April 24, 2016 Sermon (Easter 5)
Acts 11:1-8/ John 13:31-35
Are you familiar with the internet, you know, that thing a lot of young people are addicted to? The internet has changed our lives rather dramatically in both a positive and negative way; quick transmission of information (sometimes wrong information), connecting people who live in different areas, internet crimes, the cruelty of cyber bullying, and of course, cute cat photos and videos that can consume all our time.
I am also kind of addicted to the internet, but I won’t be apologetic about it since I get a lot of sermon materials from it. For example, remember the series of cartoon clips depicting the woes of pregnancy and childbirth? That was fun, wasn’t it? Last week, I dug up some old internet memes about Jesus that I had already seen before. Some of them are about Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors. One of them has the exasperated Jesus with a palm on his face saying, “What part of ‘Love thy neighbor’ did you not understand?” And in another one, Jesus is teaching the crowd. “A new commandment, I give you. Love one another”. “But what if they are gay or a different religion or have less money than me or don’t have a home or have a different color skin or were born in a different country or vote for someone I don’t like?” “Did I stutter?”
In today’s gospel text, Jesus commands his disciples to love one another; note that the love of which Jesus speaks in John’s gospel here is the love for each other, not the love of God. Remember I told you last week that John’s community was a small sect alienated from the mainstream Jerusalem church. The existence of a sect will be in jeopardy if the members don’t love one another and stick together. This scene we read today happens at the last supper. Jesus had already washed the disciples’ feet and taught them to serve one another. Jesus desperately teaching his disciples to love and serve one another before being arrested and executed, is a disparate teaching of the leaders of John’s community in the hope that their members will stick together and continue their existence as a faith community.
When I read the Gospel of John where there is so much talk about love, I remember how our society abuses the love talk. We talk about love so much that a lot of times I feel like we are being desensitized to it. Some lovers say, “I love you” to each other too much. When you say and hear “I love you” too often, you can lose the feeling. You might say it out of habit and without feeling it, instead of it coming from your heart. “I love you.” “I know.” I partially blame this on cheesy romantic comedies.
Even when Christians speak of the love we read from the gospel texts, they would be like, “Love your neighbors. Yeah, yeah, I know”, without even feeling the love or knowing what kind of love Jesus meant. So when we hear Jesus say, “Love your neighbors” or “love one another,” we might respond by wondering, “what if they are gay or foreign or don’t agree with my opinions”? So what kind of love are Christians taught? The clue is in the story of Peter and Cornelius that is in Acts chapters 10 and 11.
Before Peter is scrutinized by the Jerusalem church authority in today’s text, this is what happens in the previous chapter; Cornelius a God-fearing Roman centurion and Peter the disciple of Jesus both have visions. Cornelius is to send his men to find Peter so that he can be accepted into God’s family, and Peter is to abandon his Jewish prejudice concerning what and who are unclean according to the Jewish Law. Peter’s prejudice is challenged, and he lets God open his mind about Gentiles. He goes into Cornelius’ house, preaches to him and baptizes him, preaches to other Gentiles, and witnesses the Holy Spirit descend upon them. Now in today’s text, he is being scrutinized for what he has done.
It might be difficult for us to understand why Peter had such prejudice or why the church leaders were mad at him. That’s probably because we are all Gentiles and we read this story as Gentiles. But we also know in our head that Jewish people were dead serious about their Law. Gentiles are unclean; so good Jews are not supposed to go into their houses or eat with them. Peter was able to get over his prejudice because he experienced the power of the Holy Spirit. These two chapters are generally dubbed “the conversion of Cornelius”; but it is really about the conversion of Peter. We should read this story as the conversion story of Peter because although we are Gentiles, we took over the Christians Church since Peter’s time; now we are in the position of Peter and other Jewish Christians.
When I read this story and the outrage of the Jewish Christians over the inclusion of Gentiles, I think of the Christian bakers who refuse to make cakes for same-sex weddings. Basically, it’s the same situation. “I don’t have a problem with those people; I make cakes for their birthday parties and other parties, but just not weddings!” I’m sure Jewish Christians in Peter’s time said, “I don’t have problems with those people and we as God’s people should totally be nice to them, but not include them inside the Church and defile ourselves by going into their house and eating with them!”
The love of God that the early Christians learned from the story of Peter and Cornelius is that God’s love is inclusive. Gentiles were considered unclean according to the Jewish Law, yet God challenged this prejudice and changed Peter’s heart. When we Christians hear the commandment to love one another, we cannot put conditions to it. We cannot say, “yes we should love our neighbors as Jesus taught; but not our gay neighbours, not our Muslim neighbours, and not our poor neighbors because they should have worked harder to become richer”. God’s love that Jesus taught and the early Christians learned is an unconditional and undiscriminating love. If we think we can only love the groups of people of our choice, listen to Matthew 5:43-44 where Jesus says we should love even our enemies. He basically says, and I’m totally paraphrasing, “Even sinners and heathens love those who love them, so how are you better than them if you only love those who love you?”
Let’s hope and pray that one day the homophobes and xenophobes who call themselves Christians will witness the power of the Holy Spirit like Peter did, and change their heart. Do you think it is too much to ask? But anyway, rather than focusing on the haters, let us hear Jesus teaching us to love without prejudice and discrimination, and think of what we can do as disciples, and how we should love God’s people with the undiscriminating love that we learned today. We should work for the equal rights and safety for LGBT people, refugees, people of other cultures and religions, and members of other marginalized groups; and welcome them in our societies and in our lives.
May God pour the Holy Spirit on us so that we can love one another with God’s undiscriminating love.
Rev. Sunny Kim