I had the privilege of presenting this sermon at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Sacramento, Calif., on April 24, 2016. While the individual discussed is relevant today, the message is intended to be applicable every day.
The Acts text is a long one, about Peter's vision on the rooftop. You can find it here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+11%3A1-18&version=NIV
The Gospel is John 13:33-35 and is below.
DID I STUTTER?
(In speaking to his disciples) Jesus said, “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
THIS is the Word of God.
"LOVE one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another." And there it is. Stated so clearly, only a colossal fool would try to improve on Jesus' clear instructions, a person so presumptuous…
Hello, my name is Jim Guida. And here I am. Because never have our lives needed to hear these words, as we are inundated with messages of hate - a combination of the wrong person having the ear of the world through the most advanced communications in history. And though I am loathe to bring politics to the pulpit, these actions must be addressed, and if NOT from the pulpit, then where?
Our troubles, however, should not be with a troubled man who "speaks his mind," but in his hundreds of thousands of followers who feel they are now allowed to act on his messages of hate, xenophobia, racism, sexism and entitlement at the cost of others, to name a few of his traits. Although I pray that a year from now, he will be an embarrassing blip on our political landscape, we must acknowledge him and his crusade against everything we teach in a loving, Christian church. If you are going to be offended, know that Rev. Lorie will be back in the pulpit next week. But I will not apologize, taking my strength and inspiration from religious leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I am not calling anyone my enemy, but I know words of hate when I hear them and I will not remain silent when I am given the chance to speak. Nor should you. And when we speak, we must do so clearly and without hesitation.
If you are concerned if this is appropriate for church, I give you James 3:17, which tells us "the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness." Compare that to the sound bites which assail our eyes and ears every day from the campaign trail.
What is so easy to forget these days is that there is a difference in letting your beliefs inform your political choices and letting your politics enforce your religion.
Jesus tells us to "love one another." And while we are in church, that is easy. I'm usually sitting over there and it is very easy to love Diana and Gail, Donna Roberts and Donna Tabaie and Ralph and Fran Congden. This is a loving church family and we are blessed to be a part of it. But what about outside these walls - the other six days and 23 hours? Loving each other in the real world is not as easy and it is less so when we are given permission by a leading political figure to act out our worst feelings.
"Love one another." Moses may have had a stutter, but not Jesus. Jesus doesn't say, "Except for the different-faithed. And the foreigners. And those people" - whoever "those people" might be. "As I have loved you, so you must love one another." And to be sure, Jesus did not expect this message to end with his immediate disciples, but to be passed on through the ages, to today and beyond.
We can - and should - fight hate, in all its forms, in everything we say and do. However, we do not defeat hate with hate. Going back to Dr. King I am reminded that "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." And so we use the greatest weapon at our disposal to fight against those who speak against the commandment Jesus gave us - to love. Love God. Love ourselves. Love our neighbors. Love our enemies. Not tolerate, but love, aggressively and in Jesus' light. And we must do so clearly, making certain that our words and our actions are as Jesus taught us to be.
Peter was given this challenge, as we learned in the reading so well done by Juli. Thank you, Juli - I know that was a long passage.
If you don't know your Old Testament, when Peter declines God's direct to "Kill and eat," Peter is referring to the laws from the book of Leviticus, which includes us a long list - I mean REALLY long list - of "do's and don'ts." Mostly "don'ts" - among them a list of things we are not to eat and people with whom we are not to consort, including Fortune Tellers, Prostitutes and Gentiles - that is, non-Jews. But Leviticus also contains the most important passage in the entire Old Testament. Leviticus 19 tells us to "Love our Neighbor as we love ourselves."
So this idea of "love" is not new to Jesus in this reading nor is it new to those who know the world of God found in the Jewish Bible - our Old Testament. Yet, Christ says, "A new commandment I give to you." Why, then, is this a "new" commandment?
Jesus is no longer telling his disciples to "love your neighbor" as one human should love another in brotherly love.
The love that Jesus requires of his disciples is to be of the kind with which he has loved them. The word for this is "agape," and if that sounds familiar, it's because it hangs on the wall of this church as a name for one of our rooms.
Agápē embraces a universal, unconditional love that transcends brotherly love and serves regardless of circumstances. We can probably best experience this as the love our parents had for us or as we have for our children. Translation: they can get away with pretty much anything and even when punishment is meted out, it is not a vindictive, judgmental punishment, but one which says, "Think about your actions so you will do better next time." And while this is easier when dealing with a beloved child, it is almost impossible in human terms in dealing with one another in the adult world. It is just not our nature. Jesus is asking us to live a love that will bring peace to the world by its sacrificial quality. it will be a love that does not ask questions about worthiness, but simply give itself in humble service, as Christ did for us.
So how do we live a life of sacrifice? In a very real sense, we could follow Peter's example. In our reading, we learn that while waiting for lunch, Peter fell into a trance. I would say "took a nap," but that's me.
"He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”"
I admit that perhaps because I am a vegetarian, I find this a little creepy. But as we learn, this was not about food. It was about Creator God's gift of Christ and the message of God's will - not the letter, but the will - that Jesus brought to us. Historically, the Jews believed that only they were worthy of the teachings and of following Jesus of Nazareth. But Peter - remember, it was Peter who was the first to claim Jesus as the Messiah - who understood this message, especially in light of the visitors immediately after Peter's vision.
As it was afternoon by now and more than a day's journey to Caesarea from Joppa, Peter and his group left the next day. The round trip from Caesarea to Joppa is about three days travel if you are going by foot. Now ask yourself - in a modern context, would you travel three days round-trip for a stranger, with no remuneration for your travels? Would you make a ten-hour drive from here to Salt Lake City, just because a stranger asked you to do so?. It's not likely that we would do it. Yet, that is the kind of sacrifice that Jesus asks of us in our acts of love. So imagine how easy it is for us, in comparison, to "feed the hungry" by working at the food closet; to "visit the sick" by reaching out to a neighbor or church member who can't make it to service; "clothe the naked" by sharing your wardrobe with the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services or with Loaves and Fishes.
It is your choice to live the life of love that Jesus wants for all of us. And do so freely, knowing that a life of Christ IS a life of love.
"By this," Jesus tells us, "everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
While we cannot avoid the ramblings of a man who speaks his mind - a mind that is clearly so narcissistic as to be dangerous - we can do better for ourselves. We do not need to speak our mind - because our Christian heart and the deeds that come from our faith - speaks volumes.