Sermon: “Fifth Sunday of Easter” April 24, 2016

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C
Acts 11:1-18
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35
Psalm 148
April 24, 2016  
The Rev. Dcn. Patricia Marks

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. +

As I look around, I see that, many of you, like me are wearing crosses. I have three that I really treasure. The Celtic cross, for instance, from my pilgrimage to Iona, that marvelous, transparent place in the Hebrides, where you walk with the Holy Spirit, just as the 6th-century monks did. The beautiful silver cross that good friends gave me when I retired, its long, graceful arms a symbol of the way Christ Church reaches out to so many people.

And there’s a tiny engraved cross. “Ubi fides” it says on one side; “Ibi amor,”  on the other. That’s Latin for “Where there is faith, there is love.”

Those words are at the heart of what Jesus says in our reading today: “’I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Perhaps it sounds easy, but it’s not. It means turning our lives inside out and upside down.

So let me begin with a confession. The word “commandment” always gives me pause. Because, you see, I’m really not very obedient.

In some ways I am. I do follow the rules of grammar. And although I have a red car, I do keep to the speed limit . . . most of the time.  (Those of you who have followed me on the road are not allowed to comment.)

Seriously, though, I don’t really like dealing with rules and regulations, which is why my thirty years at VSU were in the classroom, happily talking about novels and plays and poetry.  I’m everlastingly grateful for those administrators sitting in this church and elsewhere, those who enjoy leadership, do it well,  and keep congregations, schools, guilds, and the rest of us on track.

I remember when Fr. Peter and I were exploring the possibility of my becoming a deacon, and I said, “Well, the problem is, I’m not very obedient.”

There was a very long pause, and I think he rolled his eyes.

Truth is, there are many kinds of obedience. And the Disciple Peter is a prime example. There he was, trying to follow the Old Testament laws, all 713 of them, and what happens?

God gives him a new commandment. “Here, eat whatever you want,” says God; “What I have made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter had to choose between the socially accepted way of  behaving—following the written laws—and God’s word. But it gets harder. The Spirit then tells him to do something unheard of at that time: go to the house of a Gentile and “not make any distinction between them and us.” Of all people, a Gentile! Gentiles weren’t Jews: they were uncircumcised, barbarians, idolators. They weren’t like us; they were, in a sense, untouchables.

So Peter makes the right choice and obeys the Spirit, not the law. “Who was I that I could hinder God?” he says. The result? The Holy Spirit comes, and as Paul tells us in Acts, “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Something is happening here. The old rules are broken; a new heaven and earth are created. All is being made into a holy city, a new Jerusalem. It is a place of glory, of wonder, where words like “them” and “us” no longer exist, where every tear is wiped away, where even Death is vanquished.

Here, there is only one law. Love.

And how do we learn to love, to be disobedient in the right way, as Peter was? I think we need to listen, listen really carefully.

I have a story. Some 15 years ago an Episcopal priest friend, Nancy Mills, brought a labyrinth to Christ Church for Lenten meditation.  What you do is walk in and out on a beautiful, flowing pattern that traces the ancient one in the floor of Chartres Cathedral. (I can tell you more after the service.) Anyway, as I walked, I found myself asking, “Lord, Lord, what am I going to do when I retire?”

Silly question! I had already decided, after thirty years of teaching, that I was going to travel, write, and have lots of wonderful adventures.

I got an answer, all right. “Be patient!”

“Be patient!” I replied. “No way! I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and do something!” And then I heard it—laughter. Really. Cosmic laughter.

Do you know the etymology of the word “patient”? It doesn’t just mean to wait quietly: the root of the word means “to suffer.”

Hmmm, I thought.  I’m supposed to suffer, and yet praise God!  I’m supposed to sing,

Hallelujah!
Praise the Lord from the heavens; *
praise him in the heights.

In good times and bad, as the psalmist tells us today, everything is to praise God. It seems to be a difficult injunction. All those shining stars that will burn out, the trees that will be cut, the waters that will dry up—all are to praise him no matter what.  And we are to give praise for fire and hail and tempestuous winds!

That mixture of suffering and obedience, death and life, rending sorrow and exquisite joy—that’s what life is all about. Peter learned that, when he was touched by the Holy Spirit. We can’t avoid it, and a good thing, too.  Because where there is faith, there is . . .

Love. A word fraught with multiple meanings. Go back to its roots, and you find that yes, it does mean affection, but there’s an older meaning:  love is “a song of praise.”

Think of that when Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

O me. He loved us through the grief of his chief apostle’s denial. Through persecution for healing on the Sabbath. Through the unspeakable agony of the crucifixion. It was a love,  so great, that everything he did was a song of praise, which is another way of saying that he was completely obedient to God.

I learned a lot on my diaconal journey. The new commandment Jesus gives us is dangerous, very dangerous. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” It can turn our lives inside out and upside down.

But where there is faith, there is love. So if we love, really love, we’ll be like the Disciple Peter and discover that no matter what the grammar book says,  “them” and “us” are really one word. If we love, really love, it’s going to hurt. It will hurt when a good friend dies, when we see a threadbare immigrant clutching her child, when we find a homeless person on the church steps. If we love, really love, we will roll up our sleeves and get to work in ways we never imagined, reaching out hands and hearts in some very simple ways, really—making sandwiches with the Lunch Bunch and helping at the Soup Kitchen, collecting items for the Haven, building homes for veterans, teaching adults to read. The list goes on and on. It’s a way of showing faith.

And where there is faith, there is love. Where there is love, there is rejoicing! So let us join with sea-monsters and wild beasts, cattle and winged birds, kings and all people in a glorious song of praise. And old and young together, our hearts  will be full to overflowing with the joy of a new kind of love, a new kind of life, and we will all sing together,

Hallelujah!
                                                                           In His Holy Name. +