Homily for a Sunday after Easter
Margaret D. McGee
What does it mean for God, the Creator of our world, to enter into our daily lives and set us on a new course, a new path of life? When that happens, what happens? And how do we live, day to day, so that it can happen, so that we are open and ready for God to bring new life into our world?
In two stories, this morning’s readings tell us what happened at crucial, life-changing moments, moments when God broke through human norms and expectations to make all things new.
In Acts, we go with Peter as he travels to Jerusalem to meet with the elders and other Jesus-believers within the Jewish community, and explain to them what he’s been up to with the Gentiles. These are the very early years of Christianity, after the resurrection, but before the church became “the Church.” Peter knows that what he has to say to his friends and colleagues is controversial and will meet resistance, so the text says “Then Peter began to explain it to them step by step.”
I love that – “step by step.” The phrase jumps out at me personally, because it connects me back to my years as a technical writer, during which, among other assignments, I wrote a book called Microsoft Access Step-by-Step. (MS Access is relational database software, which I’m not going to get into right now.)
When I started as a technical writer, I did not have much computer background or technical education. That made the job harder, in some ways. But it also meant I was the right person to write something like Microsoft Access Step by Step. My job was to put myself in the place of a person who didn’t know basic concepts of how relational databases work. Unlike my colleagues with years of database experience, I could still remember what that was like. So it wasn’t so hard for me to go there, take my readers by the hand, and walk with them across the bridge to the new world.
Which is exactly the approach that Peter takes in Jerusalem, step by step. He starts his testimony, not by telling the elders what he wants them to think, but by explaining how he was changed, using terms they all share from their own religious tradition.
He tells them he was in Joppa, praying, when he fell into a trance and had a vision, which the elders know is one of the ways that God communicates “divine intent at a critical turning point.” They know this from their own holy texts recounting the experiences of their forefathers Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, and from the testimony of the prophets.
So Peter tells them that in his trance, he saw something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, and looking at it closely he sees all kinds of animals. A voice tells him to go ahead and kill and eat the animals, implying that he doesn’t need to choose only those that have been killed and prepared the approved way. Peter immediately says, “Uh-uh, not me,” because just like his listeners in Jerusalem, he is an observant Jew and follows Jewish dietary laws.
Then the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Basically saying, “You know Peter, this is not your call. It’s My call.”
Peter tells them he saw this vision three times, and again, this detail would have been full of meaning to his audience, from their shared tradition. In the Torah (the Hebrew Bible), the number three is often used as “the number of truth,” because it represents a complete process – beginning, middle, and end. In Jewish law, doing something three times is one way to make it real and permanent.
So when Peter’s vision in the trance occurred three times, this is another clue of the divine nature of its message.
Which is exactly Peter’s point in the final, crucial scene of the story. Peter explains that, encouraged by his vision, he travels to CaesurEa with Gentiles, eating with them, and not setting himself apart as he would by Jewish custom. They bring him to a house where he tells his host and others about Jesus’ life and mission. Then something happens Peter knows must be the work of God. The Holy Spirit comes down to these Gentiles, just like the Holy Spirit came to Peter and the other disciples in the Upper Room on the day of Pentecost.
So he baptizes the Gentiles, in the name of Jesus Christ. It’s that scandalous act he’s trying to explain to the elders here in Jerusalem, many of whom feel that Gentiles need to convert to Judaism in order to become followers of Christ, since Jesus is the Messiah of the Jews. (They are still just trying to work things out.)
But Peter has seen what he has seen, and he ends his testimony with these words: “If then God gave them [the Gentiles] the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they [the elders and other Jewish believers] heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
And so, the early church made a great turn, changing the course of history and re-defining what it meant to know the Messiah, the one who reconciles everyone — male and female, free and slave, Greek and Jew – to the God who made us all. It was a new way of thinking about who they were as followers of Christ, and they wouldn’t have gotten there, they wouldn’t have made the move, if Peter hadn’t taken them by the hand, step by step, from one way of knowing to the next.
At first reading, Peter’s testimony seems to be about the importance of accepting into the fold those who I might think of as outsiders. So, just as the Jews who followed Christ opened their self-definition to accept the Gentiles, I need to be able to open up and accept people outside my comfort zone, even those I might not usually eat with, even people I might see as heathens. And I think that message is in the story, and it’s a good message.
At the same time, as a former technical writer, for me, that “step by step” makes Peter’s testimony also wonderfully about what it takes to be “in communion” with those who are close by – family, friends, neighbors. The people around us in the pews.
It can be a lot easier for me to love heathens, especially the ones who are far, far away, than to love each person at a church committee meeting. To first love them, and then, when we disagree, to do the hard work of putting myself in their place, and doing what it takes, step by step, to bridge the gap between us, on whatever the issue of the day might be.
Which brings us to our Gospel lesson, where Jesus is speaking to those closest to him, his own inner circle. This morning’s reading come at the close of the last meal they share together, on the evening before Jesus’ arrest in Jerusalem. So this was some time before Peter’s travels to Caesarea and Jerusalem, but not too long before. Peter remembers this night. Near the end of supper, Jesus had scandalized his friends by leaving the table, getting a basin, and washing their feet, the act of a servant.
Now, he says, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” What can those words mean? Well, one meaning of the word “glorify” is simply to “make visible.”
Perhaps these words mean that when Jesus came to his friends in the role of their servant – when he touched them, and took care of them, when he showed them how he loved them – that in these acts, God was glorified – made visible – right there in that room.
Then, three times – three times – Jesus tells them to pass it on. “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.”
So … What does it mean for God, the Creator of our world, to enter into our daily lives and set us on a new path of life? And how do we live, day to day, so that it can happen? Jesus’ actions and words suggest that it’s really pretty simple, though he knows it won’t be easy.
Every week, here in this room, we take time in the service to touch each other, with a handshake or a hug, and to offer each other the peace of the Lord. In this way, we practice visible, physical acts reflecting love for one other. I’d like us to share now in a sort of mini-peace – a quieter, more contemplative version of the peace we will share later in the service.
Please take the hand of someone sitting near you. Look around, and be sure that everyone around you has a hand to hold. Now sit quietly for a moment, and feel this other person’s hand in yours. It might be a hand you know very well, one you’ve held many times. It might a hand that’s new to you. Either way, give this hand a moment of quiet attention. Use your sense of touch to experience the texture of the other person’s skin. Be present for the other person.
This morning’s reading from the Revelation to John recounts another extraordinary vision, in which a voice comes from a great throne. “See,” says the voice from the throne, “the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them … “See, I am making all things new. … To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”
Our God is here, with us every moment, ready to make all things new, and visible in the love we share, one to another.
Delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, Washington, on May 2, 2010.
Readings for the day:
New Interpreter’s Study Bible, commentaries for the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel According to John, Abdington Press, 2003.
Hillel ben David [Greg Killian] on the web site http://www.betemunah.org.