It’s simple, really

File:Aswani - Wash Day 2.jpgWatching for the Morning of May 6, 2018

Year B

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

“Love, love, love, love, Christians this is your call. [Something, something, something, something,] for God loves all.”

It must have been a song from Bible school one year decades ago. Somewhere this little ditty got planted in my head. I can still hear the melody. (Oh, I remember now – as I hum the tune out loud – “Love you neighbor as yourself for God loves all.”)

It’s simple. It really is quite simple. Hard to do because love is not the air we breathe, but we are not being asked to reach the stars, just treat others as we would be treated. Respect others as we would be respected. Care for others as we would be cared for. Owe to all what we owe to the members of our family. It doesn’t ask whether they are members of our tribe, whether they are deserving, whether they meet any criteria at all.   It is quite simple, really.

The words from Jesus are expanding on the image of the vine and the branches – vines are supposed to bear fruit and so are we. We see some of that fruit in the story of Cornelius and his household who, though they are ‘unclean’ Gentiles unwelcome in the temple, are welcomed into Christ. And the author of First John weaves believing (trusting in and showing allegiance to Jesus) with loving one another. And our psalm calls for all creation to sing for God “has done marvelous things” – namely, “He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness.”

The Prayer for May 6, 2018

Gracious God,
who has chosen and appointed us to go and bear fruit,
abiding in your joy and love:
make us faithful to your call and command
that we may love as you have loved us.

The Texts for May 6, 2018

First Reading: Acts 10:44-48
“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” –While Peter is conveying to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household what God has done in Christ Jesus, God pours out the baptismal gift of God’s Spirit leaving Peter no choice but to baptize those her formerly considered ‘unclean’.

Psalmody: Psalm 98
“O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things… All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.” – A hymn from the ancient liturgies of the temple that celebrates the reign of God over all creation. It uses the imagery of a deliverer who frees the people from every foe and, acclaimed by the people, ascends the throne to reign in justice and righteousness.

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.”
– the author of First John continues to weave together the themes of God’s love for us and the command and necessity to love one another.

Gospel: John 15:9-17
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” – Continuing the image of the vine and the branches, Jesus urges his followers to abide in his love and teaching.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aswani_-_Wash_Day_2.jpg Todd Schaffer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Dragged into the kingdom

File:Seabee Olympics at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam 150304-N-WF272-056.jpg

Saturday

Acts 11:1-18

1Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

It doesn’t surprise me that Peter would face criticism; criticism is one of the most wearying aspects of congregational life. What surprises me is that Peter explained what happened and “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God.” It’s easier for me to believe that Jesus walked on water than that Peter’s congregation was turned so easily from criticism to praise.

I want to believe that those first believers were as open and perceptive to the work of the Spirit as Luke describes, but I know that the question whether Gentile’s could be baptized into the community of Christ without first becoming a member of the Jewish community was a deeply challenging issue for the early church.

It is difficult to be certain exactly what the terms ‘Jew’ (Greek = ‘Judean’) and ‘Gentile’ (Greek = ‘the nations’) signified in the first century, but they clearly represent a deep cultural divide between those in the Judean community who define themselves as separate from the Hellenistic world and those who are thoroughly acculturated to that world. How do you have table fellowship – or any fellowship – with those who do not share the same mores, food laws and sense of purity?

To welcome “those people” is always a profound challenge for any community, and it was especially significant for the developing Christian movement. Luke goes into great detail in telling this story – and then has Peter relate the events again. Paul’s ministry to the nations is under constant attack and three times Luke relates Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord and his call to go to the nations. The problem of “Jew” and “Gentile” is the subject of the apostolic delegation to Antioch, Paul’s confrontation with Peter, and the so-called Jerusalem Conference. This issue of “them” and “us” didn’t go away and, in the end, led to the riot in the temple, Paul’s arrest and his eventual execution.

Change is not an easy thing. And it is especially difficult to bridge those cultural boundaries between different social and ethnic groups. But this is the wondrous thing about Jesus. He reaches out to tax collectors and parties with Zacchaeus and his outcast friends. Women travel in his company and he welcomes them as disciples. He converses with the Samaritan woman, treating her as a member of his family – and she brings her whole Samaritan village to him.

The Spirit empowers the believers at Pentecost to proclaim God’s praise in every language. Hellenized Judeans living in Jerusalem take up the Gospel and, when they are scattered by communal violence, share it freely with Samaritans. Philip declares there is no impediment to baptism for the Ethiopian Eunuch (who cannot enter the temple because, as a eunuch, he is ritually unclean). Peter baptizes Cornelius. Antioch welcomes Greeks. Paul and Barnabas are sent to the nations.

Despite ourselves, the heart of the Christian message transcends culture. Christ welcomes all peoples. Indeed, transcending tribalism is at the core of the Christian proclamation that the healing and redemption of all creation is at hand in Jesus. And so Paul declares:

“In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

This is a far more profound creation of a new community than the modern liberal notion of inclusiveness. It is the kingdom of God.

And though I love Luke’s picture of a Christian community open to the movement of God’s Spirit to gather all into Christ, and I still hope for a congregation that welcomes all and can recognize the movement of the Spirit with joy and praise – the more profound truth is that we are usually dragged into that kingdom kicking and screaming.

But God’s kingdom comes. To us, and for us, and in spite of us, God’s kingdom comes.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASeabee_Olympics_at_Joint_Base_Pearl_Harbor-Hickam_150304-N-WF272-056.jpg  By Petty Officer 2nd Class Diana Quinlan (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1797950) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A New Commandment

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Watching for the Morning of April 17, 2016

Year C

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Peter does what many regard as unthinkable when he chooses to baptize Cornelius and his family. Cornelius is a centurion in the Roman army, a commander of the occupying forces. Though he is a good man, he is outside the community of Israel. And so begins the conversation that decides whether Jesus is the Messiah of Israel or the Redeemer of all the earth.

Is Jesus the anointed one who frees Judah or the anointed one who beings the day when all heaven and earth are reconciled. Does Jesus make us better Jews or citizens of the age to come when death no longer holds dominion over God’s creation?

For Peter, he had no option. God had decided this question by giving these Gentiles the gift of God’s Spirit – the gift of the age to come. If they had the baptismal gift; Peter needed to finish the job with water. It was in keeping with the prophets and the words and deeds of Jesus. The grave was empty. The dawn of the world gathered to God was underway.

John of Patmos describes it for us as the heavenly Jerusalem descending to earth and all heaven and earth made new. The voice of the psalmist joins the refrain calling upon all creation to sing God’s praise. And at the center of our worship on Sunday will be the words of Jesus giving the new commandment – the commandment that characterizes the age to come – the commandment to love one another. Such love reveals that we are student/followers of Jesus. Such love bears witness to ultimate triumph of God’s love.

The Prayer for April 24, 2016

Gracious God,
whom all creation praises,
and whose will it is to gather all things into your wide embrace,
pour out upon us your Spirit of love,
that we may follow where you lead
and obey what you command;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for April 24, 2016

First Reading: Acts 11:1-18
“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?” – Peter faces criticism over his baptism of the Gentile, Cornelius, by recounting the sequence of events leading to his visit and God’s outpouring of the Spirit.

Psalmody: Psalm 148
“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens.” – The psalmist calls upon all creation to sing God’s praise.

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
– In this culminating vision of the Book of Revelation, the prophet sees the earth made new and the heavenly Jerusalem coming to dwell on earth.

Gospel: John 13:31-35
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – On the night of the last Supper, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: to love one another.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWashing_the_feets_(1420s%2C_Sergiev_Posad).jpg  By Workshop of Daniel Chorny and Andrey Rublev (http://www.icon-art.info/group.php?lng=&grp_id=9) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And in his temple all say, “Glory!”

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Sunday Evening

Luke 3:15-22

19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

It’s a little odd that Luke interrupts his story to tell us that John has been imprisoned. Indeed, the assigned lectionary skips over this little interruption – but it is important that we read it: We hear of John’s appearing in the wilderness. We hear of his preaching. We hear the crowds wonder whether John himself might be the expected Messiah – and John declare that “one who is more powerful than I is coming” who will wash us in the Spirit. And just before we hear that Jesus is baptized along with “all the people” John is swept from the scene. Herod locks him up in prison.

All of us know that it was, in fact, John who baptizes Jesus. But the way Luke tells the story, John’s ministry is over when the Spirit comes upon Jesus. Jesus is praying when the Spirit is descends upon him.

Luke want to be sure we understand that what happens to Jesus is not “John’s baptism.” It is something new. It is the baptism in the Spirit that John predicted. The baptism in the Spirit that falls on the 120 at Pentecost. The baptism of the Spirit that falls upon the Samaritans in our second reading today. The baptism of the Spirit that falls upon Cornelius (and forces Peter to baptize him with water – for Cornelius and his household have received the gift that comes with baptism into Christ).

The outpouring of the Spirit that comes upon Jesus is not linked to John’s baptism; it is a new work of God. It is the outpouring predicted by Joel, as Peter will tell the crowds on Pentecost. It is the fulfillment of the prophetic promise of John. It is the sign of God’s drawing near, the sign of God’s gathering of all nations, the sign of God’s redeeming work, the sign of the dawning reign when the Spirit of God will be our every breath.

We watch the tribalism and slaughters of the world around us and it is easy to think there is nothing new in the world except our ever more sophisticated weapons for hurting one another. But there is something new in the world. Something that happened on the banks of the Jordan River. Something that happened when the risen Christ breathed his Spirit upon his followers. Something that happened when the believers were gathered together 50 days after the resurrection. Something that continues to happen when we lay hands on one another in the name of the Lord. The Spirit is poured out. The spirit is at work. The first light of the new creation is shining. Grace, mercy and peace are loose among us. Justice and compassion, healing and hope are rippling out like shockwaves traversing the world.

The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness and summons us to enter a new land, to inhabit a new realm, to dwell in the Spirit, to walk with the risen one. Like a mighty thunderstorm sweeping across the land, “The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”

 

Painting: Jacopo Tintoretto – The Baptism of Christ.   [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

They invited him to stay

Friday

Acts 10:44-48

File:Israel Egypt 2009 4092554859 f56e3c720a Baptism O (9198123663).jpgThen Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

At the end of the first reading this Sunday are these few little words: “Then they invited him to stay for several days.” It is the climax of a story that began with an angelic visitation to Cornelius to send for Peter, a thrice repeated vision to Peter to prepare him to accept Cornelius’ invitation, and then this event where, before Peter can finish telling Cornelius about Jesus, the Spirit of God comes upon the whole household just as it came upon the believers on Pentecost. Peter has no choice but to baptize them, for they have received the baptismal gift.

The significance of this event is hard for us to appreciate. The house of a gentile is unclean. Peter acknowledges that to even enter Cornelius’ home “is against our law”. Yet he steps across that threshold. He daringly follows the vision he has received, declaring: “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean”

And now Peter has not only walked across this deepest divide in the human community, he is invited to stay. To eat and sleep in their company – and, presumably, to sing and pray and teach among them. The line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is utterly erased.

The believers who had been driven from Jerusalem by persecution had brought the word to Samaritans. Then Philip is sent to the Ethiopian eunuch. Now Peter himself is in the home of a gentile. A centurion, no less. And they have all been baptized. They have all been graced with the Holy Spirit. They are all members of that community living in anticipation of the final dawning of God’s reign of grace and life.

Of course there’s hell to pay when Peter get’s back to Jerusalem. This argument will rumble through the entire book of Acts. It’s why Paul will be beaten, stoned and imprisoned. It’s why the gift faithfully gathered from the gentile churches will not be received by those in Jerusalem. It is why a riot starts in the temple and Paul is taken into Roman custody – then whisked away in dead of night to avoid a plot to kill him. It is why the freedom riders were beaten, and Medgar Evers murdered: they dared to cross a line that others wanted to keep firmly in place.

But you cannot silence this message of an empty tomb. This is not “good news” this is “the-world-will-never-be-the-same news”. Jesus is not a religious reformer urging us to forgiveness, love and renewal; he has been raised. The day is at hand when sin’s hold on us is broken, when God’s Spirit is poured out on “men and women, young and old”, when all creation is gathered to God, when human tyrants fall and a new Jerusalem rises.

All humanity yearns for an end to war, an end to hunger, an end to suffering and sorrow. We watch the rubble in Nepal and see the suffering of refugees in Africa. We recognize that Syria turned over its chemical weapons so now they are using chlorine gas that can’t be traced. We know that domestic violence lies hidden around us and witness the tragedies of the nightly news. We yearn for peace. And now before us stands the risen one who is the promise and presence of that peace.

This is not one among the many world religions; this is the embodiment of all our longing. Of this we cannot be silent.

All this is present in those sweet little words: “Then they invited him to stay for several days.”

 

Photo: By someone10x (4092554859_f56e3c720a Baptism_O) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Everlasting friend

Saturday

1 John 3:16-24

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Jesus as the Good Shepherd from the early Christian catacomb of Domitilla/Domatilla (Crypt of Lucina, 200-300 CE)

17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Let’s just skip past this one real quickly.

Why don’t we stay with:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Or maybe:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

There are so many nice, sweet, comforting thoughts on which we could focus in the texts this week. Jesus is our shepherd. He provides us good pasture. He protects us from the wolves. He is our everlasting friend.

And, yes, he is all those things. But our everlasting friends said, “A new commandment I give to you.” He told that story about the Good Samaritan. He invited himself to dinner at the home of Zacchaeus without asking him to repent first. And then he sends Philip to the Ethiopian Eunuch and Peter to the Roman Centurion, Cornelius.

We don’t get the everlasting friend without the new commandment. Try as you might, we don’t. Israel tried this. Temple. Priesthood. King. Sacrifices. Ritual. Glory. But they didn’t do justice or mercy or even Sabbath, and marching armies came to tear down all those things in which they trusted. Back to the drawing board. Back to eternal love and the commandments.

So here we are struggling with First John’s troubling question:

17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

We can play games with the text. We can duck and weave and try to avoid its direct and pointed word. But I was never very good at dodge ball as a child, and surely not now. And I don’t want to dodge this word either.

Christian faith is about abiding in God’s love and God’s love abiding in us. This is easier for some of us than others, I know. We all have our wounds and scars. But sometimes it seems like some of us aren’t trying. We are content to gossip, judge, condemn, and go about our lives hidden among the masses, making no difference, bearing no witness, adding no grace or healing to our wounded world. It’s what makes Christianity to be despised in the culture around us, especially among the young.

There is an everlasting friend for us. But he is friend also to our neighbor. And he wants me to treat others not only as I want to be treated, but as he has treated me.

The Prayers of All

Thursday

1 Kings 8

Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes…

English: Toldos Avraham Yitzchok Rebbe during ...

English: Toldos Avraham Yitzchok Rebbe during morning prayers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Solomon asks God to hear the prayers of those beyond the borders of Israel.  I do not know if Solomon understood all the ramifications of that prayer – we seldom do.  I imagine he had in mind that Israel would be glorified if foreigners could find healing from Israel’s God.  His kingdom would be richer, greater, grander.  There is that in the church: people want the congregation to grow so more people can help pay the bills, so that we will look successful, so that we can be proud of our little club.

But God is not a god of a club.  He is Lord of all nations.  Which means he will hear the prayers of all people, whether they are Christians or not, whether they are our kind of Christians or not, whether they are deserving or not.

English: A Muslim raises his hands in Takbir, ...

English: A Muslim raises his hands in Takbir, marking the beginning of his prayers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

God hears the prayers of Obama and Rush Limbaugh alike.  God hears the prayers of Christian and Muslim alike.  God hears the prayers of those who do not pray – or do not know that they pray.  God hears the cry of every human heart.  God hears what is spoken and unspoken.  God hears what is noble and ignoble.  God hears.

And God answers.  Those who are not looking for God’s hand are not likely to see it, of course – or to see it only dimly.  And God’s answers are seldom what we imagine they should be.  But God breathes his Spirit into every corner of the world calling us into his grace and life.  Unfortunately, in too many places, in too many homes, in too many hearts, it is shouted down by fear and greed and despair and chaos and confusion and the constant blare of angry voices.

God answers.  Not as we hoped.  Rarely as we hoped, it seems, for so often our prayers are much too selfish and shortsighted.  But God answers.  Opening doors to bring us into the light of grace.  Opening doors to bring us into the light of truth.  Opening doors to bring us into the goodness of human community.  Opening doors to bring us into service of our neighbor.  God provides the moments if we will but dare to follow.

We, the church, are not God’s people.  We are people God has called to be about his work to serve his people in the world.  To speak the word of grace and life.  To bind up the broken.  To break down walls of bigotry and oppression.  To break down the barriers between people and nations.  To bear witness to the work of God in Jesus.  To fill our sails with the wind of the Spirit.

Christians praying in Goma, DR of Congo.

Christians praying in Goma, DR of Congo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Solomon doesn’t realize all that he asks for.  He doesn’t realize all that God has in mind in answering this prayer.  God sees the lame welcomed, the outcast gathered in, the stranger received as brother and sister.  God sees the Ethiopian eunuch baptized and Cornelius and his family endowed with the Spirit.  God sees the mission of Paul among the nations – and the mission of each succeeding generation.  God sees Pentecost and the witness of God’s people in every language.  God sees the New Jerusalem gathered and all people breaking bread on the mountain of God.

And God sees the gifts of God given to a Centurion in service of the empire of Rome.  And Jesus calling him a model of true faith.