The Fifth Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Martin Elfert

May 19, 2019

Lessons:

Acts 11:1-18

Revelation 21:1-6

John 13:31-35

Psalm 148

 

For the past several weeks, the lectionary – the schedule of readings that we follow across the year – has told us stories of resurrection. Beginning today, it returns us to the time before Jesus’ death: to the upper room, to the Last Supper, to what scholars call Jesus’ farewell discourse, in which he tells his disciples what his work means, what his life means, what is coming next. With this return to the time before the great change, it is as though the lectionary, just like the disciples some 2000 years before, is looking back into its memory and saying, Now that we have seen the cross, now that we have seen the empty tomb, what do Jesus’ words and actions mean? How are they different in light of what we have experienced?

Jesus’ words today are prefaced by a brief and vital detail, by words that, if this were a play about the last supper, we would call a stage direction:

When Judas had gone out…

And drawing on the work of a scholar by the name of Frederick Niedner, I want to suggest that this preamble, this information about the departure of Judas, is our key to understanding what Jesus says next. In particular, these words are the key to understanding Jesus’ new commandment: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

When Judas had gone out, Jesus said to them, Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

The Gospels tell us that, as Judas walks out the door, Jesus knows what Judas is about to do. He knows that Judas is going to betray him. Maybe his other friends, the other disciples, guess what is going on as well. And so a possible a way of reading Jesus’ subsequent commandment is to say, You need to love one another. Don’t be like that guy, Judas, who is totally failing at the whole loving thing.

And maybe that’s right. There is a long and well-attested reading of the Bible in which Judas is the villain of this tale, the cautionary example, the guy whom we are permitted to loathe. I had a colleague in the theatre biz who toured for a while with the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. And he said that, come the moment when Judas hanged himself, there were audiences who cheered.

But there is actually nothing in the Bible that insists on that reading, that insists on Judas as the icon of contemptible evil and, therefore, as the one whom we may safely hate. Indeed, there are scholars who make the case that Judas is really not so different than Peter or the other disciples. Come the moment of the cross, come the moment when empire’s violence descends on them, 100% of the disciples fail Jesus. (Well, actually, that’s not true. 100% of the male disciples fail Jesus, running away, preferring their own safety over fidelity to their Lord. The women stay with Jesus to the very end.)

What if hating Judas gets Jesus’ words totally backwards? What if Jesus, as Judas walks out the door to betray him, is saying to his disciples: I know you want to hate Judas right now. I can understand that. But I’m giving you a new commandment, you need to love one another – including Judas – as I have loved you.

Maybe that sounds like a stretch. If it does, stay with me. Because I’d like to us to notice Jesus’ new commandment. What he says to his disciples, what he says to us, is a change, a variation upon, an expansion or magnification upon the golden rule. The new commandment is not Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Nor is it Love your neighbours as you love yourself..

Now, those are a good commandments. It is good to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Except.

Except what if the way that you want to be treated isn’t the way that another wants to be treated? If I love spicy food – and forgive me if this is a silly example – and my neighbour can’t so much as look at a jalapeno without starting to weep, then treating my neighbour the way that I want to be treated by preparing a flaming hot dish would actually be kind of mean. There’s lots more examples, and lots more serious examples, of ways in which treating my neighbour the way that I want to be treated would neither be loving nor kind.

But what about loving others as you love yourself? That might be a better commandment. Any time that we are talking about love, we are talking about God. As our Presiding Bishop rightly never tires of saying, the Way of Jesus is the Way of Love. But as several of my friends and acquaintances were saying recently in a surprisingly thoughtful and nuanced conversation on Facebook, what if you are in a season of your life when you don’t especially love yourself? Are you morally required, required by Jesus even, to share your hurt with the world, maybe even to have contempt for neighbour as you have contempt for yourself? Clearly, there are people in the world who are doing that very thing – who are projecting their misery and anger outwards. We have all been those people at one time or another. We don’t need to look further than the news to see more of them.

And maybe it is because of these problems that Jesus, on the night before his betrayal, gives us this new commandment. Jesus says:

Love one another, not as you love yourselves, but as I have loved you.

We are to love one another as Jesus loves us.

As Judas walks out the door, that raises a few questions. The first one goes something like this:

Whom does Jesus hate? Whom does Jesus exclude? Of whom, as he hangs dying on the cross, does Jesus say, Father, do not forgive them?

The second question goes like this: When Judas goes out into the darkness, do any of his friends follow him, do any of them search for him? Does anyone miss their friend? What about later, after Judas brings the soldiers to Gethsemane? Does anyone look for him them, try to reach him with God’s love, a love that extends even into his shame, his anger, what Niedner calls his rapidly deepening hell?

And what about the Judases in our own lives? The people who have betrayed us, who have hurt us profoundly? Dare we go looking for them? Dare we trust the difficult, beautiful  news that the love of God extends to them as well? And – maybe this is still harder – what about the times when we are Judas to another, when what we have doneor left undone has left another feeling profoundly betrayed? Will we allow the possibility that they will follow us into the darkness?

Dare we accept this new commandment? Dare we abandon the comfort of having a villain who is outside of our love? Dare we to say yes to being part of the staggering love of Jesus?

Fifth Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Martin Elfert

April 29, 2018

Lessons:

Acts 8:26-40

1 John 4:7-21

John 15:1-8

Psalm 22:24-30

 

This morning we hear a conversion story. A story about one of those experiences in which we have a God sighting and we come away changed – or, at least, we come away invited to change. This particular conversion story takes place in the Book of Acts.

The Book of Acts is written by Luke, by the same person who wrote the third Gospel. As far as we know, Luke is the only one of the four evangelists who felt a call to write a sequel to the story of Jesus. In Vestry, we have been reading the Book of Acts, chapter by chapter, for the last number of months to begin our meetings. During the season of Easter, the lectionary invites us to read from Acts on Sunday morning in lieu of reading from the Old Testament.

Today we encounter the staggering story of Philip meeting and baptising this unnamed stranger, a person identified to us only by his country of origin and the condition of his body. This is the Ethiopian eunuch.

Now, my guess is that, generally speaking, when we read this story, we focus on the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, on how he chooses Christ and, therefore, he chooses baptism.. If we focus on Philip at all, it is to note that he is doing what a Christian is supposed to do, which is to say he is engaging in evangelism. So, Philip is the converter, the eunuch is the converted. And that’s a good and a fair and a faithful reading of this story But today, I’d like do something different and shine the light on Philip. Drawing on an argument advanced by the marvellous Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, I’d like to wonder:

What if this story is actually about the conversion of Philip?

Philip, like Jesus, is a faithful Jew. And as such, he is thoroughly aware of the prohibition to be found in Deuteronomy 23:1: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” (I don’t know if, when you were making your way to church this morning, you expected to hear a reference to crushed testicles but, hey, hooray for the Bible.) The eunuch’s body – could we say his disability? – disqualifies him from full participation in the Kingdom of God. Throw into the mix that he is a foreigner, an immigrant – a category that, then and now, renders him suspect – and that, coming from Ethiopia, his skin is probably darker than Philip’s, and Philip has lots of cultural reasons to exclude this guy.

And maybe that is exactly what Philip would do. Except that Philip hears the voice of the Spirit: Get up and go over to the chariot and join it. Philip obeys. These words, Get up and go, may sound familiar to you: one of the reasons is that they are the very words that Jonah hears in the book that bears his name: Get up and go to Nineveh. Jonah is a reluctant prophet. But Philip is not: did you notice the verb that comes next in this story? It says Philip ran up to the chariot. This is someone who listens when he hears the Spirit.

Is Philip jogging beside the chariot when he sees that the eunuch has a scroll in his hand, and he hears that he is reading from Isaiah? (Philip hears, by the way, because this is a time and a place in which it is unusual to read silently – there is actually an ancient document in which someone comments on how amazing one of his fellow scholars is because when that scholar reads, his lips don’t move.) Philip and the eunuch have a conversation, the eunuch invites him into the chariot, Philip climbs up beside him.

And then Philip and this suspicious, physically limited foreigner proceed to share in an in-depth Bible study.

During the study, Philip tells him about Jesus. And it is after the telling that his new traveling companion sees the water and he utters those amazing words, “What is to keep me from being baptised?”

And Philip realises that, the color of his companion’s skin notwithstanding, his country of origin notwithstanding, Deuteronomy 23:1 notwithstanding, the answer to his new friend’s question is:

Nothing.

As soon as Philip’s new friend is baptised, Philip is pulled away by the Spirit: like his master, the resurrected Jesus, Philip vanishes, reappearing in another town. And there in that new town, Luke tells us, he proclaims the good news.

I’m curious about that good news. While there is little doubt that the good news that Philip proclaims is the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, I wonder if he is also proclaiming the good news of his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. If Philip is like most of his neighbors, then before he had this encounter, he reckoned that God’s love wasn’t intended for people like the guy in the chariot – that there were walls between him and this disabled foreigner, and that God’s love was contained within the walls. But by the end of their time together, he understood that God’s love was vastly more expansive than anyone had told him.

Philip is converted.

There is a clue in the text that Luke is inviting us to read this story in that fashion, and that is in the way that he sets it up[1]. As you may remember, it is also Luke who gives us the story that we sometimes call the Good Samaritan. In that story, there is a dangerous wilderness road. And there is a suspicious foreigner who turns out to be plugged into the Kingdom of God. And in this story from Acts, there is a dangerous wilderness road – as you may remember, Luke underlines its wild nature right at the start of the story – and there is a dangerous foreigner who is plugged into the Kingdom of God.

If that’s right, if this story is not just about the conversion of the guy in the chariot but also about the conversion of Philip, then I wonder: what does this story have to teach you and me? Because scripture is always, sooner or later, about you and me. This story is about your conversion and mine.

Maybe the question that this story is inviting us to ask is: What walls do we imagine that God has built? And who do we imagine is outside of them?

If this were a different kind of congregation with a different kind of values, I might talk now about the church’s awful history of excluding GLBTQ folks. But I’m not going to go there today because, for north of 90% of us gathered here this morning, it is self-evident that God loves and welcomes GLBTQ people. That isn’t, in other words, a particularly challenging message for us.

In order to find the challenge, I’d like us to think about who we imagine might be outside of God’s love. Who do you imagine is appropriately excluded and unworthy?

God says: These walls you built? They were never my stuff. They were always a human thing. I am going around that wall and above that wall and through that wall. And I invite you to meet me on the outside. I invite you to risk heeding the call of the Spirit. Meet me in the chariot with that dangerous stranger. Climb into the chariot and be converted.

 

[1] When I gave this sermon on Sunday morn, I had a quasi-digression here about the cinematic phenomenon known as Easter Eggs. I haven’t reproduced that digression here. If it is of interest to you, you can find it in the recording of this sermon.

Fifth Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Acts 7:55-60

1 Peter 2:2-10

John 14:1-14

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

During a recent radio interview with Terry Gross, the standup comic Pete Holmes talked about his upbringing in a conservative Evangelical context and about what faith looks like for him today. The interview is frequently funny (I guess that’s what you would expect in a conversation with a comedian). And it is also filled with beauty and searching and joy and melancholy. Holmes spends a lot of time, for instance, talking about his divorce, about his long stretches of underemployment and borderline poverty when he was first trying to break into the comedy business, about trying to find his voice as a performer and, maybe, about trying to find his voice as a human being.

Woven throughout the conversation, Holmes talks about God.

Holmes grew up serious about church. He attended Bible College, he thought hard about being a Youth Pastor. And even after he started hanging out and working in the kind of comedy club in which a lot of his fellow comics’ humour was built around raunchy or even aggressively vulgar jokes, he kept on thinking about pleasing Jesus. One of the most wistful, one of the most beautiful and hard moments in the interview comes when Holmes explains that, when he stood on stage at the club, he would imagine Jesus standing in the back of the club watching him.

I say that this idea – this almost vision – of Jesus in the club, is beautiful and hard. It is beautiful because, well, I love the idea of Jesus in a comedy club. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first miracle is at a party; in Matthew and Luke, Jesus likes eating and drinking so much that folks accuse him of being a glutton. Jesus delights in life. There is something glorious and right and true about picturing him in a comedy club, of imagining the Son of Man holding a glass of wine (maybe one that was recently a glass of water) and guffawing and slapping Peter and the Sons of Zebedee on the back. More generally, I love the idea that Jesus takes an interest in your work and mine. That Jesus, like a loving parent, likes to see us as we go about our jobs, likes to see us as we engage in our vocations.

And Holmes’ vision is hard because, listening to him, I have the sense that he wasn’t always confident that Jesus approved of his comedy and, maybe, that Jesus even approved of him. I have the sense that Holmes was afraid that Jesus was disappointed in him. That while God was someone he loved, God was also someone whom he feared and someone whose love he feared losing.

Maybe those are fears that some of us gathered here this morning know for ourselves.

Today we hear the story Stephen, traditionally the first martyr of the church. Stephen gets his own day in the church calendar on December 26th (if you’ve ever sung Good King Wenceslas, you know about “the Feast of Stephen”) and the lectionary gives us his story again on this Sunday, as the energy and trajectory of Easter takes us ever nearer to Pentecost.

Stephen appears for the first time in the Bible in Chapter Six of Acts of the Apostles – so, just before the reading that we heard this morning. And his life echoes or imitates the life of Jesus, albeit in really compressed form. Acts uses just a handful of sentences to tell us that Stephen performed signs and wonders, that people tried to argue with him but that Stephen verbally outduelled them every time, that the religious authorities didn’t like him, and that those same authorities arranged for Stephen to be accused blasphemy so that they could arrest him.

Chapter Seven of Acts begins with Stephen on trial. And as he faces a kangaroo court, a court that has found him guilty before he has even walked in the door, he delivers one of the longest speeches to be found anywhere in the Bible, a monologue that would almost more at home in a play than in scripture. He recounts God’s work across history: here are Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, here is Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. Here is the story of God’s continual creativity, of God’s continual invitation to you and to me into freedom.

As the speech nears its climax, Stephen tells the judges and lawyers and priests that that God does not dwell in houses made by human hands. God does not, in other words, live in the temple in Jerusalem. He quotes both Jesus and the Prophet Isaiah to explain that heaven is God’s throne and the earth God’s footstool, that God made all of these things.

And then, Stephen moves from history and theology to something closer to accusation or indictment. Again like Jesus, he reverses the dynamic in the courtroom, he puts the ones who have arrested him on trial. He looks straight at his captors and he tells them that they are uncircumcised in ear and heart. He tells them that they have received the law and not kept it.

This is where we pick up the story this morning. With Stephen’s captors responding to his words with fury. And with Stephen, even in the midst of the rage that is directed at him, looking into heaven and seeing Jesus.

Look.

He says.

Look. I see the heavens open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.

Somehow this vision is the last straw. His captors drag him outside of the city and they slowly, collectively kill him by hurling rocks at him. Just like his life, just like his trial, Stephen’s torturous, horrifying death is an echo of Jesus on the cross, right up to and including the non-violence and the forgiveness of his last words.

Lord, do not hold this sin against them.

Now, there are some commentators who argue that the story of Stephen is anti-Judaic in nature, that the author of Acts is choosing to tell this tale and to tell it in this way as a kind of vitriolic propaganda against the Jewish people. And I do want to allow that possibility, to take it seriously. As Mark Braverman reminded us last week, the history of anti-Jewish words and actions within Christendom is long and disastrous. We need to pay attention to how our Jewish brothers and sisters read our holy texts and how they experience our liturgy, lest we continue to proclaim and anti-Jewish message without really noticing it.

Having named that caution, I will say that my own guess is that those commentators are mistaken in their assessment of Stephen’s story. During his monologue, he tells the story of the Jewish people using first person plural language: he speaks of “us” and “our.” In other words, Stephen identifies the Torah and the Prophets as his own story. As we’ve already mentioned, he quotes Isaiah in talking about where God is to be found. And his accusation to his captors is not that the Law is broken or antiquated or useless but, quite the opposite, that their sin is that they are failing to follow the Law. Stephen’s perspective – once again, like Jesus – is that of a faithful Jew.

I want to suggest, therefore, that Stephen’s words are not representative of someone who hates Judaism but, rather, they are representative of someone who loves it enough to critique it, much as, nearer to our own time, Martin Luther King Jr. loved the church enough to critique it. Or to put that a different way, Stephen’s critique is not of Judaism in particular but, rather, his critique is of the kind of religion in general that makes God into an object of fear, the kind of religion in which we mistake God for someone who is passive or indifferent to violence in which we mistake God for someone who calls us into violence and scapegoating and exclusion, in which we mistake God for someone who, in choosing and loving us, must reject and despise others.

The kind of religion in which it makes sense to arrest someone on false charges and then to drag them outside and stone them.

When Stephen says that God does not dwell in a house made by human hands, that God doesn’t dwell in the Temple, he isn’t saying that there is something wrong with the Temple any more than, if I were to utter similar words, I would be declaring that there was something wrong with this church building. Rather, what Stephen is declaring is that God is not hemmed in or constrained by walls.

We need places like this where we gather to name the presence of God among us. But what we are naming here is that God is everywhere, everywhere and at work in the hearts of everyone, everyone.

At the end of Pete Holmes’ interview with Terry Gross, an interview in which he recounts one moment of clarity or insight or revelation after another, Holmes says that he now sees the goal of spirituality or faith as being that of keeping a clean antenna (what an extraordinary turn of phrase), of being open to God, of seeking a place where you can see that God is everywhere, in which you can see that God is in everyone, in which you can see that God doesn’t demand our fear but, rather, that God invites our love.

Notice that Stephen’s final vision is a total clean antenna moment. Even before his death, he sees Jesus with perfect clarity.

I like to think about Pete Holmes getting his antenna so clean that he has a similar vision. I like to think about you and I doing the same. Imagine Jesus standing in the back of the crowd in the comedy club, looking at Pete not in disappointment or judgment, but in joy and delight. Imagine Jesus laughing so hard at Pete’s jokes that the wine comes out of his nose.

And now, imagine Jesus looking at you in the very same way. Imagine all of your worries that Jesus is someone whom you need to fear falling away, that you aren’t good enough for Jesus to love falling away. Imagine your antenna being so clean that you see the truth. That you see Jesus looking at Stephen and Pete and your neighbour and me. That you see Jesus looking at you – at you, of all people – and you realise with one look that what Jesus feels for you, now and always, is total and unreserved love.