A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter in Year C. Readings include Peter’s vision in Joppa and defence of the uncircumcised in Jerusalem; Jesus’ commandment to love; and the heavenly vision of a Revelation.
Many of you know that I spent most of the week since we last met together in Minneapolis, at the Festival of Homiletics, which is otherwise known to us mortals as preaching. I was in services of worship about three or four times each day, hearing sermons from the Holy Spirit poured out like wine through the filter of women and men who cannot get enough of the word and the love of God. It was a gift, and I am grateful to my parish for providing the Continuing Education time and partial funding for my attendance.
No one that I heard preached on today’s readings, which is perhaps a blessing as I might have been rendered speechless. But the Rt Revd Robert C Wright, bishop of the Episcopal church in Atlanta, said something in his sermon on Exodus that echoes through all of today’s readings, I think, proving the truth and the timelessness of the message. Bishop Wright said, amongst other wise things, that “Love is active rebellion against anything that is not love.”*
“Love is active rebellion against anything that is not love.”
Okay, let’s be real: I’m going to use that quote A LOT in the months and years to come. In fact, you are going to hear a whole collected volume of quotes from the Festival in the coming Sundays; but for now, when Jesus tells us to love one another (because when he is speaking to his disciples, Jesus is also speaking to us); when Jesus tells us to love one another, what do we think that he has in mind?
Paul, one of Jesus’ early interpreters, has plenty to say about love. Love, he says, is patient. Love is kind. It is not jealous, arrogant, boastful, or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Love does not rejoice at what is wrong but rejoices in the right – that is where we often get into trouble. In one breath, Paul says that love does not insist on its own way: “I’m right, you’re wrong.” In the next, he says love splits right from wrong; and we all believe that we know the difference. Right?
Peter was staying in Joppa, known to us today as Jaffa, at the house of Simon the tanner. He had (in last Sunday’s reading) performed a miracle of remarkable proportions, raising Dorcas from the dead, but even Peter still had a lesson to learn about love. About the reach and span of God’s love. About the revolutionary power of Christ’s love. About the inexhaustible love that is the light of the kingdom of God.
It was clearly an important lesson, because we read it in the book of Acts twice over: once as it happened, and then as we hear it today, told almost word for word by Peter to the church gathered in Jerusalem. In his vision, Peter learns that nothing, no creature that God has made, can be dismissed as unclean or unnatural or unholy by those made in the image of God. If we bear God’s image, we must share God’s imagination, out of which this miraculous and marvellous diversity of life proceeds.
This was not a lesson about eating ethnic food. In the next moment, after his vision, Peter was approached by people with whom he, as a good and religious man, would not have willingly associated himself; people he might have termed unclean or unholy. And if the Holy Spirit had not shown him a better way; a more loving way; he would have remained in his good, religious bubble, splitting the right people off from the wrong people and entertaining at least in his imagination the idea that some of the people whom God created in God’s own image are inherently unclean, or unnatural, or unholy, and he would have been wrong.
Love rebels against anything that is not love.
The Holy Spirit revolted against Peter’s distinctions and discrimination and showed him a better way, a more loving way, and Peter persuaded his brothers and sisters and siblings in Jerusalem to board the love train with him.
No one whom God has made is further from the image of God, the imago dei, than what you or I see in the mirror each morning; and no one is closer. Whether by sex or gender, ability or ethnicity, colour, race, or anything else, the image of God, the love of God does not discriminate against any one whom God has made. We may disagree fiercely about politics, baseball, or the right way to hang the toilet roll, but when we call any person beyond the scope of God’s image, God’s love, then we defile ourselves.
“Love one another,” Jesus said; but talk is cheap. “Love is active rebellion against anything that is not love,” Bishop Wright advised. It is defiant solidarity with the outcast and the oppressed, the immigrant and the orphaned, especially those orphaned by our own cruel and violent actions of family separation. A rebellious love is outspoken in its outrage against any kind of exclusion or erasure of trans people, gay people, people whose lives or families do not fit neatly into our check-box forms. Love is compassionate and active advocacy for women folk in need of medical services, and uninsured folk in danger of an early death. Love rebels against anything that is not loving. Love does not rejoice in racism, or nationalism, but it rejoices in the reconciling and redemptive love of God in whose image each and every person on the planet was made.
Love one another; and do not lose sight of that love. Elsewhere, Jesus told us to love even our enemies: our political foes, our family nemeses. If love rebels against all that is not loving, then we are not free to hate even those with whom we fight. Even if we fight for what we know to be right, we only have that right if we have the kind of love that excludes anything that is not love from the heart of our words and our actions; if we have love that avoids contempt; love that prefers justice to judgement; love that leaves room for the repentance of those who need it.
Not everyone is ready for that kind of love. Peter wasn’t, and God sent him a vision. Three times. Because he was never that quick on the uptake; but once he got it, he was all in, advocating before the council in Jerusalem on behalf of the uncircumcised, the unclean, the unacceptable.
God also granted a vision to John on the island of Patmos, in which he saw a new creation, one where God dwelt among mortals, living and moving among us, revealing the power of God even over pain and sorrow and death. But we have that vision, too. We have seen Jesus living among us, revealing the love of God, rebelling against the forces of evil, resisting the temptation to do anything but love those whom God set around him, defying even death. That vision is ours to bring home, just as Peter brought his vision home to transform the first church in Jerusalem.
“Love one another,” Jesus said, “even as I have always loved you.”
* The Rt Revd Robert C. Wright, “Just Imagine,” as heard at the Festival of Homiletics, Central Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, May 15 2019.