Every now and then one or another of my more conservative colleagues will listen to us celebrating the ways in which the church has become more inclusive and welcoming to all kinds of different people, and he or she will throw out some Bible verse that is supposed to make us all feel ashamed for abandoning Scriptures. It always seems to come as a surprise when I don’t take the expected “limits of translation” or “cultural differences” argument, and instead go straight to the Bible itself. Specifically, the book of Acts, which tells story after story of the early church having to let go of what their tradition had taught them and allow room for the Holy Spirit to act in new ways, to bring the good news of God’s love to all sorts of people. And in particular I bring up this story that you heard recounted this morning, in which Peter tells of God challenging him to let go of the religious beliefs and practices that were integral to his sense of himself. It may be difficult for us to comprehend how rules about food were so deeply ingrained in his identity that the thought of eating pork or lobster was repulsive. If we only think about this in terms of food, we won’t understand why he was willing to argue with God about it. God wasn’t just asking him to widen his menu. God was asking him to toss out all his preconceived notions about who is allowed into God’s kingdom. The story isn’t about what Peter’s going to have for dinner—it’s about who Peter is going to have dinner with.
I don’t make room for the possibility that God loves everybody because I’m some bleeding-heart hippie. I do it because I am not God and God has said that I am not allowed to call profane anything—or anyone—God has made clean. I do it because, like Peter, I take very seriously the question, “Who am I that I could hinder God?”
(For those of you who feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of leaving the door so widely open, I point you to another story in Acts 5, when Gamaliel, a leader of the Sanhedrin, argues that they should stop expending so much energy trying to make the disciples stop teaching about Jesus, because, “if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’)
Or, as I said to someone this week, “I do love the Bible…but I love God more.”
I think I’m in good company. Assuming you think Jesus is good company.
On the night before he died, did he go over a long list of do’s and don’t with his disciples? No. He distilled it down to one rule, a new commandment. Love one another. Love one another the way Jesus loved us, and the whole world will take notice. Jesus wasn’t singing some sweet little song about how we should all get along. He was being subversive.
In that society, reputation was everything. Honor and shame were the currency of power, and “glory” was a sign of an abundance of the former. Having a good reputation would open all sorts of doors—but of course, one had to protect one’s reputation. Couldn’t risk being seen with the wrong sort of people.
Then here comes Jesus, hanging out with tax collectors and sinners. Interacting with women of questionable virtue. Introducing a different way of defining glory. The crypto-currency of love. The idea that the disciples would become known—famous, glorified—for the way they loved other people made as much sense as BitCoin does to most of us here today.
Jesus was telling them that God’s economy is very different than the world’s. The values of the Kingdom of God may surprise us. Love may be worth more than virtue.
I read this week that there isn’t actually a “should” in the original Greek here. Jesus isn’t wagging a finger at them telling them to behave because the world is watching.
A better translation is “I have loved you in order that you likewise love each other.” Jesus doesn’t want them to love each other so that they can get high scores in the virtue column and gain a good reputation based on society’s values. It’s not even about setting a rule or an example which will goad or shame others into being kinder, more compassionate.
It’s not about some external act that makes us look good in other people’s eyes. It’s about embodying the love, not just talking about it. It’s about being transformed, conformed into the image of Christ, being willing to face the consequences of such transformation.
I doubt any of you will face public execution for choosing to love like Jesus loved, even if some of the people sitting there at the table with him that night did. I can pretty much guarantee that you will get your heart broken, both by those who reject God altogether and those who reject the idea that maybe God is not as interested in rules as they are, those who can’t accept that God’s love is not dependent upon our virtue.
But I can promise you that if you dare to allow the love of Christ to guide you, you will eventually discover that Christ really is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end of everything that is really important and of value. You will grow less afraid of change because you will see within it the hand of God, and trust the One who is making all things new.
You may be surprised to discover who else is sitting at the table with you at the great eschatological feast. What may be even more surprising is discovering how much you love them, and how glad you are that God made room for both of you to be there.