of the Spirit. The church weighed what he said and rendered a judgment: God has granted repentance even to the icky Gentiles (11:18). If the God of all creation did not exclude Cornelius and the Gentiles as impure or unclean, Peter realized, neither could he (10:34, 36, 45). The first followers teach us how to kindle the dreams and visions of God. What is God yearning to tell us today? The winds of God’s love are changing the landscape of faith. Our children dream dreams of justice and inclusion. Our prophets lament how, in the name of the God of love, our church built and promoted institutions of slavery, colonialism, the systematic destruction of native peoples, and an economic system that has brought the world to the brink of ruin. In the name of love, there are many today who would have us embrace religious intolerance and the oxymoron of Christian nationalism.
The church seems to find endless ways to resist the vision, to reject the Spirit, to wall off God’s grace, and to set up distinctions. To embrace the inclusive community Peter envisioned, the new heaven and new earth glimpsed by John, the radically loving community commanded by Jesus leads to life. (John 18:34) By contrast the old distinctions produce death everywhere by way of fear, of anxiety, exclusion and sometimes violence. (Walter Brueggemann)
As we become rooted and alive in Christ our community also comes to life. Like all living things it grows and responds. It becomes tenaciously resilient, self-replicating, and renewing. As Christ breaks bread and bids us share each proud division ends. We walk with the Spirit as children of a new humanity, citizens of the New Jerusalem, residents of a new heaven and a new earth, one people with God in harmony and solidarity with all the people of God. And all the people say—Amen!