May 19, 2019 – The 5th Sunday of Easter
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
Who is the person you have the hardest time believing is loved by God? I asked that question several years ago at a Theology on Tap gathering. Our Theology on Tap tradition was to gather for drinks and fellowship for about thirty minutes, until the clergyperson would stand up and ask everyone a question. Sometimes the questions were good enough to get people talking about them for a while. Other times, people went right back to whatever they had been talking about—vacation or family or politics or football. This question, though, led to some impassioned and difficult conversation.
Who is the person you have the hardest time believing is loved by God? Some people named historical figures who have come to represent evil itself—Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Charles Manson, or Ted Bundy. Others named generic categories of reprehensible people like child molesters or abusive parents. Although no one said it out loud, at least one person had in mind someone she knew well because she came up to me a week later to tell me about it. She was angry and hurt by my question, which had brought to mind a moment of abuse from her past. A person of deep faith, she knew that God loved this person but coming face to face with that truth was painful.
Who is the person you have the hardest time believing is loved by God? To put it another way, who is it that hurts you the most to know that that person, too, will live forever in God’s eternal reign? It may not have been as personal to them, but the apostles and believers in Judea were hurt when they heard that the Gentiles had received the word of God. Acts tells us that, “when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’” They were angry because they had gotten word that their leader, the rock on which Jesus had promised to build his church, had taken the good news of salvation to those who had long been enemies of God and God’s people. Those who had witnessed first-hand the triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ after being executed on a Roman cross were not ready to believe that God had room in God’s heart for the Gentiles who had killed their Lord. Sure, God is loving and merciful, but not like that, they said to themselves.
Looking back with the benefit of two-thousand years of hindsight, I can’t tell what’s harder to believe—that God brought the good news of salvation to the Gentiles or that the first Christians couldn’t understand that it was possible. Remember how the book of Acts tells the story of the spreading of the gospel. First, there was Pentecost, when the Spirit enabled the apostles to proclaim the good news of Jesus in all the languages of the known earth so that the faithful Jews who had gathered from all over could understand it. Then, because of persecution, the believers were scattered from the holy city and brought the gospel to the outskirts of Judea and on to Samaria, where even the Samaritans believed. Later on, the Holy Spirit led Philip to interpret the Hebrew scriptures to an Ethiopian eunuch, who, although a faithful worshiper of Israel’s God, was in no way an ethnic Jew. Should it have surprised the apostles and other believers, then, that God would take the next logical step and bring the message of salvation to the Gentiles?
God’s message of boundless grace and unconditional love may be certain, but, in every generation, God is working with narrow-minded, self-interested human beings like us. And we don’t like it when God’s love comes to the people we find it hardest to love. In order to burst through the limitations we would impose on God’s love, God must come and surprise us and shake us up to see what God sees.
That’s what God did in this passage from Acts. In order to show the church that God’s saving love belonged equally to the Gentiles, God gave parallel visions to Cornelius and to Peter. The first, a Roman centurion, had a vision of an angel, who came and told him to send men to nearby Joppa and bring Peter back with them. Then, as the men were approaching the city, God brought Peter into a trance, showing him the strange vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven with all sorts of unclean animals in it. When the heavenly voice from heaven told Peter to rise, kill, and eat, Peter refused, saying, “Nothing unclean has ever entered my mouth,” and the voice replied, “What God has made clean, you shall not call profane.” Three times this happened—God’s way of making sure that Peter understood what God was saying to him. By the time he got to Joppa, Peter was ready for what awaited him there—faithful children of God who were eager to hear the message of salvation. When Peter finished telling them about Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had come to the apostles, and Peter was convinced: “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?”
When Peter explained to the Christian authorities step by step what had happened to him, they were silenced. Then, they broke their silence by praising God and saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” Even those whom the church would exclude are brought into the family of faith by God, whose power and love are greater than our closemindedness. God gave those Gentile believers the Holy Spirit even before the church was willing to baptize them. That’s how God always works—not according to the rules or human precepts but according to God’s divine purpose of universal love. And, just as Peter insisted that the Gentile converts be baptized, the church must always be ready for God to shake us up and show us something new.
St. Paul’s is a church that has discovered and embraced the power of God’s limitless love. We have affirmed God’s love and acceptance of LGBTQ individuals even before the instruments of the church had approved it. We have celebrated same-sex marriage and embraced the full participation of transgender people in the life of our church even before the wider church had found room for them. We have recognized that God may call individuals to the Communion table even before they are baptized. We have sought to be a place that proclaims God’s universal, saving love for all people regardless of their race or ethnicity or what they believe. For some of us, that openness comes naturally, while for others it is challenging. But all of us have our limits.
Who is the person you have the hardest time believing that God loves just as much as God loves you? Maybe it’s someone from your past, or maybe it’s someone with whom you can’t ever imagine having something in common: a conservative, a liberal, a Republican, a socialist, a chauvinist, a feminist, a preacher who uses religion to oppress others, a terrorist who murders in the name of God, someone who thinks that abortion should be illegal in every case, someone who thinks that reproductive choice is the cornerstone of a free society. Who is it that you struggle most to see as a recipient of God’s unconditional, saving love…because, whoever it is, no matter how much you reject that person and everything he or she stands for, the one thing you have in common is God’s love for you.
As I’ve said before, the problem with unconditional love is that it’s unconditional. We don’t get to decide who gets it or how it should be doled out because no one can put restrictions on unconditional love. It belongs to everyone—even to those who reject it as nonsense. As soon as you try to limit it, it crumbles and loses all of its power. But the very thing that makes it hardest to accept is also its real strength. Like Peter and Cornelius and the apostles in Jerusalem, when we experience the limitless nature of God’s love, it changes us. It alone has the power to break the bonds of prejudice and resentment and set us free to love as we have been loved—without limit.
The invitation, therefore, is not to decide to love the unlovable, for that in itself would be impossible. Instead, we are invited to pursue the love that God has for us and for the world. That’s what followers of Jesus do. We seek God’s love for us so that we might be set free to love the world with that same reckless abandon. When we are immersed in that love and its shocking limitlessness, we begin to see the artificial barriers fall away. We begin to find it possible to do the impossible and love others the way God loves them—the way God loves all of us.