Sermon on Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35 for the 5th Sunday in Easter, C, April 24, 2016
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
When I was a child, it happened more than once that someone had the idea of making a club. Our close circle of friends would swear loyalty to each other and seal it with an oath. We would say, “cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” That is called an oath of self-cursing, or, technically, a self-maledictory oath.
These kind of oaths show up in the bible. You may recall Ruth, promising to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi with the promise,
“The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death part you and me.”
Actually, circumcision is also an acted out oath of self-cursing. It is symbolic castration. It is saying, “May my family line, my name, die out and be forgotten in this community if I am ever disloyal to the covenant.”
Circumcision was the sign of the covenant with Abraham, according to the story. It was supposed to be a permanent practice for all future generations of the descendants of Abraham, those who inherit the covenant and its promised blessings.
Think about those exclusive clubs that children make with their loyalty oaths. They are so natural and instinctive that there must be something deeply human about them.
Probably it goes back to the very behaviors that we evolved to practice that enabled our survival. We learned to band together in tribes, back on the African Savannah, and as a loyal group, we fought off predators, we hunted and gathered food, and we cared for our young.
So, gathering into exclusive groups was an adaptive advantage back when we were putting bones in our noses. Whether or not it is still an advantage, the instinct remains, “cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.”
Part of what it means to become a mature adult is learning that instinctive behaviors can often be completely inappropriate. How long does it take to train siblings not to fight with each other? Years, right?
Brain scientists know that the primitive part of our brains, which they refer to as the “lizard brain” is where that automatic impulse to fight back comes from. There is no rational thinking in that part of the brain; when we feel threatened, the part they call the amygdala fires, and we want to fight back. But mature people discover and learn alternatives to violence, which is preferable to a lawsuit or jail time.
Early Christians’ Complications
I guess we should not be too harsh with the struggle they had in the early church to avoid the instinct to make an exclusive club out of being Jesus-followers. At the beginning, they all were all Jewish; descendants of Abraham. They had a long history of being distinct from he Gentile nations around them.
Circumcision not only made them distinct, it was also a serious oath of loyalty. They were used to being distinct. Moses added other practices that made Jewish people distinct as well, especially the kosher food laws, and the prohibition of all work on the weekly Sabbath.
But for those early Christians, it was complicated. They were self-consciously trying to follow Jesus. Jesus had been with them and had completely transformed their lives. He had taught them a revolutionary way of conceiving of God.
Jesus taught them that they were children of God who could call him Abba, or Papa, without temple, without priest, and without sacrifice. He taught them that they were not to think of themselves as impure, but perhaps only lost, in need of being found, and God like a Good Shepherd or like the Father of the prodigal son, was in the finding business.
And to top it off, Jesus took this message across the Mason-Dixon line; he took it to uncircumcised Gentiles. He went to their side of the lake, to their towns, where he healed them, he fed them; for heaven’s sake, he loved them. From the cross, with Roman nails killing him, he forgave them.
Jewish Obligations to Neighbors
In the sacred scriptures of the Jews, the Torah, there were strict laws about your obligation to your neighbor. Jewish people were taught to understand that they were a covenant community with deep moral responsibility for their neighbors, especially the weak and vulnerable, “the widow, and the orphan.” They were not even allowed to charge each other interest on loans.
But their responsibility to non-Jews was different. They were not “neighbors,” in the strict sense. This is why, when Jesus summed up the whole law saying “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor” the man asked him “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan which ends with the question turned around: “Who was a neighbor to him?”
So, the early church had a complicated situation. They had the human instinct to form an exclusive club, and the cultural and religious background to think of themselves as separate, as “the chosen,” but they had been transformed by Jesus, whose life practice and teaching was completely non-exclusive.
Maybe this is why, in the story that Luke tells of those early days, they were open to Peter’s perspective. But I must say, they were going way out on a limb. They had the Word of God from Moses on one hand, with strict, specific laws, and centuries of respecting those laws, and what did Peter have? A vision, a voice, and a visitor.
Peter’s vision was amazing. Imagine: coming down from heaven, a banquet tablecloth with sizzling hot ham, pork chops, and bacon, along with shrimp and lobster, and a voice saying, “Bon Appetit”! With apologies to the vegans, vegetarians and pescatarians among us, it makes your mouth water. But not if you have grown up considering this kind of food horrible. Think of being offered dog meat, for example – you do not even want to think about it for a moment.
So, the banquet table cloth had to be presented three times, along the message that stands in dramatic contradiction to massive amounts of scripture,
“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Can one person’s mystical vision overturn chapter after chapter of sacred text?
Well that was not all. Then came the voice and the visit. Peter reports that three men, from Caesarea, arrived at the house and, he says,
“The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.”
So, here we have a mystical vision followed by a report of a message from the Spirit asserting the opposite of what the Old Testament teaches, saying: “make no distinctions.”
But that is not all; it was not just a vision and a message, there were real live people there. And when Peter went and told them about the Jesus message, they had a direct experience of the Spirit, just like the Jewish disciples did on Pentecost.
So it was their personal experience that made the argument solid. God was doing something new.
None of this should have been a surprise for followers of Jesus. Jesus himself had already broken the ice with Gentiles. His whole lifestyle was one of openness and inclusion. He taught that even if we consider them our enemies, we must love our enemies.
The way John tells the Jesus story, in the upper room, on the night of his arrest, Jesus gives a solemn “new commandment” to his followers:
“love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The only distinction that separates the followers of Jesus from other people is that they are famous for loving others – and of course – love makes no separations or distinctions. Yes, it is a paradox. It calls for non-dual thinking.
Learning the Lesson: Meditation
How long it takes to learn this! We have such a history of racism and discrimination – not just we Americans; this is a deeply human problem. Anytime you have groups of people who find reasons to think of themselves as “us” and others as “them” you have “us vs. them.” It is as human as Cain and Able. We find it natural, even pleasurable, to be in exclusive groups, from childhood to adulthood.
My experience of being in the Balkans has alerted me to the seductive power of the “us vs. them” message. You can get yourself elected easily if you keep telling everyone how “us” is being threatened by “them” and their ways – their language, their religion, their views.
But friends, that is the opposite of love. And it is the opposite of the way of Jesus.
So here is what I believe. We must face the fact, without being in denial, that we all have this natural human condition within us. We do. It is there. It feels good to be in an exclusive club. It is in our brain stems. But we can change.
Which is exactly why we all need the very practices of Jesus to overcome our natural instincts. Jesus was a “Spirit person” as Marcus Borg likes to say. He was deeply open to the Spirit; deeply in touch with the Divine. As we know from the gospels, Jesus spent a great deal of time in contemplative prayer. That was, we are told, his habitual practice.
The people who scientifically study this kind of meditation all agree that one of its powerful effects in the brain is to calm down that lizard part, where our instinctive desire to hate and fight come from.
As we practice the Christian habit of daily meditation, we begin to grow in our capacity for loving compassion. Meditation, I believe, is indispensable today, more than ever. There is something almost magical about what happens when a person develops the daily practice of sitting in silence for twenty minutes. It produces a compassionate calm that is amazing.
Some people say that they cannot meditate because their minds wander. All that means is that they have not learned the one little mental tool used by people who meditate. We give our minds a very small task to do, and bring our full concentrated attention to that task, as a way of anchoring ourselves in the present moment. Some use a mantra word, some simply focus all attention on their breathing.
And yes, the mind wanders. That is what all our minds do. And it is okay. When we become aware that our minds have wandered, we simply begin again, and re-focus on our anchor, on our mantra word, or our breathing. That is all. We sit silently in the presence of God.
But the point is that this daily practice of contemplative wordless prayer, or call it mindfulness meditation, is an indispensable Christian practice for those whose goal is to keep Jesus’ commandment that we love one another.
It opens us to be able to love one another as Jesus did, crossing lines of gender, of race, of religion – all the lines that separate us into “us” and “them,” and make us want to form the kind of exclusive groups that the early Christians figured out they must not become.
The world needs us to be that community, famous for loving. The deeper the divisions are in our country, the more we need bridge builders. The more painful the wounds, the more we need healers. The more angry the rhetoric, the more we need people of the gentle way. The more hate there is, the more we need people like us to become experts in loving one another.