Easter 5C: Acts 11:1-18; Rev. 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
Alleluia. Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia.
Easter is the season of new life. It is the season of the empty tomb and resurrection. It is the season of seeing Christ with us on the way to Emmaus, in the upper room, and on the beach. It is the season of the Ascension and learning to see in new ways. It is the season of ending old habits and living into new ways of being. This newness is a driving theme in all of today's lessons.
The gospel passage is from the beginning of the Farewell Discourse, that long monologue where Jesus talks about his impending death and how the eleven are to order their lives. He gives them a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you. But how was that a new commandment? When asked what the greatest law/commandment was, Jesus himself said, “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” How is this new?
It's new because, as St. Augustine pointed out, we are not to love as people tend to love others: through physical attraction or through like-mindedness or in any other limited way. Now we are to love others as Jesus loved us: with the eyes of God, unlimited, unabashedly, self-sacrificially. We are to love others as we imagine God loving us. That's what makes this a new commandment.
We see newness in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles. Ever since Genesis 12 the descendants of Abraham had seen themselves as God's chosen people. What's new here is Peter's recognition that all of humanity are God's chosen people. What's new is that we are not called to keep separated from outsiders in a vain attempt to avoid contamination, degradation, and becoming unclean and profane. What's new is a recognition that God welcomes all, and that all are welcome into the Church through the waters of baptism.
In Revelation newness is front and center. John writes, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. I saw the holy city of God coming down from heaven, and he will dwell with them.” What's new is an understanding that we will not be taken away up to heaven to escape the woes of the earth, but that God will make all things new and that God will come DOWN to live with us. All things will be made new and the thirsty will be given water.
The Easter Season is all about newness: new life, new beginnings, new relationships, new understandings. But we would be remiss if we only saw this newness in the Sunday scripture readings.
Sometimes working in the Church can be . . . I don't want to say, “depressing,” . . . but . . . “not always joyful.” How's that?
I bring this up because lately, and I don't know why – maybe it's the proximity of General Convention this July – I've been seeing more posts on social media about the decline of the Church in general, and the Episcopal church specifically One graph showed how many members TEC has lost since 1980. It's a graph that anti-church people and evangelicals in particular love to pounce on to “prove” how the church is either irrelevant or too liberal. One member of a group I'm on posted that he's got a lot of reasons to leave the Church but is too stubborn, and wonders what that means for others who aren't as stubborn? One article was titled, “With an average age of 70, the Episcopal church is quite literally dying,” and had an image of skeletons dancing around the Episcopal shield.
With all due respect, none of those graphs, statements, or articles are Easter messages. That people are “leaving in droves,” or that we aren't gaining members, or that people are dying, are not Ester messages – they are Good Friday messages. We don't need Good Friday messages, we need Easter messages.
The first thing to remember is this: Over the three days of his Passion, Jesus lost almost all of his membership, as most of the disciples ran away into hiding. Over the course of time, almost all of the disciples were martyred, and they all died without seeing his second coming. Additionally, one of the issues that Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians had to address was the death of Christians who believed Jesus would come back in their lifetime. In other words, the Church has always had to deal with times of dwindling membership and dying communicants.
The second thing to remember and to which to pay attention is that Good Friday messages focus not on growth, but on stagnation. Good Friday messages focus not on newness but on maintaining the status quo. Good Friday messages focus not on how things could be but on what has been lost. Good Friday messages focus not on discipleship but on membership. Good Friday messages focus not on hope but on fear. And Good Friday messages focus not on life but on death.
We are not in the business of acquiring new members. We are (or we should be) in the business of creating disciples. We are not in the business of competing with other Christian churches. We are, however, in the business of living to the best of our ability as Christians as expressed in the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal church.
Certain believers criticized Peter for associating with people traditionally seen as profane and unclean. But Peter, a faithful Jew and a man who never ate anything profane or unclean, three times experienced a vision from God which he interprets and explains as God decreeing all humans as holy and clean. If we are willing to step into the newness that Peter is describing, if we are willing to have a wider view of who God calls clean, then who are those people whom our society sees as profane and unclean, and how might we help cleanse them? We're looking for new and creative ways to minister to people in need, maybe it's time we think about acquiring a mobile laundry/shower service.
The apostle John sees a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, a place where God dwells among his people and not in some far off gilded throne room. We worship in the beauty of holiness, that is a fact. But let us never forget that this space is reflective of God dwelling with us, and let us strive to provide all who enter here water for their thirsty souls.
Jesus gives us a new commandment: to love others as he has loved us. This is a love from God. This is a love that sees every person as worthy of our love just as we see ourselves as being worthy of God's love. That's not always easy, and sometimes it's downright difficult. But if our first thoughts are, “I love you as God loves me,” then we just might stand a chance of making it work.
We are in the Easter Season, the season of newness and resurrection, of new life out of death, of ending old habits and living into new ones. The Episcopal church may have an average age of 70, but remember that disciples can be made at any age. Remember that this is the season not of recruiting new members, but forming new disciples. This is the time of seeing new groups of people cleansed. It is the time of seeing new groups of people loved. Good Friday is all around us, but we must not become disheartened. Instead, let us remember to live into the newness of life that is Easter and keep moving forward. How well we do that will depend on how excited you are to be here.