Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/3ZEHiv5YMtI.
Easter 6B 15
How do you think you would have felt if you had been there with Jesus on the eve of his death in the upper room? Would you have been hanging on every word- trying to store up everything he was saying for posterity? Well, somebody obviously was because we have it recorded for us here. Would you have been feeling overwhelmed with emotion and finding it hard to take in? Would you have been tired and cross and frankly wishing that Jesus would stop going on and on, talking about what was going to happen in some strange future and explain a little more clearly what was going to happen this evening?
We are in a very privileged position because we can listen to Jesus and really hear him as we go through this long discourse in small chunks, and it’s a story of which we already know the ending, it’s a story very familiar and yet one in which there is always something new.
As I read this week’s reading from John I was very struck by the first couple of verses, which contain some very big claims and concepts.
“As the Father has loved me, so I have love 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.” The idea of love linked to relationship that we talked about last week- that abiding, or dwelling or staying in love, with one another is linked here, to obedience- the keeping of commandments. Staying in relationship is about doing what I say, says Jesus, and I say, “love one another as I have loved you”. This is both the easiest and the hardest commandment of all, isn’t it? It isn’t a rule that has to be kept, or a prohibition that is easy to foul up on- no, it’s very easy and very positive- “love one another”. And then you look at the person next to you and perhaps it gets harder. And then you think about how it is that Jesus loves us, sacrificially, generously, mercifully, graciously and it seems harder still. We talked quite a bit, last week about how it might look to love. We particularly thought about the business of generosity and inclusion, not exclusion, with the Ethiopian Eunuch. The fact that God loves with such a merciful, overflowing generosity, that nothing can keep us from the love of God. This is what Jesus means when he says that he loves as the Father has loved.
In this section he tells us what the consequence for us of loving and being loved is- that Jesus’ joy may be in us and that our joy may be complete. I take that to mean that he takes joy in us when we love, and that we will be filled up with joy, that’s what the Greek would suggest. So does this mean that we will never be sad? That we are so full of joy that there is no room for anything else? Well, on this Mother’s Day I think it’s a good moment to reflect, if we can, on love. I say this fully aware that not all of us have had loving mothers and not all of us have been loving mothers or fathers either. The love of a human parent is a pale reflection of God’s love for each of us but we might get a glimpse of the quality of God’s love when we think of the love of a parent. Many a parent when they first hold their baby in their arms is overwhelmed by a feeling of love and joy. When the same child is a three year old, throwing a tantrum in the supermarket, the joy may not be the emotion that is uppermost in the parent’s heart, but it will still be there buried somewhere deep down. And if Jesus is right that should be the emotion that we feel when we see the love between God the Creator and God the Redeemer, and when we love in response to the relationship that we have with each other and with our God, that joy should fill us up. And when Jesus laid down his life for his friends it was so that they could be in this kind of relationship with each other and with him.
Jesus tells us that we are his friends- that should make the joy well up in us. What an incredible thought- we are not his servants- or rather we are but we are also his friends, he likes us, he chose us, appointed us to go and bear fruit- fruit that will come after the gentle pruning of the Father, fruit that will last.
Well, just as we did last week let’s have a look at what this looks like for the disciples in the Acts of the Apostles.
This reading from Acts is the very end of the story of Peter and Cornelius, which is similar to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch that we read last week, in so far as it is about inclusion not exclusion.
Cornelius, a Centurion and a Gentile, though a God-fearer had a vision in which God told him to send to Peter. Do you notice that the man is praying, so ready, but the initiative is God’s. He send’s some men and when they are approaching Peter is up on the roof, also praying, but getting a bit hungry. He starts thinking about his dinner and God sends him a vision of all kinds of things that he is not allowed, by Jewish law, to eat and tells him to eat them. Peter is deeply shocked and tells God that he won’t and God tells him that if he God has made the things clean Peter must not call them profane. Peter is a bit puzzled by this and then suddenly, the blokes that Cornelius has sent arrive asking for Peter. Peter is still thinking about the vision, the scripture tells us when the Holy Spirit tells him, “Look these men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” Peter goes down and then they explain that Cornelius wants him. He offers them hospitality. The next day he goes with them and tells Cornelius, after he has heard his story, all about Jesus. And it is while he is still talking, as our reading told us, that the Holy Spirit falls on them and Peter realizes that they have to be included because God has already done so. God’s joy is in them and their joy is complete. Peter stays with them for several days.
Now the exciting thing here is that the Holy Spirit, that Jesus has promised his disciples, in that upper room discourse, has gone before them in every moment and prepared the way for them. The HS has got Cornelius up and going, the HS has spoken to Peter so that he is ready and then the HS cannot wait for Peter to even finish the story of Jesus but has rushed into these people filling them with such joy that they are speaking in tongues!!!!! The are baptized and brought into the family of God, brought into the kingdom of which we are all a part unified and abiding in the HS. So what does this all say to us? Well, the Holy Spirit is going along before us and getting things ready and if we can only recognize what it is we are being called to do- which is, of course to love people, in God’s name, in God’s love, we will be empowered and the HS will be poured out. There are a couple of potential problems however.
The first is that we need to be listening. Both Cornelius and Peter were in a state of listening prayer when God told them things- in one case a fairly explicit instruction and in the other a principle that he was to act by. So the instructions may not be in a manual form, they may be something you have to work out, but you are not going to hear them unless you are listening. Neither Cornelius nor Peter knew that the way that he was to love God was by meeting the other, but when they stepped out in faith and heeded the prompting great things happened. The second thing is that when Peter did listen to God, he got hailed over the coals for it later. You know he had the strange vision about the sheet and the animals, and it led him to understand that God had made the Gentiles acceptable for his kingdom even of the Jews didn’t think so? Well the problem was that the other Jews, who hadn’t had Peter’s experience, either of the vision or the corroborating evidence of the HS being poured out on all of Corneilius’ household, and so they didn’t get it and thought that Peter was doing the wrong thing. We will often be told that when we love people and include them we are doing the wrong thing because people think that God has rules that have to be kept. I had an experience of this lately on Facebook. I had written a post supporting dear Rowland Crowtcher the Baptist Minister and writer, who had commented that since he took a pro gay marriage stance his speaking engagements had markedly lessened. I said something along the lines that he would be very welcome to come and speak here at this church, and as he is a brilliant and godly man, I sincerely meant it. One man, with whom I was not acquainted wrote, “Roberta Hamilton are you a Christian?” I answered him quite innocently, thinking that he maybe didn’t get the fact that if I was inviting Rowland to speak at my church I would be a Christian, and got a reply to the effect that I couldn’t be a Christian as I didn’t read the bible which said quite clearly that homosexuals were condemned by God. This is exactly the kind of response that Peter struggled with in Acts when he not only baptized the Gentiles of Cornelius’ household, but far, far worse in his accusers eyes, ate with them at table, as you can read just a few verses further on. The HS goes before us and sometimes at a pace that we find it hard to keep up with!
If we can be people of genuine love, which means acceptance, and generous hospitality, like Peter and like Cornelius we will be people who keep Jesus’ commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you,” and when we love, then his joy will be in us and our joy will be complete.