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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Step by Step

We are being made new in Christ, but it’s a process, begun in the love we have from God, and led step-by-step by the Holy Spirit, who holds our hand and teaches us what it means to live that same love in the world.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Fifth Sunday of Easter, year C
   texts:  Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35 (add 36 – 14:3); Revelation 21:1-6

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

It’s hard to understand some things without someone walking us through them.

Like learning to tie shoes. Watching someone do it seems magic if you don’t know the steps. So we’re taught it one step at a time.

Our life in Christ also needs step-by-step instruction. We need help learning to follow Christ Jesus, to obey his new commandment of love.

Peter understood that. Confronted by disciples unready to expand the community to Gentiles, Peter carefully walked through it, “step by step,” Luke says in Acts.

It wasn’t easy for Peter. He had step-by-step help, too. In this episode with Cornelius the Roman, which he retells, the Holy Spirit helped Peter learn the next steps of loving discipleship. But we also heard a few extra verses from John today than were assigned, because two familiar and beloved sections of John, today’s command to love, and Jesus’ promise of rooms in the Father’s house, are linked by Peter’s struggle to understand Christ’s new command.

So Jesus helped Peter, step-by-step. Peter helped his friends, step-by-step. Today, step-by-step, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, we, too, can grow deeper into Christ and the love that is our call.

Step one: you are loved by God forever.

We can’t grasp Christ’s new commandment without these key words: “As I have loved you.” Every time we are commanded to love we begin with the truth that we are first loved by God.

And we do nothing to earn it. Peter eagerly wants to prove he’s worthy of Christ’s love, that he’ll lay down his life. Jesus knows he won’t, at least not that night.

But immediately after telling Peter he’ll fail, Jesus says, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.” He reassures Peter that God’s love is non-negotiable. Peter, Thomas, all of us are grounded in the reality of the immoveable love of God that is ours in Christ.

There’s plenty to fear as we follow Christ. The love revealed in the next steps challenges us, scares us, makes us want to put up walls, barriers. But listen to our Lord Jesus: “Do not let your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.” Our life of love lives in this unchanging reality: you are loved eternally by the Triune God who made all things and who broke the power of death out of love for you. Whenever we struggle with the next steps, we breathe in the Holy Spirit, ask for calm hearts, and trust in Christ’s love that is ours forever.

Step two: Loved by God, you are placed in Christ’s community where Christ’s love is the standard.

Christ’s unconditional love places us into a family of faith, and the new commandment says our Christly love begins in love for sisters and brothers in the community. Our love for each other witnesses to the world Christ’s Good News.

The appalling disunity of Christians in this world reveals we are not fully in Christ, and have much growing and changing to do. Those Christians we feel justified in disliking, who speak in ways we see as opposed to Christ’s call, they are the first ones we’re commanded to love.

If we can’t love other Christians as Christ has loved us, there are no more steps. We’re no longer witnessing to the Good News of God’s death-defeating love for all. We’re witnessing to a love limited to those whom we like and agree with. Christ commands that our standard for love is no longer those we choose to love, it is to love all whom God loves, starting with those in our Christian family.

Step three: Loved by God in community, turn outward to others outside the community.

Even though Christ begins here with love inside the community of faith, that always led him to command a love for the other, outside the community. When he sums up all of God’s law in love of God and love of neighbor, Jesus also repeatedly breaks open what love of neighbor means.

We learn from the Good Samaritan that love of neighbor is loving those different from us. Those who look different, think differently than we, believe differently from us. Those whom we distrust, or think less of. When we love who God loves, we erase all lines between people.

We learn from Jesus that love of neighbor loves those who hurt us, and not just unintentionally. God’s love for the world – we see this in Christ on the cross – loves through inflicted pain, loves those who are enemies, those who hate us.

Loving others in Christ’s family is hard. Harder still is loving people who are so different from us, or loving those who want to harm us. But these are the new eyes we are given in Christ, to see as God sees, to love as God loves.

Step four: learn the implications of these new eyes. If you love whom God loves, as God loves, it will mean changes.

This is what Peter needed to learn. At this point in Acts, after Easter, after Pentecost, Peter is already a bold leader, fearlessly preaching the resurrection of Christ and the life of faith. But he’s still limited. He doesn’t yet realize Christ is for the whole world, without distinction.

Today Peter took his next step into Christ. “You can’t call profane anything God has made clean,” he hears. Your categories of “other,” of “those who are in and those who are out,” are irrelevant in the new life in Christ.

And Peter’s actions show us this is not a theoretical exercise. These are real people we are called to love in real, concrete ways. These are real people carrying different labels, names of different faiths, some without faith, whom we must love and reach out to, if we are in Christ.

These are real people, our neighbors, who challenge all our assumptions and whom we have no option but to love and embrace, if we are in Christ.

These are real people who haven’t experienced what we have and who cry out that they are suffering, sometimes because of how we live our privileged lives, and we have no choice but to stand with them and seek justice, if we are in Christ.

Real people need real love, not theology and theory, Peter shows us.

Step five: discover the joy of saying, “Who am I to hinder God?”

Peter has become unafraid to defend his actions to those who don’t yet see and love as God sees and loves. The Holy Spirit came upon these Gentiles, so Peter baptized them. He ate with them, shared his life with them, even though they weren’t Jewish as he was. Because God’s love had already crossed the barrier, Peter did, too, and it filled him with confidence and joy.

That’s the goal of this love Christ has given us. That, embraced in the love of the Triune God, we lose all our individual barriers and fears and doubts and live in the joy of loving as God loves, seeing all people as delight and grace, living in Christ, not in ourselves.

There is no fear in love, the elder writes in First John, because completed love, perfected love, drives out all fear. So we joyfully say, “Who are we to get in God’s way? If God’s love goes there, that’s where we will go.”

This is where the Holy Spirit is leading us.

This is where we are going. And it is a process. “See, I am making all things new,” Christ the Lamb says in Revelation today. We, and the whole world, are being made new. Step by step it is happening.

We begin where we live, surrounded by the life-giving, eternal love of the Triune God. From there, hand-in-hand with the Holy Spirit, we take our steps into obeying this new commandment.

And so we move ever deeper into life in Christ and the love that will make us and all things new.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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