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Easter 5C                                       
Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church                             
Lakeland, FL                                         
May 15, 2022    

Acts 11:1-18    
Psalm 148                
Rev 21:1-6                
John 13:31-35

Three Sundays ago, I was going through all the steps necessary to get permission to board and then cruise on the MS Maud, a medium small vessel that was going to tour the British Isles and the Irish Sea – from the white cliffs of Dover at the south to the harsh rugged conditions of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Of course, we needed our passport and then our vaccination status card. Then they had to check that our account had been paid in full. Finally we needed a negative Covid Test that was administered at the port. Then we were given this small ID Card that had our name, passport number, cabin number, dates of travel, emergency contact number for the ship and then one of those increasingly frequent bar codes. Each time that we got on the ship, that bar code was scanned and an electronic voice said, “Welcome.” And each time we got off the ship that same voice said, “Good Bye.” The card was our ticket in and off. It was our identifier to signify that we belonged.

In the second reading today from the Book of Acts, we get a glimpse into what it was like in the early church – who was it that belonged? what did not belong? How was that to be determined?

So, I’d like to try an experiment.  I’d like to see who among us is qualified to belong to the church.  

Now, according to the ancient laws of purity of early Jewish-Christians, these are some of the rules, among others:  you may eat any land animal that chews its cud and has a split hoof.  And you can eat any sea animal that has fins and scales. You can also eat any insects that have jointed legs above their feet, so locusts, grasshoppers and crickets are all okay.  And of course there are others. So let’s see... Please stand up as you are able.

Would everyone who has ever eaten camel meat, please sit down.  Because although a camel chews its cud, it doesn’t have a split hoof.  You Camel eaters, please sit down. Good Bye.

How about rock-badger? If you’ve eaten rock-badger, please sit down, you’re out, because it’s like the camel - chews its cud, but doesn’t have a split hoof. Good Bye.

So far, so good.

Now, let’s try seafood. Does anybody here eat shellfish?  Oysters, clams? Sit down. You’re not in either. Good Bye.

Shrimp? Sorry. Good Bye.

How about pork?  BBQ’ed ribs?? Sorry. You’re out too.  Good Bye.

Do we have anybody who has eaten bacon?  No room for you here either. Good Bye.

Hmmm.... We’re not really doing very well at this, are we?  

Cheeseburger? You’re out – you can’t eat beef and dairy at the same time. Good Bye.

Any of you still standing should probably sit down as well because chances are that you are wearing or have worn clothing with more than one kind of fiber in its making. Cotton/poly blends are not permitted. You’re out. Good Bye.
The fact of the matter is that nobody here would qualify as an observant Jew in Jesus’ day. We would all be considered unclean, outcasts, outsiders, because we do not follow the purity rules that are “plainly” laid out in the Bible. According to the community standards under which Jesus and the disciples lived, we are all gentiles – people who are part of some other clan or tribe.  We wouldn’t be allowed to be Jews, and if we were not Jews, we could not be Christians.  

This was the problem Peter was facing in today’s reading from Acts.  The Jewish-Christian community was outraged because they had heard about people who were being baptized without first becoming Jews.  This created a problem: what were the requirements for becoming a follower of Jesus?  How could the disciples ever distinguish themselves from the rest of the world, if they didn’t have some kind of basic rules that they all agreed to follow?

Rules are how different groups define themselves.  Earl was a Mason as was his father before him, and if you want to be a Mason, you have to study a certain set of rules and take a certain test and be initiated in a certain way.  Masons recognize other Masons because they all follow a certain set of rules and customs.  

I was in a sorority in college and there are many fraternal groups now organized around profession, ethnicity or avocation. These have rules and practices and customs that define who belongs.

The question Peter was facing was this: what were the rules about being a Christian?  Up until now, all of Jesus’ followers had been Jews, who had come to believe that he was the Messiah.  They believed that gentiles, who lacked any cultural appreciation of Judaism, couldn’t possibly understand what it meant to follow Jesus, because they had no way of appreciating who the Messiah was, or what he meant. 

Gentiles were outsiders. Jews were in. Gentiles were out.

People of faith have struggled with these same questions for years and decades and centuries and millennia.  Who is worthy to receive the blessing of God?  Who is worthy to share in the fellowship of the Church?  Who do we consider worthy enough to participate fully in the life of the body of Christ?  Who is in and who is out?

It wasn’t very long ago that black people were not permitted to share Communion with white people.  When they had separate seating set aside for them maybe up in the balcony or in a back section. When there were separate bathrooms and drinking fountains. And, women were not only prohibited from being pastors, they could not even be on the council or assist in the serving of communion.  And that is still the case in some of our sister Lutheran denominations. And even now, many churches have rules and restrictions on who is eligible to receive communion.  

But you see, the Holy Spirit has never been confined to only one nation or tribe or clan.  The Holy Spirit came to all people, to Jews and Gentiles and indeed to all.  The Spirit blows where she will, through hearts of everyone, and brings us all into an new relationship with God and with one another.  The Holy Spirit cleanses us all, and makes us all new. No more Jew or Gentile, no more slave or free, neither male and female for we are all are one in Christ Jesus. So wrote Paul to the church in Galatia where lines were being drawn in the sand to clearly demarcate who was in and was not.

But in today’s Gospel, we hear of a key teaching and instruction. So key that Jesus said all would know that we are disciples if we are shaped by this teaching and embody this teaching.  All of us are bound together in discipleship to do the one thing Christ commanded us to do on his last hours on earth.   And what was this rule?  

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.

Jesus says that the only rule he has to be his follower is that we love each other.  As Christians, we define ourselves not by the foods we eat, not by the clothes we wear, not by our race or gender or our sexuality.  Jesus defined his clan, his tribe, his followers, by only one rule.  We are defined by our love.

Friends, I know there many who find this hard to swallow.  I know that there are passages in the Bible which can be interpreted as being against full inclusion and participation of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, just as there are also passages that can be interpreted as being against full inclusion and participation of people of color and passages that can be understood as refusing inclusion of women in the life of the Church.  

I know that there are some who would like to put an asterisk on Jesus’ Great Commandment – * surely there must be some rules that we will not bend, surely there are some who must be excluded, surely there are some who are outsiders so that we can be insiders.

And more importantly, at the same time, I  know that there are some who walk by our doors on South Ingraham  Avenue who find it impossible to believe that this parish, or any community of faith, could ever really love them as Christ taught us to love.  That here they could live fully into a life in the amazing grace of God outpoured in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Sadly, these  have been excluded so often that they find it impossible to believe they will be accepted in any church.  And, after a while, they have stopped looking.

That's why it's not simply enough for us to be a welcoming place. Some time back I read an article written by a pastor titled “We Will No Longer be a Welcoming Church”. 

Startling perhaps. But you see, being a welcoming and friendly place is part of it to be sure, and it is very good to be open and welcoming.  But that's where lots of churches stop.  This pastor goes on to say, “We will be an INVITING church!” Jesus is calling us to do more, to actively go out and love the people who do not already feel accepted into the "club."  

To go out as ambassadors for Christ, sharing the love we have for each other in this room with all those outside that people find it so hard to love.  That's true evangelism, people building relationships with other people outside our 4 walls, relationships that embody the love of Jesus Christ.  Whatever we do here inside to proclaim Christ in our words and ministries and worship is a but a small drop in the bucket compared to what we are called to be investing in our relationships outside of this place so that Christ may be known in the world.

Of course, there will be times when we fail to show the love that Jesus taught us.  There may be some who will continue to struggle with what it means to be a church in the 21st century for some time to come.  There are times when we struggle. But Jesus himself never put an asterisk on his #1 rule that we love one another.

This defines who we are as disciples of the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. By this they will know that we are his disciples.

In our failings and in our questions and in our head-scratching; in our doubts and wonderings and wanderings; in our broken-ness we come – we come again to gather around Word and Sacrament – hearing the words of promise and good news, splashing in the waters of the font, feasting at the Table. 

Bishop Michael Curry is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. If you have not heard him preach, please do. He preached at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.  Boy did he preach! He offers these words in his book Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times:

To love, my brothers and sisters, does not mean that we have to agree. But maybe agreeing to love is the greatest agreement. And the only one that ultimately matters because it makes a future possible. 

Who is within your reach and needs your love? What happens if you stretch a little bit more – who then comes within your reach? How might this shape or change the future? 
Love, the greatest commandment. 

May the people of God say Amen!