Love is Better Than Purity

[A sermon on Acts 11:1-18, and John 13:31-35; an audio recording of the sermon is available here]

During the supper conversation at one of our mid-week services this past Lent, I mentioned a quote I had just read from Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s new book, Shameless.

The quote came from her discussion of the so-called “purity culture” that is central to some branches of the American Christian church, but it has relevance beyond that context as well.

Pastor Nadia writes: “purity most often leads to pride or to despair, but not to holiness. Because holiness is about union with and purity is about separation from.”[1]

Holiness is about union with… purity is about separation from.

I remembered that distinction as I was studying today’s reading from Acts, because the challenge leveled at Peter from the believers in Jerusalem is dripping with concerns about purity:

Why did you go to the uncircumcised men, they ask, the people whose very bodies demonstrate that they are different from us, foreign, unclean…

And beyond that, why would you EAT with them? It’s one thing to tell them about Jesus, but to share a meal? You don’t know what has polluted that table! You might as well worship an idol.

I’m not elaborating on their accusations to mock these early believers, but to try to get across how shocked they were, and why. Purity was at the center of 1st Century Jewish religious practice. The rituals, and the food, of the chosen people were designed to set them apart. To keep them separate from any corrupting Gentile influences, including the eating of foods sacrificed to foreign idols. And those same concerns had been imported into the early church. They were a small and vulnerable community, so it is natural that they would be protective of their identity… worried about being polluted by outside influences.

But Peter’s experience, first in a vision from God, and then in the Holy Spirit’s precipitous appearance as Peter was speaking to the household of Cornelius, had taught him something different, something new. Peter’s experience had taught him that God wasn’t all that concerned about purity. God was much more concerned about outreach… about union... about including the people who were outside the lines.

I think this story offers several important lessons for the church today.

First, wouldn’t it be great if we would all learn to say, with Peter, “who am I that I could hinder God?” In fact, let’s try it! Repeat after me: “Who am I that I could hinder God?”

(you can do this at home too! Come on: “Who am I that I could hinder God?”)

He’s got a point, right? If God is up to something… even if it’s something WE find scandalous, we probably shouldn’t try to interfere.

Of course – God doesn’t always send us visions, or send the Holy Spirit to interrupt us mid-speech, so the second lesson is to pay attention to the “purity” questions that we get hung up on.

It’s probably not circumcision, or even who someone has dinner with, that sets off alarm bells for us. We’re more likely to get hung up on issues of moral or cultural purity:

Things like…. whether someone has had an abortion, or else fought to restrict access to abortion, or gone to prison, or voted for a candidate we despise, or can’t control their drinking. Or any of a thousand other things that make us feel uncomfortable, or polluted, wanting to keep our distance.

Or it can show up in concern about “what’s happening to our town” when the average skin-tone starts to darken; or in the hostile questions about why our Mt. Olive Police department would post an educational status update about Ramadan; or in name-calling and dehumanization of anyone who isn’t “woke” by our standards.

This past week we saw it in the arrest of Betty Rendon, an immigrant ELCA student pastor who has been faithfully serving a church in Wisconsin, but who doesn’t have status because lack of paperwork got in the way of her asylum appeal, and from a purity-stance, “the law” is more important than her contributions to her adopted community.

We might not think of these various scenarios as being related to “purity standards,” but whenever we feel ourselves jumping to a judgment that draws someone else outside the lines of grace, we need to ask ourselves whether we are drawing a line between clean and unclean, worthy and unworthy.

And we need to ask ourselves whether we are calling unclean what God has called clean.

I think we also need to ask whether our distinctions are, at their root, about our fear.

Because purity concerns are almost always about fear. Fear of pollution. Fear of something we value being changed.

Pastor Nadia makes that point in Shameless as it relates to the purity messages we pass along to our children. Our fear for them makes us want to protect them, which isn’t bad! But in our fear, we try to control them. Try to set up boundaries that will keep them pure, untouched, and protected. But not only does that not usually work, it also gives power to our fear.

And the way of Jesus is NOT about fear. The way of Jesus is about love. And as the Apostle John reminds us, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18).

Our gospel lesson today, if we read it in its larger context, gives us a powerful story of what that looks like. What it really looks like for love to drive out fear.

Jesus’s “new commandment” that we read today is not “new” as a call to love. Love has always been at the heart of God’s law. What is new is that we are commanded to love “just as I have loved you.”

When Jesus gave this command he had just given the disciples an example of the kind of love to which he is calling them: a love that is shocking, even dangerous. That’s because Jesus is not commanding his follower to have kind, warm feelings, he is calling us to the kind of boundary-crossing actions of love that he has just demonstrated.

That’s why we need to read these verses in context, because the context is what makes this command real. The context is the last supper at which Jesus took on the role of a servant and washed his disciples’ feet. In that action Jesus shows his disciples what he means when he commands them to love like he loves, and in the process, he disrupts their assumptions about purity.

We see that disruption in the interaction between Peter and Jesus. At first Peter is upset about Jesus serving him in this way that breaks all the social rules, but when Jesus tells Peter “unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8), Peter goes overboard in the other direction – wanting a whole bath!

But Peter doesn’t get what Jesus is doing, so Jesus has to explain – you’re already clean! Here’s how the SALT commentary paraphrases what Jesus is saying:

“Don’t doubt your worth or propriety – I’m not washing you because you’re unclean, but rather in order to demonstrate the kind of dignifying love I have in mind (John 13:6-10). You aren’t greater than me, mind you (John 13:16), but neither are you lesser; I will call you not ‘servants’ but friends (John 15:12-15). I kneel and wash your feet to drive this point home, to set an example for you, so you might go and do likewise for one another. Listen – I’m leaving and I’m entrusting my love to you. Take up the mantle! Love as I have loved you, making friends, not servants, bridging divides between ‘above’ and ‘below,’ ‘insider’ and ‘outsider,’ ‘clean’ and ‘unclean.’”[2]

You see, love is NOT about purity. It’s about dignity, and value, and bringing the outsiders in.

But lest we forget just how hard this command is, we need to remember another thing about the immediate context of these verses. Jesus gives this command after he has washed the feet of both Peter and Judas....

And right before Jesus gives the command, Judas leaves to betray him....

And right after Jesus gives the command, he predicts Peter’s betrayal.

When he tells us to love as he loved, he is telling us to love even the ones who will betray and deny us, even the people whom we cannot trust to keep us safe.

It’s a profoundly counter-cultural model. And, of course, it raises valid questions about safety and abuse. I don’t think Jesus is telling abused women to “love” their abusers by staying with them, or people who are being victimized to passively accept their victimization. Jesus is calling for those who might impose power-over to instead serve, not the other way around.

But what Jesus IS doing is modelling for his followers a new way to respond to fear, to the recognition that the world is not a safe place and that there will be people or circumstances in our lives that will hurt us.

Our instinct in response to that reality is usually to try to make ourselves safe. To draw lines, or make rules, that keep the dangerous people out.

Our instinct is to manufacture a culture of purity where nothing dangerous is allowed inside.

But Jesus doesn’t tell us to stay safe. And he doesn’t tell us to keep ourselves separate in order to protect our purity. He tells us to love, as he has loved.

I started this sermon with a reference to Nadia Bolz-Weber’s contrast between purity and holiness in which she defines purity as separation-from, and holiness as union-with. This is a definition grounded in the biblical witness, and it points us to the HOPE that I see in Jesus’s very challenging command. Our instincts push us toward separation, because we think that’s how to keep ourselves safe. But safety isn’t what meets our deepest needs, holiness is. Because holiness is what unites us – with God and with each other. Holiness is what reminds us that just as we are called to love in really challenging ways, so too we are loved in ways that no “uncleanness” can touch.

Purity sounds nice. It feels safe. But I rather have union. I’d rather have love.

Thanks be to God.

* * *

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, Convergent Books, 2019

[2] http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/5/14/new-commandment-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-easter-5.

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