The Rev. Amy Spagna Easter 5C – April 24, 2016 Acts 11:1-‐‑18, John 13:31-‐‑35
When I was in elementary school, I was a proud card-‐‑carrying member of the Lunchbox Crew. The privilege of buying lunch in the cafeteria, instead of bringing it from home, was a rare treat. Usually that meant my sainted mother hadn’t had time to bake bread for sandwiches. Regardless, the dollar she handed me on the way out the door on those days meant getting to savor the opportunity to stand in line with the other kids, peering over the sneeze guards to see what the cafeteria ladies were serving up. One of their more wonderful offerings was a triple-‐‑decker peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the best any kid could want – the kind where the peanut butter oozes out the sides and the middle layer of bread somehow just got subsumed into what it was trying to hold together. On one non-‐‑lunchbox day when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I had my heart set on one of those PB&J’s, so much so I could almost taste those gooey layers by the time our class’ lunchtime rolled around. So you can imagine my shock and horror when there magically appeared on my tray… a meatball sub. Meatballs?! On a hot dog bun?! What a disaster! Now, I’d been taught to accept what I was served gratefully, but by the time the line snaked its way up to the cash register, I was really distraught. How could I possibly eat such a thing as a meatball sandwich, even though I was having trouble finding the words to ask for what I really wanted?
We find Peter in more or less the same spot today. While he’s not standing in a school cafeteria line, he does have to try to make sense out of something which, at first glance, doesn’t make much sense at all. He’s had a vision, from God, in which he’s presented with a buffet of proteins to make any chef envious. However, there is nothing on that buffet which he can eat, thanks to his adherence to Jewish dietary laws. If he touches any of it, he will become ritually unclean. It’s absolutely repulsive, and unthinkable to him, until the voice from heaven tells him 3 times that he can have whatever he wants, without penalty. Once Peter snaps out of the trance which produced this vision, he’s puzzled. While he does know there’s a real-‐‑world application for what he’s just seen, initially he is not sure what that is. His confusion is only lifted after three messengers arrive, and ask him to go and visit with the Roman centurion Cornelius. While he is a Gentile, Cornelius is, by all accounts, an, “upright and God-‐‑fearing man, who is well-‐‑spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” (Acts10:22, NRSV). The very next day, Peter goes with these messengers to meet with Cornelius. What he finds is exactly as the messengers describe: a Gentile who has come to believe in Christ, and whom Peter can find no reason not to baptize.
When Peter returns to Jerusalem, and has to report all this to community there, the consequences are nothing less than staggering. The conservative Jewish Christians who made up most of the membership were uneasy at best when it came to interacting with Gentiles. However, Peter’s story serves to completely change their understanding of who Jesus is, including who Jesus is FOR. The vision of the buffet, along with the baptism of Cornelius, vision has hammers home the theme that Jesus is for EVERYONE, regardless of whatever heritage they may claim. Peter is among the first to recognize that it does not matter: “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?”
It’s a devastating realization for him, and for those who were listening… because it requires changing, fundamentally, their understanding of “community” – beginning and ending with the God who was the reason for its being. The Early Church really struggled with the issue of who should be included as a “real” follower of Jesus. Fortunately for us, they were led to the conclusion that the old rules about belonging didn’t hold water any more. They’ve been superseded by Jesus’ death and resurrection – events which served to open up yet another pathway to God for anyone who came to believe in him.
This episode also serves to demonstrate how Peter, and the rest of the disciples, have taken Jesus’ final commandment to love one another to a whole new level. By hearing, and acting on, God’s direction to welcome Gentiles into their community, they’ve pushed its boundaries outward. They’ve put into practice the realization that this commandment is not intended only as the introduction to a long, final lecture given to a select group of graduate students. The Resurrection, and subsequent spreading of Jesus’ message throughout the world like wildfire, have transformed into a do-‐‑or-‐‑die thing. Peter’s vision only reinforces the reality that there is no choice in loving one another in the same way God loves us. It is THE requirement for joining the ragtag group of disciples which had gathered to break bread with Jesus. Of course, there is one small catch. The kind of love Jesus talks about here is the kind God shows for the world, not the friendly kind of affection you and I might feel for each other. The English language does not easily distinguish between them.
However, there are two different verbs for “love” in Greek: phileo, to be fond of others as I am fond of my human friends; and agapao, to love another to the point of death, as God loves us. Jesus uses agapao appears three times in delivering this final directive. The repetition serves to hammer home that his intention – and that of his Father -‐‑ is that his disciples love one another with the same reckless abandon as he does. To do so does not mean entertaining a sweet, sentimental feeling. Instead, it requires taking the action of putting one’s love into a lived context.1
For Jesus, that meant allowing himself to be murdered in a very public and brutal way, and then allowing God to take care of the rest. Peter’s realization, not all that long afterward, points to how the consequences are universal, and not limited to a group of people which had come to believe in God in a particular way. God’s love is given freely, without being restricted to a specially chosen group of people, and at the expense of others. In Peter’s context, that means it applies to those who do not share his Jewish heritage. And, it’s up to him to help open the doors and welcome them into the Christian community. It’s a really audacious claim to say that God chose everyone, not just a small group. By making it, Peter runs the real risk of getting the boot from his leadership position, having people call him a heretic, or worse. Fortunately for him, his audience believes him, and is willing to act on the basis of that belief. But, it doesn’t come without a fundamental change in their understanding of God’s very nature – a change which can be very tough to process on an intellectual level. That tough processing can all but shut down the rest of the system while it’s happening. Once it’s done, however, what we’re left with is a way of being which has a tendency to make us so much more than what we are – if only we will allow God to take what we have, bless it, break and share it.
Embracing this new kind of life is inherently risky. It involves far more than just whether we get meatballs when we want a PB&J (and didn’t tell anyone about it!), or whether we can go right ahead and pick up that lobster with a side of bacon-‐‑wrapped
1 Karyn Wiseman, “Commentary on John 13:31-‐‑35.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1621
scallops. We risk that our long-‐‑held assumptions about who we are, both as a community and as individuals, might be challenged and overturned. Despite the new and improved version we get back in the process, losing a piece of our identity is no picnic. We are still challenged to engage with people who are, for all intents and purposes, outsiders of one sort or another. Just as Peter was, we are called to be very deliberate about including them. They are EVERYWHERE – most especially, they are the ones who don’t look, or talk, or act like us, or who aren’t “from here.” What we lose in daring to be in authentic relationship with them is our own fear over how the peanut butter will be chunky when we expected creamy, or the jelly will be grape when we wanted strawberry. Instead, we get so much more: the endless buffet of knowing, serving, and loving other people as God loves us.