Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 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 they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Gospel of John 13:31-35
When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Our two stories today, from the book of the Acts of the Apostles and from the gospel of John, stand on two sides of the main event of the New Testament: the death and resurrection of Jesus. In John’s gospel, we sit with the disciples hear a sliver of Jesus’ final words to his disciples, a deep and abiding command as he faced down his final hours. Jesus knows what he is headed towards. He has known for a very long time that the end is coming, that his ministry and his very self has put him in a dangerous position. He is not going to survive this Passover. And as he looks around at the disciples, the men and women who have loyally followed him but often deeply understood him, he begs them: When I am gone, love each other.
And in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we stand with Peter and the believers in Jerusalem, asking, Who are we going to be now that Jesus is gone? Jesus had not left instructions as to what to do with the Gentiles. Jesus had been Jewish. All the disciples of Jesus were Jewish. The Gentiles weren’t part of the conversation. They were foreigners, moving into the holy city of Jerusalem and its surrounding lands but not joining the people of God. They were Roman soldiers, symbols of the oppressing powers who crushed the Jewish people with taxes and punishments. They were Greeks, worshippers of logic and philosophy, keeping their hair cut short. They were Moabites and Samaritans, people who had long shared the land with Jews but had not converted to their religion. Many other people had been forcibly brought into Jerusalem and Judea by the Roman powers, forcing them to resettle in a land that wasn’t their own. All of these people, these Gentiles, had come into God’s holy land but did not follow the rules. They ate pork, they worked on the Sabbath, they did not join the covenant of circumcision that the Jewish people had so long kept. They were unclean and they were trouble. The dividing lines between the Jewish people and the Gentiles were vast, and now Peter -- Peter! the disciple who had seen Jesus on the mountaintop in glory, who had known Jesus so well and stumbled so much and been forgiven again and again -- now Peter was associating with them, was sharing meals with them and even baptizing them in the name of Jesus. Peter was breaking the rules that had guided the Jewish community for centuries: we do not share meals with Gentiles, we do not go into their houses, and we certainly do not believe that they are acceptable to God.
From two sides of the main event, we stand in conversation. Who are we going to be, now that Jesus is gone and we are on our own? What does it mean that Jesus said “love each other”?
It seems so obvious to us today. I’m not Jewish, and I would guess most of us in the room aren’t either. We want to believe that the rule of love means we have a seat at the table, too. But it was a hard choice for Peter and the other disciples -- a hard choice to accept that love might take them that far. Such a hard choice, in fact, that nothing less than a terrifying vision of a bedsheet full of pigs and lizards and the honest-to-goodness appearance of the Holy Spirit herself was going to convince them that “love each other” was a message for the Gentiles, too.
The church in the first years after Jesus’ death was a church facing drastic change. They had been moved in ways they never expected, been brought together in places they never dreamed of. But now, they felt like they’d lost their center of gravity. What was supposed to hold the community together now? I’m sure that doesn’t sound like a familiar story at all…
In the face of change that was impossible to imagine, Jesus offered his followers this promise: love was going to be the constant. Love, not rules or foods or traditions or locations, was going to be what kept them together. It was the best commandment Jesus could give -- and the hardest. Human love is tricky. If human love wants to hold too hard, we shake it off. If human love holds too loosely, we can slip away. We see it in our teenage selves and in our children, how love alone does not perfectly solve all our problems. And we see it in Peter and the disciples in Jerusalem, who loved the rules and traditions that helped guide how they lived godly lives. Our love can be stubborn, even misguided. Our love for one thing can be a stumbling-block for loving something else. Peter loved the law, carefully followed the rules for what was clean to eat and what was not -- and God dropped a sheet full of unclean foods into his lap and said, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”
See, human love can be tricky, stubborn, even misguided. But in the face of that, God’s love does not stop knocking. God’s love is not bound by rule-following, or location, or speech, or nationality. God’s love keeps on going. Persistent, hopeful, even frustrating in its grace -- God’s love is passionately and compassionately looking for us, always. And it is to that kind of love that Jesus called his disciples.
No problem, right.
Love gets even messier now, because love as a constant, love as the one thing that doesn’t change, love as the final commandment needs community. Jesus did not ask the disciples to love each other abstractly, as a nice idea. Jesus asked them to love each other as he had loved them: to be radically forgiving, impossibly hopeful, prepared for change in ways they couldn’t imagine. And that kind of love needs community. Love that needs community starts right at the heart of God, who is one and strangely also three, who is the source of love and the receiver and the sender. Love needing community starts right at the beginning of the biblical story, walking with us through the many journeys of God’s people and saying again and again: To do this, you need each other. At the beginning of creation, we needed each other to be human; it is not good for man to be alone. We needed each other to care for the earth, to tell the stories of God, to walk across the Red Sea, to reach the Promised Land, to survive the exile in Babylon, to come home and try to rebuild only to find ourselves enslaved and oppressed again and again. There are many stories of the Bible, and this is one: to know God’s love, we need each other.
That same theme spills into the rest of our lives. Love needing community is not a story told only by the Bible. Love needing community is how we make our marriage vows, how we raise our children, how we build our neighborhoods -- hoping that by caring for each other and working together for the good of all, we might make the world a better place. Love needing community filled the streets of Minneapolis when we lost a beloved musician this last week. Love needing community is what drives so many artists to create and offer up their work, and what drives so many of us to love art and music: not only because we know the maker but often because through their work, we come to know ourselves better.
Love needing community can be found in many corners of our world. But Jesus especially commands the disciples -- and us -- to this kind of love in the church. Love that needs community is how the world will know we are disciples of Christ.
Love needing community in church is love that calls for listening, love that trusts the witness of the other. This is the kind of love that can read the psalms even if we don’t believe them. The kind of love that can say, Maybe today I am not feeling joyous and praise-filled, but someone who I love is, and with them, I will say Hallelujah. Love listens.
Love needing community in church is love that forgives. This is the kind of love that begins worship every week with a confession: the world is broken and we are broken, and we hold God to the promise that we are offered something greater than brokenness. Love forgives.
Love needing community in church is love that speaks. This is the kind of love that looks for shared language, that raises up the common themes in our stories and in the stories of scripture. We call this part of worship the word: the words of scripture, the words of prayer, the words of peace we exchange with each other. Love speaks.
And finally, love needing community in church is love that looks for the signs of God. Each week, in worship, we are offered a visible sign of God’s grace: the bread and wine of communion. On the same night when Jesus said “Love one another,” he said “Do this in remembrance of me.” We break bread and share wine because it is more than bread and wine -- it is an embodiment of Jesus’ promise to be with us, always, until the end of the age. Love needing community in church needs communion.
You see, the kind of community Jesus offered his disciples wasn’t going to be marked by total resolution. They were not going to be perfectly faithful, or absolutely righteous, or insanely rich. They were going to fight over their differences, to grit their teeth, to wish the other would just once see it from their side. And they were going to keep going anyway. And when I tell you that story, I hope you hear it echoed in your own.
We are love needing community, Grace. We are love needing community because you have served so many and so well with community dinners and a neighborhood food shelf. We are love needing community because you have worked your way through many years of change, through gritted teeth and anxious nights, through budget revisions and staff changes. We are love needing community because you have found ways to be church together, to be one body of people that finds its edges ever expanding to let in others who surprise you. But at the very end of it all, we will find that we are love needing community because of Jesus -- because of the model of love that reaches out, over and over, to call us home.
Hymn of the Day: Blest Be the Tie that Binds
1 Blest be the tie that binds
our hearts in Christian love;
the fellowship of kindred minds
is like to that above.
2 Before our Father's throne
we pour our ardent prayers;
our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
our comforts and our cares.
3 We share our mutual woes,
our mutual burdens bear,
and often for each other flows
the sympathizing tear.
4 From sorrow, toil, and pain,
and sin, we shall be free;
and perfect love and friendship reign
through all eternity.