I’ve been feeling a bit reflective, perhaps even nostalgic over the last few weeks. That might not be at all surprising given that I observed my 60thbirthday two weeks ago. But it’s also likely due to the fact that I attended a memorial service for one of my aunts last month and reconnected with my cousins, and this past week, saw the death of another aunt, the last of my dad’s 10 siblings. It’s not just or primarily the grief, it’s the sense of time passing, the lives and the world in which those lives played out, receding into the past.
That sort of nostalgia is common—many of us look back on the world of our childhood as a magical, safe place and feel acutely how different the world is today than it was in the fifties or sixties. But of course, those of us who remember a safe, loving, nurturing past, are overlooking other aspects of those times—the racism and sexism, the overwhelming fear of nuclear war, and so many other things.
It’s also true that nostalgia of this sort is part of what brings many of us to church. We want the reassurance of tradition to sustain in uncertain and anxious times. We want familiar faces, familiar hymns, liturgy that we have memorized. As the world spins ever more quickly out of control, the stone walls of this church that have stood firmly for over 150 years, seem to provide a haven, an ark to protect us from the coming flood.
But of course, it’s not quite that simple. Changing demographics, changing culture, the rapid decline of Christianity in America present grave challenges to the future stability of even the congregation that meets within the solid walls of this building. None of this is new. We’ve been talking about it for years. And in recent months, many individuals and groups at Grace have been reading The Agile Church, by Dwight Zscheile, in which he talks about these changes and how the church might adapt and innovate to become more effective in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and connecting with our neighbors and larger community.
Still, there’s no little irony that we are reading a book called The Agile Churchhere at Grace. There’s really nothing agile about us. We’ve been here on this corner for over 175 yrs; this building has been here since 1858, the oldest building on Capitol Square, the oldest church in Madison, perhaps in Dane County. But I think Zscheile’s underlying point is absolutely correct. We have to change, we have to experiment and innovate as we seek to connect in new ways to our neighbors, and we have to be willing to fail in the process.
For all of this, we have significant precedent in scripture, nowhere more so than in the Book of Acts, a text that offers us insight into the development of the followers of the Way, as they called themselves, in the first years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Last week, we looked at the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, one of the most important early examples of the expansion of the good news of Jesus Christ outside of the Jewish and Jerusalem context in which it began.
This week we have part of another story that makes the same point. For whatever reason, we only get a small part of the story—the climax, with its conversion experience, the coming of the Holy Spirit on Gentiles, and Peter’s question, echoing the Eunuch’s words last week, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?”
But just who were these people? Our reading is the conclusion of the story of Cornelius the Centurion. Cornelius, we are told, was a god-fearer, someone attracted to the ethical standards and monotheism of Judaism. He had a vision one day that instructed him to send for Peter. As his emissaries were approaching the place where Peter was staying, it was about noon, and Peter was praying on the roof of the house. He had a vision in which a large sheet came down from heaven, and on the sheet were all manner of animals, all of them unclean. But a voice told him, “Take and eat.” Peter refused, and the scene was repeated two more times. Just as he was trying to figure out what the vision might mean, Cornelius’ messengers arrived. Peter and his companions went with them and he preached to Cornelius and his household. As he preached, the Holy Spirit came upon the gathering, including on the unbaptized Gentiles. And Peter asked the question, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Like the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, the story of Cornelius is a story of the gospel moving beyond its beginning among a small group of Jesus’ followers centered in Jerusalem, out into the world, and out among people quite unlike these Galileans. Acts will tell the story of the gospel reaching Rome, but it is a story not without conflict and dissent. The New Testament, both in Acts and in Paul’s letters show the tension that arose as the gospel was proclaimed among Gentiles. Many Jews and Jewish Christians were troubled by the expansion of the gospel to Gentiles, and the decision not to require converts to keep the commandments of Torah.
It’s easy for us, 1900 years on the other side of this development, all of us descendants of those who were once outsiders and welcomed in, to see all this as a natural, easy development. But the challenge for us is to discern where the Holy Spirit is calling us now—what sort of barriers and assumptions do we maintain that prevent the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ?
When we ask the question that way, we immediately jump to issues of diversity and inclusion, which are so very important, and have focused our energies as Christians for many years. But in some ways, the obvious issues may not always be the most pressing, or the most challenging.
Having preached on such matters repeatedly over the years, and for some of you, it may have become a bit tiresome, I would like to shift our perspective and think about other internal barriers that prevent us from allowing the spirit’s free movement. And it’s here that today’s gospel reading offers insight.
Jesus is speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper. He says some pretty remarkable things in this brief passage: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” Think about it, think about the eternity, the intimacy of that love of God the Father and God the Son—that’s the sort of love Jesus is talking about here, the love he has for his disciples, for us.
But then he goes on. , “I do not call you servants any longer, … but I have called you friends.” While we get the contrast between friend and servant—the change in status, the change in power dynamic, we probably don’t fully grasp the intimacy implied. For us, “friend” has become something casual—especially in the age of Facebook.
But friendship takes on even deeper meaning as Jesus says, “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” If we haven’t gotten the point earlier, by now it’s clear. The sort of friendship Jesus is talking about is nothing like contemporary notions of friendship. It’s all-encompassing. Of course, we’re meant to think of Jesus’ own love, love expressed on the cross. But we’re also meant to think back to the beginning of this section of John’s gospel, chapter 13, where the gospel begins his account of the Last Supper with the words, “And having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” And here, end means both the end of Jesus’ life as well as “to the fullest extent possible.”
That sort of love, the sort of love Jesus showed in his death as well as his life, is incomprehensible to us, even as we experience it. That he might be calling us to the same love is mind-boggling. But we shouldn’t regard it as yet another burden or demand. It is a logical extension of Jesus’ calling us his “friends.”
John’s gospel begins with that marvelous hymn, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” It goes on to proclaim, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That Word made flesh now calls us “friend.” We are no longer servants or slaves, but friends.” It is a declaration of our shared identity with Christ, not just a relationship, but identity. That identity reaches beyond Jesus Christ to God. The love we share with Christ, that we abide in him and he in us, are reflections, extensions, of the love Jesus and the Father share. We abide in Christ as Christ abides in God.
Among other things, what this means is that we share in God’s mission in the world. We project God’s presence and love in the world. That’s why this commandment to love is so important. It’s not just our obligation; it’s evidence of who we are, of our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.
So to come back to my earlier question, what sort of barriers do we set up preventing the good news from reaching the world—well, perhaps the first barrier is within ourselves, a barrier that limits us from experiencing that intimacy, the fullness of God’s love, and because we can’t experience it, or don’t want to, we are unable to share it fully with others.
May we open ourselves to the depths and riches of God’s love, may we abide in that love, may we become friends with Jesus, and through his love and friendship, begin to share that same love and friendship with the world.