THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN EASTERTIDE
What wonderful readings we have today – the vision of a New Jerusalem – a new way of living - where Jesus’ words, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” are fully lived out. And the reading from Acts which shows us what a challenge loving one another was for the early church, just as it continues to be a challenge for us today.
Humans are not very good at loving one another. In fact, some theorists have suggested that the main function of civilization is to stop us murdering each other out of envy and rage. So Jesus’ new commandment was truly revolutionary, and it’s still revolutionary two thousand years later.
When Gentiles began to be welcomed into the new community of Jesus it created problems – the religious Jews had always kept themselves carefully separate from non-Jews, but now some of them were crossing the boundary. They were breaking the traditional purity laws.
We still have purity codes today, but ours are much less conscious, in fact we usually think of them as just common sense, or the way things are. In times of social upheaval purity codes get challenged, usually accompanied by controversial debates and political battles. Interracial marriage is an example in recent memory. For a white person and a black person to marry was to offend against the purity code of the time. Similarly, gay relationships offend against the purity codes of many people today. In the last thirty years we have seen this gradually changing until today a majority of Americans support marriage for gay couples.
It has always been part of the role of religion in society to protect purity codes and to uphold social arrangements around marriage and family organizations, so it’s not surprising that the Church has struggled with these questions, just as the early church struggled with the full inclusion of Gentiles. In the reading from Acts we heard that Peter was criticized for his acceptance of Gentiles, and so he had to explain to them step by step that first God had told him to defy the purity laws, and then secondly he found that God was already blessing these people.
Our experience as Episcopalians has been similar. We have found that God has been blessing us through the ministry of gay, lesbian and transgender people – and we have gradually realized that God blesses all of us - people of different ethnicities, people of different abilities, people of different skin tones, people of different sexual orientation, of different gender identity – even, dare I say it – people of different religions.
Which leaves us in a very difficult position.
Who is there left to hate?
If there is no-one left to hate, what will politicians and media pundits do? Love and good news never sold papers. If there is no one for us to hate, no one we are willing to blame and scapegoat, then politicians will have to find an entirely new strategy for getting us to support their agendas. No longer will we be willing to demonize foreign leaders, no longer will we be willing to mobilize to try to prevent one party or another from gaining power. No longer will we be willing to put up with partisan gridlock or with policies which give more power to the already powerful and more money to the already rich. Our whole financial and political system would have to change.
Can we imagine a world without hate? It might begin to look just a little like the New Jerusalem, the city where God makes all things new…
But let us not get too carried away. Hatred is very subtle. It isn’t always in your face. In fact, very often, especially for those of us who have grown up knowing that Jesus told us to love one another, it can be very hard to get a handle on. It comes out in little ways, in jokes made at someone else’s expense; in holding grudges and nursing grievances. It turns anger at injustice into a desire for revenge on the perpetrators. It turns grief into a demand for retribution. It infiltrates our minds in such a way that it seems quite reasonable. Hatred, fueled by fear, leads quite nice people to sanction violence and even torture – provided it happens at a distance.
Hatred allows us to justify striking back when we are hurt. Which is exactly what Jesus did NOT do. When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane he didn’t strike back. When he was in front of Pilate he didn’t cooperate but he didn’t resist violently. In fact, Jesus was the model of non-violent resistance. And he went one step further… he didn’t just avoid violence, Jesus forgave those who betrayed him, those who persecuted him, those who killed him.
Jesus and hate simply do not belong in the same sentence.
As disciples of Jesus, we get to obey his commandment to love, and that means we have to forgive and to do that we have to give up our habit of hatred.
It’s not going to be easy, because our society is riddled through and through with hatred, anger and violence. It’s in our newscasts, our TV programs, our facebook posts…It’s inside our minds.
But taking up love and giving up hatred is what it really means to be an inclusive church.
Inclusive sounds warm and wonderful but that’s only part of the picture. If we are to be truly inclusive, if we are to build the reign of God on earth, if we are to follow Jesus then we have to find a way to change, and to change radically. Which means hard, careful work. It means examining the way we do things to make sure that we are not leaving groups of people out in the cold, that we are not disempowering someone else in order to empower ourselves. It means welcoming people who really are different from us.
It’s not going to be comfortable. If you think being an inclusive church is going to be church just like it’s always been but with more people, then you need to think again. Because those people whom God blesses just like she blesses you, may want to sit in your seat; they may want to change the hymns; they may even, heaven forbid, decide to change the prayer book.
The early church wasn’t at all sure that they wanted to include Gentiles and the debate went on for quite a while - just like the Episcopal church today still isn’t quite sure that it wants to include women, latinos, gays, lesbians, African-Americans, Cubans, bisexual people, transpeople, deaf people… I could go on and on.
But if we take Jesus’ words seriously, “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.” If we get serious about being Jesus’ disciples; if we get serious about replacing hate with loving and forgiving, then we will be doing more than creating an inclusive church, we will be building the new Jerusalem.