Gospel: John 13:31-35
1st Reading: Acts 11:1-18
2nd Reading: Revelation 21:1-6
This morning in our book of Acts, Peter receives a vision from God which helps orient him from what he was used to, to be able to see the Holy Spirit at work in all sorts of places and people he never could before. In the book of Revelation, John too had a vision which gave him hope. He lived in a divided world, a dangerous world for Christians, a world that destroyed people and families. His vision gave him hope that God would make all things new. After all he had been through, he could see what that would look like when God brought the New Jerusalem to the people who were all comforted, who were all part of the same kingdom, and who were no longer in pain or mourning. Finally, in the book of John, Jesus lays out a vision, the very most basic message of the Gospel, “love one another.”
Some of you may know that I am among you today because I received a vision—I had an intense experience of God's love and light. If I had never received this vision, I seriously doubt that I would be a pastor today. I was twelve years old. I found little reason for hope. I felt that nothing lasts, everyone dies, we all have flaws. My parents didn't get along. They had a lot of struggles. My home was a place of anger and confusion. I was in a deep depression—the deepest darkness I have ever felt. I could blame it on puberty, on hormones, on middle school and all the pressure and emotion that is stirred up there. But all I know is that I felt what I felt very deeply, and I can tell you that it hurt to be alive. Every step was heavy. Every day it felt like I was moving in slow motion.
It was a spring day almost like this. I was the acolyte that Sunday morning. After lighting the candles, I sat on a bench or pew to the side of the altar all by myself. Behind this bench was a stained glass window made up of rectangles of color. Most of them were yellow or orange, with a few red ones thrown in here or there. That morning, the sun was shining through that window warming my back. I don't know how the songs we sang that day or the scriptures or the sermon might have affected me, but something shifted in me and suddenly I knew that there was something lasting and permanent. I knew I was part of a congregation of people who cared. I knew that God loved me. God, who had been distant and inaccessible, came near to me. I had a reason to live. And I wept, for joy, for relief—my emotions overflowed.
That was almost 30 years ago, but I am instantly transported there when I start thinking about it. My vision of the Kingdom of God still impacts my call. It impacts how I see our congregation and what I feel our purpose is. I know that people still live in deep darkness, that we have experiences all the time that hurt us and keep us from God's vision for us. But I also know that a congregation can be a place where light shines, where hope is found, where relationships are meaningful, and where everyone's gifts are appreciated. This vision has driven my ministry my whole life long.
Peter had received the light of Christ, but part of it was confusing and dark for him. Gentiles were coming to believe in Christ, but it was a lot to ask that grown men be circumcised, or that they change their diet to live in accordance with Jewish law. He spent a lot of time among the Gentiles, who shared their stories of the impact that faith in Christ was having on their lives. And he was looking at all these ancient laws and asking himself what made sense for these Gentiles to follow? Should they be expected to keep all of the laws, numbering into the hundreds? Did these laws make sense in different contexts that the Gentiles were living in? Did they have access to Kosher meat, slaughtered in a very particular way? Did they have access to food that had not been sacrificed to idols? This was very difficult because everything offered in the marketplace would have first been offered to idols. Peter had not himself kept all the laws. He had even denied Jesus three times. If Jesus had offered him new life, and the Holy Spirit was falling on people, it was slowly dawning on him, who was he to hinder the Spirit, to stand in the way of God's call? Were they any less deserving than he? So as he struggles with this, he receives a vision and in case he missed it or it isn't sinking in, it repeats three times. The kind of food you eat isn't what defines you as a child of God. Do not draw lines of who is in and who is out based on nonessentials like what one eats. Don't let cultural differences come between you. Certainly God doesn't hold us to human rituals and cultures. Instead, God asks us to love one another.
And it's a good thing Peter made this leap, or we might never have received the good news of Jesus. It would have become just another Jewish sect and died off like many others. Instead, Gentiles were welcomed.
The Gospel today does define what makes a Christian. If it isn't circumcision and it isn't food laws or Old Testament laws, it is love. And in case we don't get it, he also repeats it three times, “Love one another.” That's what it all boils down to. That was the gist of all the Old Testament laws, people trying to define what God's love and life looked like in a particular context.
So if it all boils down to loving one another, what does that mean? If you remember, there are three kinds of love in the Bible, filia (brotherly love), eros (passionate sexual love), and agape (self-sacrificial love.) Agape one another. Agape is not liking someone, necessarily. It is relating to someone we might not choose to relate to, except that God agapes us, and relates to us and gives generously to us, whether we deserve it or not, whether we are particularly lovable or not. Agape is the kind of love which is more than being nice to each other. It is love through which we can challenge one another and hold each other accountable. It is a deep kind of love in which we know and respect one another and we also respect ourselves.
Sometimes in church we think we have to be nice at all costs. We think that if we feel hurt we should keep it to ourselves or we risk rocking the boat or weakening the community. We are sometimes afraid to offend anyone by stating our needs or limits, saying no. This is not Agape love. This ends up making a weaker community because we get out of the habit of building relationships that are real and deep.
Sometimes at church we think we can't talk about controversial or taboo topics like money or intimacy or money or politics or the painful parts of our lives that we might be ashamed of. We censor ourselves to fit in and not rock the boat. Maybe we forget, this is the body of Christ. If one part hurts, it affects the rest of the body. We all depend on one another and need each other. It is so easy to assume that someone else's life is going along smoothly if we never share what is bothering us and hurting us. It is easy to say, “I'm fine,” when I'm not. It is easy to be superficial. It is easy to be strangers.
Agape love is being real with one another, honest about what is hurting us and those around us. Once we are honest and find, instead of being rejected, that we have a deeper bond because we know and are fully known, we find our congregation and community strengthened. We find ourselves sharing a vision of how things could be better, how our church could be more of a light to those who walk in darkness. We find our which of our customs keep people at a distance, like Peter was learning about the food and circumcision laws, and how to be a connection place for those who desperately need the good news of God's love.
The council is going to be inviting you to go deeper and be real with one another. We all love this church. We all love God. To be loving is to be willing to get to know someone and really listen to them and their vision and where this world is falling short in protecting those who are vulnerable so that we can better shape our ministry to fit Jesus' new commandment, love one another. We're going to be practicing a more relational way, to strengthen our congregation, to build relationships with our neighbors and the community so that we can be the body of Christ together, serving God and growing in faith.
Jesus had a vision of what would be, the unity of all that God has made, God pitching God's tent among us and being in real relationship with us, wiping our tears from our eyes and offering springs of living water to give life to all. Jesus lived a dark reality and walked with people who suffered and were left out of God's life-giving vision because of human rules and humans trying to put limits on God's love. So Jesus defied those laws and built real relationships with God's people on the margins. He listened to their stories, where they were hurting, where they had been rejected, what their hopes and dreams might be. And he took all those hurts and rejections upon himself there upon the cross. He took all those divisions with him to the cross. Even violence and death were weak and helpless against this new life he was bringing. They didn't stand a chance. Jesus rose to new life, and then spent the next 2 months (the season of Easter) passing on his ministry to us. He let them know he would soon be ascending to heaven so now we would have the chance to remove divisions between us, listen to each other, feed each other, be real with each other, and get out of the way of the Holy Spirit, who was weaving us together, ready or not. Now it would be up to us to share where we are hurting or in need, our places of darkness and pain, so that we would know we aren't alone, so that as a congregation we could begin to address them together to shape our neighborhood more into what God has in mind, and to share our piece of the vision of the Holy City, of the Kingdom of God, of King of Kings Lutheran Church, of the New Milwaukie until it begins to match God's vision and hope, until we do really know and love one another.