A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2015
(Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-12; John 15:9-17)
Peter is still struggling.
In the gospels he came across as a slow learner. Today’s reading from Acts reads like the author is trying to ensure that we know that this is the same Peter. He still takes significant time over any paradigm-shift.
Of course, I am being unfair. Peter grew up in a world where the ‘gentiles’ or the ‘nations’ were a relatively unknown factor. Most spoke of them as ‘enemies’. Distant. Easily caricatured. Conflict characterised the relationship.
Sometimes it is hard to imagine beyond what we are told.
And this even though Peter knew Jesus – the radically different one. In front of Peter Jesus healed gentiles. Visited their regions. Spoke of their salvation.
A careful look at the Jewish scriptures reveals that Jesus was surprisingly in step with God. There we are reminded that God created all people and Israel was called to bless every one of them.
Today’s psalm is an invitation to all ‘nations’, ‘ all the earth’, the whole ‘world’, to come before God in worship, praise, and adoration. Typically it goes even further: all creation is invited to join this heaven-directed chorus!
Yet somehow, Peter – and all the other followers of Jesus – struggled to live out this reality.
God is, however, determined. A vision sends Cornelius in search of the Apostle. Another vision prepares Peter for the impending arrival of these foreigners. Peter preaches to them beginning with: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him’. It is a shift in his theology.
Yet even after all this, Peter is ‘astounded’ when the Holy Spirit descends upon this Gentile band. Only their tongue-filled praise convinces him to order ‘them to be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ’. He will later have to give an account to others for his rash God-directed action.
Of course, all this is good news for us. Most of us here, I suspect, fall into the category of ‘gentile’. We are not the people of God in the same way as the Israelites. We are grafted into this ‘true vine’. Strangers welcomed by our cosmos-loving, paradigm-changing God.
So I hope you are not tempted to look on all this as merely an historic quirk. Irrelevant. A challenge of the past.
We need this reminder-story. We must re-visit it.
After all, at its core, this account reminds us just how blind we as followers of Jesus can be to God’s plan. It tells us how easily, how naturally, we mould God into an image resembling ourselves.
And, wonderfully, it reminds us of the extent God is willing to pursue the re-moulding of God’s image in us. After all, that is exactly what the life of Jesus sought – and seeks – to do: to correct the faulty, small, and narrow perceptions we have of God…and therefore of others.
John uses a radical image for this: ‘Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child’.
My paraphrase: The trust of anyone placed in the resurrected Jesus leads to a radical God-oriented re-birth. This miraculous reality leads us to love both God and others.
Our Gospel reading is a continuation of the parable Jesus began at the beginning of John 15. There Jesus described himself as the ‘true vine’ and invited us, as his branches, to ‘abide’ in him.
Now, he is articulating what this vital, life-giving, fruit-producing, connection looks like. Here is Jesus – tantalisingly – offering the secret to abiding, dwelling, resting, growing, and producing through him.
So what is this secret? It is simply this: To abide is to obey and love is the command.
There is a danger to issuing this command. Like Peter, we shape love and God in ways that suit us. But God’s love is unique. It is extreme. It needs its own explanation: ‘love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’.
I am not sure how much of Jesus’ talk of ‘laying down one’s life’ is really understood by the disciples. Perhaps Jesus is sowing seed here. One day, looking back through the miracle of the resurrection, they will understand more fully. These scattered seeds will become a harvest.
And his looking back is exactly what we do during the season of Easter. I suspect this is why this reading fits after Easter Sunday. We are being encouraged to hear this account with ears attentive to the resurrection.
Laying ‘down one’s life’ is now something we have now seen. We re-enacted, and hopefully, relived it over the Easter weekend. We are now witnesses.
To be certain, this divine plan, this death and resurrection of Jesus, is a saving act. A rescuing of friends.
We do well, however, never to forget that as an act of God’s salvation this is also inherently an act worthy of our imitation. It is a call. Hear it again: ‘love one another as I have loved you’.
God’s saving, suffering, rising, love feeding and growing into our every relationship.
When Jesus was asked for the greatest commandment he famously gave two: Love God. Love others. Upon these two the legal and prophetic writings were, years earlier, hung.
Jesus is not making love central. He is simply reminding us how it is, always has been, and always will be. God is the core of this universe. And God is love.
And so we are God’s friends. God’s chosen. God’s loving fruit-bearers. Looking back through the resurrection, the disciples must believe that when Jesus spoke of the ‘true vine’ he also pointed to those who would live off its nourishment.
A gardener. A vine. Multiple branches. The ‘vine and branches’ was always a story of God, us, and our mission.
And as such it is surely one of Jesus’ most comprehensive, far-reaching, and profoundly challenging kingdom parables.