Texts: Acts 11.1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21.1-6; John 13.31-35
‘I am making everything new . . . The old order of things has passed away’. These are the words of the one who sits upon the throne of heaven in John’s apocalyptic vision. John writes for a church that is being persecuted under the tyranny of Rome. It is crying out with a grief and pain that echoes that of Israel under the Pharaohs in Egypt. What the seer has to say is meant to create a new hope for all who weep. He imagines a completely new world, a new universe, where the apparent gap between the present reality and the promised peace of God is finally and completely bridged. God will himself come to dwell with his suffering people and every tear they have ever shed will be wiped away and the thirst of all who cry out for justice will finally be quenched.
This is a bold theology, a theology that many a self-proclaimed ‘realist’ is likely to decry with words that echo Karl Marx’s critique of religion as nothing more than an ‘opiate’ for suffering people. Is the hope of the Seer false? Is his theology merely a panacea for pain rather than a genuine cure? Not, I think, if one also believes in the truth of the Easter proclamation that ‘Christ is risen’. For in the writing of that other John, John the evangelist, we find an Easter hope that actually begins in the midst of reality as it is, the reality of suffering, pain and injustice. ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.’ (13.31). This is John’s way of saying that the transformation of the whole creation from a dark place of suffering into a bright place of blissful peace is beginning right now with something that will happen to Jesus. But when is it beginning? Well, read the verse before this one. ‘As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.’ According to John, the transformation of the world begins not with Easter morning and with shouts of resurrection, but with the betrayal of Jesus by his friend Judas in the dead of night on a very ordinary Thursday. This is where the transformation begins. Here. With betrayal and failure and the departure of all that is good and true and noble. The transformation begins then, in the midst of failure, the failure of all those moral codes that rule our society, our religion, our hearts.
That this breakdown can be not only an ending and a loss, but also the chance for a new beginning – a revolution, indeed – can be seen from the story of Peter’s vision at Joppa that we read in Acts. Here we find out how the earliest church of the Jews learned that God loves the Gentiles too. But it was a difficult lesson. It was a lesson that the church could only learn with great a deal of pain and disorientation and loss. For at the time of Jesus, Peter and Paul, most self-respecting Jews believed, deep down in their marrow, that it was only the people of Israel who were beloved of God. Other races or ethnic groups, the 'gentiles' as they were called, had not been 'chosen' as Israel was, and were therefore unworthy of inclusion in God's family. This understanding was carried into the earliest Christian church, which clearly believed that God's message of salvation in Christ was for the Jewish people only. But all that is changed by a vision Peter saw one day in the trading city of Joppa . . .
Peter's vision was absolutely decisive for the earliest churches. It showed them that Jesus had died not just for the Jews, but for everyone on the planet. It also showed them that the most important matters of faith were not doctrinal purity and ethical legalism, but unconditional love and the works of compassion that flow from that love. It's very instructive, I think, that the Spirit was given to Cornelius before either he or his family signed any doctrinal statement or made any promises about the ethical life. God, at least, simply accepted them as they were. Peter says of that experience, 'if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?'
Nevertheless, it seems there are a lot of folks around these days who want to oppose God's universal love. And they invariably do it in the name of some kind of moral code that has not yet been broken by the gospel of transformative love. There are some who do it more obviously. People like those in the neo-Nazi movement, who believe that God's earth is only for people with white skin and an Anglo-Saxon or Germanic background. Consequently they persecute and terrorise anyone who is Asian, Hispanic or black. Or the right-wing extremists of Christian America who believe that Christian faith and being homosexual are mutually exclusive options. So they set up programmes to 'rescue' gays from their sin. Or, worse still, they form gangs who wander the night streets looking for vulnerable young men to harass.
But there are others who oppose God's universal love in less obvious ways, which are nevertheless just as damaging. This week the nation has celebrated ANZAC day. ANZAC day celebrates a collection of myths that enshrine a particular moral code, a moral code that considers it a great good that a man or woman should sacrifice their lives for the glory of the nation. The ANZAC mythology also says that it is a good thing, a thing to memorialized and celebrated, that a man or woman should sacrifice the prohibition against killing another human being for the glory of the nation. People who do this, so the ANZAC code of morality tells us, will be treated as heroes. They will be given medals and honoured in parades. Now I know very well that this is not ALL that ANZAC day celebrates. I know very well that there is a legitimate mourning for fallen and traumatised comrades there in the mix as well. But consider for a moment the terrible contradiction that recognition sets up, both for soldiers and for the nation. On the one hand, the solider is told to kill other human beings, and to do so for the glory of the nation. On the other hand, the soldiers who do so are then condemned to live with the terrible horror of what they have done for the rest of their lives. Today the guilt and depression of that heart of darkness has been psychologised as ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’, but that name erases as much as it reveals. It erases the fact that even the most prestigious medal and even the most honorific parade cannot take away the simple fact that to kill another human being is to disown life itself, ANZAC morality notwithstanding.
Contrast the injunction to kill another human being for the glory of the nation with the compassion we are called to by Christ. 'A new commandment I give you' says Jesus. 'Love one another as I have loved you'. The Greek word agape, here translated 'love' is probably being connected by John with a Hebrew word, hesed, meaning 'unconditional compassion or kindness'. Compassion means, of course, to 'suffer with' someone. And love in the agapic sense means to care for someone without condition. So the love which Jesus calls us to exercise is a love like his own: an unjudging, unconditional compassion for all who suffer in whatever way. It's the kind of love exemplified in our time by Mother Teresa, who cared for the social outcasts of Indian society, even though that meant breaking the very fabric of Hindu morality. Such love perseveres beyond the boundaries of our various moral codes. If any such code gets in the way of love, it must be broken!
The kind of love Christ calls us to offer is far from sentimental or traditionalistic. It is very costly because it is a call to share the darkness of any who are hurting even to the point of shattering our most persistent notions of what is virtuous and just. This is a very motherly kind of love. A mother simply loves the ones she has given birth to, even if they pierce her heart, which they inevitably do to one degree or another. A mother keeps loving even if her children go places and do things she would rather they didn't. A mother keeps loving even when the pain of sharing her child's confusion and mistakes is very great. So the call to love is a call to imitate the motherly love of God.
On this day which celebrates Easter, the ending that is a new beginning, let us learn this lesson: that the love of God is a shattering of the moral codes by which we live in order that we might be open to a world that no longer needs or depends on such codes. Let us learn that the unconditional love of mothers actually provides us with a powerful picture of the transformative love of God in Jesus Christ. For it shows us how love can plant a seed of hope in even the darkest of places, the darkest of times. It reveals how such love may start a revolution that is eventually able to turn gentile-haters into gentile-lovers or betrayers of Christ into lovers of Christ. In this we might even come to see that the hope of Christians is a real hope, a hope planted in the bedrock of what happened to the Christ who shared in our humanity. He was shattered on the cross, broken on the moral codes of Romans and Jews. But when he was shattered, so were their codes, and ours! For he rose to show us that the code of God is love, and therefore none of the ways in which we divide up the world into the virtuous and the less-virtuous will ultimately prevail. Because Christ is risen, a new order has begun. It is not yet entirely here, to be sure. But it is coming. It is coming!
This sermon was preached at St Columba's in Balwyn on the 5th Sunday of Easter, 2013.