An Ever-Widening Circle (Sermon for May 6, 2018)

An Ever-Widening Circle (Sermon for May 6, 2018)

Previously, at First Congregational United Church of Christ.

A couple of weeks ago, when we were having our annual celebration of extravagant welcome, I preached on the beginning of the story of Peter and Cornelius. To recap, since it’s important:

Peter was an apostle of Jesus Christ. And he knew that the church was a community of Jewish people who followed the Jewish messiah who would restore the homeland of the Jewish people, who were the chosen people of the Jewish God.

But God had told a man — a gentile — named Cornelius to send men to Peter. And he did.

And to prepare Peter, God sent him a vision of unclean foods and told him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And Peter knew that this vision and this statement wasn’t about food… it was about people.

So, when the men who Cornelius sent to Peter showed up, Peter went with them (even though they were gentiles) and went to Cornelius’ household (even though they were gentiles) and preached the good news to them (even though they were gentiles).

And now we’re here. But, like any other time when there’s a good ‘previously on…’, we’ll get to that later.

In today’s reading from John, Jesus is giving his disciples a commandment. With a catch.

“Love one another,” he tells them, “as I have loved you.”

Now, Jesus isn’t saying this as a king to his people… or as a messiah to his nation… or as a master to his servants… or as a teacher to his students… or even as a pastor to his congregation. He’s saying it as a man to his friends. He has shared everything with them. But now he’s getting ready to leave them and it’s hard and all he wants is for them to love each other as he has loved them.

Now, we are in the season of Easter. Today is the sixth Sunday of Easter and we have heard the full story. We know that Jesus will be betrayed and arrested and crucified and buried. And we know that Jesus will rise. But this passage in John takes place before that. Jesus knows what is coming. And he knows that the disciples will rejoice in the resurrection. But he also knows that before they rejoice in the resurrection, they will mourn in the betrayal and arrest and crucifixion and burial. And he is preparing them.

What should they do when he’s gone?

“Love one another,” he tells them, “as I have loved you.”

And that’s a good commandment. But, as I said, there’s a catch.

“No one has greater love than this,” he continues, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

You see, God loved the world like this. God sent his only begotten son into the world, as flesh and blood. And that son suffered and died. And that son came into the world so that we might live through him.

And Jesus loved us like this. He was that son. He laid down his life. He came into the world so that we might live through him.

And all he wants us to do is love one another like that. So… easy, right?

Now, I think we established early in my tenure here that I am a nerd. And we all know that my day off is Friday. Which is a perfect combination because a lot of new movies — like, for example, Avengers: Infinity War — open on Thursday nights. And so, at noon a couple of Fridays ago, I was sitting in an IMAX theater with my 3D glasses and popcorn-for-lunch. And I was watching the greatest superhero team-up of all time fight some super-villains over the fate of the universe.

And… I like to imagine myself among those heroes. It’s a bit of escapism. Maybe Chris Marlin-Warfield, mild-mannered out-of-shape pastor, could put on a silly costume and fight intergalactic evil.

I think all of use have those fantasies. At least a little bit. We imagine ourselves as heroes. We imagine that we would run into the burning building, or towards the gunfire, or right at the intergalactic evil. We imagine that we would win the day for justice and righteousness. Even if it meant sacrificing ourselves.

And that’s easy to imagine. It’s harder to do. And that’s okay. I’m not going to ask you to run into a burning building or towards the gunfire. Because I don’t think that Jesus is saying something as simple as, “be the hero who dies saving everyone else.”

But I am going to ask you to run right at the intergalactic evil. Because I think Jesus is asking us to do something much harder than being the hero who dies saving everyone else. I think he is asking us to be the the heroes who live for each other.

When we see someone who is hungry, to give them something to eat. When we see a stranger, to welcome them. When we see someone who is in prison, to sit with them. If only for a moment, to lay down our own lives, and help someone else carry the burdens of their own.

Because God loved the world like this. He came into the world as this man Jesus. He walked alongside us. He carried our burdens. He laughed with us and cried with us and healed us. He was with us. And he still is. And he always will be.

And there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life — to lay aside one’s divinity and power and majesty — for one’s friends.

And that brings me back around to Peter and Cornelius.

You see, it is, in its own weird way, easy to lay down our lives for our friends. Our friends are exactly the kinds of people we would want to lay down our lives for. That’s why they’re our friends, right?

A long time ago, I was unemployed for a while and my friends helped me out. And when our friends have been down on their luck, Mariah and I have helped them out. It’s what friends do.

But God keeps expanding the circle of friendship.

When Peter delivers the good news to Cornelius and his household, God pours the holy spirit out on them. And the Jewish Christians who have come along with Peter were amazed. They couldn’t believe it. They knew that the church was a community of Jewish people who followed the Jewish messiah who would restore the homeland of the Jewish people, who were the chosen people of the Jewish God. And here was God pouring the holy spirit out on these gentiles.

God is widening the circle… and Peter sees it.

“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,” he says, “who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

And they are baptized.

And… when Jesus is talking to his disciples — when he gives them that commandment — he tells them a deep truth. They didn’t choose him. He chose them.

And Cornelius did not choose God. And Peter did not choose Cornelius. God chose Cornelius and his household and poured out the holy spirit. God showed Peter that the circle of the chosen people was bigger than Peter thought. And I will insist that God has made that circle infinitely big. I will insist that God has chosen everyone. I will insist that the world is awash in the holy spirit.

And so when Jesus says, “love one another as I have loved you,” he is saying, “love everyone as I have loved you.”

And Jesus loved us like this. God laid aside her divinity and her power and her majesty for a world that she loved and that was broken. And God came into the world as one of us and walked alongside us and carried our burdens and laughter with us and cried with us and healed us. God was with us in the person of Jesus the Christ. And God is still with us. And God always will be with us.

And there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Christ’s love is an ever-widening circle. And Christ calls us — Christ commands us — to let our love be an ever-widening circle. To love our friends. To welcome new people as our friends. To open ourselves up to new friendships. And to love those friends as Christ has loved us.

Or, to put that another way, Christ calls us — Christ commands us — to be the church. Hallelujah. Amen.

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