Love that dismantles walls | Jeff Nowers | May 19, 2019
You may have heard this question asked: If you were to stand trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? I think it’s fascinating for us to consider in our day. What sort of evidence could be presented to convict you of Christian faith? Your consistent attendance at church services on Sunday morning? Would that suffice? Probably not. There’s a lot more to our lives than Sunday morning. So is there enough evidence throughout the other six and half days of the week to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you’re a Christian?
All of this, I think, begs a more fundamental question, which is: What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be one who follows the Way of Jesus? What, or who, is a disciple of Christ? If that’s the fundamental question, then Jesus himself provides a clear answer in today’s Gospel. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus says, “if you have love for one another.” What is the smoking gun evidence to prove Christian identity? Love. Love for God, love for neighbor, love for one another. That is what will verify our Christian faith and life.
But “love” can be a vague and slippery word. It means a range of different things. I love ice cream. Have you ever tried Kawartha Dairy’s banana ice cream? Irresistible. But that’s not the sort of love Jesus is getting at. Love of banana ice cream sets apart one thing above other things. I might love banana ice cream, but not so much maple walnut. We can extend this into the realm of people. I love this person, but that person really gets under my skin. Love that plays favorites and excludes isn’t the kind of love that Jesus compels us to practice. The love he’s getting at is deeper and relational; it marks our entire psyche and disposition.
St. Peter is someone who figured out the kind of love Jesus was talking about, but it didn’t come easily. In the first reading we heard from the Book of Acts, Peter has had a total change of thinking. His whole outlook on life has shifted. Being a Jew—as, of course, was Jesus—he was raised with a certain view of non-Jews (Gentiles). Eating meals with Gentiles was understood to be a form of excessive social interaction with those outside the Jewish faith, and this could compromise the distinctiveness of Israel’s identity and what it meant to be a Jew, one of God’s chosen people. Dietary restrictions, among other things, gave Jews a distinct identity over against the surrounding Gentiles. For all his life, Peter upheld this practice—until he caught a vision in a dream of a different perspective on reality.
In his rather curious dream, Peter sees a large sheet descending from the sky with all sorts of animals on the sheet, such as pigs, crabs, lobster, and so forth—animals that by Jewish standards are “unclean” and not to be eaten. But Peter hears a voice, three times over, that tells him to eat. When Peter refuses—and we can appreciate why—the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And then the vision ends.
When Peter comes out of his dream, he is transformed. He now realizes that food distinctions between what is kosher and not kosher shouldn’t continue to be a source of contention and division. But more to the point, Peter now has a new perspective on Gentiles. They are no longer to be avoided, especially at meals; Gentiles have been made clean—they are children of God—just as Jews are. God’s Holy Spirit empowers everyone alike, whether Jew or Gentile. What Peter finally realized in that vision was that following the Way of Jesus is about embodying a love that takes down walls and barriers that divide and prevent people from relating to one another and truly loving each other.
When Jesus says that our discipleship is proven by our love for one another, he’s referring to a love that knocks down unwelcome barriers. It’s a love that overcomes distinctions of race and ethnicity, divisions of gender, divisions of class and economic status, even divisions of religious particularities. St. Paul understood this, at least in theory. In his letter to the Galatians, he made a radical declaration that one theologian of a previous generation has called the “magna carta of humanity.” Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
This kind of unity is made possible by the love that Jesus says we ought to embody if we are his followers. It’s a love that goes beyond our favorite people or our closest friends. It’s a love that’s extended to everyone we encounter in this place. It’s a love that takes us out of our comfort zones into deep relationships with those whom we might otherwise not have much to do with. And because it’s such an all-embracing love, it requires us to take stock of our lives and assess where we’re at.
How welcoming are we as a body? What can we do at St. Aidan’s to make our building and our congregation a more welcome place for anyone who ventures inside? Diversity is one our core values at St. Aidan’s. How committed are we to it, not only as a congregation but in our individual lives? There are walls and barriers that remain firmly fixed in our world, and these need to be dismantled with love. I’m talking about walls that divide people, for example, by race and by sexual identity. So we need to ask some hard questions of ourselves: Have I had dinner in my home with someone whose skin color is considerably darker than my own? How many gay couples am I friends with? Let me stress that these are not questions of finger-pointing but rather invitations to explore how the love that Jesus embodies can transform our own lives and knock down walls of division in our world.
At the Eucharist, as we come forward to receive bread and wine, we get a glimpse of this love in action. Everyone here is invited to come forward, no matter where you are at in life, no matter what you look like, even no matter what you believe. And each of us receives some bread and some wine—no more or no less than the person next to us. Let’s take that practice of indiscriminate sharing out into the world, so that by our love for each other and for everyone we encounter, there will be no mistaking that we are followers of Jesus.