Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17
This is the third sermon in my series called “This Is the Life,” and what we’re doing every week is asking our scripture lessons what they can tell us about Life. And I don’t mean just spiritual life, but life in the broadest sense, the life we share with animals and vegetables. There’s something about life in all three lessons, and I’ll take them in the order that we read them.
The reading from Acts is a snippet from a longer story. Peter had a dream of a great sheet let down from heaven full of unkosher food that he was told to eat. When he awoke he was brought to the house of Cornelius, an Italian, a Roman army officer, who’d gathered his colleagues and family. Peter preaches a sermon, and then our snippet opens with God interrupting him. God comes down into these pagans just as God had come down into the disciples at Pentecost. Now there were good reasons for Peter to hold off baptizing them, but the Holy Spirit didn’t bring Peter there to say No!
God was coming back into the larger world outside of Israel. Yes, God was always there, but now God was coming actively, openly, publicly, vocally, visibly, savingly. For a very long time before this, going back to Abraham, the Creator of the world had been purposely confining his saving presence to Israel. And Israel got used to that, and figured that the temporary was permanent, and that the means was the goal. This narrow expectation did not change automatically among the first Christians. But God did not wait for them to be ready. God suddenly enters into the lives of Italians as fully as the Jews. God is coming into the whole wide world. Not just individuals, but the nations.
The Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life, and that means not just spiritual life but the Life of the world. I want you to think of God’s salvation and God’s interest as widely and holistically as possible. So that when the epistle speaks of conquering the world, it doesn’t mean defeating the world, it means winning the world!
If you think of the broad Biblical story, when God created the world, it was empty of life until the Holy Spirit breathed on it. And when God created human beings to be stewards of the world, they were just lumps of clay until God breathed into them and they became living souls. But we rebelled against God and fled from God and got bad breath and corrupted our own lives and began to pollute the world within our care.
We developed a life that the Bible calls the old life. But a new life begins with the resurrection, and the Holy Spirit brings that new life into the old life. It doesn’t replace the old life but it enters it and judges it and purges it and cleans it and heals it and loves it and wins it to transform it. That’s the patient work of God in your own life, and what you experience in your own life is a smaller version of the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.
That’s my first take home. The Holy Spirit inhabits not just your so-called spiritual life, but the whole of your life, your speaking and thinking, your working and eating, your politics and economics, your home and family, your sleeping and loving, your laughing and playing, your singing and dancing. Not just for hymns but also for opera. God started with the Italians, after all.
From our epistle reading we get four signs of Life. Being born, and then water, and blood, and breath. The epistle says that you are born of God if you believe. You who were born into the old life are born again into the new life of the resurrection that the Holy Spirit is bringing into the world through you. It’s called being “born” because it’s all encompassing, like a whole new life, and also because you didn’t choose it.
You didn’t choose to be born the first time. Your birth was the result of the choices made by other people. And Jesus says this in the gospel: “You didn’t choose me, I chose you.” It’s one of the great mysteries of Christian experience that although in your perception you have to choose it and you keep on choosing it, yet behind the curtain of experience it was God who was choosing you. Why you? Why not somebody else? God does not answer that.
But here is what you can believe, and to your comfort. As I said two weeks ago, no creature alive today has generated its own life. Just so, you cannot generate your own new life, so you don’t have to, it does not depend on you or how good you are at it, you just receive it.
How can you be certain that you are receiving it? Not by measuring your own experience. When I’m in Canada, I often don’t feel like a Canadian, I feel like a native of New Jersey. But my passport testifies that I have become a Canadian. Well, your baptism is your passport that testifies to the certainty of your being in this new life. The epistle calls that the testimony of the water. And the testimony of the blood is the display, in Jesus’ crucifixion, of God’s sacrificial love for people like you. Your certainty is not your own experience but in the nature of God and the fact that God has claimed you.
Water and blood: the liquid necessary for life and the liquid full of life. But in the Bible, your life is carried in your breath. In Greek, the words for breath and spirit are the same. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Breath of God, the inner life of God. You have been taught to think of your soul as like a ghost, immaterial and immortal, non-physical, but the Bible is more concrete, it regards your soul as seated in that vital column of your breath inside your body, moving in and out.
Let me point out here that in Bible terms, and despite what many churches teach, your personal life did not begin at your conception. You did not yet have a soul with your mother’s womb. In Bible terms you first came alive at your first breath. And as your very first cry was greeted with joy as proof of your life, that you could breathe on your own, just so those Gentiles in the story broke out in tongues with joy, infant believers, newly born, and with new life.
And as your breathing connects you with the atmosphere outside you, so your soul connects you to the Spirit of God. And as the springtime breezes can enter your lungs to refresh the air within you to revive you, so the Spirit of God enters your soul and blends in with you to give you new life within your old life.
Our gospel reading gives us three aspects of life that we have seen before. The first is living as abiding. The second is bearing fruit. We talked about them both last week. The third is laying down your life. We talked about that two weeks ago. I said that it’s as much about laying in your life or putting your life. He says this: “Greater love has no one than this, that you deposit your life for your friends.”
Don’t understand this only as, “Well, because I love you so much, I will sacrifice my life for you.” It doesn’t exclude that, it happened to him the next day. But it’s more about living than dying. There is no greater love than investing your soul in your friends, putting your life into your friends. Really? Friendship? Is that the new life of the Holy Spirit? Everybody has friends.
Look, families invest in each other naturally. As the epistle says, if you love the parents, it’s natural to love their children. Even in the old life, that kind of love happens all the time. We share the same traits, we share the same habits, we look like each other, we have the same color. We are family. It’s not wrong to call the church the family of God. But did you ever notice that I never do?
You must have seen those internet videos of animals of different species who are friends. A dog and a chicken. An owl and a cat. By nature they’re enemies, because one of them is the other’s food! Their friendships go beyond raw nature and even against raw nature. So what I’m saying is that in the life that the Holy Spirit is bringing into the world, it’s friendship love more than family love.
In our gospel, at this climax moment in Jesus’ life, this most intimate hour with his disciples, he doesn’t call them brothers, he calls them friends. That’s an unprecedented category of salvation in the Bible. It’s one great step past the family of God. And I’m so glad of it.
Friendship means freedom. You don’t choose your siblings, but you do choose your friends. Friendship has no birth order and no hierarchy, so friendship means equality. God loves you as a friend. Not that God is reduced to sentimental human friendship, like Jesus is your best friend, but rather that you are raised to be a friend of God to share in the life of God. Of course you can’t be God’s equal, but God most certainly respects you, and gives you freedom, and no matter what you do or say or think, will never stop loving you and will always want to, well, just be with you.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.