Acts 11.1-18, Revelation 21.1-6, John 13.31-35
Radical New Life
I don’t know about you, but I am constantly amazed at how small my brain is. My wife, on the other hand, is never surprised at how small my brain is – but that’s the burden she bears for living with me. My brain feels especially small when I try to wrestle with some of the great issues of the day. I find my mind reeling, for example, when I contemplate the complexities of the Brexit debate, or the climate emergency, or the problems of the Middle East. Like most people, I find that if I get too deeply concerned with any of these issues, my mind goes round and round in a never-ending circle of worry. For what can I do about any of them? These problems are just too big for a bear of little brain (as Winnie-the-Pooh would say).
The same is often true of our encounters with Scripture. At our first reading, today’s passages don’t appear to have any connection with each other, do they? We have Peter’s amazing vision of a sheet of unclean animals being let down from heaven. We have John’s profound vision of the new Jerusalem being let down from heaven, with promises of hope for all humankind. Then we have Jesus, telling his disciples that the crucifixion he is about to endure is a kind of glorification, which they cannot share. And a stern command that whatever happens to him, they must love each other.
My brain hurts! So I imagine that some of yours do too! Not all of you, of course. Because some of you are much brainier than me. But for those of us who are less well-endowed in the brain-cell department, here’s a little phrase that I find helps me at such times:
“What is plain, is main. And what is main, is plain”. It’s a pretty good maxim to apply to the reading of all Scripture.
So let’s apply that maxim to these three readings…and see what we can learn.
The main, plain point of the first reading can be summed up in the final line – “…God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to eternal life”. Peter has been given a vision of all the things his Jewish culture considers ‘unclean’, with a stern warning that it is not his place to decide what is clean or not. Or which foods are in, or out. Or which kinds of people are in or out of God’s Kingdom. That’s God’s job. And in these post-resurrection days, God is making it plain to Jewish Peter, that God’s Kingdom is meant for all humanity. It is a radical message for one like Peter, brought up in a culture which believed that one could be made ritually ‘dirty’ by even touching the clothes of a non-Jew. But God’s message is one of radical inclusion. His message of love is for the whole world – wherever we come from, whatever our background, whoever we are.
Let’s see what is plain, and main, about the second reading. Well, first of all, this is obviously the language of metaphor. This is the Apostle John rising to the very heights of metaphorical allegory. Rather like Tolkein did in the Lord of the Rings, or C.S.Lewis in Narnia, or even today’s script writers of the Game of Thrones. John paints a picture of a glorious future in which God is experienced so closely, so intimately by us, that we can almost hear him say “See, the home of God is with mortals”. John gives us the picture of a ‘New Jerusalem’ – a new ‘City of Peace…’Jeru---shalom’. That is actually a picture of the Church. We are called to live together in such a way that there will be no more mourning, or crying or pain – because of the way that we care for one another, the way that we love one another.
And that, finally, brings us to the Gospel reading. How will the world recognise the reality of God? Quite simply, Jesus says, through experiencing the love of God through us. Jesus says “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples…if you have love for another”.
So perhaps all this theology-stuff isn’t such a brain ache, after all. Perhaps we just need to take Jesus at his word when he says that the essential message of the Kingdom, the distillation of all the Scriptures’ wisdom, can be summarised in five words: Love God. Love one another.
It was love which drove Jesus to the cross, for us. It was love which is his ‘glorification’ (as he says in today’s Gospel). It was God’s love which brought him back from the dead. And it is God’s love which is the fuel in our tank, the energy at our core, the impetus that drives us to create a new City of Peace – a new Jeru-shalom.
What might our branch of that Church look like, if we completely, radically, enthusiastically embraced that message of love? Well, from today’s readings alone, I think we can draw out some pretty fine examples.
First – we would be a radically inclusive community. We would be a group of people who include everyone who walks through our doors, wherever they come from, whatever they’ve done, wherever they are going. That’s the plain, main message of the reading from Acts. And, I want to say, it’s something I recognise in this community. We are a pretty odd assortment of backgrounds, aren’t we? But could we do more? Could we be still more radically inclusive…to the young, for example, or to the homeless, or to those of other cultures, or those struggling with mental health issues. I wonder.
Secondly, we would be a community in which there is no more mourning, or crying, or pain – because the kind of love we show to one another would wipe the tears of the lonely, the housebound, the dying. I wonder whether this is something we could do more about. Our list of housebound and lonely people is ever growing, and it is frankly beyond our current capacity to tackle. Is there something you could do to help? Could you commit to an hour a week, or an hour a fortnight, to spend time in the home of one our housebound or sick parishioners. The fields are ripe unto the harvest….but the labourers are few at the moment. If this is something you feel you could so, let me encourage you to speak to Sandra after the service. She would love to add just a few names to our small list of pastoral visitors.
Thirdly, and finally, we would be a community in which the love we bear for each other, and for God, would be so real, so present, so inescapable, that everyone we encounter would know that we are God’s disciples. The way we welcome people, the way we love them, the way we include them – all this speaks of the welcoming, loving, including God whom we serve.
That, when all is said and done, is the plain, main message of our Scriptures today. And it’s the plain, main message of the Gospel too. We, who live in the light of Easter, are the people of Love. Amen.