On Friday as I was preparing to write this sermon, my husband Gary interrupted me to ask a question about cell phones. He was planning to change our service and part of the deal was for two of our four family members to get new cell phones. “So,” he concluded at the end of his explanation, “do you want to keep your phone or do you want to get a new phone and give yours to Nick.” “Are you kidding”? I asked. “Give Nick the new one. You know I don’t like new things.” And then we both started laughing – because we both knew that last Saturday I spent a fair amount of time with the vestry talking about new things – about change- and I was the one speaking in favor of it.
Most people I know don’t like change, but maybe that’s just because I hang around with a lot of church people, who are notorious for hating change. (How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb? CHANGE? We don’t change)! There are reasons for this. Change is often disruptive. One of the reasons we have longstanding rules is so that people know how to act in different situations. It’s important to know, for example, if the hot tub you are using has a bathing suit policy or not – otherwise, getting in could turn out to be very uncomfortable.
The people from whom the first apostles were descended had lots of rules. The biblical book of Leviticus is pretty much full of rules- so full that even the leaders of the Jewish people were not sure whether any of them could be bent (or broken) and which of them were the most important. This was such a huge topic of debate that the Pharisees figured it was the trickiest question they could ask Jesus to make him look bad. Luckily for his disciples – and for us – Jesus had a very decisive answer for them. “Love God. Love your neighbor. None of the other rules mean anything if you don’t keep these two.” It seems very simple, but can be extremely complicated in practice, because there are just as many opinions about what it means to “love” as there are about what rules we ought to follow. It’s easy to get tied up in knots.
I once conducted a wedding in which the groom asked me if he could be baptized – right then and there. He had been so taken with what he’d learned about Christian community during their premarital counseling that he wanted to enter his marriage knowing he would be part of it. After some thought, I baptized him – and his best man – immediately after the ceremony. There is no doubt in my mind that this was the work of the Holy Spirit and that I would have been wrong to stand in the way of it. Nonetheless, it was still a little nerve-racking to explain to my bishop why I’d broken the rules.
This kind of dilemma – how to discern when the Holy Spirit compels you to break a human law- was a common problem for the first apostles. As Jews, and followers of a Jewish Messiah, they believed that the new recruits to their movement should also be Jews and continue to follow the rules of Judaism. Among other things, this meant that the new Christ-followers needed to be circumcised and observe Jewish purity laws, which included strict rules about communications between Jews and Gentiles. Initially, Peter was the loudest defender of this belief, but then something happened that changed all that; he had a vision. Peter had a dream in which a sheet full of forbidden foods was put in front of him and “a voice,” seemingly God’s, told him to eat it. Peter protested that as a good man he couldn’t break the rules against eating these unclean foods, but God answered him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” In other words, God is above human rules. God was not just talking about food either. That became clear when a messenger arrived that very morning to tell Peter that he was wanted at the home of a Roman centurion named Cornelius who had had a dream of his own, telling him to listen to what Peter had to say. So, in order to follow where God was leading him, Peter had to break two more rules – he had to enter the house of a Gentile and accept hospitality from a Roman. Neither Peter nor Cornelius was happy about this arrangement. Neither of them jumped up and said, “Yay! I hated those old rules anyway.” Neither wanted to change – but they did it because God told them to.
The question is, “how did they know that doing this was right”? How did they know that their dreams were coming from God and not the devil? The answer is that what God asked them to do was completely consistent with what they already knew about God. God is a God of connection not separation. God is a God of justice, not discrimination. God is a God of generosity, not greed. God asked Peter to put aside rules that encouraged prejudice and inequity and share the impartial and boundless love that the apostles experienced in their relationship with Jesus the Christ. That’s the God Peter knew – the God you and I know.
This concept – that membership in Christ is not based on whether we are able to adhere to certain rules, but instead whether we truly love God and want to obey him - is confirmed in the story of Phillip and his encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch. After talking with Phillip, the eunuch was so filled with the Spirit that he shouted “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized”? Well, everything really. “Those who heard the story could have shouted, ‘You’re a different race, you are from a far-off country, you are a sexual misfit, and you have had very little instruction,’” but the response that Phillip received through the Holy Spirit was quite different -“actually, nothing, nothing prevents this.” It’s the same answer that Peter recognizes in today’s reading from Acts. When the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his family, Peter was astonished – but still understood that what was happening was a gift from God. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit, just as we have”? And the answer is again, “no.” No one can.
The church has long followed a membership model in which we require people to believe and behave in order to belong. “But…Jesus modeled a backward pattern of inviting people into [his circle], proclaiming belonging and homecoming to the outsider, before beliefs or behavior were taught or tailored.” That’s because Jesus knew that human beings had begun to use rules and patterns of worship to separate people from God and one another – and that was the last thing God wanted.
If we want to know what God does want from us, we need look no further than today’s gospel. After telling his disciples, once again, to keep God’s commandments, he says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” God wants us to experience true joy – the joy that only comes from dwelling in God and following God’s Laws. And what are God’s primary laws? “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.” All the other commandments are based on seeking to know God and discern God’s will and loving one another.
For the apostles, that meant changing how they were doing things in order to spread the love of Christ to others – and sometimes it means the same thing for us. It is not human rules, but “the rule of the Lord that alone provides the stability and dependability that makes it possible for us to live full lives…God’s new, unexpected, and marvelous acts do not just sustain order but point toward the creation of new possibilities of life beyond all human expectations.” When we sing a new song, we can be safe in the knowledge that all the beautiful music in the world is from God, and all changes that promote the love of God and the love of our fellow human beings, are truly righteous. God’s commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. Sing a new song. Shout with joy; lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing. Go and bear fruit. Go and love one another. Amen.
Barbara K. Lundblad, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 481.
Paul Rock, (2016), in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic plans for Years A, B, and C,” compiled by Jessica Miller Kelley [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 121.
Ismael Garcia, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 484.