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Abide in Love with Them?!



A sermon on John 15:9-17 and Acts 10:1-11:18


[for an audio recording, click here. Photo by Daniel Roberts on Unsplash.]


Do you think of yourself as Jesus’ friend?

In today’s gospel, Jesus presents those in his inner circle with this intimate relational description, but he does so in a way that suggests it might be surprising… or at least new.

They were his disciples… in a position of followers and learners. The assumption was one of subordinate status, as Jesus himself alludes when he explains, “I do not call you servants any longer…” (John 15:15).

Now, Jesus says, “I have called you friends.”

The dynamic has shifted. He is not holding anything back. He has chosen them and called them into a new kind of relationship.

Rather than a transactional religious model based on rote obedience and religious tasks, Jesus is building a community whose center is love.

Sounds pretty good, right?!

It’s meant to. This gospel passage is part of Jesus’s farewell message to his disciples in which he is offering them the encouragement they need to carry on his work after he is gone.

And if we recognize that we are those who carry on the mission of the disciples, that means this message is for us too.

We get to be Jesus’s friends! We get to abide in his love, which literally means making our home in the love of Jesus!

It also means that the bit about loving one another is something we have inherited, and – most of the time – I am all in favor.

I love loving all of you!

I love that part of what Jesus calls us to do is to build a community characterized by love.

I love that our witness to the world is centered in love.

But, last week one of you asked a question about love that shines a light on the hard part of this teaching. The question was:

“How should we love and/or hold accountable those who profess belief in Christ but whose principles and actions do not align with our ministry of reconciliation?”

It might be relatively easy, exciting even, to identify as Jesus’s friend… but what about the implication that we are also “friends” with other Christians?... Particularly the Christians who preach hate, and exclusion, and the lust for power, and everything that is the opposite of love?

As it happens, today’s reading from Acts is a really helpful resource in guiding us through the challenge of what a community of love looks like in the messy, complicated reality of other humans being so unloveable.

Or rather, the full story of Acts 10-11 is helpful, because it narrates a story of the beginning Christian community navigating a situation where believers disagreed about how to be the community Jesus wanted them to be.

We don’t really get that story from the 5 verses we read today, though, so bear with me while I fill in the context:

The story starts at the beginning of Acts 10, with the introduction of Cornelius, an Italian Centurion in Caesarea, a town on the Northern coast of Judea.

As a Gentile, and a military commander of the occupying army, he would be a natural object of suspicion for the early Church, but Luke is quick to explain Corneilius’s credentials:

He is a pious and prayerful man, a God-fearer (meaning that he worshipped the God of the Jews, even though he was not Jewish), and he was generous to those in need, including Jews.

What it more, we hear that God sends him an angel in a vision, praising Cornelius for his prayers and compassion, and telling Cornelius to send for Peter, who is the most well-known leader in the early church.

At this point, the narrative view switches to Peter, who is also praying and also receives a vision from God.

Peter’s vision is not as straight-forward, he sees a large sheet lowered from heaven filled with various animals, all of whom are classified as “unclean” in Hebrew scriptures.

A voice from heaven instructs Peter to take the animals for food, but Peter refuses adamantly, declaring that he has never “eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The heavenly voice responds, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.”

This same interaction repeats three times, and then the sheet is raised back into heaven, just as Cornelius’s messengers arrive at the house.

God’s Spirit commands Peter to go with the visitors without asking any questions.

Peter, however, asks them why they have come (we can always rely on Peter to assure us that God still uses people who mess up). This works out, because it gives the messengers a chance to explain their errand...

In which they make their case for why Cornelius is a good guy (reminding us again that Peter would have been primed to distrust him – even with the 3-fold vision).

Peter decides he can trust them and goes with them and finds a whole crowd gathered at Cornelius’s house waiting for him.

Cornelius tries to bow down to Peter, which Peter refuses, but he does reiterate that this visit to the house of a Gentile is all kinds of taboo for a Jew, explaining,

“You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean. So, I came.”

Cornelius then repeats the story of his vision, and Peter responds by launching into a brief sermon (which, by the way, is the basis of the confession of faith we have been using in worship for this Easter season). Peter begins his sermon with an important framing statement:

 

“I am learning that God doesn’t show partiality…”

It is this sermon that the Holy Spirit interrupts in the reading we heard today by concretely demonstrating God’s welcome of the whole crowd of Gentiles gathered in Cornelius’s house.

In case we haven’t gotten the point yet about the scandalous nature of this whole narrative, Luke tells us about the astonishment of the “circumcised believers.”

(Meaning those who had been physically and historically set-apart, and probably assumed this distinction was going to continue in the church of Christ).

But Peter seems to have caught up with God’s plan by this point and asks, “can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?”

Now this is a really interesting question, because it calls back to the story from Acts 8, which we heard in worship last Sunday.

That story tells about God’s Spirit leading Philip to share the message of Christ with an Ethiopian Eunuch – a person who would be seen as even more of an outsider than Corneilus.

Not only was he a Gentile, but also a foreigner, who had only been visiting Jerusalem and was on his way home (meaning he could have no ongoing contact with the Jerusalem church).

He seems to have been a God-fearer, like Cornelius, but the story doesn’t give any testimonials about his prayerful life or compassion to those in need.

Not to mention, he is a Eunuch, meaning that he falls outside the gender binary, and is explicitly named in Hebrew law – because of this divergence - as being forbidden to join in the assembly of God’s people.

But, after Philip shares the story of Jesus with him, the Ethiopian Eunuch asks, “Look, here is water. What is to stop me being baptized?”

And, just like the Gentile crowd gathered at Cornelius’s house, the answer is “nothing.” When the Holy Spirit calls people to Jesus, who is going to stop it?!

Well… maybe the fuddy-duddies who think they are in charge of Christ’s church.

Because that’s what almost happens in Acts chapter 11.

Peter goes back to Jerusalem, which was still the center of Christ’s movement at that time, and he gets called to account by the leaders there because, “you went into the home of the uncircumcised and ate with them!”

(Wait until they learn he baptized them too!)

Peter repeats the story (and so does Luke, he rehearses the whole thing again, even though we just read it the chapter before – he must REALLY want us to get the point).

Peter explains his vision, and the direction from the Spirit to go with Cornelius’s men, and the way that the Holy Spirit that interrupted his sermon.

And then he adds something new, explaining, “I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John will baptize with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”

The story in Acts 11 ends with the fuddy-duddies accepting the call to follow God’s inclusive welcome, even when it transgresses boundaries that they thought came from God. How could they stand in God’s way?

That’s how the story SHOULD go.

Unfortunately, in our time and place, there are plenty of folks who do not seem to believe they are standing in God’s way when they reject the inclusive, affirming welcome that we know God’s Spirit has called us to share.

So, how do we abide in love with them?

Well, if we follow the lessons of Acts 10-11, we start by trusting the Spirit’s leading.

Others may question a gospel of inclusive love, but the early church reminds us that right from the start, the gospel of love followed a pattern of pushing past assumed boundaries.

Sincere followers of God can think they are doing God’s will by calling something a sin because “the Bible is clear,” but then the Spirit says, “actually, I’m going to take the lead on this,” and it’s our job to follow.

Not everyone is going to get it, especially if they haven’t witnessed the Spirit’s leading themselves.

But that’s why abiding in love looks like what Peter did when he was challenged:

He didn’t try to negotiate a compromise, nor did he angrily confront his accusers.

Instead, he just pointed to what God was doing.

In Jesus’s farewell message to his disciples, after calling them to abide in his love, he also told them that he had appointed them to “go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”

That is our calling as well.

We cannot be responsible for anyone else’s fruit. Only for our own. And our fruit is love.

Thanks be to God.

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