This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/19/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 5:27-32, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text – and the first minute or so of the sermon is not recorded.)
In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus says to his disciples over the Passover meal:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.
What does it mean for us to love one another? How can we love one another with the same love that Jesus loves us? A love that is bestowed, gifted, given freely and not earned. A love so powerful that Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, while we still hated him and everything he stands for.
What does it mean to demonstrate that kind of love to one another?
In our reading from John this morning, Jesus says, “love one another.” He’s specifically telling the disciples how to treat each other – their fellow friends and followers of Jesus. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The love of Jesus is expressed in a special way among his disciples. It’s expressed in a special way among those who commit themselves to walking together in the way of his kingdom. It’s that communion love. It’s the love poured out in the Passover wine. It’s the body of faith, broken in the unleavened bread of the covenant.
It’s through this love, through this communion shared by the followers of Jesus, that those outside the fellowship will know that Jesus is here in our midst. A lot of people think that communion consists of performing certain rituals or consuming a special kind of food. But the communion of Jesus is the love of brothers and sisters in the empire of God.
His love is the wine that we drink as we sit across the table from one another. It’s the bread we break as we commit our lives to serving one another – the brothers and sisters that Jesus died for. It’s the water that washes the feet and leaves the whole body clean.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is how Jesus is glorified in the world. This is how human beings can know God. When they see how we love one another. When they see through our loving kindness for each other that Jesus Christ is risen indeed.
There’s this idea present in John, the idea of the redemptive community. It’s through the love of the Jesus fellowship, the church, that God’s kingdom can be known and experienced in the world. The church is a sort of new Israel. The kingdom of Israel existed as a nation of people following God in the ancient world. Now, in Jesus, the community of God – the church – has become the site of God’s saving work in the world.
It’s from this holy relationship, the communion of the saints, the love of the disciples, that God’s presence in the world is known. In Jesus, the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we as the church have become the tabernacle of God. The place where God’s presence dwells in the world.
Just as the world saw the holiness of God in the set-apartness and peculiar obedience of of Israel, God is now showing his face through this community. Jesus becomes visible – he’s glorified as we love one another and obey Jesus’ call. The world sees him when we do his work of righteousness, peace, and justice in the world.
But who is this new Israel? Who counts as a member of this community of believers, this assembly, this church? Who are the people that Jesus calls us to live in communion with? Who are the friends of Jesus, the body of Christ in the world, the new tabernacle of God?
In the early years of the Jesus movement, it seems like pretty much everyone assumed that only Jews were qualified to be part of this new thing God is doing. After all, Jesus was a Jew. All of the early disciples were Jews. As far as we know, everyone who experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost were Jews.
The Jews were God’s holy people, everybody knew that. The disciples assumed that Jesus was specifically the Jewish Messiah. That didn’t necessarily apply to the rest of the world. This helps explain why, in the Book of Acts, we read that in the very first days of the church, the Jesus movement was mostly limited to the Jewish community. It says in Acts 2 that the Christians in Jerusalem met in small groups in homes, and also worshipped at the Temple. That’s Jewish worship, with Jesus as the Messiah.
But even in these early days, the script begins to strain a little bit. There’s some doubt as to whether the good news of Jesus is just for the Jews, or whether others might be welcomed into the fellowship. As the church in Jerusalem begins to grow and gain a foothold, it comes under intense persecution by the local religious authorities. Some Christians, like Stephen, are even killed for their faith.
This persecution causes the church to be scattered out from Jerusalem, into neighboring regions. And Acts tells us that Philip “went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them.” The people in Samaria were really digging this whole Jesus movement, so after a while a couple of the apostles – Peter and John – came down to see what was going on. And after doing an evangelistic preaching tour in Samaria, they returned to Jerusalem to let everyone there know what had happened.
So as we know, the Samaritans weren’t proper Jews. According to mainstream Jews, they were theologically deviant and had a really problematic history. Mainline Jews looked down on them and viewed them as unclean. We hear a lot about this in the gospels when Jesus encounters Samaritans and even tells a story about a good Samaritan.
So anyway, it’s a little weird, but it turns out that these heretics out in the boonies of Samaria are receiving the word of God with great eagerness. This is quite unexpected. And, depending on who you talked to, maybe a little scandalous.
In that same chapter of Acts, we also get the story of how Philip – who apparently was an amazingly gifted evangelist – has an encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch. Now, this is a person who is doubly rejected under the terms of the old Mosaic law. Because not only is he an uncircumcised Gentile, he’s a eunuch. He’s got no testicles. He’s ritually unclean and could never worship God properly according to an orthodox interpretation of the Torah.
And yet, just as in Samaria, Philip finds in this person a hunger, a readiness to receive the word of God. And the Holy Spirit is present, blessing and welcoming this brother into the fellowship, into the communion of the saints.
So even before our reading from Acts today, we’re already getting hints that maybe the kingdom of God is something more expansive, more universal, than the early disciples had ever imagined. Maybe circumcised Jews aren’t the only ones who can find healing, love, and power in Jesus. Maybe the circle of communion love is wider than the bounds of orthodoxy that the religious establishment has always assumed is essential.
This question, this challenge, this controversy, continues to the present day. As Christians, as human beings, we are always confronted with the question of “who is in and who is out?” Who really counts? Who are my friends? Who is my neighbor?
On the one hand, for those of us who have studied the Bible, these questions are relatively easy to answer. We might simply say, “everyone!” Every person is loved and valued by God. All people are worthy of respect, care, and love.
This is the truth. It’s what Jesus teaches us, and the Holy Spirit confirms it.
But the kind of belonging that our passages this morning are talking about are a little different from this generalized love of God. It’s a little different from the fact that all human beings are made in the image of God, and worthy of respect and compassion.
I believe I am called to love all people as Jesus first loved me. But I love my wife in a particular way. I am called to respect people of all faiths and no faith, but I have a special responsibility to the brothers and sisters at Berkeley Friends Church. God loved the whole world, but he formed a special relationship with Abraham and his descendants.
There is a kind of love that is unique and targeted. There is a love that is personal and direct. It is this kind of love that God showed for Israel, choosing them from among all the nations to be his special possession. It is through this very particular love for Israel that God fulfilled his promise to bless the whole world.
In the same way, Jesus chose particular men and women to be his followers. He chose the Twelve. He chose the one hundred and twenty. He chose Mary. He chose Paul. There is a love that is general, but God also shows us a love that is utterly specific and personal.
This is the love that Jesus shows us in the church. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” It is this personal, particular, covenantal love of God for the church, of the church for Jesus, and of each of us for one another, that glorifies Jesus and transmits his blessing to the world.
It is this fellowship – believe it or not, it is us, the very people gathered in this space today – who are the tabernacle of God. We are God’s tent. The Holy Spirit lives in us. God chose us specifically! Isn’t that amazing?
And by this everyone will know that we are Jesus’ disciples: if we have love for one another.
This is the way God’s love becomes visible in the world. This is the pillar of smoke and fire that will guide this broken, aching world through the wilderness and into the promised land of God.
That’s enormous. The work that God is doing in us can’t be understated. This little fellowship here, along with countless other bands of Jesus followers throughout the world – we are the locus of God’s action in the world. We are salt and light. We are the catalyst. We are the body in which the Holy Spirit breathes.
In our reading from Acts this morning, Peter recounts to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem what he saw in Joppa. How he had a vision from God, declaring the unclean things to be clean. How the centurion Cornelius – an uncircumcised Gentile and all his household – received the Holy Spirit in the same way that the Jewish believers did.
And Peter’s first instinct was to question it. To say, “no, no, no, Holy Spirit! You can’t do this. These people are unclean Gentiles. You can’t come to live in them. That’s against the Bible!”
But then Peter remembers a source of authority even more important than the Bible – the Lord Jesus himself. He says, “And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 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?”
Who am I that I could hinder God?
The people of God are the living tabernacle of the Holy Spirit. The people of God are the yeast that leavens the whole loaf. The people of God are the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, filling the earth with the light of God’s glory. When we love one another, just as Jesus first loved us.
There’s a tendency – always present among humans – to exclude some types of people. We create our organizations, our movements, our churches, by defining an in-group and an out-group. We decide, based on our own criteria, who belongs.
But the amazing thing that we see throughout the Bible – and throughout the history of God’s dealings with humanity – is that we don’t get to pick who is in and who is out. God is in control. Peter didn’t admit Cornelius and the Gentile believers into the family of Jesus – the Holy Spirit did that! The Holy Spirit was the one who touched the hearts of the people of Samaria, causing many of them to become followers of the Way. The Holy Spirit intervened in the life of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, bringing salvation to a person who – according to the letter of the law – must always be an outcast.
The story of the church is not one of keeping people out – it is one of God letting the most unexpected of people in. Jesus picked some very unlikely people to be his first disciples. Jesus picked Saul, who was a notorious persecutor of the church, to be one of his chief apostles to the Gentiles. The Holy Spirit chose the Roman soldier Cornelius, and the Ethiopian eunuch. The Holy Spirit chose you and me, unworthy as we are.
Jesus speaks to us the words he spoke to the leper in the first chapter of Mark, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Be made clean. Be my friend. Be filled with the Holy Spirit. Love one another.
The tough thing about religion, is that we tend to be obsessed with what has already happened. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in God’s past actions that we fail to see what God is doing right in front of us.
But as we hear in our reading from John’s Apocalypse, God says, “See, I am making all things new.” God is doing something unique and creative. The Holy Spirit is choosing people that we never expected. Jesus is standing at a door knocking, and anyone who answers his call, he will come in and eat with them. Hear the word of the Lord to us this morning:
It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
It is done. The holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem is descending. The tabernacle of God is among mortals! He will dwell with us, and we will be his people.
But we must obey his commandments. Love one another.
Just as Jesus has loved us, we should also love one another. Eat the bread and drink the wine at a table with all sorts of people you never thought you’d love. Break bread with those you were taught to hate. Wash the feet of those you were taught were unworthy to join the fellowship. Because the Holy Spirit has chosen them. And who are we to hinder God?