5 Easter C—4/2416
Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
Pr. Scott Kramer
“How many times do I have to tell you…!?”
What child has not heard that question? “How many times do I have to tell you…to take out the trash…to not hit your sister…to do your homework…to turn down the music?”
If you were a model child, maybe you didn’t experience this. The rest of us did!
“How many times do I have to tell you? Parents ask the question out of exasperation. No doubt our heavenly Parent asks this question, too–not out of exasperation, but as an honest question. How many times do I have to tell you…that you are beloved?–no matter what!
Love is not something that we immediately believe in. It takes time. It takes repetition for us to be convinced and reassured that love is real, and that it is for us.
In the gospel reading two weeks ago you may recall that Jesus asked his friend Peter, “Do you love me, Peter?” Seems like a fair question, since earlier Peter had denied even knowing him…three times! Do you love me, Peter? Jesus asks a second time. Do you love me, Peter? he asks a third time.
Love is not something that we immediately believe. It takes time. It generally takes repetition for human beings to be convinced that we are loved, and lovable. It takes forgiveness. I wonder if it took time and repetition for Jesus to know that he was loved.
It works the other way, too. Not only does it take time and repetition to believe that we are beloved. It also takes time and repetition to be convinced that God’s love is for the whole creation, and not just for us.
In today’s reading from the book of Acts this same Peter recalls a strange dream he had in which a sheet was lowered from heaven, full of animals forbidden by Jewish law to eat. This vision happened three times. By the third time Peter understood what God was trying to tell him: God’s love is for all people!
We sometimes get the impression that Peter is not the “sharpest knife in the drawer.” Peter takes a while to catch on to what God is up to in the world.
On the other hand, the love that Peter is asked to practice is no ordinary love. This is not romantic or sentimental love. This is “agape” love. Agape is the Greek word used in the New Testament to describe the highest form of love. It’s unconditional and universal love. It’s God’s love for the whole creation, and it is the love that is intended as our human response to God’s love and the love we have for one another.
The word “agape” is spelled the same as our English word “agape”—which seems about right, don’t you think? “Agape” describes our reaction to something surprising, shocking, unexpected—jaw-dropping, impossible. “God, you want me to love how much?? You want me to love whom?? You want me to love ‘those people’??” “Agape love” leaves us agape!
Maybe Peter wasn’t so slow after all. If it took him only three times to understand this kind of love, that seems pretty speedy! I for one could never get that right in three tries. For me, it’s the work of a lifetime!
Agape love—God’s love—is not something I instantly practice. I have to hear it day after week after month after year. It’s why I need to return again and again to worship. The message of God’s love for us we might embrace. But God’s love for all people, and all creation is not generally a message that we welcome, or practice, or even want to practice!
And yet, in John’s gospel Jesus says—also three times!–I give you a new commandment, 1) that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, 2) you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, 3) if you have love for one another.
This commandment to love is not new. Jesus says it is but the command to love God and neighbor goes back to the Old Testament.
And yet, he’s right, isn’t he? Every day God’s command to love one another is new! The author of the Book of Revelation speaks of a new heaven and a new earth. Every day brings new opportunities and new circumstances that challenge the extent of our willingness to love, that stretch the limits of our love. Just as we’re settling into a pattern of beliefs that feel comfortable and reasonable and manageable, along comes the Holy Spirit, saying, “How about this person? How about that group? What about this part of my creation?”
How hard it is to love! How hard it is to practice the love of Jesus toward one another. People who really are determined to follow Jesus are left “agape” by the magnitude of God’s love!
The early church struggled to understand how non-Jews could be loved and welcomed; this is the story behind our first reading. All this talk of circumcised vs. uncircumcised sounds a bit odd to our ears—not to mention uncomfortable and a bit embarrassing!—but we have only to substitute “non-Christian” for “uncircumcised” to get a taste of the controversy.
The question of God’s love and the extent to which we practice that love is at least as important for our own day. Two days ago the world observed Earth Day. How big is God’s love? It’s not just for the human creation; it’s for the whole creation! Our psalm today names unexpected responses to God’s love: Sun and moon, shining stars, waters, hail, snow, fog, wind, cedars, cattle, creeping things and flying birds—as well as all peoples and all rulers–all praising God! The willingness of God’s human creation to be agape at God’s whole creation and to practice agape love toward that creation may determine whether God’s beloved human creation has any future at all.
How many times do I have to tell you…that you are beloved? says the Lord. How many times do I have to tell you…that this same love is for all creation, and it is our vocation as God’s beloved people to be…agape people!