Sunday, May 2, 2010

New Heaven, New Earth, New Way

May 2, 2010: Fifth Sunday of Easter

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

Please pray with me. Let us pray together: “We offer praise to you, O Lord. We join the sun and moon and shining stars in praise to you. We praise you from the depths and from the highest of heavens. We join with the fire and hail, the snow and frost, the mountains and hills – with all wild animals and all living things – with all people everywhere – in praise to you. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my spirit, be acceptable in your sight, and bring you praise, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” Amen

Every once in a while, something happens that causes us to view our life in a new way. Actually, it may even help us see others in our lives in a new way.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I believed that my high school music teacher didn’t think I could sing well enough to perform a solo – and what she thought about me and my abilities mattered to me – likely even more than I knew at the time.

I mean, my elementary music teacher had given me some solos, but Mrs. Bieber, who was both my middle school and high school music teacher, had never given me one. Not once in four years. To be accurate, she had placed me into some small ensembles, and as a result, I had the chance to sing a few solo measures simply because they were written into the music. But I was never chosen for what I considered a real solo.

And so where I once believed I was capable of performing a solo, I now began to resign myself to the role of back up singer, and I decided I might need to learn how to be content as a member of the choir.

Still I began to wonder if my teacher had favorites that she thought of first when a song had a solo in it. And I wanted to be one of her favorites. Perhaps you can identify. Don’t we all want to be a favorite somehow? Some way? Of somebody?

“Favorite.” It’s an interesting concept, isn’t it? We probably could all make a list of favorite things. You know the song (and please sing along if you'd like): “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens. … brown paper packages tied up with strings.

Everybody now: “These are a few of my favorite things.”

Having favorite things is comforting, isn’t it? As we just experienced, it even feels good to hear the lyrics of a favorite song, sing along and simply relax into the familiarity of it. When a song comes on that you can sing along with, it somehow makes a day better, even if just for a little bit.

And it’s not just a music thing. From Binkies® to blankets to Buicks®, we seem to pass from one phase of life into another, keeping favorite things close to us for comfort – perhaps even a sense of belonging.

I think that is why I have always been interested in the idea of “favored” also – as in “God’s favored people.” In today’s New Testament lesson, we see Peter being confronted with a need to expand his concept of who is regarded as “favored.” Peter, a Jew, grew up as a student of the Torah. The Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament, were – and still are, in fact – regarded by those who are Jewish as a gift from God to them, his chosen people. In other words, God loved his chosen people enough to provide them with instructions on how to live.

Listen to this love note from God to the people of Israel in Deuteronomy 14:2, "For you are a holy people to YHWH your God, and God has chosen you to be his treasured people from all the nations that are on the face of the earth."

What a beautiful message of love: “chosen (as) treasured people from all the nations on earth.”

It sort of reminds me of love notes I got from Mark years ago. Now, don’t laugh, but on a note in a box tucked away for safekeeping, I have written proof that Mark believes I am the most beautiful woman in the world. The world, mind you. Now, am I going to argue with him? My husband? No way … (Well, not on that topic.) ☺ From the earliest of days of our relationship, Mark has made me feel treasured, chosen and most wonderfully favored. What a blessing!

Now I am keenly aware that isn't always the case in marriage relationships. And I don't share this as a way to brag. I'm simply letting you know what came to mind for me as I attempted to climb into a frame of mind close to what Peter, one of God's chosen people, might have had. I think it is important for us to try to understand Peter’s frame of mind during the passage we heard read today from Acts 11, and that is the closest analogy I could think of.

You see, Peter is Jewish. That means Peter knows he is favored. The Torah is his love note from God telling him that he is among the most treasured people on earth. And when very Jewish Peter receives a vision from God, he is seeing and hearing it as one of God’s chosen people. He feels treasured by the God who created him and then called him as a disciple.

I'm not sure if you noticed it, but the last stanza of today's Psalm is a praise to God from "the people of Israel who are close to him." Peter has grown to adulthood understanding that he belongs to God’s chosen race, and as a disciple of Jesus – the Christ – he even likely feels even more chosen.

Just think of what it was like to be Peter:
• He was invited by the Son of Man to become a fisher of men.
• He watched Jesus walk on water and then tried to do it himself.
• He was the only disciple to follow Jesus as far as the house of the high priest, but when recognized, he denied that he even knew Jesus – three times – just as Jesus said.
• Finally, Peter encountered a risen Christ while he was fishing. He didn’t recognize him at first. But he soon did. And then when he was eating with the risen Jesus, he received some pretty interesting – and persistent – instructions to feed Jesus’ sheep.

By this point, I believe Peter must have been looking at Jesus in a whole new way. How could he not? Peter, who had been given the name ‘Petra’ or ‘Rock’ by Jesus, was probably wondering if he would ever understand what Jesus had meant when he said: “Upon this rock I shall build my church.”

Now … back to me, my music teacher, and that elusive solo. Will I ever feel favored by her?

Well, on the Friday before Easter that year (my sophomore year) my parents invited Mrs. Bieber to stay overnight in our home the evening before we music students were to leave for small group music contest. Mrs. Bieber lived in another town and my parents’ offer made it possible for her to avoid a 90-mile round-trip prior to a 5:30 a.m. bus departure. Interestingly, my parents and little sister were out of town that night, so it was just me and my high school music teacher “hanging out” on a Friday night at my house.

After we ate supper together, I gave her, her space, and she gave me mine. It was a bit awkward … but, mostly, it was really cool. I mean, Mrs. Bieber was at my house. And, what I remember most: She wore blue jeans and tennis shoes that night. This was a big deal, because Mrs. Bieber never wore anything to school that wasn’t a dress or a skirt or slack outfit with a matching jacket. I wasn’t really sure who I was looking at that night. I was essentially seeing Mrs. Bieber in a whole new way.

There’s more to this story. You see, Monday at school, as she was reading through the judges’ comment sheets, she saw a note about a “rich, beautiful alto tone” on one. (That was my voice the judge was commenting on.) Mrs. Bieber looked up at me and asked: “Joy, why didn’t we have you take a solo to contest? Next year we really need to do that.”

Finally! She was seeing me in a new way ... just was I was her.

And, now, what about Peter? He had always lived in the confidence of favored status, remember? He was Jewish. Just like Jesus. And he had seen the Messiah. At the time of this vision, Peter lived in the wonder of the resurrected Christ for about three years, attempting to make sense of a very human world. But now he was encountering the Spirit of God – Jesus – through a vision. Yet another way to witness God at work in the world.

And remember the point of the vision? Peter was being told that Gentiles were favored too. Gentiles – non-Jews, non-chosen people.

How could it be that all the things that signified Peter’s favored status didn’t seem to matter any more?
For instance:
• He was circumcised. Gentiles were not. But that didn’t seem to matter.
• He didn’t eat animals considered unclean- hawks, ferrets, owls, eagles, herons, raccoons, snakes, wolves, squirrels, lions, lobsters, mice, camels, and swine – to name a few. Gentiles ate all of those, but that didn’t seem to matter.
Not only that, in the vision, Peter was being told that he could eat those things now as well.
“Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

“By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
Hey, Peter … said the Spirit of God: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

This was new. Radically new. And now Peter was seeing God – seeing the world – in a whole new way.

Most importantly, Peter understood that there was no longer a “them” and “us.” He saw that when he began to speak, the Holy Spirit had fallen on them, just as it had fallen on the Jewish disciples of Jesus.

As Peter explains it: “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?”

Peter was seeing that God had brought about a new heaven on earth where all people were favored. The good news of a risen Christ was not just for those who were Jewish, but for Gentiles, or non-Jews, as well.

I’m not sure how we 21st century humans can fully appreciate the breath and depth of this new invitation and how shocking it must have been to those born Jewish 20 centuries ago.

According to Levitical law, Gentiles were to be regarded as unclean from birth. A Gentile, according to Jewish cultural practices, could not be entrusted with care of cattle. Not only that, Gentiles should not be allowed to nurse Jewish infants, provide medical care to those who were Jewish, or even walk in the company of anyone who was Jewish unless absolutely necessary – and only then with the utmost of caution, for Gentiles were not to be trusted. In fact, Gentiles were to be avoided if at all possible, except in cases of necessity – or for the sake of business.

Can you think of a class or a segment of people that you might regard as the modern day equivalent of Gentiles? Can you?

Perhaps they are people with whom we don’t want to associate …

Or people we think live an unclean life …

Maybe they are people we believe are so sinful that they fall outside the bound of God’s love …

Can you think of someone you have regarded as “unclean?” I can. And I am so ashamed that I am capable of such thoughts, that I don’t even want to say what I’m thinking aloud. Perhaps you can identify.

But God knows our thoughts and God is calling us to a new way.

God is reminding us of what Peter was told in today’s passage: “Do not call anything unclean that God has made pure.” This is truly big stuff.

Jews were the chosen ones – Jews were clean. We were the Gentiles. We were unclean … but God through Christ has made us new. The good news of the gospel is that everybody has been made pure. Witness a new order in heaven and on earth. Witness a new way to see the world.

That is the vision that John shares in our passage from Revelation today as well. John sees a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. John, like Peter, hears a voice. And his message is also about seeing things that we might not be able to be comprehend without God providing us a new way to see.

Listen to John’s words regarded as prophesy in Revelation: “…the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.”

Do you see? God is making all things new. That is good news, indeed.

We of the Lutheran tradition regard this as “living in the now and the not yet.” Throughout the New Testament, Christ regularly proclaims “the kingdom is here” but also “thy kingdom come.” So which is it?

Peter was fortunate enough to live a first-person account of this kingdom come to earth. But so are we. Remember: “…the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.”

That is both now (the kingdom on earth) … and not yet (the kingdom to come).

The gospels are full of stories about Jesus teaching – through parables and conversations – that even when the disciples would no longer be able to physically see Jesus, he would not leave them forsaken. He would provide them a Counselor, a Comforter – the Spirit of God. It was this Spirit guiding Peter into his new way of living in the world, reminding him of Christ’s words that we heard in today’s gospels: Love. It is all about love.

Forget about the law, Peter. Focus on love.

Everyone was – is – in God’s favor. Everyone had been – has been – chosen by God.

And being a disciple of God, means loving others as Christ – as God – loves you.

This divine love is a tall order, for it is a selfless love that calls us to put others above ourselves. What makes it difficult is this need we have to be treasured by others we encounter in life. We want to know that we are favored. That we are somebody’s favorite even as we are called to help others feel the same.

Guess what? We can do that simply by letting them know they matter. By showing them love in action. For they will know Christ through our capacity to love.

You know, I am grateful I got to know that Mrs. Bieber thought I was a good enough singer to take a solo to contest. And I’m grateful that happened when it did. Because Tuesday morning, the very next day, Mrs. Bieber didn’t come to school. She had been killed in a car accident the evening before. Just when I felt I had earned her favor, she was gone.

I still cherish the gift of affirmation and acceptance she gave me. And, sometimes, I still think of her when I want to sing solo. I also think of her every Easter, because her funeral was on Good Friday. She was 33 years old when she died. The same age as Jesus. Had she died without me knowing that I had found her favor, I think I would have always wondered.

We never need to wonder what God thinks of us. We never need to wonder if we are favored.

We are God’s chosen.
We are loved.
God – through Christ – has made us clean.
God – through the Spirit – lives with us today. Immanuel – God with us.

We live in the “here and now” even as we look forward to “the not yet.”

We have been made one in the Spirit.
We have been made one in the Lord.
Jews. Gentiles. You. Me.

Christ came and established a new heaven, and a new earth.
A whole new way of living in this world that has nothing to do with laws but everything to do with love.

So, what do you say, Favored One?

I hope you know how special you are.
I hope you understand that you have been made clean.
Most of all, I hope you know that you are loved, and because you are loved, you are called to love others as well.

Amen. May it indeed be so.

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