05/15/22 – Unlimited Love

LOVE UNLIMITED

May 15, 2022
5th Sunday of Easter
Acts 11: 1-18; Ps. 148; Rev. 21: 1-6; John 13:31-35
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

According to my internet search, there are 23,145 verses in the Old Testament and 7,957 verses in the New Testament for a grand total of 31,102 verses. Take each verse on its own and it has little meaning. It is when we see the overarching story to which these verses contribute that we find meaning. The word most frequently found in the bible is “Lord” or “God.” Words that denote people rank second. The word, love rounds out the top 5. I think the best way to describe the Bible is it is God’s love story to humanity. Today’s scripture readings all focus on the expansiveness of God’s love, which as the psalmist and the author of Revelation attest, includes all of creation, and John’s gospel and the book of Acts declare has no limits among God’s children.

Each of the three synoptic gospels include Jesus’ quotes from Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In Matthew, it appears as the answer to the question:

Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:36-40 NRSV)

This is how Jesus summed up the message of the Old Testament. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper include love as a commandment:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)

We might even call these words Jesus’ dying wish. Judas Iscariot had just left the room to tell the Roman officials where to find Jesus so he could be arrested.

“Love one another.” It sounds so simple but has proven so hard for humanity to do. In biblical Greek, there are several different words for love that distinguish one type from another. The word most often used in the bible is “agape”, which refers to the parental love of God for humans, as well as the human reciprocal love for God. When we love one another, we are loving as God loves. That’s a tall order, isn’t it?

The most frequently used phrase in the bible is “Fear not.” Fear is the greatest obstacle to love. It is so much easier to put up boundaries between ourselves and others than it is to break through those boundaries. Once we put someone or a group of people outside our boundaries of those we will love, what ensues is neglect, injustice, conflict, and ultimately violence.

Yesterday another tragic reminder of how far our society has fallen in its capacity to love occurred. An 18-year-old white man, armed with an AK-47 automatic rifle and live-streaming equipment, drove over 3 hours to a grocery store in a predominantly black neighborhood in Buffalo, NY and shot 13 people, killing at least 10. He shouted racist statements, making it clear why he felt justified in killing these people who were buying food to put on their tables. He named his fear: he felt threatened by the growing number of non-white people in this country. His online social media profile declared him to be a fascist, a white-supremacist, and an anti-Semite. Sadly, this profile is all too familiar today. Their rhetoric is often more nuanced, but the sentiment is festering with more and more political candidates and elected officials using the code phrases in public discourse to promote bigotry and enmity for the sake of votes.

Our reading from Acts, the author of which is the one who wrote the Gospel of Luke, describes Peter becoming “woke” – literally. This is that word which has become an epithet among those who fear losing privilege in society. At first, Peter was not awake, he was asleep. God gave him a vision of something like a sheet upon which all those creatures he wasn’t supposed to eat came raining down. These were animals whose flesh was considered unclean and were forbidden by Jewish law to eat. God told Peter to get up and eat – all these creatures were now considered clean and edible. Peter resisted at first. It is hard to break with tradition, particularly a tradition which gives identity and elevates you, in your own mind, above others. Then Peter awoke from the dream with a new perspective.

Peter’s vision was part of a larger story. Peter was being harshly criticized for eating with gentiles. God’s next divine nudge was to lead Peter to the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Thus, we learn what the vision was really about. It wasn’t about food. Food served as a metaphor for loving. Not only were the creatures God created clean, not to be avoided, so were the people Peter had not considered “clean” – the gentiles. In the words of a child: “God made everybody, and God doesn’t make no junk.” God does not make untouchable, unequal or illegal people. That’s a human judgment, not God’s. The voice of Peter’s vision told him God made no such distinction between any of God’s creatures and shows no partiality. Cornelius and his household became the first gentile converts, thereby entering into Peter’s community of faith.

After Jesus commands in John’s gospel: “Love one another,” he follows with: 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In other words, Jesus was commanding them to love one another, not for their own sakes, they were to witness to Christ by showing the kind of love, agape love, that Jesus had demonstrated to them during his ministry. To hammer the point, Jesus then took the role of a servant and washed his disciples’ feet. The disciples were to go out into the world being witnesses for Christ in the way they cared for others. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus taught this with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Samaritans were considered unclean by the Judean Jews because their lineage included non-Jews. Their ancestral line was deemed “not pure.” In the same way, white racists have coined the term, “legacy Americans” to distinguish themselves from non-whites. It was a Samaritan who helped a man who had been robbed and beaten. He took care of his basic needs providing medical care, food and shelter while the religious leaders passed by him lying in the road.

This quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. joins the reading from John and Acts:

 “Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people…It begins by loving others for their sakes and makes no distinction between a friend and enemy; it is directed toward both…Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community.”

And to that I would add the words of the American academician and philosopher, Cornel West: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” 

In John of Patmos’ vision of “a new heaven” and “a new earth,” we read from Revelation, there is an image of all the ills of the world being wiped away and the world begun anew. Revelation was not the last New Testament chapter written, but it was placed last as a “bookend” to Genesis, the first book of the bible. Genesis begins with creation and Revelation ends the story with “a new creation.” In Genesis, human creation begins in a garden; in Revelation, it begins again in a city – the New Jerusalem. Why a city? A city is made up of people who work together, who are interdependent with each other. We know that the success of a city for providing quality of life for all is for its citizens is dependent on everyone working together for the common good. Our training ground for witnessing to God’s love, our continuing education in love, our launching pad from which to continue Christ’s mission in the world is the Church. Today we express our gratitude and love for members of Westminster who have had anniversaries of their membership in the past three years. Today we also commend Rev. Charles Allen, who served as a minister of the Church, to God’s eternal care. In the backwards fashion of our readings from Acts in the Easter season, we will soon celebrate the birth of the Church on Pentecost. Today we honor the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work through the church today.

To love others as Christ has loved us requires patience, forgiveness, empathy, hope, and a passion for justice. We act on that love with the kind of risk-taking and perseverance with which Christ demonstrated his love for the world. Coming to Christ’s table we are reminded of how difficult it is for us to love as Christ loves. The open table reminds us of the impartiality of God’s love for all. We are nurtured in our Christian mission by the spiritual food we share. As St. Augustine explained, this sacrament is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace that envelops our whole being. It is our vision of the kingdom of God on earth.

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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