Sermon May 9, 2021
The First Reading: Acts 10:44-48
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
The Second Reading: 1 John 5:1-6
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.
The Gospel: John 15:9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
‘This is my commandment, that you 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. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
I recently saw a TV series called Shtisel, which is about an ultra-orthodox family in Jerusalem. It describes their lives, their joys, sorrows, getting married etc. In one episode one of the characters started to wonder how much his family and friends actually love him and what they were willing to do for him. His Litmus test was whether they were willing to donate a kidney to him. He got kind of obsessed with this idea and so he just asked people, which created awkward situations. His wife, for one, didn’t say yes. Instead, she changed the subject. Others said a little too casually that they would.
In the gospel, Jesus talks about love. Just before his arrest and death he leaves this commandment to love one another to his disciples. And he specifies what love means, namely that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend. A week ago we read something along the same line in the epistle of 1 John. So this commandment to love one another is not to be taken lightly, especially since love, according to Jesus, is not limited to our immediate circle of family and friends.
Back to the kidney. I started to wonder to whom I would be willing to give a kidney. And I have to say the circle is limited. It includes family and close friends. But would I be willing to give it to a family member whom I don’t like? And what if I need the second kidney myself at one point and then I can’t get it back? There are a lot of questions, but what I certainly haven’t considered yet is to just give away a kidney to the next person who needs one, even though this is not a question of life or death on my part. So if I am already hesitant to give away a spare organ, chances that I give my life seem even slimmer, yet there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend, as we have heard.
The readings today are about love and about the work of the spirit. Whenever it comes to these two, the common thread throughout scripture is that love and the spirit are always dished out with outlandish generosity. There are no restrictions and the people on the receiving end are often unlikely candidates. And some of the main players in scripture had to learn to deal with that.
Peter, of all people, is one who had to readjust his views and attitudes quite a bit. In our text today Peter meets Cornelius. One could say that worlds collided since under normal circumstances they would not have met. Cornelius was a Roman soldier, which means Cornelius and Peter were separated by politics and religion. However, earlier Peter had received a vision in which he was commanded to eat things that he considered unclean. (Peter was Christian at that point, however his background was Jewish and his thinking was still very much rooted in the division between clean and unclean). Then he was led to the house of Cornelius. Peter never would have gone inside Cornelius’ home since Jews did not visit with Gentiles. Because of his vision, however, he realized that God was doing a new thing. So Peter and Cornelius got to know each other, had a meal together and then in our passage Cornelius and his household gets baptized.
This is certainly a story with a happy ending, but Peter and Cornelius did not come to this point by their own doing or through some kind of thinking process; it’s not that they both figured that living in such a separated world doesn’t make sense and that things would be much nicer if they got to know each other and become friends.
It took divine intervention, really. Both had visions and dreams that guided them towards each other. And then, while Peter was still speaking in our text, the Holy Spirit was poured out on Cornelius and his household. At that point there was no way to deny Cornelius entry into the Christian community through baptism.
But eyebrows were raised nonetheless. The Christians of Jewish descent were astounded that the Holy Spirit of God was given “even” to the Gentiles. In other words, they were very much focused on their own and that didn’t allow for too much imagination. They were not open yet to the infinite possibilities of God, to the fact that God reaches out to all people without restrictions.
Peter and his contemporaries had to learn that the work of the Spirit leads to baptism, but also leads to new fellowship. Baptism, in its inclusivity, changes how we view the “other”, those on the outside. Peter is an example how even the most faithful person might still be in need of conversion. Tradition, culture, rituals separated Peter from others. Yet, God’s Spirit overcame those old barriers, creating a bond of close fellowship and sharing.
Birds of a feather flock together. It’s an old saying that has been around forever and I am afraid there is still truth to it. We all probably stick close to home when it comes to our spare kidneys, but also when it comes to our bubbles, the places where we are comfortable, where we don’t get challenged too much; where we don’t have to explain everything. I guess human beings are wired that way, yet we are called away from this kind of view again and again.
God shows no partiality. That has consequences for us. Lessons like Acts and 1 John ask us to reflect on our own barriers, about those whom we consider different or outsiders, with whom we avoid fellowship. We need to summon the ability to see the world, the church, and our lives from God’s perspective, which is free of barriers and stereotypes and prejudices, but abundant, generous and loving.
The story of Acts is one example of transformation and relational border crossing between people who were used to holding each other at a distance. Therefore, Acts is a story of surprise and joy, and lives transformed by new relationships and new understandings of self and the other. It’s a gift for both, Peter and Cornelius.
God shows no partiality and neither should we. It’s a life long journey with possible revelations and conversions on the way. May the spirit always guide us into new ways of perfecting our love for God and each other. Amen.
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.