The Fifth Sunday of Easter, 24 April 2016

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

Background: Dietary Laws

It might be a time for a quick review of the Jewish dietary laws, given the first reading for this Sunday, If we look into the purity laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy we see extensive rules that allow for the eating of certain foods, and taboos and proscriptions that surround others. Of suspicion are those animals (mammals) that either do not ruminate or have a cloven hoof. Thus the camel, the pig, and the hare are excluded from the list. Fish must have fins and scales, and thus all shellfish are considered impure. What are most interesting are the social norms and practices that stand behind these standards. Some look toward economic principals, such as the pig that eats not from the land but from the waste produce – very expensive meat. Or were there public health concerns about the foods that ended up as impure – did an experience of “red tide” and shellfish condemn all future Hebrew shellfish to be impure? Some have also proposed that animals that did not fit neatly into certain categories were condemned to be impure, simply because the society did not know how to think about them.

First Reading: Acts 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, `Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' But I replied, `By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' But a second time the voice answered from heaven, `What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, `Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, `John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave them 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 heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."

We are clearly on the cusp of a change of understanding here. What social norms had prescribed in the past is quickly giving way to something else. The actors are several, the Gentiles “who had also accepted the word of God,” along with the apostles and believers in Judea, and the protagonists – the circumcised believers who are critical of the emerging social behaviors. Peter’s role here is to account for his own change of mind, and to do so he shares with his critics an experience or vision that makes for clarity. Peter’s vision is meant to underscore God’s intent that all are to be invited into the kingdom. The realities of that intent are brought into a precise clarity at the house of Cornelius, where a Roman soldier is given the grace of an invitation and baptism. We have moved well beyond the flesh of a pig, and even beyond sharing meat with the uncircumcised. Now we are truly in the kingdom, where God is the arbiter of what is acceptable or not. That the Spirit should, “fall upon them” just as she had upon the apostles at Pentecost is a further pointer that this is indeed a new creation and kingdom of being under God’s heaven.

Breaking open Acts:
1.     What do you think God has forbidden you to do?
2.     Have you ever challenged that?
3.     What is God begging you to do?

Psalm 148 Laudate Dominum

Praise the Lord from the heavens; *
praise him in the heights.
2      Praise him, all you angels of his; *
praise him, all his host.
3      Praise him, sun and moon; *
praise him, all you shining stars.
4      Praise him, heaven of heavens, *
and you waters above the heavens.
5      Let them praise the Name of the Lord; *
for he commanded, and they were created.
6      He made them stand fast for ever and ever; *
he gave them a law which shall not pass away.
7      Praise the Lord from the earth, *
you sea-monsters and all deeps;
8      Fire and hail, snow and fog, *
tempestuous wind, doing his will;
9      Mountains and all hills, *
fruit trees and all cedars;
10    Wild beasts and all cattle, *
creeping things and winged birds;
11    Kings of the earth and all peoples, *
princes and all rulers of the world;
12    Young men and maidens, *
old and young together.
13    Let them praise the Name of the Lord, *
for his Name only is exalted,
his splendor is over earth and heaven.
14    He has raised up strength for his people
and praise for all his loyal servants, *
the children of Israel, a people who are near him.

This is a psalm of the geography of the heavens. The unusual nature of this “place” might be lost to us in the words that translators have used to give the Hebrew sense. Forget the winged angels and harps and halos, and think armies of messengers armed with the word. Think sun, moon, and stars; firmament and waters above the heavens, think of heavens above heavens. Think of a real where mortal mind is astonished and in awe. Into this geography a line is drawn. These are the foundations of existence, and the psalmist wants to convince us that God has suasion and rule over all of it. Now he considers all that God has ordered – the deeps and all that inhabit them, the earth and all its creatures, and finely ourselves – gifts meant to praise God.

Breaking open Psalm 148
1.     What is the scope of the Psalmist’ outlook here?
2.     What puts you in awe of creation?
3.     What is your place in creation?

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6

I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

"See, 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;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."

And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life."

In the psalm for this day, the psalmist exults in the several layers of God’s good creation, ending with a reverie on the people of God.  In the Divine’s vision we see a new heaven and a new earth – and (I think this is really important for contemporary Christians) a new city. The psalm pans all of creation and then focuses on humankind, but the vision follows God’s entry into our time to dwell with us.  This is no passive meditation on God’s presence, however.  It is an observation of activity and action: “wipe every tear,” “death will be no more,” “pain will be no more.” If we are to live with God in God’s kingdom, the question for Christians is how do we participate in making all things new?

Breaking open Revelation:
1.     How might God dwelling in creation renew it?
2.     What needs to be renewed in your life?
3.     How will that happen?

St. John 13:31-35

At the last supper, when Judas had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.' 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."

In retrograde we look back at the foot washing, and the instruction that Jesus offers the disciples as they put the towels away. It is preparation for going away – it is leave taking, and the question that needs to be asked is, “what do we do when you’re gone?” It’s a question with which we might also identify. The instruction is simple – “I have loved – so you should love.” If Jesus’ intent is to make the kingdom known, then this simple directive indicates how that kingdom is to be communicated – by our love. Hard stuff.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How simple is Jesus’ instruction?
2.     How difficult?
3.     How will you implement it?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller


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