Sixth Sunday of Easter B
Preached at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Muskegon, MI, while on Internship.
1 John 5:1-6
I knew very early on in life that there was no way I could ever grow up and become a lawyer.
For one, I can’t memorize laws. I’m terrible at memorizing anything, and law school requires a lot of that. But also, I have a love-hate relationship with rules. On the one hand, my personality type indicates that I like the order and structure that come with rules. But on the other, sometimes, they just aren’t all that important.
It being Mothers’ Day, I would be remiss if I did not share some of the rules my mother had us live by. No sweet cereal. Juice, not pop, except on Thursday night, Pizza Night. Shoes come off at the door. My showers were timed, though for the life of me I can’t figure out why—as long as there is hot water, it’s still shower time, right? My mother was by no means a strict by-the-book woman, but she did still have her rules, and looking back, they were good rules.
School is a good example of a time and place in which rules are very, very important. I hate turning in late assignments. To the best of my ability, I format my papers in precise Chicago-style with meticulous footnotes and citations. When I plan out my class schedule, I painstakingly check and recheck to make sure that I haven’t missed anything. I always did my best to follow the rules, even though it made me supremely unpopular, because I knew that those rules were there for a reason. Teacher’s Pet or not, I never thought I was above the rules.
And yet… there are times when none of that matters. I confess that, in college and before seminary, that I seriously thought, What it would be like to pack a bag, get in the car, and drive out somewhere. Leave it all behind; to live a life under no one’s scrutiny, to get away from it all, the rules of life and the expectations that come with it.
Obviously I’ve never tested out that fantasy, and seem to have firmly set myself on the side of rules, order and structure—I did join the religious sphere, after all. Can there be any other institution in the world as obsessed with rules as religion is? What’s more striking is that it is often the littlest of details and rules that cause the most trouble. We band together around this rule or that rule, this interpretation or that one. We define ourselves by which rules we follow and which we don’t.
People in religious academia love to argue over really big words. Do we believe that the mystery of communion best explained by transubstantiation or consubstantiation? Is Jesus really present or spiritually present? Was Jesus’ death on the cross substitutionary atonement, ransom atonement, moral atonement, satisfactory atonement, or scapegoating? Should we or should we not add “and the Son” to the third article of the Niceano-Constantinopolitan Creed? Which is more correct, “He descended into hell” or “He descended to the dead.” I don’t even know what half of that MEANS!
But it doesn’t stop with the heady ideas. In congregations we have our own arguments about our rules. Do we begin the Lord’s Prayer with, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” or with “Our Father in heaven?” Is the King James Version of the Bible the only “real translation” or is the New Revised Standard Version better? In the bulletin, do we label the people as “Congregation” or as “People”, and the presider as “Leader” or “Pastor” (and yes, I have watched that fight play out in front of my eyes).
In popular religious thought there is one specific, right, and proper way of doing and saying things and anything else is considered anathema, cursed, and evil. You are either in, or you are out. So many rules rules rules rules rules! Follow them, believe the right thing, hold the right viewpoint, and you’re in. Deviate, and you’re out.
So I can fully understand Peter’s feelings in our first reading today. While it may not seem like it from our reading, which is only the end of the story, he has his strict religious rules and regulations and is not willing to compromise them on his own. A good strong, moral, religiously observant man does not easily change his beliefs, after all. It takes something dramatic for him to see the world in any other light than the one he knows. In fact, it takes an act—no, multiple acts of God for him to change his mind. There is a lot at stake if God is getting so directly involved.
What is at stake? Nothing less than who is and who isn’t God’s people.
Human beings put a lot of emphasis on the “in” and “out” crowds. They define who we are. Ancient Judaism was no different. So here’s the scoop—it’s the rest of the chapter we heard from today.
Peter has a vision. In this vision, something like a sheet comes down from heaven, and on this sheet are all kinds of animals, both clean and unclean from a Judean perspective. A voice from heaven commands Peter to eat, but Peter refuses on the grounds that the animals are unclean. So the voice repeats the command and tells Peter that what God has made he shall not call unclean. Three more times this happens and the vision ends.
Messengers then come to Peter from a Roman soldier named Cornelius, a man who, despite being a Roman, worships and prays to God and gives alms to the poor—a rather upstanding guy if you ask me. The messengers ask Peter to meet Cornelius, who has something important to ask him.
Peter goes, and is told that Cornelius has -also- had a vision. It is here that Peter realizes that the visions are connected. He thinks, maybe God doesn’t draw lines based on any of the Jewish religious laws. God welcomes Judeans and Romans alike, because, quote, “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
It is while Peter is still speaking that we reach our first reading—that the Holy Spirit comes on Cornelius and his household, and they are then baptized into the Christian community. What was once denied him, a place among God’s people, has now been given, freely, by God. Where humans build walls, God builds gates. Unless God decides to destroy the wall altogether.
Now, there is something to be said about the fact that the Holy Spirit comes to Cornelius while Peter is preaching, but that’s not the remarkable part of the story. What I find truly remarkable about this story is that God breaks the rules. God’s not supposed to do that. God made the rules in the first place! In Judaism, there are 613 laws in the Torah alone, all of which are supposed to have been written by God. How can I justify God breaking the rules that God set down?
I would argue, though, that if anyone is going to break the rules, it may as well be God. And with good reason. When we stop worshiping God and start worshiping the rules, how are we any better off?
And so God replaces the rules, so to speak, with something a whole lot simpler in our gospel reading today: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this commandment. We’ve been hearing it throughout all of Easter. Today’s theme, “Whole Lotta Love”, doesn’t just describe today, it describes everything that Easter is about.
So who is in, and who is out? This rule is rather vague. It could refer to anybody, couldn’t it? Probably. And that’s the point. This rule is not to exclude, but to include. There is no in crowd or out crowd. Love knows no limits and no boundaries.
It ain’t always easy. Good Lord, it ain’t always easy. And it’s important to remember that love is a not just a good feeling toward someone. It’s a new way of living that looks at the stranger and says, “We are in this together.” It’s a way of acting that recognizes the dignity and worth inherent in every human being by the sole virtue that they were created by God.
Love comes from God and doesn’t stop at us. It always, always moves out to others. No rule, law, or wall can stop it.