Saturday, April 23, 2016
April 24, Easter 5: Welcoming and Affirming
Our Gospel lesson takes place the night before Jesus died, in the Upper Room. When Judas Iscariot scuttles off-stage, the spotlight is on this intimate conversation between Jesus and the eleven disciples. This is the calm and quiet scene before the drama gets all tragic and ugly.
Jesus says this little speech that is contradictory—that in his death he will be glorified, and then it is circular—that in his being glorified he will glorify God, and God will glorify Godself in him, and God will glorify him. And then he calls them into love. This language is too rich for them, and they cannot understand it, not yet, not till after the resurrection, and after the coming of the Holy Spirit, and even then it will take a few years, at least, for the Apostles to work it out.
The Apostle Peter is a case in point. Here is a man who has to learn the love of God, who has to convert his love. Earlier in the gospels you can see how much Peter loved Jesus, and how he swore to lay down his life for him, and when Jesus was arrested it was his love for his Lord that led him into that dark place that he could not handle when he ended up denying him. After the resurrection, at that breakfast on the beach, the Lord challenged him to keep on loving, but to convert his love.
In our lesson from Acts, Peter gives an account of what you could call a conversion of his love. He is having to defend himself before a special council of the Apostles and the brethren. He had done a controversial thing without their prior consent. He had welcomed and affirmed some Roman soldiers. Who were not circumcised. Without requiring them to get circumcised. He just quick baptized them and broke the bread with them—which means Holy Communion. He had welcomed them into the full communion of the church, against the rules.
What rules? The rules in the Bible, the only Bible the early church had as yet, the same Bible as the synagogue, the Torah and the prophets. And the Torah was very clear, that no one could share the sacred meal who was not circumcised. So if the soldiers were uncircumcised they were unclean, they were unkosher, just as unkosher as all the Gentile food they ate. Pork. Reptiles. Shellfish. Calamari. Disgusting, enough to make one wretch. And with unwashed hands. Did Jesus die for this?
Peter defends himself by saying that hadn’t been his own idea, that it was God’s idea, and God set it up, and there was no getting around it. The Holy Spirit had come down upon these Roman soldiers just as it had come down on them. This was the doing of the Lord Jesus. Whom the Lord Jesus considers clean, we should not call unclean. Whomever the Lord Jesus has welcomed and affirmed, we should welcome and affirm.
Welcome is one thing, but affirm is another. When I say affirm, I’m saying that Peter did not ask those soldiers to change. He not only did not ask them to get circumcised, he did not ask them to stop being Roman soldiers, and to stop participating in the heavy occupation of the Jewish homeland. These weren’t just any Gentiles, they were the oppressors of his people. They were the ones who took at will their produce and fish, who made them carry their baggage, who could flog them and beat them as needed, and who could take their daughters for their pleasure with impunity. Even if these soldiers were all good guys, it can’t have been easy to have baptized them.
So it’s not only these soldiers who are converted—Simon Peter had to be converted in his love. And no doubt in his feelings and his very body. Consider his vision of unkosher food. If you’ve been conditioned your whole life against certain foods, you find those foods literally “dis-gusting”. Emotionally, physically, even when it’s other people you see eating them.
Consider what it was like for Simon Peter, in his body, being surrounded in a room by Roman soldiers. Not where any Galilean Jew would ever like to be. A place of physical risk and vulnerability. And then, to baptize them, he’s got to touch them, and I’ll bet he’d never dared touch a Roman soldier before. And then he had to sit among them, and after blessing and breaking the bread he will be offered food he’s been conditioned his whole life to avoid. Oysters! “Uh, no thanks, I’ll pass.”
I’m talking about the conversion of your love. Love begins in your childhood as a feeling, that’s natural, and even the most exalted and selfless love, I think, must have has some feeling in it. But while the love of Christ embraces human feeling, it is not grounded in your feelings and can even be counter to your feelings. Especially your feelings of dislike, and often your feelings of disgust, and most of all your feelings of fear.
You cannot do this with a natural human love that just tries harder, you have to convert your natural love into resurrection love, that love that comes from God, the love that God has within God’s self, among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and now pours out into you in power of the Spirit. If God so loved those Roman soldiers as to inhabit them, how can Simon Peter refuse to love them too? And so Peter has to convert his feelings into the love of God.
So does the church. At that special council the other Apostles and brethren had to get converted too. And it takes a long time for the church to convert. Consider the implications of what Peter had done. If you do away with circumcision, then there is no longer any sacramental distinction between men and women. I don’t know if anyone in that special council could foresee it, but what Peter had done implicitly gave women equal status in the church to men. It has taken two thousand years for the church to begin to work this out, and much of the church still resists it.
And if you do away with circumcision, you are removing the sign and seal of sacred genealogy, you are removing the symbol that fathering children is your sacred mission. If you work that out, it’s a threat to traditional marriage, because traditional marriage has always been an agreement between two men in order to keep legitimate the offspring of their sons. If anyone in that special council could have foreseen it, they would have opposed Peter with a “Defense of Marriage Act.”
Do you find my interpretations tendentious? Do you think I’m leading the witness? When the lesson from the Revelation says, “See, I am making all things new,” how inclusive is “all things”? How much is up, how much is open, how much is free? How deep into the world does the Holy City come, and how far into the fullness of human experience? We are not done yet, we are still working out the implications, we are still exploring the wideness and the power of the love of God.
These lessons today are both for challenge and for encouragement. We are challenged to love because it’s only within the dynamic of uncomfortable relationships that your love gets converted. And let me encourage you in your love, because God is ahead of us, the Holy Spirit is ahead of us.
If God is calling you to cross the boundary of discomfort, you can trust the Holy Spirit to be there ahead of you. If God is calling you to relationships beyond your boundary of fear, you can trust the Holy Spirit to be in that relationship already. You may be comforted that the love that the Lord is commanding you to love with, is the love of God that is already there, and what you are doing is stepping into the spotlight of the love of God.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.