Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Beyond Babel

(A Pentecost Sunday sermon preached at All Saints' Littleton on 5/23/2010)

Pentecost is often referred to as the birth of the church: the start of the full understanding of Christian truth.

It is also often described as God’s reversal of the Tower of Babel: building on what was broken when the languages were scattered.

The story of the Tower of Babel answers a question that many an inquisitive child has likely asked a parent: Why are there so many different people and languages in the world?

The story, Genesis 11:1-9, goes like this: The whole earth originally had one language. A group of people migrated to a new land, and started building a city, and then decided that they would build a tower with its tops in the heavens. The motivation for this tower is “To make a name for ourselves, otherwise, we shall be scattered abroad upon the whole earth.”

In other words, the tower was an attempt to consolidate sameness into a channeled power: power that was believed could rival God’s power, reaching the very heavens.

God comes down to see the city and the tower, and is not impressed.

Ultimately, God scatters the people over the face of the earth, confusing the languages.

“Babel” refers not to the name of the tower, but is derived from the Hebrew word “to jumble.”

This action by God could be understood as punishment, but isn’t necessarily so. The Rev. Jeff Paschal writes that the implication is “...that God uses humanity’s city and tower building as the occasion to fashion a diverse humanity, flung like a divine sower’s seed all over the planet. Apparently God is uninterested in a people united for the purpose of assuring their own fame and safety.” Instead, God relishes having a world full of faithful people of different colors, sizes, shapes, ideas and languages. (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, Eds. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 2009)

The Day of Pentecost moves humanity beyond Babel. It is not a simple undoing of the jumble. A reversal of Babel would restore humanity to the state before the jumbling. This is not what happens. The languages are not recombined into a singular language that everyone is to use. Everyone in the room doesn’t become the same.

Instead, something far more powerful happens. The Gospel is heard in everyone’s native language. The disciples, by the power of the Holy Spirit, were suddenly able to speak in other languages: not spiritual language, but the languages of the people present.

Pentecost does not dissolve difference, but it transcends the barriers that difference sometimes creates. God’s people are not all made the same, but are united in a sense of oneness.

It is amazing to discover that the Church...often rightly criticized for being rigid and inflexible...started under the principle of oneness within difference.

The events of Pentecost leads us to the conclusion that the Gospel is to be TOLD in every language: available to all for the sharing of the spiritual truth of God’s love for the world, and in doing so celebrates the remarkable diversity found within it.

The church has often struggled with this understanding of “Christian truth.” From the beginning, people have feared difference, otherness, and the strangeness of the stranger. We often see a threat from those who are different in looks, sounds, or thoughts. The threat lies not in the differences that God has woven into all parts of God’s creation, including humanity, but in any group’s lust of power over others, and its insistence that its identity alone reflects God’s nature and God’s way. (M. Jinkins, FOW)

Christianity, as we can see throughout history, has at times fallen victim to this danger.

Oneness is not sameness. The charge is to share the Gospel, not mandate it. We are called to translate the Gospel, not just to every language, but to reframe it so that the underlying message can be understood in every context. Relying on four rather different Gospel accounts of Jesus, instead of a singular account, is a constant reminder that the particular words used are not as important as the truth to be found within them.

Pentecost is ultimately the charge to share our truth as we understand it: the path by which that we have encountered God.

I’ve asked you all to wear red this morning not just for the great visual effect. It is a reminder that the flame of God’s inspiration dwells within you. Each one of us is called to share our understanding of the truth of God, and to be open to the hearing of it from others.

That is the beautiful flipside of sharing the Gospel truth. In doing so, we discover that the love of God is a reality far beyond ourselves, and far beyond our Christian understanding.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, on a recent episode of “Speaking on Faith,” addresses the reality of Christian truth, using his friend, the Dalai Lama, as an example. He said:

“(The Dalai Lama) is someone who's been in exile for over 50 years. How should he really be? I mean, he's missing his beloved Tibet. He's missing his people. He's been made to live a life that he wouldn't really want to live. By rights, I mean, when you meet him you expect somebody who is bitter, who, if you mention the Chinese, will wish the worst possible to happen to them. But you meet him; he's actually quite mischievous. I mean, he's fun. He's laughing. And people flock to hear him.

Do you really think that God would say, ‘Dalai Lama, you really are a great guy, man. What a shame you're not a Christian.’? (Laughs)
I somehow don't think so. I think God is just thrilled because no faith, not even the Christian faith, can ever encompass God or even be able to communicate who God is. Only God can do that.”

On this day, when the red fires of inspiration burn brightly, let us dare to share our truth in the telling and the listening, while remembering the lyrics of an old Frederick Faber hymn: “the love of God is broader than the measures of our mind, and the heart of the Eternal, is most wonderfully kind.”

(NOTE: Richard Sheffield's essay in Feasting on the Word Year C. Vol. 3 alerted me to connections with Faber's hymn.)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Uncomfortable Acts

(A sermon preached on Acts 16:16-34 at All Saints' Episcopal, Littleton, 5/16/2010)

Well, as many of you know, I spent the weekend, not mention considerable rehearsal time, with students from Littleton High School and their production of Annie, directed by our own Deb Steinhour.

There were a number of reasons I agreed to do this. I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet some of the Littleton High students, I’d be able to help them out, not to mention help Deb out. Also, I do love theater, and I was offered a part I couldn’t pass up. How could I say no to being the president, FDR? A Facebook friend of mine said that she didn’t see the resemblance between me and FDR. I told her that the "resemblance" in this case is being loud and optimistic. (Some would say being a ham or being a big personality, but I wouldn't say that...)

I will admit to you all that I was also hoping to get a sermon out of the experience. One day, I might, but clearly not this week. I spent hours trying to weave a sermon from this week’s texts and from my Annie experience. It just didn’t happen. These texts just don’t lend themselves to any of the Annie ethics (or even the ethics of working with teenagers).

Such is the life of a lectionary preacher, who doesn’t get to choose his texts.

As it was, I could not get away from this week’s reading from Acts. There’s something about the books of Acts that seems to draw me into using it for preaching. Perhaps the thing I like about the Book of Acts is that I don’t always like the Book of Acts, and I’m often uncomfortable with the things that happen in it.

I’m not referring to the violence that happen to the disciples, like the beating and imprisonment of Paul and Silas. I don’t enjoy those moments, but I understand that being disciples was dangerous, and a lot of them were beaten and killed.

The uncomfortable parts of the Book of Acts for me are the many moments where the disciples do things that are questionable, or even unethical. Take this morning’s account. The second part of the Acts reading finds Paul and Silas in prison, in chains, praying and singing to God. There is this divine intervention, they are freed in dramatic style, and then follows the surprising interaction with the jailer. This part of the story is well known. The disturbing part of the story happens earlier, and often gets little attention.

How exactly to Paul and Silas get into this mess? Is it some bold proclamation about the risen Jesus? Not at all. Is it a selfless, gracious act of justice and hospitality? Hardly. Instead, it happens because Paul gets annoyed...

We are told that a slave girl, who had a spirit of divination, followed Paul and his companions around, crying out: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Perhaps this was actually helpful at first: someone known in the city was drawing attention to the disciples, leading to potential engagement and discussion concerning the path of Jesus. However, when she kept doing this for many days, Paul finally became upset with her constant cries. Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.”

If you think about it, this account should bother us. Paul and his followers don’t seem at all concerned with the fact that this girl is a slave: used by her owners to make money, and to a spirit that possesses her. For days they do not help her. I guess one can suggest that Paul does what he does in response to her entire situation, but it seems to me that his primary motivation is that he’s simply tired of hearing her cries. Freeing her of the spirit, but not of her slavery to her owners, likely will complicate (and perhaps worsen) her state of life, but Paul seems either unaware, or that he doesn’t care about this. Ronald Cole-Turner writes that Paul frees her from possession, but does nothing to free her from being a possession. (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., 2009, p. 522)

This does not paint Paul and his companions in the best of light. Upon reflection, this is a good thing for us to hear. I think it is helpful for us to witness the human struggles of the disciples, and to realize that these struggles continued in post-resurrection, and in Paul’s case, post-conversion accounts.

There is this tendency to think that those who began the church knew exactly what they were doing, and that everything that they did was always in the right. This simply wasn’t so. Those in the church at its infancy were a lot like those in the church of today: trying their best to be a faithful community, but still struggling with their limitations and rough edges. Sometimes, their choices were poor ones.

Their actions are not without consequences. When her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The anti-Semitic claims are sadly persuasive, for the crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. They are thrown into prison, in the innermost cell, and they are bound in stocks.

Thankfully, this is not the end of Paul and Silas’ story. As they were praying around midnight, there was suddenly an earthquake: the doors are opened, the chains were unfastened, and Paul and Silas are free to flee. The jailer, who somehow managed to sleep through all of this, woke up, wakes up to find the prison doors open. Realizing that he has failed in his task to keep them secure, is ready to take his own life.

The surprise comes in that Paul and Silas are still there. This time, they realize that actions to save themselves would cause harm to others, and they choose a responsible path, even though it endangers their lives.

The final interplay is now set up. The jailer asks, “What must I do to be saved?” The disciples’ answer is “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”

I think it’s critical to understand that this points to what God is doing in the world, and not to some singular action for the jailer to take in order to be in the right. Cole-Turner writes that believing “...means becoming decisively aware that our small lives are swept up into a great drama, God’s story line. God is indeed reaching out to us in Jesus Christ, taking our lives into the gospel story of transformation and redemption. Trusting in this truth means that we give up efforts to save ourselves by solving our problems.” (FOW, p. 526)

We’re still called to engage the problems of the world: to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free. Sometimes we are aware of these things, and we are able to help the cause. Other times, we hinder the process or even make it worse. No single issue, however, fully represents the entirety.

We are called to remember that we are all part of a very big picture: God, who created us all, is now working in and through us to redeem the whole world.

Next week, Pentecost, we get to talk about God’s sign of cleansing and rebirth: fire and spirit. This morning’s story, however, ends with water, a more human sign. The jailer washed Paul and Silas’ wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.


Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Oil Spill: Not Obama's "Katrinia," but it may be his "9/11"

Provoking op-ed by Thomas Friedman in the NYT on President Obama and the oil spill.

I was drawn to it by some headlines on MSN (which was actually a link to the New York Times) that the scientific community is faulting Obama and his administration. Reading the whole article suggested that there are things that the government has clearly done right, and the rate of response has generally been good, but there are some issues.

Of course, there have been some that has said that Obama has reacted (or, not reacted) just has Bush did with Hurricane Katrina.

So, I went looking for more commentary, and found Friedman's, and was surprised by these words:

President Obama’s handling of the gulf oil spill has been disappointing. I say that not because I endorse the dishonest conservative critique that the gulf oil spill is somehow Obama’s Katrina and that he is displaying the same kind of incompetence that George W. Bush did after that hurricane. To the contrary, Obama’s team has done a good job coordinating the cleanup so far. The president has been on top of it from the start.

No, the gulf oil spill is not Obama’s Katrina. It’s his 9/11 — and it is disappointing to see him making the same mistake George W. Bush made with his 9/11. (my bolding)

That surprised me, and hooked me into reading the rest of the article. Friedman's first analysed why Bush failed:

President Bush’s greatest failure was not Iraq, Afghanistan or Katrina. It was his failure of imagination after 9/11 to mobilize the country to get behind a really big initiative for nation-building in America. I suggested a $1-a-gallon “Patriot Tax” on gasoline that could have simultaneously reduced our deficit, funded basic science research, diminished our dependence on oil imported from the very countries whose citizens carried out 9/11, strengthened the dollar, stimulated energy efficiency and renewable power and slowed climate change. It was the Texas oilman’s Nixon-to-China moment — and Bush blew it.

Had we done that on the morning of 9/12 — when gasoline averaged $1.66 a gallon — the majority of Americans would have signed on. They wanted to do something to strengthen the country they love. Instead, Bush told a few of us to go to war and the rest of us to go shopping. So today, gasoline costs twice as much at the pump, with most of that increase going to countries hostile to our values, while China is rapidly becoming the world’s leader in wind, solar, electric cars and high-speed rail.

I would have added something about building relationship with our world allies, who already too well know the realities of terrorism, but overall I agree with Friedman's point. So, how is what Obama is doing like this?

So far, the Obama policy is: “Think small and carry a big stick.” He is rightly hammering the oil company executives. But he is offering no big strategy to end our oil addiction. Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman have unveiled their new energy bill, which the president has endorsed but only in a very tepid way. Why tepid? Because Kerry-Lieberman embraces vitally important fees on carbon emissions that the White House is afraid will be exploited by Republicans in the midterm elections. The G.O.P., they fear, will scream carbon “tax” at every Democrat who would support this bill, and Obama, having already asked Democrats to make a hard vote on health care, feels he can’t ask them for another.

Friedman feels that this is the wrong strategy. He points out that there are conservatives who would embrace a carbon or gasoline tax if it was offset by a cut in payroll taxes or corporate taxes, so we could foster new jobs and clean air at the same time. He also suggest that the reply to those who would cry "taxers" come election time could be countered with “Conservatives for OPEC” or “Friends of BP.” (Some smart politician should try and get Friedman on the payroll.)

Ultimately, Friedman is pleading for presidential leadership:

Obama is not just our super-disaster-coordinator. “He is our leader,” noted Tim Shriver, the chairman of Special Olympics. “And being a leader means telling the rest of us what’s our job, what do we need to do to make this a transformative moment.”

Please don’t tell us that our role is just to hate BP or shop in Mississippi or wait for a commission to investigate. We know the problem, and Americans are ready to be enlisted for a solution. Of course we can’t eliminate oil exploration or dependence overnight, but can we finally start? Mr. President, your advisers are wrong: Americans are craving your leadership on this issue. Are you going to channel their good will into something that strengthens our country — “The Obama End to Oil Addiction Act” — or are you going squander your 9/11, too?

I really like what Friedman says. It seems that Obama is following a time honored church leadership technique (a bad one) to try and not rock the boat and hold on tighter to our previous positions (we can't be wrong, we just have to do what we do better), instead of doing what is right, which often requires change.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Lydia: A Surprising Woman of the Bible

(A sermon on Acts 16:9-15, preached at All Saints' Littleton on 5/9/2010)

This morning in the Book of Acts, we have a surprising story concerning Paul and his travel companions. They had been strengthening churches in Syria and Cilicia, area to the North of Jerusalem. Paul has a vision of a man who pleads with him “Come to Macedonia and help us.”

This meant crossing the Aegean Sea: in other words, going to Europe. Not for holiday, but to a unknown and potentially hostile environment.

There is an immediate change of language here in the Acts account that we are likely not to notice in our lectionary form. “We immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia,” "We set sail from Troas." The change is “we.” For the first time, the author of the accounts of Acts is first hand, part of the journey. He is a traveling companion of Paul and Silas (before this, the language had been “they.” This is the author’s first personal witness out on the road with Paul.

They reach the city Philippi in the region Macedonia, most likely not sure about what was to happen next. The author tells us that, “On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer.” They were likely looking for a local synagogue, not sure what exactly they would find.

It’s not clear if they found a synagogue, but what they did find gathered was a group of women. Paul and his companions were likely disappointed: not only had they not found the man of Paul’s vision, but their patriarchal upbringing would have caused them to be disheartened in not finding men to dialogue with. Nevertheless, Paul and his companions sit and speak with those gathered in a posture to be understood as serious teaching.

It is here we meet Lydia.

Lydia is not a name that comes to most people’s minds when thinking of women of the Bible. Lydia’s name means simply “woman from Lydia,” an ancient kingdom in Asia Minor, which is modern day Turkey. She was from the City of Thyatira, which was especially known for its dyers. We are told that Lydia of Thyatira is a dealer of purple cloth. This is a significant piece of information. Purple is the color of royalty, and someone dealing in purple cloth would be used to dealing with the wealthy and people of power. Lydia herself is the dealer, no small significance for a woman of the time.

We are also told that she is “a worshiper of God.” This could mean that she was a Jew, but more likely suggests that she was a Gentile who already held the Hebrew God in the highest of esteems: the God of Gods, if you will.

The fact that Lydia is present at this place of prayer, outside the gate, suggests that she was already seeking guidance and direction from the Spirit of God, looking for meaning beyond her extraordinary success as a businesswoman. We are told that the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. The scholar Luke Timothy Johnson writes that although this phrase sounds very Biblical, the actual expression only appears once, in the 2nd Book of Maccabees. However, Luke uses this Greek verb at special moments: the opening of the disciples eyes after the resurrection (Luke 24:30), as well as the opening of the Scriptures (24:32) and of the disciples minds (24:45) by the resurrected Jesus. (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, in Sacred Pagina, Daniel J. Harrington, ed., 1992, p. 293)

It can be argued that the significance and power of this moment is just as important. Lydia is Paul’s very first convert to Christianity in Europe. She has the power and authority to have her entire household baptized. Furthermore, her hospitality is persuasive. “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” How could they say no! “She prevailed on us,” writes the surprised author.

Lydia offers her commitment to the mission, and Paul and his companions graciously accept. Everyone in this story is open and vulnerable to change: from Paul and his companions, changing their outlook as to whom their mission is for, to Lydia’s receptiveness to the foreign men and their teachings. Barriers such as cultural difference, gender, and wealth are overcome because everyone takes the time to be fully present with one another, and open to the unexpected holiness and truth. Paul and his companions ultimately spend considerable time at Philippi, basing their operations out of Lydia’s home. As far as we can tell, they never find the man of Paul’s original vision. Instead, they are opened to a different focus in their mission: trusting God, and the strength and generosity of Lydia to ground them during there time in Philippi.

Here lies the inspiration for us today. Whether we are currently the traveler following a vision, or the one at home in faithful routine, we are all to be journeyers when it comes to being open to the Spirit of God, and to each other.


Friday, May 14, 2010

LeBron's new drama all about him

Well, LeBron will be taking care of himself now...doing his part to upstage the rest of the playoffs.

LeBron trades one drama for another, by Adrian Wojnarowski

Me? I'm moving back to not caring about the NBA...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

LeBron's moment of truth awaits

Arguably, there has never been an NBA game that promises to reveal so much...

This fantastic perspective, "LeBron's moment of truth awaits", from Adrian Wojmarowski on Yahoo Sports reveals what's at stake for a person completely in the limelight, and how a sports event has the capability to dominate a region's perception of itself, as well as influence economics.

Wojnarowski's article suggests the proclaimed basketball king just doesn't appear to get it.

Said James, after the game 5 loss, "I spoil a lot of people with my play. When you have three bad games in seven years, it's easy to point them out."

Wojnarowski writes:
Somewhere, the whispers of the game’s greatest talents became a murmur louder and louder: James still doesn’t understand part of the price of greatness is inviting the burden on yourself and sparing those around you. He missed 11 of 14 shots. James didn’t score a basket until the third quarter. He was terrible, just terrible, and yet James couldn’t bring himself to say the worst home playoff loss in franchise history began and ended with him. For all of James’ unselfishness on the floor, he can still be so selfish off it. They could’ve lined up the greatest players in the game’s history Tuesday night in the primes of their championship lives, and there isn’t one of them who would’ve deflected and deferred like the self-proclaimed King James. They would’ve been livid and they would’ve put it on themselves. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and, yes, Shaquille O’Neal

They had titles, and they would’ve mutilated themselves for public consumption. James is too cool, too stubborn and maybe too self-unaware. This is on me, they would’ve told you, and, I’ll get us out of this. They would’ve made sure teammates and opponents, fans and enemies understood. They would’ve made sure the whole world understood: This isn’t how an MVP plays in the playoffs. This isn’t how he lets a legacy linger in limbo. What you heard out of James was self-righteous: “I put a lot of pressure on myself to go out and be great and the best player on the court. When I don’t, I feel bad for myself.”

This wasn’t the night to feel bad for himself.

I love sports. Pro basketball isn't really my thing, but I recognize when human drama is on display. LeBron James is an unbelievable talent, in a field that happens to be worshiped by the public (in fame and fortune). One reason why is the ability for us to witness (ironically, the promo word for James) the specialness of the moment: the drive to succeed, played out publically for all to see, and the invitation to us, as fans, to share in the moment.

Wojnarowski concludes:

Winning everything takes a single-minded, obsessive devotion. Michael Jordan had it. Kobe Bryant does, too. They didn’t want to win championships, they had to win them. They needed them for validation and identity and, later, they became moguls. LeBron James is running around recruiting college kids to his marketing company. He picks up the phone, tells them, “This is the King,” and makes his pitch to be represented in his stable. Think Kobe would ever bother with this? Or Michael? Not a chance when they were on the climb, not when they still had a fist free of rings. LeBron James is on the clock now, and Game 6 in Boston could be for his legacy in Cleveland. He has been prancing around the edges for too long now, angling for a transcendent existence he believed his brand could bring him. Only, it’s all a mirage. It’s all vapor until he does the heavy lifting that comes now, that comes in the shadows of Magic and Larry, Michael and Kobe. This isn’t about selling an image to Madison Avenue, about pushing product through all those dazzling plays across the winter months. This is an MVP’s time, his calling, and there was LeBron James standing in the middle of the Cavaliers’ locker room at 11:25 p.m., staring in a long mirror, fixing his shirt before the long walk down the corridor to the interview room.

James stood there for five seconds and 10 and maybe now 20, just staring into the mirror, just taking a long, long look at himself. For the first time in his career, the first time when it’s all truly on him, maybe the sport stood and stared with him. All hell breaking loose, all on the line now. Forget everything in his life, all the make-believe nonsense, Game 6 and maybe Game 7 will promise to serve as the most honest hours of his basketball life.

Okay LeBron: we're ready to witness, one way or another...

U2’s Zooropa – exile and restoration

A wonderful take on the often forgotten U2 album Zooropa. This album was completed during the powerful Zoo TV tour, back in 1993. (Via Beth Maynard's excellent U2 Sermons blog)

Bob's bloggery: Thinking about U2’s Zooropa – exile and restoration

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Love, Suffering, and Story

(A sermon preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church. Littleton, NH, on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 5/2/2010)

Two weeks ago, I passed over the great story of the Conversion of Paul (Acts 9:1-21) in order to talk about that weird epilogue of the Gospel of John. You remember: no fish, lots of fish, naked Peter who puts on clothes in order to swim to shore, and so on into the strange and stranger. (John 21:1-19)

I now wish to go back to Paul’s conversion story. After Paul, or as he is known at the moment, Saul, encounters the Lord Jesus and is blinded, a man named Ananias gets a vision of the Lord about going to Paul and laying hands on him to restore his sight. Ananias, rather boldly, says to the Lord “I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”

The Lord responds “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” That’s pretty straightforward. The Lord, however, continues to say: “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

Every time I hear those words, I do a double take. I’m not sure how comfortable I am with ever hearing what sounds like punishment proclaimed by a vision voice from God. This is especially true when the speaker is the Risen Christ.

Now, we know some things about Paul. He self confesses that he violently persecuted those proclaiming Jesus as Lord before his conversion. Since he was a Roman citizen, he was living a pretty comfortable life, and had more than a little power. One could say that after this conversion, he suffered personally with things ranging from persecution, imprisonment, and his eventual execution in Rome.

I guess that it’s not unreasonable to assume that this is what the Risen Lord meant in saying “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

However, I think that there is a better explanation that is voiced by today’s Gospel.

Jesus says: 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)

I have to wonder what is really new about this commandment. “Love your neighbor as yourself” does not originate with Jesus. Remember, we heard Jesus quote this Jewish commandment earlier in Luke’s Gospel, along with loving God, when a lawyer asks about inheriting eternal life (Luke 10:25-28). In Mark’s Gospel, the same answer is given by Jesus to the scribe’s question over which commandment is greatest (Mark 12:28-33).

The command to love one another is clearly not new. Perhaps, then, it is the degree of loving that Jesus lived out, and is drawing his disciples into.

I think this is in part a command to respond out of love in all things.

Another part is seeing everyone...even someone who is despised...as our neighbor.

And, perhaps, Jesus is acknowledging the connection between love and suffering.

I want to talk about this connection by first insisting that I’m not suggesting that love is about taking abuse from people. The church has taught this at times, and it is a poor understanding that has led to people staying in abusive relationships of all sorts. That’s not what I mean by suffering.

Now that I’ve made this point, I want to insist that it’s still a reality that having love for one another opens us up to suffering of all kinds. Loving means being vulnerable to hurt feelings and disappointment. Loving means caring about what others think, feel, and encounter. Loving means experiencing pain when others are struggling, or ill, or dying. Loving means caring when tragedy strikes...our heart breaking...whether it’s happening here, or halfway around the world.

Loving as Jesus also means that we may have to face trials, or scorn, or persecution; because loving this way means standing up for what is right.

Having love for one another risks suffering.

Paul becomes committed to loving as Jesus has loved. Doing so exposes him to suffering that he had, before, closed himself off from. This isn’t punishment. Instead, this gives him a way forward...a way to live in love.

There is an additional point I wish to make this morning, and to do so I must refocus on the account from the Book of Acts of Peter and the early Jewish Christians. (Acts 11:1-18)

Peter’s remarkable vision from God, and the following encounter with the Gentiles from Caesarea, is a story that is told in its entirety twice, in back to back chapters. It is critical to the early Christian community, and for us today.

What we have this morning is the second telling, and the context is a storm cloud of criticism from the Jewish Christians. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

Their revulsion at this change from the accepted norm could cause a serious divide in the early community.

It’s interesting to note that Peter does not use theological debate to persuade them to change their thinking. Instead, Peter simply tells them his story, and what he experienced.

The text says, “When they heard this, they were silenced. And then they praised God!”

The revulsion over particular Gentile practices is no longer what holds ultimate importance. Instead, they have listened to Peter’s story...an experience that changed his heart...and recognized what God was doing within these people’s lives. They saw that this was cause for celebration, and not a cause for hardening of hearts.

Professor of Theology Lewis Mudge writes that “revulsion, in the ancient world or now, does not respond to theological argument. A change of heart comes when one sees the Spirit at work in the stories of strangers, recognizing in them the same Spirit that is working in one’s own life. People need first to see God at God’s surprising work. Theological reflection comes afterward, either to bring what has been seen into coherence with past thinking, or to make a reasoned break with that thinking.... An important lesson to be learned from this episode and its consequences is that, while conversion changes the convert, the convert also brings a new perspective to the message. Bringing people of a new culture into the faith community calls for restatement of the gospel in terms that speak to that new culture, and so it has been throughout church history. It is extremely significant that an authorization of such cultural restatement lies here, within the New Testament narrative.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, Ed. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., p.452)

This echoes again the Gospel of John, and a new way of loving each other: love amidst change. Change is a necessity in the Christian life, because our understanding of what God is doing is forever widening.

Thanks be to God.