Love one another
Jesus told us to love one another.
So who do you think that Jesus meant that we should love?
[First starter-set of people to love: our families]
Does this mean that I have to love my brother?
What if he is mean to me? Or takes my things? Or borrows money and doesn’t pay it back?
[Second-set of people to love: people in our church, our school. Advanced-set: our co-workers, then our boss]
So does this mean that I have to love everybody?
What if someone is a criminal and does bad things?
Do I have to love them, too?
This is hard!
[It’s easier for me to love Jesus; Jesus doesn’t say bad things about me on Facebook]
Can you think of some ways we can show that we love one another?
[No bullying, help with chores, share toys, forgive, encourage one another, say nice words to each other, say “I love you,” pray for them, etc.]
Yes, those are ways we can show we love one another.
Let us pray:
Dear Lord Jesus, help us to love one another in the same way that you love us. Help us to love ABSOLUTELY EVERYBODY, especially those who I don’t even like. Please send someone difficult my way this week on who I can practice. Amen.
Our gospel lesson today is the most challenging in all of scripture. Had Jesus said—in his remarks to his disciples at the Last Supper—that we should give half of every cent we receive to people in need, this directive might actually be easier than the directive that Jesus gave us.
Instead, though, Jesus instructed his followers to “love each other,” not just any old way, but “as I have loved you.” And when we inspect the list of people whom Jesus loved, we don’t find much wiggle-room, do we? Jew and Gentile. Men and women. Rich and poor. Zealot and collaborator. Sexually normative and eunuch. Tithers and tax collectors. Healthy and horribly ill. Sinners and hypocrites. Those who loved him and those who betrayed him. Have I covered absolutely everybody yet? I think so, meaning that NO, Jesus didn’t leave us much wiggle-room at all.
Our Acts lesson tells us about the early church’s first big test in loving absolutely everybody. This lesson tells us that the Holy Spirit intervened to place the ritually pure Jewish Christian Peter and the God-fearing Gentile Cornelius in each others’ company. But the Holy Spirit didn’t just dump Cornelius into Peter’s life. Instead, the Spirit had been working on both of them for awhile.
So how had the Holy Spirit been working on Peter? First, God had sent Peter to Joppa. Remember? Joppa was the seaport where the would-be prophet Jonah had visited when deciding whether to take God’s Word to the Gentiles. Jonah had headed in the opposite direction, but God had sent him back to the Gentiles by fish-express.
So now Peter’s in Joppa. Which way will Peter head? This is where we notice that Peter had been staying with a tanner named Simon. Simon is a Jewish name. BUT, Jews considered tanning to be a profession that defiled a person. So (from an early Jewish perspective) Peter had accepted the hospitality of a morally suspect person.
Maybe Peter saw how being a tanner hurt Simon’s standing in the community. You see, the Holy Spirit was softening Peter’s heart, getting Peter ready to accept a new thing—a hard change—that God wanted those first Christians to take.
So here Peter was in Joppa, learning what the Holy Spirit wanted Peter to learn there: that Christ Jesus is for both Jews AND Gentiles.
In today’s lesson, Peter tells the folks back at the home church in Jerusalem just what had happened. Peter told them about his vision of unclean food, and of hearing God tell him to eat that unclean food—the very food that God had told Peter’s ancestors to NOT eat. So which God-voice was Peter to believe?
While Peter was deciding, God gave him new instructions, not just once, but THREE times. And THREE men appeared at Peter’s door (actually, at Simon the tanner’s door). This is a significant number. THREE men had visited Abraham and Sarah under the trees of Mamre. Three people showing up at Peter’s door—at Simon’s door—meant that God himself had, in some way, visited Peter and Simon. And, as Peter further explained to those questioning him in Jerusalem, the three men told Peter to go the home of a Gentile in Caesarea.
The Holy Spirit had also been preparing the Gentile, Cornelius. An angel had visited him and had told him to invite Peter to his home, so that Peter could tell him and his whole household the way of salvation.
So Cornelius was not at all surprised with Peter showed up at his door and began telling him about Jesus. The surprising thing was that, as Peter spoke, the Holy Spirit visibly entered Cornelius and his household, just as this same Spirit had entered Peter and the other Christ-followers at Pentecost (that same Holy Spirit that has entered us). Peter’s logic is irrefutable:
If then God gave them the same [Spirit] that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could hinder God?
What happened next is the truly amazing part. Those super-devout Jewish Christians in Jerusalem responded NOT by complaining, but by praising God. They marveled, “God has given EVEN TO THE GENTILES the repentance that leads to life.”
Now we don’t know how many devoutly Jewish Christians took their prayer books and began to worship elsewhere after the Gentiles were allowed to be Christ-followers. We don’t know how many court cases there might have been over property. There might even have been other bumps along the way. BUT, this passage teaches us several important lessons.
- First, this passage gives us a test to use when we are wondering whether God is calling us to change our understanding about what God wants us to do. The test is this: Is the same Holy Spirit evident in the lives of the Others, those whom we and tradition would reject, as in us? If so, who are WE to deny those whom the Spirit elects?
- Second, this passage teaches us that—when we truly love those whom Jesus loved (in other words, when we love absolutely everybody) the Holy Spirit opens our eyes and changes our minds about who the Other is. Maybe food that God has blessed is not defiling, now that God has given us new instructions about that food. Maybe a man in a defiling occupation is himself not defiled, after all, now that God has shown up in threes at his door. Maybe Jesus really wants us to love “absolutely everybody.”
I know what you are going to say. “But we DO love absolutely everybody. We are inclusive. We welcome all people.” Yes you do, and I give thanks to God for this congregation and for your witness. But if you are anything like me, there might be reservations—footnotes, exceptions—in the fine print.
Can we love someone who has killed another human being? Can we love someone who isn’t nearly as (fill in the blank: smart, cultured, educated, whatever) as ourselves? Now here’s the truly hard one: Can we love someone of the other political party than ours?
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”