Love’s New Day
A bombing at the Boston Marathon, letters laced with ricin, news of torture and death from around the globe, news like this leaves us wanting a new day that’s free of such things. We seek news of a day when life will be different and love shall prevail. Such a vision seems far from realistic. We may fall into despair when contemplating such a vision, but for people of the Christian faith this is part of vision of God. It may be an eschatological vision, but there is no reason why the blessings of the eschaton cannot be felt now in this time and place. It is as Jurgen Moltmann puts it – “In the community of Christ we experience foretastes and anticipations of God’s coming kingdom” ( In the End-The Beginning: The Life of Hope, p. 91).
The realities of this life often complicate our ability to see the fullness of God’s promise, but if we we’re open then we can begin to see signs of hope streaming into our lives. Dreams of a new day, however, are complicated by the fact that we continue to live behind fences, separating ourselves out from those who are different in belief, in politics, in gender, in sexual orientation, in economic standing, and in ethnicity. Even in the “developed” West, forms of tribalism continue to define relationships. But, if we live in hope, then there is room for the message of inclusion.
In the vision outlined in Revelation 21, we hear of a new heaven and a new earth where the promise of peace is fulfilled. But are we ready to receive this vision for today? Or do we feel the need to relegate it to some other realm, where it has no impact on our current realities? If we’re willing to allow God to build such a realm in our midst, then are we willing to join with God in this activity? Are we ready to embrace a message that is defined by love, not just for those closest to us, but for all persons? Indeed, are we ready to allow God to break down the barriers that we’ve so carefully built, but which continue to separate us from one another?
The question of barriers is raised in Acts 10-11. The lectionary reading comes from Acts 11, but it’s a continuation of a story that begins a chapter earlier. The story begins with Peter receiving a vision that leads him to enter the household of a Gentile and preach the gospel. The vision prepares Peter to see Cornelius and his household in a different way – as ones whom God loves and embraces. Whereas Peter once viewed Gentiles as being unclean and unfit for fellowship, now he’s ready to share with them the message of Jesus. But it’ll take another step on the part of God, before he truly understands that God is doing a new thing. He must still receive confirmation from God that he’s on the right path, before he shares baptism with this household. In the end the Spirit falls and Cornelius’ household receives the same giftedness as the first community did on the day of Pentecost.
In the reading from Acts 11, we find Peter having returned to Jerusalem. Upon return he faces criticism from the community. They’re enthralled by news that he’d eaten with the uncircumcised. Note that it’s eating patterns that come into play as the gospel moves forward into new communities. It’s clear from this that the early church continued its kosher eating practices, so by eating with Cornelius, Peter is assumed to have broken that rule. Ultimately, the issue will be circumcision rather than food, but food is the current issue at hand. Now, it’s not as if Judaism didn’t provide for conversion or even honored ones we call God-fearers, but barriers were still erected that protected the tribe. In this moment in time, those barriers are torn down.
The message that Peter brings to his community in Jerusalem is that God is impartial. It’s not that God is indifferent or doesn’t care; it’s just that God’s vision is broader than we may be prepared for. Beverly Gaventa writes that “God’s concern specifically meant that Israel could not neglect the widow and orphan in the midst of the people. Here, however, the claim emerges in a way that encompasses not Israel alone but all humanity” (Abingdon New Testament Commentary - Acts, p. 174). Going back to Acts 10:36, the word is this – “He is Lord of all.” God chooses to make this message known to the community through Peter, so that they can understand God’s decision to bring down the walls of division. The closing verses of the passage demonstrate that they get the message, though it appears that not all of them did so with joy. They “calmed down” (CEB) and they gave praise to God, but did they fully understand? Do we fully understand the implications? Right now the U.S. Senate is deliberating on a bipartisan immigration bill. Not everyone is happy. Not everyone wants to open the doors. There remains this “us vs. them” mentality in our own country, which means it’s there in our churches. So maybe we haven’t gotten it yet. After all, 11 AM on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week.
The word revealed in Revelation 21 offers us a promise of a new heaven and a new earth. In this new reality suffering and grief are no more. This is an eschatological vision in which God dwells with humankind, bringing to us a new vision of life. This eschatological vision is intended to draw us forward, to allow God to do this new thing in our world. It’s a now/not yet vision. Therefore, we can expect that the realities of the eschaton will make themselves felt in our own world – now.
To understand this vision we need to understand the Johannine vision of the realm of God. As Lee Hanson points out, in Revelation there is no promise that God will take us all to heaven, but rather that God will come to earth and dwell among us (John's Gospel; The Way It Happened, p. 304). The promise in John 14 of the Paraclete is a reminder that this promise is already in place. God is already dwelling in our midst. It’s a promise made at the beginning of the Gospel of John, that the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Although the realm of God isn’t fully present among us, or at least it hasn’t taken full effect, God is not absent. So, as we contemplate the stories of bombings in Boston, wars in the Congo and Syria, and divisions present in our own communities, perhaps we can see them as expressions of this now/not yet reality. While we still see signs of resistance to the realm of God, if we’re willing to broaden our vision, then we’ll see signs that the realm of God is present among us – that the New Jerusalem has descended in Christ. The process of transformation is underway. Without giving in to the idea that molded Enlightenment/Modernist visions of human progress, it’s possible to find signs of God’s presence molding a new form of life. God is offering us living water, so that we might drink from it. Until the day in which the fullness of God’s realm is revealed, we are agents of hope.
The Gospel reading takes us back to the final meal Jesus shares with his disciples. Judas has departed, and Jesus prepares them for what will transpire. The Son of Man or the Human One “has been glorified.” What appears to us as defeat, Jesus envisions as triumph. He will go away, and they can’t follow, but he doesn’t leave them without instructions. He offers them a new commandment – to love one another. This command is similar to, but different from the two great commands. It even appears as if it is a rather exclusive command – love one another, not your neighbor, not your enemy, just one another. Is this a limiting factor, or is it the foundation for a larger call to love? The key is found in the statement that we are to love as Jesus loves us. This is a good reminder that we can’t do this outside divine help. Simone Sunghae Kim gets this right, writing:
Our inability to love one another as Jesus mandates should drive us to humbly and thoroughly rely on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Any act or employment of Jesus’ love we perform is empowered by the Holy Spirit, and thus the Lord alone must be given the credit and be glorified. (Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C,p. 226.)
Given the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is for us the seal of the eschatological promise of the New Jerusalem, we can live out of this love that is God and the world will know, as a result, that we are Jesus’ disciples by the love we show each other. After all, if we can’t love each other, then how can we hope to love those outside the community of faith?