A Church of Distinction

 

Rev. Sarah Buteux

April 28, 2013

Acts 11:1-18;  John 13:21-35

 

There are certain moments throughout the church year that hold an undeniable power for me. One such is that moment on Christmas Eve right after we have sung “Silent Night.” Now I know for a lot of people “Silent Night” is the best part.  But for me it is that moment right after, that moment when the church is dark and hushed and in the glow of the candlelight we remain standing together, shoulder to shoulder - friends, neighbors, and perfect strangers – as a voice cries out…

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  … In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God ….The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (And) we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

 

We have seen his glory. John tells us right at the beginning of his gospel that in the Christ, the incarnation, the person of Jesus, we willsee the glory of God, and on Christmas Eve I think we brush up against that glory in a very real and visceral way in spite of the fact - strangely enough - that it’s not until the Last Supper of all places where the glory John speaks of is finally and fully revealed.

 

When you hear that word glory, what do you think of? What images, words, or phrases come to mind?

Glory to God in the Highest

Gloria in Excelsis Deo

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost

A woman’s hair is her glory

Glory days

Jay Z singing Glory to little Blue Ivy

Glory is about beauty, praise, fame, honor, renown.

Your glory is the thing that sets you apart.

At its root, one’s glory is about one’s reputation. How one is known and regarded.

 

And I don’t know about you, but when I think back through all the events of the gospels, to all those places where the true glory of Jesus might have been revealed, I think of moments such as the heavenly host announcing his birth. I think of the clouds parting and the Dove descending at his baptism, the transfiguration on Mount Tabor, the procession on Palm Sunday, or even the unearthly glow one would imagine emanated off his skin after the resurrection. I hear the word glory and my mind wanders off toward some of the more special effects laden moments in the gospels.

 

But as it so happens, at least according to John, where Jesus’ glory is most fully revealed is in that quiet moment we read about this morning - a moment so quiet that the other disciples don’t even really know what’s going on - that moment when Judas slips away from the last supper to betray Jesus, and Jesus, knowing full well what his friend intends to do, lets him go anyway. As the door closes on his most perfidious disciple, Jesus turns to the others and says:

 

Now is the son of man glorified,

 and in him God is glorified.”

 

Now.

Then.

In that moment, right there; that is where we see the glory of God.

In that moment, the one in which Jesus is betrayed by one of his inner circle, ill used, and most wrongfully vilified, that is where we witness the glory of God precisely because it is there where we begin to see just how unconditional and far reaching God’s love truly is; because it is there where we begin to see just how far Jesus will go to show every last person on earth what God’s love looks like, even and especially, in the face of human evil.

 

Jesus doesn’t stop Judas. He doesn’t expose, pre-empt, or make any moves to bring Judas down. Jesus just goes on loving him – loving Judas - no matter what.

 

In the words of Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove: “… the Son of man is glorified when he keeps on loving (even) the one who is forsaking him.  The full extent of Jesus’ love is washing (not just Peter’s feet, or John’s feet, on that fateful night but) Judas’ feet, serving (Judas) dinner, and then going to the cross (not just for you, or me, his mother or the disciple he loved but) for him (for Judas, for the one who betrayed him)” (Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers p. 68). 

 

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of

grace… grace….grace….

grace unearned and freely given….

grace…grace….grace…

and truth.”

 

John let’s us know, right from the very beginning that if we want to know what the father is like we need only to look at his son… a son whose glory, whose reputation, whose whole being is grounded in and defined by his capacity to love even Judas, extend nothing but grace toward the one who betrayed him, and die - not just for those who believed in him -but for those intent upon destroying him.

 

That is what God’s love looks like - our God of grace and God of glory -and that is why the commandment Jesus gave his disciples at that last supper truly was new.

Notice that Jesus is not re-iterating the golden rule here – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or even “love your neighbor as yourself.” He’s says:

 

“Little children…I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.

Just as I have loved you...”

 

That is, you love one another the way I love even Judas. Love one another the way I will still love every last one of you knuckleheads even though I know you’re all going to run out on me before this night is over.

 

“…love one another. Just as I have loved you...” says Jesus.

 

Meaning: you love one another, you love one another, you love one another…. no matter what.

You forgive one another no matter what.

You go back for each other,

You don’t give up on one another,

You hold out hope for the other… no matter what.

 

“…love one another. Just as I have loved you...” says Jesus.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples…”

 

Whoa.

 

Friends, this right here, this is the central ethic around which and upon which Jesus begins to build this new thing we have come to call the church. And if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, not just in light of current events but really just in terms of life in general, than you weren’t paying attention.

 

Jesus’ love was big enough and wide enough and deep enough to include even Judas: a man from his inner circle, one of his own, who for three years walked with him, broke bread with him, listened to his stories, witnessed his miracles, slept by his side, and then sold him out for a lousy little bag of silver, branded him as a blasphemer, and handed him over to be crucified as a traitor.

 

As one who loved even Judas: this is how Jesus would have us remember him. This is his glory, a strange glory to be sure, but his glory all the same. This is who Jesus is and how he operates and if we would follow him then we are called to do the same.

 

Jesus’ people, his disciples, those who would call themselves Christians, are meant to be a new kind of people, a peculiar kind of people, a conspicuous people; a people who stand apart from all the rest precisely because our love is as incomprehensible, self-effacing, and radically inclusive as was His. As the old song says, “they will know we are Christians by our love,” because frankly a love like that stands out. People are bound to notice?

 

But do they? Do they know? Is it really our radical love that defines us here in the church; our unconditional welcome; our willingness to lay down our lives for our enemies and bless those who persecute us? Is that how “they know” we are Christians?

 

***

 

It’s hard… you know? A love like that…to love like this….it’s complicated. It always has been. It always will be. I know that.

 

The church struggles with this now but the truth is that the church has struggled with this ethic of unconditional love and acceptance from its very beginning. We see it in this morning’s reading from the book of Acts.  Peter gets called on the carpet before the elders of the early church because rumor has it that he’s been eating and consorting with uncircumcised Gentiles, something you wouldn’t do as an observant Jew because keeping yourself separate from Gentiles was part of how you kept yourself holy. 

 

Jewish identity was very much grounded in eating, praying, washing, and living in a way that was set apart from the people around you. In fact, one of the reasons Jesus got into so much trouble was because he kept stepping over those boundaries to eat with, pray for, and touch people who he should have stayed away from. So one of the biggest questions facing the early church – precisely because the early church was made up entirely of good observant Jews – was how to follow in this radically inclusive loving way of Jesus without compromising themselves in the process.

 

This was a huge and extremely fraught question, a question the Holy Spirit answers for Peter in the city of Joppa. Peter tells the council about his strange vision: a vision of a sheet being let down from heaven full of animals he has never eaten before because they are unclean and the Spirit tells him -3 times, because this is Peter and apparently Peter needs everything to be said three times – “kill and eat, kill and eat, kill and eat…What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 

 

Then, as if on cue, there’s a knock at the door and the Spirit tells him to go with the men he finds there and not to make a distinction between himself and them – why?- because the Spirit knows they are Gentiles.

 

Now again, please try to understand that up until this moment, what has made Peter a good and holy man has precisely been his ability to make distinctions: distinctions between himself and others, between what is clean and unclean, Jewish and Gentile, pure and impure. And yet here is the Spirit telling him to forget all that. Forget all that and embrace a new way: Jesus’ way; his new commandment … to love everyone… no matter what… to love without distinction….to love the way I have loved you.

 

Peter goes with the men to a house in Caesarea, meets a bunch of Gentiles, and lo and behold the Spirit falls upon them just the way it has fallen upon him and he comes to realize that – and here, this is the heart of it so if I’ve lost you come back to me now and hear this:

 

if this Jesus is for anyone than this Jesus is for everyone.

Everyone.

 

Make no distinction. If Jesus can love even Judas then surely he can love these Gentiles. If Jesus can love even Judas then there is no one beyond the bounds of God’s love.  If Jesus can love even Judas then there is no one you or I as his followers can close our hearts or our faith or our church off to, and still claim we are his disciples. On the contrary, if we are his disciples then we need to do all in our power to demonstrate precisely what that crazy, indiscriminate, transgressive sort of love looks like in the world.

 

What distinguishes us as Christians, what distinguishes us as a church – our reputation, our glory - should be our radical commitment to make no distinction in the name of Christ that we might love all others the way he loves every single last one of us.

 

Can you imagine? Can you imagine that: a movement, a faith, a church, a world like that?

 

Because I can.  And believe it or not, I can imagine building that and being a part of that right here, here in Hadley of all places, with you. 

 

You know, we’ve been talking a lot about who we want to be and what kind of church we are becoming. We’re going to be visioning in the weeks and months ahead and learning more about what it would mean to be fully Open and Affirming, but let’s get real here for a moment and remember that if this is to be a true church, a church full of actual disciples, than it really isn’t about what we want or what makes us comfortable or what feels right to us, but about being faithful to what the Spirit wants and what the Spirit is doing in our midst; and make no mistake, the Spirit is doing something here.

 

I mean look around you. God is calling people here, to this place, to this church, across town lines and old wounds and misconceptions and pre-conceived notions and well-worn prejudices and right here in Hadley God is creating something new. Glory be to God.

God is moving here in the lives of people who are encountering Christ for the first time and people who have known Christ for so long they maybe forgot he was still there. Glory be to God.

God is moving in the lives of children who are feeling a pull to be baptized into the new life Christ offers and adults who want to become more fully grounded in the stories of our faith. Glory be to God.

God is moving….moving in those of you who have come here in spite of your better judgment, moving in those of you who can’t believe you can sit here in the same room with others of you, moving in those of you who are wrestling right now with very real questions about how to forgive and love and live in a world so full of fear, anger, suffering, and pain. Glory be to God.

Friends, let us not presume to hinder to works of the Spirit, a Spirit that from the very beginning has blown where it will the better to break open doors and hearts and all the boundaries we create to set ourselves apart, but let us instead allow that Spirit to lead us and shape us that we might come to resemble more and more and more the one whose name we have claimed as our own.

 

May they know we are Christians by our LOVE.

 

Let us sing it together as a prayer…. May They Know We Are Christians by Our Love.