05/22/22 – A Whole New World

A WHOLE NEW WORLD

May 22, 2022
6th Sunday of Easter
Acts 16:9-15; Rev. 21:10, 22-22:5; John 5:1-9
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

As usual in the Easter season, we have a gospel reading with Jesus’ farewell instructions to his disciples, a reading from Acts about the beginning of the church and an epistle reading concerning the Church as it grew and spread. In our readings for today, we are led from Jesus’ instructions, which are foundational for a Christian disciple, to the seminal work of Peter and Paul in spreading the gospel beyond the Jewish community, to the struggles of second-century congregations under Roman persecution. Within the context of history and God’s intervention in human history, we see the ever-present tension between human desires and God’s desire for us – the world as it is versus the vision of the world God intends for us.

In each of the three synoptic gospels, Jesus sums up God’s “greatest commandment,” taking a verse from Deuteronomy and a verse from Leviticus: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ In John’s gospel, his final commandment to his disciples is “Love one another as I have loved you.” Love is very specific here. Jesus didn’t go around saying: “I love you,” he demonstrated his love by doing acts of love. He included the excluded, healed the sick, fed the hungry, and spoke truth to those blinded by self-serving untruths. When Jesus commanded his disciples to love others as he had loved them, he was commanding them to do those loving acts that he had done for them and the people he encountered — even for those who might have been considered unlovable. It was their turn to do what Jesus did, as it is now it is ours. We are to act lovingly without expecting receiving in return. We are to heal the broken without any praise or reward; we are to give without receiving — even those people who argue with us, don’t understand us, or don’t do anything to deserve the generosity and love we demonstrate. Isn’t that what Jesus did for his disciples?

In the continuation of Luke’s gospel to the story of the Church’s birth in Acts, we read that Paul had a vision; a visitation of the Holy Spirit that called him to go to a new place, a place he had never thought of, a place and a ministry which had never crossed his mind, a place he probably did not want to go. He had planned to revisit churches he had already started. But God interceded and gave Paul a vision in which a Macedonian man pleaded with Paul to cross the Aegean Sea and bring the Gospel to that land. Paul discerned this event as a calling. So, he and Silas set out, following the route that so many Syrian refugees took when their own government forces, aided by Russia, attacked Syrian citizens, forcing them into mass refugee camps and immigration into other countries. Paul and his companions traveled in a small boat from the northwest coast of Turkey to Macedonia.  From there they worked their way inland to Philippi, which had been named for Philip, Alexander the Great’s father.

At that time Philippi was a Roman colony. The city was established by Emperor Augustus as a reward for the army officers who had served him faithfully. It was also a gold mining center, so money was a cherished commodity. Like affluent Western nations today, Philippi was not fertile ground for Paul’s evangelism. There was only a very small Jewish population in Philippi, which had no synagogue. But unlike Western society today, Roman law hindered rather than helped Christian churches. Roman law limited their ability to gather for worship by denying them the right to do so within the city gates.

When Paul and Silas went to the river, outside the city gates, to worship he encountered a group of women. They might have written Lydia off as a target for evangelism. She was a woman and a gentile. As a purveyor of purple cloth, colored with an expensive dye, she rubbed elbows with the rich and powerful, not a large demographic in the early Christian movement. Paul looked beyond the boundaries of gender, religion, and socio-economic class and engaged her in conversation. He interacted with Lydia as she was, not as he may have wanted her to be.

Lydia was a character in a series of dramas Luke uses to reveal the lack of boundaries to Jesus’ Great Commission. At this point, the readers of Acts have already met the Ethiopian eunuch and the Roman centurion, Cornelius, who was baptized. Lydia was a God-fearer like Cornelius, who became the first non-Jew baptized by an apostle. Lydia became the first European Christian convert according to Acts.

In some ways, Lydia was a first-century version of what we call “spiritual, but not religious.” She did not practice the religion in which she was brought up. She was looking for something more. She was looking for the kind of peace that Jesus described in our gospel reading, “peace not as the world gives.” Lydia sensed she was lacking something more valuable than her wealth and prestige.

Luke makes it clear that Paul did not “accomplish” Lydia’s conversion. By the power of the Holy Spirit, she, like Cornelius and the Ethiopian Eunuch, was a person already primed to hear what Paul had to say. She found the peace she was seeking, the peace that our gospel reading from John tells us that Jesus promised to give to all who believed in him. This peace was not as the world of the rich and the powerful that she dealt with could give her, but the peace that ‘passes all understanding,’ as Paul describes in Philippians 4 (v.7). Isn’t that what all of us are seeking? Isn’t that what the church should work toward providing for all who enter into fellowship here? Luke wants us to notice what Lydia does immediately after being baptized. Lydia’s response to her baptism was to offer hospitality. She opened her home to Paul and Silas. We know from Paul’s writing that Lydia continued to offer her home as a house church and supported his missionary work financially.

John who lived in exile on the island of Patmos and authored the book of Revelation wrote against the backdrop of a world that operated on a different set of values – a world like ours today. It is easy to get lost in the poetic, apocalyptic, highly symbolic language of Revelation. Yet, the passage we just read this morning is one of the most popular pieces of scripture for funerals. In that context, the focus is on the phrase, “a new heaven” rather than “a new earth.” The author of the Gospel of John wrote: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17) John of Patmos revealed his vision of heaven on earth. John saw a world transformed by Christ’s love, not a world that was taken up into heaven. In Christ, God came down to earth to “dwell with them”  — humanity.

John describes a “river of the water of life” and “the tree of life,” which reveal the abundance of the Lord’s new creation. God’s holy light illuminates all eternity. Taking an image from the other bible book written in apocalyptic style, Daniel, John assures the persecuted Christians they are ‘written in the book of life.’ In the future, all inhabitants of the earth will fall down in eternal worship of Jesus, the Lamb of God. John describes in his “vision” that the nations will be healed.

“Nations” is a political term. In our current situation, we certainly don’t see politics as “healing.” In fact, national politics exhibit the opposite. John’s vision, like the Old Testament prophets, envisions a world in which political authorities submit themselves to God’s will for the world, not a world in which political authorities subvert God’s will to their own or falsely claim they are acting for God.

As I mentioned in my sermon last week, the book of Revelation was not the last New Testament book written, but it was placed at the end of the canon to serve as a bookend with Genesis, the first book of the bible. The first humans are forced out of God’s Garden because of their disobedience in Genesis. In Revelation, God comes down to dwell in an earthly city. Humanity, which was divided by linguistic boundaries in Genesis described in the story of the Tower of Babel, is brought back together, healed of its divisions in Revelation. The healing of the nations is portrayed as a city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. Referring to the renewed creation of the earth as the New Jerusalem tells us God’s plan for the earth’s renewal is in continuity with the God’s original Chosen People, the covenant made with them, the temple, and their history. The new Jerusalem will have no temple because Jesus is present, God’s reconciliation with humanity is all-encompassing, and worship is continual. Thus, there is no need for a temple that places a spatial boundary for worship or provides a sanctuary from the world. It is by the interactive love of God and humanity and within the sphere of humanity on earth that the nations of John’s vision will become a reality.

For our part in living into God’s vision for humanity, we must break through the boundaries that create enmity. Like Christ, we are to act lovingly without the expectation of receiving love in return. We are to heal the broken, even those people who argue with us, don’t understand us, or don’t do anything we believe deserves the generosity and love we demonstrate. Jesus did it for those obstinate, ignorant, and self-centered disciples. Jesus does it for us and calls us to follow his example by demonstrating love and practicing peace with presence, humility, hospitality, and generosity without judgment. We live into God’s vision of new earth in which there is no more crying and no more death by ceasing our own death-dealing. As our scripture readings for today attest, with the power of the Holy Spirit as our strength, Christ as our guide, and God as the source of our love, we can live into God’s vision of an “earth as it is in heaven.”

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
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