A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C
Preached at The Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist, Salem, NJ
Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35
I grew up in the 70’s. When I say this, I hear some folks say, “Wow! You’re young!” and others, “Gosh, you’re old!” I guess this is what they call “middle age”!
I also grew up going to church. My father was a United Methodist minister. In those days, there was a new movement in church music going on, away from organs and formal choirs, and toward guitar masses and choir members wearing jeans and sneakers! Gasp!
There were Christian t-shirts like one that looked like a Coca-Cola ad. It said, “Try Jesus Christ! He’s the real thing!”
We sang contemporary songs like “I Wish We’d all been Ready” and “Put your hand in the hand of the man that stilled the waters.”
There was another song we used to sing in the 70’s, all the time it seems. “They will know we are Christians by our love”.
We are one in the spirit
We are one in the Lord
And we pray that our unity may one day be restored
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love
A Roman Catholic priest in Chicago, Fr. Peter Scholte, wrote this song, trying to give his youth choir something new and contemporary to sing. Little did he know that Christians all over the world would still be singing this simple song almost 50 years later!
Basically, all Fr. Scholte did was put the words of Jesus to music. We hear those words in today’s Gospel.
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.
Now, pay attention to when this happens in John’s Gospel – at the Last Supper. This happens after Jesus has washed all their feet and has instituted the Lord’s Supper. These are among his last words to his closest friends. “Love one another. This is how the world will know you are my disciples.”
Soon these disciples would see Jesus tried and executed. One of their own turned him in to the authorities, and even Peter couldn’t stay loyal. He denied he even knew Jesus. They all had fled in fear.
A few weeks back we heard the story of Jesus restoring Peter after the resurrection, reminding him of his love for Peter and also Peter’s calling to lead the early Church. Jesus’ commandment to love didn’t go anywhere. It was still at the center of their life as the first Christians.
Flash forward a bit in time to this lesson from the Acts of the Apostles we have heard this morning. Let’s admit it – it’s a strange reading.
It might help to look back at what was going on, just a few years after Jesus’ resurrection. At first all Christians were Jews. Jesus was Jewish. All the disciples were Jewish. Christianity was considered a “sect” within Judaism. But as the good news spread, non-Jews, Gentiles, began to believe in Jesus. Then came the question – what do we do with these strange people?
Jews didn’t mix with Gentiles. They were unclean. They didn’t eat kosher food. They weren’t even circumcised! Should we welcome them to worship with us? Some Christians said no! They are unclean! Other Christians believed very strongly that it was what Jesus would have wanted. It didn’t take very long for there to be a church split! Sound familiar?
Peter was left with a real problem – would he side with those who welcomed the Gentiles into the Church, or would he side with those who wanted to keep them out?
That’s where we find him this morning. Peter was a good Jew. He followed the Law. He kept kosher. Suddenly, God sent a vision to him of all these animals, some kosher, some not. The voice of the Lord tells him, “Kill and eat.” It wasn’t as if a banquet of prepared food appeared before him. The voice doesn’t say, “Try some of the lobster, Peter!” or “How about some bacon?!?” No, the voice tells him to “kill and eat”. He would have to get his hands dirty.
Peter objects, but the voice of the Lord tells him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Other translations simplify it, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”
Immediately following this vision, Gentiles are at Peter’s door. Peter says a remarkable thing, “The spirit told me to go with them and to not make a distinction between them and us.” This is a turning point, not just for Peter but for the early Church. Gentiles, these “unclean” people, were welcomed into their midst. Of course there were those who couldn’t stand being near the unclean, and they left the Church. But God’s word to Peter and his fellow Christians was clear, “Welcome them!”
We will work with each other
We will work side by side
And we’ll guard each man’s dignity
And save each man’s pride
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love
Our church today has been going through growing pains. Who will we welcome? Who will we exclude? Will we welcome people different from the rest of society, no matter what the neighbors say? Will we follow Jesus’ command to love, no matter what?
I was so encouraged to hear in your discussions with Canon Cecilia last week that St. John’s is a parish that not only welcomes everyone, but celebrates that fact. Outreach is very important to you, with the food bank and VBS, but I heard people say, “We don’t just want to give people help! We want them to worship with us!”
This is a turning point for many parishes – to go from “in-reach” to “outreach”. To not just want to give handouts to people but to want to get to know them. Not just to welcome people who are different from you for an hour on Sunday morning, but to really make them a part of the family.
If this is true, if the members of St. John’s truly want to welcome everyone, I believe God will bless you. It’s a struggle sometimes to set aside our differences, to listen and learn from each other, but I believe that is where God is alive in the Church!
We will walk with each other
We will walk hand in hand
And together we’ll spread the news that
God is in our land
And they’ll know we are Christians…