The Least, First

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Scandalous, barrier-scorning love (sermon of May 6, 07)

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Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 6, 2007
John 13:31-35, Revelation 21:1-6, Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148

– hand out a sheet of 8.5 X 11 paper to each person (from the recycle bin);
– tape used flipchart sheets over windows (white-side facing us);
– set an empty chair on the platform and conceal it with a sheet of flipchart paper hanging in front of it

Music: Indescribable, Light the Fire, Bind Us Together, The Servant Song, I Am Loved

Prayer – Pastor Sharon Armstrong
Welcome – Evie Richardson

John 13:31-35: A New Command

31-32When he had left, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is seen for who he is, and God seen for who he is in him. The moment God is seen in him, God’s glory will be on display. In glorifying him, he himself is glorified—glory all around! 33″Children, I am with you for only a short time longer. You are going to look high and low for me. But just as I told the [other] Jews, I’m telling you: ‘Where I go, you are not able to come.’

34-35″Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”

We’re on the eve before the cross. This last talk of Jesus to his disciples started back at the chapter’s beginning – and the topic was the same: “having loved his own … he loved them to the end.” And he strips off his clothing … and does the servant’s servant’s work: washing their feet. Then he tells of the upcoming betrayal, Judas leaves, and Jesus gives them this “new commandment.”

Jesus strips off his symbols of privilege, chooses to serve – chooses to wash their feet. And goes to the cross.

But look: [John 10:17-18] The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.

Lawrence talks about “the frequent absence of choice on the part of the “servant”, so that self-sacrifice is actually more often than not a cover-up for victim hood and the crushing of “self” (eg the ways in which women have been forced to take the “servant-role” in a patriarchal society, which means little more than exploitation and oppression). [ S0 we see “servant” as a condition of “ought” or “must”. ] John presents Jesus as the one with the power to choose the way of the servant: to look at the options and deliberately to embrace self-sacrifice with his eyes wide open. This is love in action.

Freely chosen servanthood. Freely chosen love. This is at the core of the gospel.

Now, look at the end of the text: How will people know that others are disciples of Jesus? “…when they see the love you have for each other.” So OK, we better shame people into acting nice, right? No? Then how?

I don’t know how. But that is the question we’re wrestling with. That’s why we’re holding back from launching programs and getting busy. Somehow, the church is to become fast-breeder reactor – an environment where love grows.

And let me show you the kind of thing that happens as a result. Here we are after Jesus has gone to heaven. Peter has been with Gentiles – strictly against the rules. He goes back to Jerusalem, and gets “called on the carpet”:

Acts 11:1-18 God Has Broken Through [Dan Henderson, with help from Terry Hagedorn and Lyndon Hershberger, acted this out]

1-3The news traveled fast and in no time the leaders and friends back in Jerusalem heard about it—heard that the non-Jewish “outsiders” were now “in.” When Peter got back to Jerusalem, some of his old associates, concerned about circumcision, called him on the carpet: “What do you think you’re doing rubbing shoulders with that crowd, eating what is prohibited and ruining our good name?” 4-6So Peter, starting from the beginning, laid it out for them step-by-step: “Recently I was in the town of Joppa praying. I fell into a trance and saw a vision: Something like a huge blanket, lowered by ropes at its four corners, came down out of heaven and settled on the ground in front of me. Milling around on the blanket were farm animals, wild animals, reptiles, birds—you name it, it was there. Fascinated, I took it all in.

7-10″Then I heard a voice: ‘Go to it, Peter—kill and eat.’ I said, ‘Oh, no, Master. I’ve never so much as tasted food that wasn’t kosher.’ The voice spoke again: ‘If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.’ This happened three times, and then the blanket was pulled back up into the sky.

11-14″Just then three men showed up at the house where I was staying, sent from Caesarea to get me. The Spirit told me to go with them, no questions asked. So I went with them, I and six friends, to the man who had sent for me. He told us how he had seen an angel right in his own house, real as his next-door neighbor, saying, ‘Send to Joppa and get Simon, the one they call Peter. He’ll tell you something that will save your life—in fact, you and everyone you care for.’

15-17″So I started in, talking. Before I’d spoken half a dozen sentences, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as he did on us the first time. I remembered Jesus’ words: ‘John baptized with water; you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So I ask you: If God gave the same exact gift to them as to us when we believed in the Master Jesus Christ, how could I object to God?”

18Hearing it all laid out like that, they quieted down. And then, as it sank in, they started praising God. “It’s really happened! God has broken through to the other nations, opened them up to Life!”

This story is so important that Luke includes it twice in Acts. That’s a lot of ink. Must be something here that God really wants the church to know.

In fact, it has changed Peter’s mind about the way in which God works. And because the church was love’s fast-breeder reactor, when the others heard it, they were willing to be changed, too.

L: Not only has it abolished the distinction between Jews and Gentiles that has operated since the conquest and settlement of the land, and which is central to [their] understanding of covenant, but it has therefore transformed [their] understanding of who God is and how God works.

Love tears down barriers. It is barrier-busting. It refuses distinctions and walls – just like Jesus took off his prestige, crossed barriers, and chose to serve by washing their feet, so now God directs Peter to go to people he has been taught were “dirty” all his life.

L: It’s grace – love-in-action. Peter has come to understand that God’s passion to save the world means that there are no “no-go areas” for God.

Remember what happened in the Temple when Jesus died on the cross? The curtain that protected the place where God’s presence dwelt was torn in two. [At this point, I turned to the chair concealed by paper on the platform, and ripped the paper in two, then peer inside. ] Who’s there? [No one answered here, fearing a trick question, I suppose!] No one!

Where is God? He is at the cross, having left the holy place and moved into the worst places of the world.

And the result in the church, from John? The new command: to tear down the barriers between us. [I asked them to hold papers up between their faces and the next person’s face, and tear the papers in two]

And the result to the world? Peter’s story about barrier-busting toward the gentiles. [I ran to a window, and ripped the paper down the middle giving a clear view outside, then asked others to rip the paper off the other windows.] Love grew in the fast-breeder reactor of the church, then exploded out the windows, everywhere, to everyone.

L: Something incredibly important is happening here. With the gospel to the Gentiles, Christianity is wrenched from its roots in Judaism. This is what “grace” means in the Christian vocabulary: a smashing of the boundaries that keep people apart and which keep God away.

This is the radical difference of the New Testament from all that’s come before. And when Christian groups don’t make this distinction between N.T. and O.T., don’t see this “new commandment” as truly new, Christianity becomes about division, about who’s wrong and what’s bad and what we don’t do and who we don’t fellowship with – entirely missing the point of this barrier breaking new way of love! Entirely missing the point of all Jesus has done: the radical “going” to those places and people with whom we would naturally have division, and going not with condemnation, but love!

Now, let’s see where it’s headed. As I read, look for direction words – which way are things moving here?

Revelation 21:1-6: Everything New

1I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. 2I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. 3-5I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.” 6-8Then he said, “It’s happened. I’m A to Z. I’m the Beginning, I’m the Conclusion. From Water-of-Life Well I give freely to the thirsty. Conquerors inherit all this. I’ll be God to them, they’ll be sons and daughters to me. But for the rest—the feckless and faithless, degenerates and murderers, sex peddlers and sorcerers, idolaters and all liars—for them it’s Lake Fire and Brimstone. Second death!”

Which way are things moving? The new Jerusalem is descending. God has moved. He now makes his home with men and women. We don’t talk this way. We talk of men and women going to be with God – not of him coming to be among us. We think of heaven as off somewhere else, someplace to which we go. But listen to a really daring idea:

L: …what the biblical writers tell us! Heaven is re-created earth. It’s this world, transformed into the Kingdom of God. That’s what John the Seer tells us. “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah. And he shall reign forever and ever!” In Revelation, the direction is always from heaven to earth, not away from earth to heaven!

Look at this vision of John’s: heaven comes down to earth! God “pitches tent” among mortals. And because of God’s presence, the world is transformed. There is no more death, sorrow, crying or pain. Instead, all things have become new.

Gives new meaning to “bringing in the Kingdom of God.” Jesus lays aside privilege, comes to earth. Chooses to serve. Commands us to love like that. Dies on the cross – by choice. Peter discovers God has torn down divisions between them and others. The church embraces it.

Surely it was ever God’s plan to turn the church into the fast-breeder reactor of love, then to let love loose in the world, until the whole world was transformed by it.

Let me close with the ending to Bishop Desmond Tutu’s acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. You’ll remember Bishop Tutu as one of the architects of the “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions” that offered healing to victims and to perpetrators of race crimes in South Africa:

Because there is global insecurity, nations are engaged in a mad arms race, spending billions of dollars wastefully on instruments of destruction, when millions are starving. And yet, just a fraction of what is expended so obscenely on defense budgets would make the difference in enabling God’s children to fill their stomachs, be educated, and given the chance to lead fulfilled and happy lives. We have the capacity to feed ourselves several times over, but we are daily haunted by the spectacle of the gaunt dregs of humanity shuffling along in endless queues, with bowls to collect what the charity of the world has provided, too little too late. When will we learn, when will the people of the world get up and say, Enough is enough. God created us for fellowship. God created us so that we should form the human family, existing together because we were made for one another. We are not made for an exclusive self-sufficiency but for interdependence, and we break the law of our being at our peril. When will we learn that an escalated arms race merely escalates global insecurity? We are now much closer to a nuclear holocaust than when our technology and our spending were less.

Unless we work assiduously so that all of God’s children, our brothers and sisters, members of our one human family, all will enjoy basic human rights, the right to a fulfilled life, the right of movement, of work, the freedom to be fully human, with a humanity measured by nothing less than the humanity of Jesus Christ Himself, then we are on the road inexorably to self-destruction, we are not far from global suicide; and yet it could be so different.

When will we learn that human beings are of infinite value because they have been created in the image of God, and that it is a blasphemy to treat them as if they were less than this and to do so ultimately recoils on those who do this? In dehumanizing others, they are themselves dehumanized. Perhaps oppression dehumanizes the oppressor as much as, if not more than, the oppressed. They need each other to become truly free, to become human. We can be human only in fellowship, in community, in koinonia, in peace.

Let us work to be peacemakers, those given a wonderful share in Our Lord’s ministry of reconciliation. If we want peace, so we have been told, let us work for justice. Let us beat our swords into ploughshares.

God calls us to be fellow workers with Him, so that we can extend His Kingdom of Shalom, of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, joy and reconciliation, so that the kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever. Amen. Then there will be a fulfillment of the wonderful vision in the Revelation of St. John the Divine (Rev. 6:9ff):

9. After this I beheld, and lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations and kindreds and people and tongues, stood before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands,

10. And cried with a loud voice saying, “Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb”.

11. And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God

12. saying, “Amen; Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be unto our God forever and ever. Amen”.

What a revolution would sweep the world if we who follow Jesus excelled in that which he most urged upon us! What a different world it would be if we who follow Jesus were recognized by that which he desired to be our signature characteristic!

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