Scripture Readings: Acts 11:1–18 | Psalm 148 | Revelation 21:1–6 | John 13:31–35
“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.” (John 13:34-35).
Today’s Scripture passages are some of my absolute favorites. I’m especially drawn to our reading from the book of Revelation: to the words of comfort and hope that it gives us, no matter what troubles today may bring our way.
After all, the book of Revelation is not simply about the future… it’s actually a vision of the entire scope of human history… the future, yes, but it also helps us understand the past, and the present too… offering a heavenly perspective on our whole story.
Writings like Revelation offer us a sense of the bigger picture: it’s kind of like stepping back from a massive mural we’ve only ever looked at up close with a magnifying glass… stepping back far enough to take in the whole scene of life at once… where we can see that the beautiful ending flows out from all that has come before it… and that every step along the way, no matter how small it may seem, plays a vital role in reaching the destination.
And what is the beautiful vision of life’s destiny that Revelation offers to us? The complete union of Heaven and Earth… God and humanity at one forever. Every wound healed, every tear dried, and every sorrow turned to joy.
These words remind me of Julian of Norwich, an anchoress (sort of a Christian hermit), who in the 1300’s received a series of visions where she encountered the Risen Lord. She recounts that at one point, during these visions, she had been deeply troubled by the destructiveness of sin and all the sufferings it causes in the world… but in that moment, she was assured by Christ, that though sin must persist for now, “all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” This hope-filled promise echoes the words of God in Revelation which we just read: “And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5).
This is the ultimate hope of the Gospel: God’s new heavens and earth… a whole New Creation… united forever by Jesus, the Lamb of God who was slain, and yet lives again. This is the ‘big picture’ that the Christian faith is all about… and has been since the beginning, which we are all taking part in today.
But one of the details in this ‘big picture’ often gets overlooked, and so we don’t always appreciate its implications for our daily lives. I’m speaking of the radical claim that God’s complete reunion with humanity… involves the human family’s complete reunion with itself! That is, people from every nation… no longer at odds with each other… retaining their own unique identity, but no longer divided from each other by culture, or sex, or status. Full fellowship with one another in Christ… that is an essential part of the Christian hope. The destiny we are headed to, and which guides our steps today.
Now this probably doesn’t sound all that shocking to us these days. After all, here in Canada, we’re used to hearing about the benefits of multiculturalism… the need for inclusion… and that our differences make us stronger. This is kind of the air we breathe today. Even if its not always how we behave towards one another, it’s at least a common enough vision of life in our society.
But what we are talking about, and more importantly, what our Scripture passages are talking about, is not simply a repetition, of our culture’s concern for inclusiveness. No, what we are invited to contemplate today is the very nature of the saving love of the Living God, and what this love means for you and I as followers of Christ today.
The claim that God intends to reunite all of humanity again may not seem that out of place to us, but for the early Church this claim required a radical re-imagining of what the Kingdom of God was all about… having to wrap their heads around the new and surprising welcome that Israel’s God was now giving to the wider Gentile world.
For the first Christians, coming exclusively from the Jewish community, understood the story of salvation to be centred completely on Israel. On their own people’s unique relationship with the Living God.
As we may remember, back in Genesis God met with a man named Abram, (later renamed Abraham), and entered into a Covenant with him: a formal relationship, kind of like a partnership, or marriage. Out of all of the families and nations of the world, Abraham and his descendants would be set apart to share in God’s mission to save His creation… to undo our deep divisions and the destruction we humans have wrought, and bring back the blessings of life humanity was created to share.
This promised plan was reaffirmed by God to several generations of Abraham’s family, until centuries later, after the Exodus from Egypt, God calls what is now the whole nation of Israelites into a deeper and much more deliberate way of life through the Covenant at Mt. Sinai, where they receive the Ten Commandments, and a whole host of other laws to guide God’s people as they live together in His holy presence. Chief among the laws that set Israel apart from their Gentile neighbours was the practice of circumcision, and laws around what foods they could eat… what would be considered clean for them, and what would be unclean.
Throughout the story of Scripture, though, we hear that God’s people were increasingly unfaithful to the covenant laws, and to their unique relationship with God that these laws were intended to support. Eventually, after centuries of walking away from God’s ways, Israel is shattered by civil war, with the ten Northern tribes cutting themselves off from Judah. Violent wars are fought both with their neighbours, and with each other, until both nations are finally overthrown and carried away into Exile.
Those descendants of Judah who survived, and who one day returned to the lands around Jerusalem, now had to exist under enormous pressures to assimilate to the cultures and ways of life of their Gentile overlords… fighting, and often dying, in order to not give up their Jewish traditions. Under these harsh conditions, many held tightly onto the practices that kept them distinct… like circumcision, dietary laws, and avoiding contact with Gentiles as much as possible… in order to preserve their own unique identity as God’s chosen people, striving to remain faithful to the LORD, unlike their forefathers.
Then maybe God would finally send them the Messiah, the Saviour, to rescue them. To set them free from the Gentile nations that were making life miserable, and to restore their family’s destiny to share in God’s love forever.
The first Christians held this same assumption: that Jesus had come as Israel’s Messiah… to save them and their people from the hands of their Gentile neighbours.
And many Christians today still hold these same assumptions… seeing Jesus as simply our Saviour… sent to deliver folks like you and I… but one who is not very interested in rescuing those other kinds of people… whomever they may be. God’s love, in other words, is only meant for us… it’s rescuing power is ours to enjoy and possess. What matters most is our place in God’s story.
Who do we see as being beyond God’s care and concern? Who are those that we assume have no place in His plans?
Against these assumptions, today’s reading from Acts makes plain that God does not play favorites… with Peter helping his brothers and sisters step back and take in the ‘bigger picture’.
In our reading, St. Peter is confronted by some Christians in Jerusalem who disapproved of his recent dealings with Gentiles, blurring the distinctions between God’s chosen people and everybody else. In Acts 11:3 they say to him: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” In there eyes, Peter was being unfaithful to God’s will for His chosen family. Peter response is to retell the story of how God sent him to visit Cornelius, a Gentile army officer… the very embodiment of the hostile Gentile forces holding the Jewish community under their thumb.
But as he tells the story, Peter is adamant that the Holy Spirit sent him to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ the Risen Lord to this Gentile army officer and his family. And as Peter obeyed, the Holy Spirit came in power and filled these Gentiles with the life of the Lord. Acts 11:15-17, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 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 proclaimed that God Himself was reaching out… to save those God’s people had thought unsavable. Those they considered beyond the boundaries of His love.
God Himself was making no distinction between Jew and Gentile anymore, but making a new family, united by faith in Jesus Christ. The same gift of the Holy Spirit, the same fellowship with the LORD, the same hope of salvation, and share in God’s mission was now being given to all nations. God Himself was re-uniting the whole of humanity in Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. So Peter replies ‘who am I to try and get in God’s way’?
This was not at all what Peter’s Christian sisters and brothers had ever imagined. This wasn’t where they had thought God’s story was headed at all. But their response was wonderful: Acts 11:18, “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
They were caught off guard… confused at first, but they were willing to let the Lord lead the somewhere new. To be faithful… not just to their traditions, or their assumptions, but to the saving hand of the Risen Lord at work.
They were open to a new vision of what God’s kingdom was all about… and so new possibilities were opening up before them. The old days of Jews and Gentiles being held apart had come to an end… and now God’s New Creation was coming to life in Jesus Christ: a new world-wide family of God… the Church… made up of every tribe, and tongue, and nation, was beginning to blossom… a new community where all are called to be bound together in the holy love of the LORD. ‘I guess God wants to save the Gentiles too…’ they came to understand. ‘And I guess that means if God loves them, we’ll need to learn to love them too.’
Of course, that wasn’t an easy process. It took the early Christians a whole lot of prayer, patience, pitfalls, and even open debates and disputes in order to fully appreciate the ‘bigger picture’ of God’s saving love, not just for them, but for the world. And it is a lesson that followers of Christ must relearn again and again.
Learning that Christ’s command to love one another as He has loved us is not just a commendation to be nice to our friends and our family… to people like us… but to embody a whole new way of life which sees no one as beyond the rescuing love of God in Jesus Christ. One which is willing to let go of our old ways of seeing the world, and to be surprised by the way the Holy Spirit wants to work through us to bring forth the fruit of God’s New Creation in our community.
Because Jesus the Risen Lord has revealed God’s ‘bigger picture’… because we now know how our human story is going to end… because we know God’s heart is to draw all creation into His fellowship… embracing our broken world, and making all things new in His saving love.
Because of all this, we can take the risk of learning to love one another. We can welcome anyone to come and share Christ’s love with us. We can live today in the light of eternity: in the blessed way of God’s kingdom… where death will be no more… mourning and crying and pain will be no more… where God Himself will wipe away every tear from all eyes, and truly make all things new. Amen.
 Julian of Norwich, Julian of Norwich: Showings, ed. Richard J. Payne, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 225.