Sermon by Fred Smth
May 6, 2007
"May we find the ever living God of all within us and among us, there and here, then and now and then again."
John 13:34-35, Acts 11:2-12, 18, Revelation 21:1-5a
Authoritative sources, that is Mom and Dad, told me that the word 'liturgy' means 'the work of the people.' With twelve minutes to consider three texts this morning we have our work cut out for us. Six Sundays out from Easter, the lectionary offers us three texts for our celebration that build on and hopefully clarify each other. Let's look at them in the sequence that Andrea read them, arguably the order in which they were written.
Our first is from the Gospel of John. According to John, Jesus said, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." Seems simple enough but given that the statement is about nineteen hundred years old it might be worthwhile to ask what John might have meant. He uses the verb three times in the two sentences: "love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." Allright. We get it. Love is the point.
Here and in much of what follows this morning, I rely on John Dominic Crossan who was introduced last Thursday at the Westminster Town Hall Forum in downtown Minneapolis as "the leading scholar today of the historical Jesus." Crossan tells us that the Greek word agape, usually translated as "love" is more accurately, historically, translated as "share." Crossan writes, "The New Testament agape, which we translate as 'love' and often interpret as charity, is best translated as 'sharing,' as a commitment to share the goods of this world as belonging to God and not ourselves..." To love means to share with each other what God has created.
The early communities did this most graphically in a common meal, a meal they called agape. It was a real meal, a pot-luck. Everyone brought what they could and shared with everyone else. All were welcome. All were fed. And all were satisfied. Well, not quite in every situation. This brings us to our second reading about Peterís strange dream.
Peter, in a trance, sees something like a sheet with all kinds of different animals in it and a voice telling him to get up, kill something, and eat it. Peter protests saying that he's never eaten anything that's unclean. And the voice answers, "What God has made, you must not call unclean." As we know with Peter from other incidents, everything has to happen three times which it does in this story also. Peter finally wakes up from his dream and three strangers, foreigners appear and ask him to come with them. Peter realizes what the dream is about. In the words of the text, he must not "make a distinction between them and us...God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
What Peter was struggling with in his dream was a religiously imposed restriction. Before his dream, Peter and many others in the early communities believed that one had to observe all the Jewish rites and rituals before one could become a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. In hindsight, we can ask the question in these terms: Is it more important to worship in the right way, in the right place, at the right time, with the right people or to share unconditionally with everyone? Or, for this morning, who should be invited to the agape meal? Even if it took three times, Peter finally got it that everyone was invited without precondition into Godís new order. Peter swallowed his pride, admitted he had been wrong, and joined the apostle Paulís unconditioned invitation to the way of sharing.
Paul talked about this a lot in his New Testament letters. He reminded the Ephesians that Jesus "is our peace" and Jesus ìhas broken down the dividing wall...the hostility between usî Jews and Gentiles, today between us Christians and Muslims (2:14). Or in probably the earliest letter we have of Paul's, Galatians, speaking specifically about those who have been baptized into the community of followers of Jesus, Paul wrote, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female." And surely we might add today, "there is no longer Black and White, Red or Brown, straight or gay, transgender or bisexual, owner or tenant, rich or poor." We are all welcomed, with all our differing abilities and gifts. "For," as Paul concluded, "all of you are one in...Jesus." It is precisely this commitment to radical equality, according to Crossan, that was the distinguishing mark of the early community. As Tertullian exclaimed when the church was less than two hundred years old, "How these Christians share with one another!"
It is into a community committed to this equality that we will welcome today Shannon MacKenzie George Voelkel. We will welcome her and we will recommit ourselves to accepting, in Paul"s words, that in Jesus all the dividing walls of status and privilege, domination and submission, hostility and hierarchy are gone. And then we will gather, all of us welcomed, with Shannon, Maggie and Rebecca for at least a symbolic agape, a feast of sharing, a sign of that new creation where all are welcome, all are fed, and all are satisfied. In the words of John of the Apocalypse, we will gather as "a new heaven and a new earth."
Paul wrote to the Corinthians. "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation...everything has become new."(5:17) Paul ended his letter to the Galatians by underlining the lesson of Peter's dream that religious barriers are meaningless but "a new creation is everything." When Jesus said, "the new order of God is at hand" Paul took Jesus literally as in "at hand" meaning "hear and now." Here and now around this table we will signify, testify, recommit with our presence to being a new creation, "a new heaven and a new earth."
But outside these walls the world moves in a different direction. For over one hundred years, from 1865 to 1970, each new generation of Americans could, at least statistically, look forward to a better standard of living -- higher levels of education, better health care, rising family incomes, better housing. Yes, there were bumps along the way, in 1877, in the 1930s, but the trend lines were consistently upward. In 1970 this stopped; the trend lines leveled off and have begun to decline. Our children and grandchildren are the first two generations in a century who cannot, statistically, anticipate an improved standard of living. Instead, the few are getting immensely richer while the many are sinking. For more than thirty years now we have measured progress by the extent to which we have added to the excess of those who already have too much rather than by our ability to provide enough for those who have too little, to borrow from Franklin Roosevelt. Rather than sharing, even as a national and especially as a global system, we are increasingly hoarding. This brings us to our third scripture reading from the Apocalypse of John.
John's Apocalypse would have us believe that God will forcibly impose with a bloody avenging sword a new heaven and earth. John's Apocalypse presents a god whose angels bring plagues and blood everywhere to "drain the cup of the fury of God's wrath." John's is an unrelievedly bloody version of an old answer to the pain and suffering of an aggrieved, persecuted community. John's is a political version of the same God that Janet talked about, and rejected, last week. A God that somehow intervenes, defying all known laws of the natural world and raises people from the dead. The apocalyptic God as cosmic avenger is a belief born out of Israelís experience with exile in Babylon when all the people except the old and infirm were driven from Israel and Judah and forced to survive in the kingdom of their oppressors. It is a belief rekindled by the political troubles of the Jewish people with the Roman empire in first century Palestine. And rekindled again by John's apocalypse to help the pain of the Christian communities persecuted throughout Asia. And on and on down to today and those who call - from the East and West, in English and Arabic - on an avenging God to rescue them from the evils of secularism. This is not a new vision. It is, in fact, the same use of military power and physical violence that sustains the current world order of increasing inequality. It is a vision that promises peace but relies on war, that talks of justice but imposes only order by violence.
Such a view is biblical. But what does it have to do with the commandment to share with everyone as Jesus has shared with us? What does it have to do with the Jesus who said love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you? who said "if any one would sue you and take your coat, let that person have your cloak as well"? the Jesus who talks of a God who makes the sun shine on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust? who insists that we take what we have, even if it's only five loaves and two fish and feed everyone at hand even if its five thousand people?
Here is where we find the newness of the good news. When Jesus said the new order of God is at hand he was not pointing to a future apocalypse but the demonstrated reality of a new way to justice and peace. A new creation of peace achieved through sharing without distinction or discrimination. A new creation of justice achieved around a table where all are welcomed, all are fed, and all are satisfied. Welcome, Shannon, and all of us, NOW to a new heaven and a new earth. Amen.