Love one another. On the surface this seems pretty simple. Love one another. OK … sure thing Jesus! But then after a while real life sets in. That person I’m supposed to love is … well … kind of getting on my nerves. You know how it is. Even the people we most love, in fact especially the people we most love, know us well enough to know exactly where our last nerve is and how to poke it. So Jesus’ commandment is simple … but it is not easy! It’s not easy with the people with whom we choose to share our lives, let alone having to love people that God chose for us.
That’s the situation confronting Peter in our reading from Acts. Now what we are hearing today is just the very tail end of a longer story about the earliest days of the Church. The very first controversy to confront the early followers of Jesus was the question of who could consider themselves part of this community. After all, Jesus was Jewish and his disciples were all Jewish too. And the Jewish people lived their faith according to the law of Moses which laid out some pretty strict rules about how one should live in relationship with God and what exactly made one Jewish in the first place. Many of the early Jewish followers of Jesus, like Peter, believed that you had to be Jewish to follow this Jewish Messiah. This excluded more people than it included when you consider the span of the Roman Empire.
Paul was likely the earliest follower of Jesus who came around to the idea that Jesus didn’t only come to be the savior of the Jews but also the Gentiles. He had some clashes with Peter over this very issue. He even wrote in his letter to the Galatians that he called out Peter for acting one way when the group consisted of only Gentiles and then refusing to eat with the Gentiles when the representatives of the Jerusalem church (who were Jewish Christians) showed up. Paul called Peter a hypocrite in his letter.
But we need to cut Peter a break. He was formed by his Jewish faith: a tradition with beliefs which warned him not to mix with Gentiles, not to eat certain foods, not to mix the crops in his fields, not to weave his tunic from two different kinds of thread. Judaism had an obsession with staying pure primarily because when the people mixed with others, they forgot about God. So for Peter to eat with Gentiles just went against everything he’d ever been taught.
At the beginning of the 10th chapter of Acts, we hear about a Roman centurion named Cornelius who is devout and believes in God. He is generous in giving to the poor and praying to God. An angel appears to Cornelius and tells him to send his men to Joppa to bring Peter back to his house. So Cornelius does so. In the meantime, Peter is praying on the roof and goes into a trance. He has a vision of a sheet descending from heaven and when it is opened, there are all kinds of animals in it: animals which are considered “unclean” for Jews to eat. Peter hears a voice commanding him to “get up, kill and eat” one of these animals. Peter’s response is, “I have never eaten anything unclean!” And the voice from heaven said, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” He has this vision three times and immediately afterward, Cornelius’ men arrive. Peter hears the Spirit of God tell him about these men who have come for him and commands Peter to follow them. Cornelius’ men tell Peter that they have been sent because Cornelius had a vision telling him to send for Peter so that he could receive Peter’s message for him.
Well, at this point Peter is under the impression that God has given him a message to take to Cornelius. But God has another surprise for Peter. When Peter arrives at Cornelius’ house and hears that God has found Cornelius’ prayers and alms acceptable to God, Peter is confronted with something he had not expected: that God had chosen a Gentile. This certainly would not have fit Peter’s understanding of how the God of Israel works! But Cornelius’ words coupled with Peter’s vision gave him a new understanding of what love one another means. It means welcoming and embracing as family those whom God has chosen and not just those whom we would choose based upon our own criteria.
Peter begins to speak and states that God shows no partiality but shows favor to anyone who fears God and does what is right, regardless of their circumstances. Peter then goes on to tell Cornelius and all his family gathered about Jesus the Christ. Peter’s testimony about Jesus is powerful and God’s Spirit is poured out over all of these Gentiles and they believe. Now Peter had some Jewish Christian traveling companions who were with him and they were amazed that God would send the Spirit onto Gentiles. And this is where we pick up the story. Peter essentially asks, “Who are we to tell God where and upon whom he can send the Spirit?” He orders these new Gentiles to be baptized just as surely as any Jew who wished to follow Christ. Peter learned that God does the choosing and it was not for him to judge who would or would not be part of this new community Christ had called into being.
“You did not choose me but I chose you.” In Christ, God chose a new family for Peter and the other disciples. He has likewise chosen a new family for us. When we look around here at Grace Church, there are people we would readily choose to be part of our family … and, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, some we would not choose. I know there are some folks at Grace who would rather have a different priest than me and would have chosen another. But the choosing isn’t up to us, is it? The choosing is up to God. What is up to us is to commit to the willful act of loving one another just as we have been loved by God in Christ. Loving one another as Christ loved us isn’t easy … it’s a simple command but it isn’t easy. It requires a willful commitment to be in relationship and to leave the judging to God.
But remember, there is a reason for committing to this love, even if it is hard: “that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” Christ’s joy is the goal. Joy isn’t the same thing as happiness, although it can feel like happiness at times. Happiness is dependent upon external circumstances. Joy is a gift of the Spirit and comes from within. I have met people who have many reasons to be unhappy, and yet have great joy. The promised fruit of loving one another is receiving the gift of joy – a joy which Christ promises will be complete. A wonderful example of this involves Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Back when apartheid was the law in South Africa, Archbishop Tutu was in a church preaching one Sunday when soldiers burst into the church and surrounded the mostly black congregation. Anxiety was high – when soldiers showed up, it usually meant you would be beaten or arrested when you left. But Archbishop Tutu was not going to be intimidated. Instead, he flashed a wide grin and said to the soldiers, “Gentlemen! Welcome! It is so good to see you have decided to join the winning side.” The anxiety in the room diminished and he finished his sermon. As the congregation rose to sing, the soldiers filed out of the church and left the area. This is joy! Joy born out of loving – loving even one’s enemies who were likely there to do harm.
Each of us has been chosen by God to be members of the new community we call the Church. And Christ calls us to love one another, even when it’s not easy, so that his joy may be in us and it may be complete. It is a promise of transformation – a promise of a resurrected life for each and every one of us. Thanks be to God.