Gospel: John 13:31-35
1st Reading: Acts 11:1-18
2nd Reading: Revelation 21:1-6
When I was a teenager, I played church league softball. I understand you had a team here, too, in the 80’s. My dad was not involved in church at all, but he was the coach of our team and for a few years he even coordinated all the teams, making the schedule, reserving the fields, and resolving disputes.
One really fun thing about it was the mixture of people. Our pastor was the pitcher. Mom played third base. Dad invited his friend from work who struggled to watch his language. Dad’s friend’s girlfriend played shortstop despite the fact that she had a rod in her spine. Pastor Grumm reminded them in a teasing way that he was prepared to conduct a wedding at any time for this couple who was living together. I played catcher. My sister looked after the other children. It was such a funny mix. The Lutherans played the Baptists and the Methodists, and the Missouri Synod congregation, and even the Holy Rollers. It was the only time we got together. It was community.
I went with my dad one year to purchase the trophies for the tournament. As we stood in the trophy shop, I noticed that they had female figures for the top of the trophies. I thought that was pretty exciting. Girls mattered, too. We had both genders in the league. I suggested that we order some of the trophies with a woman baseball player on them.
My dad was smart that day. He didn’t argue with me. And he didn’t play that game, trying to decide—would the female player go on the first, second, or third place trophy. Instead he ordered female baseball players on all of the trophies. I was ecstatic! He heard me. He understood me. And he risked ridicule to be inclusive and loving. There are times when my dad got it right, and that was one of those times I was really proud of my dad and felt that he really valued me.
In today’s Gospel, the disciples have been a team. They’ve all got their positions and batting order. They know each other’s strengths. They’ve learned to call, “Got it!” in the outfield and when a double play made sense and when it didn’t. But now their coach is going away. It is a low moment.
The Gospel starts with this, “When he had gone out.” “He” refers to Judas. The team is losing a player and the coach. The coach is giving them a pep-talk and giving them the lineup for future games before he takes his leave.
He gives them a new commandment. Love has always been the commandment—at the root of all other commandments. So what is new about it? What is new is that he is about to show them the width of that love that is all-encompassing. And he is about to show them the depth of love that he has been talking about as he goes to the cross. Jesus starts with the word, “now.” The second thing that is new is that this is not some future reality, but it is about “now.” God’s Kingdom is now. God’s love is now. Now, God is in their midst.
At this moment of fear and sadness, Jesus speaks of glory. When I think of glory, I think of the Transfiguration or when the shepherds heard the angels proclaiming Jesus’ birth, “The glory of the Lord, shown around them.” I always think of this in Linus’ voice from Charlie Brown, because of the children’s special. The glory can be seen. It is light. It is as if the lights of the baseball field are coming on. There is that sound of the breakers being thrown and that bright shining light flooding the field. What had been so dark before, is about to be illuminated. The disciples’ weaknesses are exposed. After betraying Jesus, Judas is about to take a good long look at himself and find himself ashamed and in despair. The soldiers will mock him as the “The King of the Jews” and they will be saying what is true. The criminals crucified on either side of him will see him for who he is.
This moment of deep darkness is one of glory and light. God will use it to bring about the redemption of all God’s creation. In it we will see our fault and our failures illuminated by the glory of God. In it we will turn to God. In it, we will see our unity with our Creator. In it we will learn what love looks like.
The lights go up and suddenly all is exposed. In the first reading for this morning, the light reveals some new players want to come onto the field. They’ve noticed what is going on and they want to be a part of it. Peter is under a lot of pressure not to let them play. Yet, it isn’t Peter’s ball field. It is God’s field.
Jesus left the disciples with that deep and wide vision of love in that pep-talk. God reminds Peter again in this dream. It used to be you showed your faithfulness by living by this set of rules and an important part had to do with what you eat. You keep your purity by not eating certain things. It was probably helpful to the Israelite community to stay away from pork and lizards and shellfish, yet God is saying that love is the bottom line. When the rules cease to be about love, and start to be about us vs. them, forget it. The rules can sometime divide us, but the purpose of the rules is to bring us together. When the rules get in the way of God’s love, throw them out.
Church league softball is the same way. You have rules and you have sportsmanship—another word for love. When it is a contest between rules and sportsmanship, sportsmanship wins. Love wins. When someone is injured in church league softball and has to stop playing, everyone stops and prays. If there is a close call, you listen to the umpire—no arguing! If you have a player who is a weak link, you have every right according to the rules to put him or her on the bench, but in church league softball that person plays because there is no distinction.
Peter has to hear it and see it three times for it to start to sink in. There can be no mistaking it. And before he has time to forget what God said, three people arrive to take him to Caesarea—a place just full of people who eat lizards and dogs and maybe even bugs. All he can do is to preach the good news and open the team to all who want to play the game. But he still has to explain it to those back home that say, “No.” That’s what this passage is all about. “You object, but what choice did I have? It wasn’t up to me. Blame the Holy Spirit. You know there is no controlling the Holy Spirit. Who was I that I could hinder God?”
Some of the earliest believers saw it right away and accepted these new believers. Others went kicking and screaming. And believe me, eating was only the first hurdle. Yes, eating is an outward sign—a way of showing culture and loyalty and purity. But other things would enter in—the language you speak, the country you live in, the clothes you wear, your gender, your sexuality, the kind of music you prefer. We are still working through many of these divisions. But God makes it clear not to make any distinction and not to hinder God. And whether you accept it right away or curse out the umpire, God’s vision of love is what is going to win out, so we might as well accept it.
And just when we thought we were expanding our view of who can be on the team, we get a vision in revelation. God is making all things new, a new heaven and a new earth. This vision of love is not just for humans. After all, where can we play the game without the field? Suddenly we realize that all things are interconnected. All of God’s creation is worthy of our love.
I remember before I was old enough to play on the softball team, romping through the fields nearby, climbing trees and catching caterpillars. I remember on hot days, as the sun started going down, the refreshing breeze cooling us all—the Holy Spirit offering relief. I remember the drinking fountains of living water where we took long, cool sips and sometimes splashed each other. And I remember picking up our trash, leaving the field how we found it so others could enjoy it.
God’s creation has always been a part of what we do—essential, really. Will we always see God’s creation as a lesser part of our lives? Someday will we put it on the third place trophy? Or will we allow it to have its place as central, as important, and celebrate it the way we celebrate ourselves? Creation is God’s, yet we treat it as ours. Instead let us care for it as it cares for us, and see God’s glory in the people we meet as well as this earth that reflects the depth of God’s love.